Turning school upside down
From the outside, it is a nondescript building in downtown San Jose, California. But inside, 20 ninth- and tenth-grade students and seven educators are creating a new educational paradigm. Armed with individualized plans, students leverage Khan Academy, a pioneer of Internet learning, and other online resources to learn math at their own pace. They choose what topics they learn and when they learn them. Educators use real-time data to coach students and monitor progress, but students drive their own progress. When students get stuck they can attend a small group lesson led by a teacher, ask a peer for help, or connect with a teacher one-on-one. When they’ve mastered a set of concepts, students line up eagerly to prove their knowledge. (Yes, they are lining up to take tests!)
While this may seem like an unusual approach to learning, it’s a typical day in math class at Summit San Jose, a charter high school where a team of educators has constructed both a new classroom and a new model for teaching and learning math. At the heart of this model is a reimagined educational experience grounded in mastery-based, personalized learning. It mirrors our own objectives for education at Khan Academy.
Summit’s focus on student-driven learning aims to accomplish two critical goals that formal education often neglects. First, students learn at their own pace, taking the time to fill in the holes in their knowledge to ensure a strong foundation. Second, they learn how to learn. According to research by the MacArthur Foundation, 65 percent of students starting grade school today will end up doing jobs that have not yet been invented. In the 1980s, the Internet was a distant concept for most of the world. Today it’s a core component of many jobs. It has become clear that teaching students how to learn is just as important as what we teach them. In a rapidly changing world, students who are equipped to learn new skills will fare best.
At Khan Academy we’re focused on creating high-quality, comprehensive educational resources that individuals of any age can use to learn at their own pace and that schools like Summit can deploy to support student-driven classroom experiences. Khan Academy started out as a way for an eccentric former engineer to tutor his cousin remotely. Since those early days we’ve evolved into a free educational site featuring conversational videos across diverse topics—from math and science to art history and finance. We offer math problems with immediate feedback and step-by-step hints, and a computer-science platform that encourages experimentation and creativity. Although the site’s offerings have changed considerably since the early days, our mission remains the same: to provide a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. It is a lofty goal, but one that seems uniquely possible at this moment in history, as the costs of distributing content at scale continue to decrease.
We’re also excited to work alongside innovative organizations like Summit Public Schools to rethink in-person learning. Many students tend to accept the basic tenets of the education system, assuming that any problems they face are due to their personal learning limitations, not the system itself. To deliver a different experience, we must challenge the usual assumptions we make about education.
In the traditional model of education, we assign students grades to indicate what percentage of the material they have mastered. If a student earns a B, we say “good job” and begin introducing the next concept to her, even though she may be still shaky at best on 20 percent of the content. Over time, this leads to “Swiss cheese” knowledge gaps. Each class moves at a fixed pace and, as a result, we force students to build on rickety foundations instead of giving them the opportunity to master concepts at their own pace. If contractors constructed multistory buildings this way—completing only 80 percent of one level before moving on to the next floor—the upper floors would obviously be unreliable.
Analogously, students may resort to pattern matching and memorization as they reach the upper levels of learning because they lack the foundational knowledge needed for true understanding. In the current model, students have a fixed amount of time to learn new concepts. We accept that their mastery will be variable: some students earn As, while others make Cs or Ds. But what if we inverted these assumptions and gave each student the time needed to master concepts so that all students earned As? How much stronger would their foundations be? How much more could they go on to learn?
When we think of education this way it seems clear that age and time should not dictate when a student should learn a given topic. Learning fractions may happen at 6 years old or 15 and could take two days or two months. The important thing is that the concepts are mastered.
Learning at one’s own pace is not a new idea. Until recently, however, the tools to enable differentiated instruction to meet student needs were scarce. Many teachers prefer to personalize instruction and spend one-on-one time with students. Yet in today’s system it’s a huge challenge for even the best teachers to cater simultaneously to the individual needs of the 30, 40, or 50 students in their classrooms. While technology can’t solve all the challenges of personalized learning, we hope that institutions like Khan Academy can enable teachers and students to achieve more customized learning experiences.
While we recognize that there are no silver bullets in education, we are in the early stages of cultivating a global population of engaged, self-directed learners who will be ready for whatever the future may bring. The journey is long, but we are hopeful. We look forward to building better tools that can help more students around the world learn deeply, at their own pace, whenever they want and wherever they are.
Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) is an educational Web site that provides free online resources across a wide variety of content as well as rich data about a learner’s growth. Founded in 2009, it has reached more than 75 million learners worldwide. Founder Salman Khan further explores these ideas in his book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined (Twelve, 2012).