Disrupting the educational system one video at a time

The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, by Salman Khan (2012)

**Pages: 272**, Final verdict: Should-read

Considered by Bill Gates one of the people with the potential to impact our world the most, Salman Kahn has become a symbol for the new forward-thinking era of education. And after 365 million views on their videos, and more than 1.8 billion problems solved by students on KhanAcademy.org, is getting difficult for his work to pass unnoticed.

From a former hedge fund analyst to a tutor to the world, Khan shares with us how his passion for teaching started from helping his cousin Nadia in math, and we learn about the historical principles which shape our classrooms today. Moreover, we get a glimpse of his vision for a better, healthier school system.

(Khan Academy) can create a context in which people can give free rain to their curiosity and natural love of learning - Salman Khan

A trip down memory lane

Before thinking ahead, why not get back in time and understand what got us here? At the start of the book, we are taken back to the roots and through a high speed journey from our primitive societies, to 19th century Germany.

Learning has been in the center of our development as a society for a long time. In fact, it has always been there. The importance of learning was probably never as crucial to us as during our ancestor hunter-gathering society, where stakes were high, and your success as a student of the art of surviving in the wilderness could decide a lot more than your chances of landing your dream job at Google.

Things have changed though. In short, the evolution of our educational system can be split into:

  • The apprentice model: Spoken language brought more complex societies, leading to an exponential growth on the the knowledge web. With an increasing need to master particular skills, we witnessed the birth of the mentor/student model.

  • On the other side of the spectrum was the greek mantra for teaching. Unlike the apprentice model, the greeks believed that education was to be experienced as search for truth, with the root motivation being learning by itself

  • Then comes written text, (not soon) followed by printing, the most revolutionary advancement of education. Knowledge could not only be spread in a cost-effective way, but standardized across topics, which meant that students no longer relied solely on each teacher's mastery of the subject as a source of knowledge

  • All of those advancements came to shape the Prussian model of education, on the 18th century. For the first time in history, there was a tax-support mandatory school system, where students were split into classes based on their age, and where schooldays were divided into "blocks” of work dedicated to certain areas of knowledge (sounds familiar?)

Our system continued to evolve, particularly influenced by a group of thinkers in the United States, and it is interesting to learn how the Prussian model, initially built as a political tool and the basis for the german industrialization, became the basis for how we run schools today.

Mastery learning and our swiss cheese model

What is wrong with the current system? Why are students unable to reach their intelectual potential?

Spending a day at any school can reveal that. We are all familiar with the current teaching paradigm. Students in a classroom learn different subjects, take tests and are graded on their performance. The train continues to move and the following week everyone has passed from learning fractions, to the world of trigonometry.

This models fails as it moves students along the chain as if they were in a coordinated discrete assembly line, while the truth is that kids (and adults) learn at different speeds and struggle to grasp new concepts at different stages of their learning curve. By moving everybody around in a poorly constructed harmony, we are disregarding mastery of knowledge as the gateway for advancing in school, and instead measuring our leaning cycle through increments of time.

In a straightforward and eloquent fashion, the book follows the most of the classic school-related debates, namely the importance and the essence of tests or homework, and whether school is designed to stimulate and embrace creativity.

The flipped classroom and 2 hour schooldays

The current way of teaching is broken, we get that. But how do we transform it? Will schools need to spend millions of dollars on a new system, and how can the developed world afford to give students the freedom to learn at home, when they still struggle to even have books at school?

The latter part of the book, and after a tour through how Khan Academy was designed to close knowledge gaps for our young minds, Salman shares a few of his ideas for a age of learning:

  • Flipping the classroom: The idea that students can learn by watching videos and solving simple exercises outside of school, and that class time should be used for teachers to work with students on problem solving activities, facilitated by peer to peer tutoring

  • Having teams of teachers that can interact and work together during class and the classroom size (maintaining teacher-student ratios) and dividing each classroom into clusters of activities

  • Killing age groups: With the tools in place to foster mastery learning, we lose the need to group people based on birthdate

  • Students would spend no more than 2 hours on computer based lessons. The rest of the time could be spent learning new concepts through team games, working on art projects, building mobile apps and other creative projects

  • Heavily reducing the continuos learning hiatus caused by summer vacation, and leverage online tools to keep students and teachers engaged on the pursuit of knowledge

Finally, we are exposed to a few examples of where these ideas have been implemented in the US school system. The most prominent of the experiences started taking place in Los Altos in 2011, with more than 1.000 students and teachers actively using the software to complement the tradicional method.

Utopian? Perhaps. Worth building, trying, measuring and evaluating? Definitely

Bottom line

The debate over our educational system isn’t new. The One World Schoolhouse blends an historical perspective into the subject, coupled with Khan’s vision for the future of schooling. Most topics covered only scratch the surface of possibility, and although I would preferred for it to be deeper at times, it fits the purpose of giving the reader an overview of the author's ideas.

I like to think that a good, accessible and wide-spread educational system is the most impactful endeavor that anyone could working on. As such, you can understand how my rating of the book might come with a bias. Either way, I invite you to learn more about our current ways, and how an intelligent use of technology can fundamentally shape the way we take mankind forward.

Further learning:

Happy reading.