The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan — A Review

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NY: Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2013; 259 pgs.

What if we completely flipped the concept of the classroom by doing homework at school and lectures at home? What if we wove subjects together so students could study at the cross-sections between history, math, science, philosophy, language arts, and social studies? What if we put students of all ages together into the same classroom and still personalized every lesson to each student so they could learn at their own pace? What if students mastered each skill before rushing unprepared into the next lesson? What if we did away with letter grades, and deadlines, and reduced the class time to about 2 hours per day? And, to cap it all off, what if we made the basic elements of that schoolhouse available for free to everyone in the world?

We would have Salman Khan’s other-worldly vision of the One World Schoolhouse. If Khan is right, this vision is closer to home than you might think and what Khan’s latest book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, is all about. Salman Khan was a successful hedge fund manager and MIT graduate before he started posting math tutorials on Youtube for his niece Nadia. Over time, his growing collection of videos went viral, eventually swelling into the Khan Academy. If you haven’t heard of Khan Academy, you should.

Khan apparently knows what he’s talking about since, according to Forbes Magazine, Khan Academy is "rapidly becoming the most influential teaching organization on the planet". What is Khan’s secret?

Well, to be fair, you need to read the book to find out his secret. It’s no big mystery though. You’re just more likely to appreciate what he’s doing if you can experience it yourself. I would recommend going to www.KhanAcademy.com and start fiddling around with it. You can see firsthand how his ideas translate into a surprisingly fun, intuitive, game-like atmosphere of learning. I would also recommend this book for your library, especially if you are involved in education, whether as a student, a teacher, or administrator. That said, a few key points seem to distinguish his method from others. The two most critical ideas are (1) flipped classrooms and (2) mastery learning. In brief, flipped classrooms administer homework at school and lectures at home. Mastery learning requires students to master a given concept before moving on. 70% grades won’t cut it, only 100%. He explains that this translates into correctly answering 10 questions in a row on a given competency. He adds other, more revolutionary concepts in the course of the book, but flipped classrooms and mastery learning appear to be central.

In conventional classrooms, the more revolutionary aspects of his model would be impossible. But according to Khan, the one-world classroom is not only possible today, it’s responsible. Sure it’s non-traditional — by today’s standards — but it’s a tech-friendly philosophy of education with a proven track record as seen Khan Academy. Khan Academy isn’t, by itself, a one world classroom. Khan Academy is more like an adaptive testing and tutoring program that any school can use to become part of the one world classroom.

This book begins with the provocatively titled Introduction chapter, "A Free, World-Class Education, for Anyone, Anywhere" (pgs. 1-14). Here he casts a bold vision of free top-tier education accessible to most everyone, everywhere. Underneath this ambitious vision, Khan harbors a deep discontent over conventional classrooms. Typical classrooms create passive, grade-driven students with gaping holes in their education. Students learned in cluster-classrooms under strict deadlines with the coursework aimed mainly at standardized tests. And since students were not expected to master any concepts, they hobbled along thinking they were bad students or they learned to game the system passing tests without really learning the material. In Khan’s view, these students hope against hope that their knowledge gaps don’t trigger a structural collapse later in their education. Despite long hours in class, and tons of homework, students lag behind with a backlog of failed competencies going as far back as elementary school.

This conventional classroom model may have worked adequately in the past, but according to Khan, it’s not the best use of resources nor the best available means of education today. If Khan is right, then more students can get better education, for lower cost, in less time.

After the introduction, the rest of the book divides into four sections, occupied with the what and why of the Khan Academy model.

Part 1: Learning to Teach (pgs. 14-53) — These six chapters share Khan’s humble introduction into teaching, beginning with his tutoring sessions for his niece Nadia. Developing from there, he explains some basic concepts in teaching theory, including learning-by-association, self-pacing, consolidation, self-education, and, most importantly, the concept of "mastery learning" (pg. 37-43). "Mastery learning" is later revealed as a central pillar in his gameplan.

Part 2: The Broken Model (61-126) — Across eight chapters, Khan elaborates on the drawbacks of conventional education (the "Prussian Model"), and explains how there are other, often better, models to draw from including home learning, the Greek academy, apprenticeship, and others. Some of the cracks in the broken "Prussian" model include "swiss cheese" learning (it’s full of holes), "balkanized" learning (subject areas taught in isolation from each other), lack of creativity, passive students, ineffective use of homework, inefficient use of funds, and students "gaming" the system (earning good grades without learning). These problems, he suggests, can and should be corrected, especially with the new opportunities afforded by internet technology, handheld computers, and the many innovations of the information age.

Part 3: Into the Real World (pg. 127-178) — These seven chapters outline a practical framework for Khan’s one world schoolhouse. His innovative ideas are balanced with pragmatics. For example, he says, "Use video-based lectures for certain contexts; use live dialogs when possible, for others. Use projects where appropriate and traditional problem sets when appropriate…. education [does not] need to be hostage to any dogmatic theory" (pg. 131). Moreover, he adds, "this is not theory and this is not the future. It’s happening in the real world and it’s happening now" (ibid.). Then Khan proceeds into a brief history of Khan Academy as it grew from one man making videos in a closet, into test classrooms, and eventually into a world-renowned online classroom with multi-million dollar funding from Google and the Gates Foundation.

Part 4: The One World Schoolhouse (pg. 179-254) — Across eleven chapters, Khan further clarifies his vision for the "future" of education. Essentially, he’s taking the ideas and strengths behind Khan Academy and expanding on them for future applications in other classrooms around the world. While his tone feels futuristic and novel, he instead suggests "a return to certain older models and methods that have been cast aside in the name of ’progress’" (pg. 181). These ancient-future recommendations include "testing out" of classes, combining age groups, combining subjects-areas, roving tutor-teachers, personalized/differentiated learning, reduced "seat" time, and his two most prominent "big ideas": mastery learning and the flipped classroom.

Stylistically this book is a smooth and simple read. If you’ve sampled any of his YouTube videos or frequented the Khan Academy website, then you may have seen his tutoring at work. This book reflects that same accessible and helpful tone. He uses short and simple phrasing, avoids "two-dollar" words, and breaks down big ideas into a bite-sized pieces. As far as educational theory books go, this book is one of the easiest reads. This is particularly true considering the gravity of this content.

Khan’s philosophy of education appears to be broadly humanistic, progressive, and, overall, optimistic (pgs. 38-39, 114, 175-176). He’s downright cheery sometimes, but he’s still careful in his critiques and there is a lot of contemporary critique to wade through. For example, he lobs some predictable attacks on standardized testing, but balances that attack by affirming that he’s not "anti-test" (pg. 94-95). His problem isn’t with testing, per se, but with teaching-to-the-test, and test-focused learning which crowds out mastery learning. A better way to test, he suggests, is to allow students to retake tests (slightly modified each time) indefinitely till they get 100%. They need to master foundational concepts before building anything on top of them. 70% competency wouldn’t work for the foundation of your house, nor will it work for the foundation of your child’s education. Education shouldn’t be about getting good grades, but about learning.

Khan could be clearer when it comes to explaining the relationship between Khan Academy and his vision of the "one world classroom." It appears that Khan Academy is the software-based embryo of the one world classroom. It’s not the fully functioning system, by itself. Khan Academy is more like a programming brain that the rest of the nervous system (different brick-and-mortar schools and homeschools) can access for the same unified participation in a free global education. I’m not sure the fault is with Khan however. The relation could be ambiguous by nature. The one world classroom could be an evolving educational edifice wherein his, and our, current vision affords only blurry outlines. He’s an educational progressive so it would not be surprising if there is no "final form" to be seen. In that way, education could be an ever-changing entity, never finished, always growing in theory and practice.

Khan’s philosophy of education is winsome and interesting, but perhaps the most compelling part of it is his underlying philosophy of technology. Undoubtedly, serious educational theorists must account for the interplay of modern technology and education. Waldorf classrooms, for example, bemoan the tradeoffs and drawbacks of computer, TVs, and smartphones. Thus, they eschew such devices in favor of more "classic" interactive materials. Many classical schools are preoccupied with public domain books from the ancient world, focusing heavily on reading physical books, studying languages, and fostering humanities training through debates, discussions, and Socratic dialogues. For them, technology is no messiah, but it’s no demon either. Meanwhile, some "unschoolers" can spend all day on their tablets playing educational games, learning crafts from how-to videos, and listening to audio books. Compared to these, Khan’s approach to technology is futuristic yet familiar. He recognizes a tension between helpful technology and ill-equipped classrooms that just aren’t prepared to adapt. In response, he suggests an "enlightened use of technology."

"Let me stress ENLIGHTENED use. Clearly, I believe that technology-enhanced teaching and learning is our best chance for an affordable and equitable educational future. But the key question is how the technology is used. It’s not enough to put a bunch of computers and smartboards into classrooms. The idea is to integrate the technology into how we teach and learn; without meaningful and imaginative integration, technology in the classroom could turn out to be just one more very expensive gimmick" (pg. 122).

If we throw a bunch of computers into a conventional classroom, then they become distractions. Video games and email crowd out the real work of liberal arts education. Khan recognizes that technology, by itself, won’t transform an old boring classroom into an innovative learning center. The classroom itself must be molded to the technology. Quoting Kathy Davidson of Duke University, he says, "if you change the technology but not the method of learning, then you are throwing good money after bad practice…. [The iPad] is not a classroom learning tool unless you restructure the classroom…. The metrics, the methods, the goals and the assessments all need to change" (pg. 123).

How might classrooms need to change? For one thing, technology is not a substitute but a supplement. It should make laborious tasks like grading, proofreading, or flashcard review easier but should do so without replacing the inter-personal aspects that humanize education. Khan explains, "the promise of technology is to liberate teachers from those largely mechanical chores so that they have more time for human interactions" (pg. 123). Moreover, the technology must serve humanely to connect students to teachers and each other. Khan proposes that students spend only a limited time trudging away in their virtual classrooms--around 2 hours in a school day. The rest of the time can be spent working with other students on projects, or in one-on-one or small group tutoring, or in recess, playing sports or napping. Khan’s classroom may be futuristic, but it’s also earthy and humane.

One of the more resonant critiques from Khan concerns creativity, "creativity in general tends to be egregiously under-appreciated and often selected against in our schools…. [Also] many educators fail to see math, science, and engineering as "creative" fields at all" (pg. 98). Now, Khan makes a case for this bold claim, but supposing that he’s right, the one world schoolhouse can help. Khan’s classrooms proposal allow students to self-pace their education and wander into tertiary or intermediary subjects, along the cross-section of math and engineering, or between science and history, where artistic exercises and games can empower students to interact with concepts and explore ideas their own unique way. Effectively, Khan academy and the one world schoolhouse would foster creativity not just in the formal arts, but in every subject area.

Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse is ambitious, perhaps too ambitious. It’s no great fault, however, to aim for the stars even if one can only reach the moon. Those who are familiar with the educational system--be it public school, private school, or homeschool--can testify that many of the most revered institutions of learning aren’t terribly interested in changing things at the level that Khan is proposing. Khan can, at times, sound like a precocious upstart, too naïve to realize how unrealistic his proposals are.

Khan may also be too progressive, seeking to change long-standing institutions and uproot deep-seated traditions without yet understanding all the goods and benefits that would be lost in the process. Change is a tradeoff. There are gains and losses involved in most every change. Some changes make things worse, other changes make things better. But "change" is not naturally, intrinsically, or necessarily "good." Change is no more a "sign of life" than it is "fluctuating death." Any proposed changes must be weighed on their own merits since it could be good or bad, helpful or harmful. Khan’s appetite for change offers great promise since many of his ideas are already bearing fruit. But there are bound to be drawbacks and limitations which should give us caution in testing these ideas in real classrooms. G.K. Chesterton said, "Never take down a fence until you know the reason it was put up." In this way, educators would do well to measure out Khan’s proposals just in case something valuable would be lost in pursuit of his utopian goals.

There are signs however that the most viable branches of Khan’s plan are bearing fruit and changing the market of ideas as we speak. Khan Academy is a roaring success. It’s gaining steam like a locomotive. The homeschool movement in America is now about 2-3 million students strong, and much of that market is deeply aligned with Khan Academy and the One World Schoolhouse model. Khan himself tells of test-schools based on his ideas of mastery learning and flipped classrooms (pg. 161-170). Undoubtedly, many teachers and administrators are eager to test out any theories that are working — including Khan Academy. Still others are already using Khan Academy and his theories to supplement their (otherwise conventional) classrooms in public and private schools. Those teachers aren’t necessarily designing the whole school, but they are opening doorways from their room into the one world classroom.

One possible flaw in Khan’s book is that the author is clearly biased in favor of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math). Under the "subjects" tab on the Khan Academy homepage, Khan Academy lists 23 three different classes between Math, Science, and Technology (computing), but only 5 classes for all of Arts and Humanities. One is led to think that Khan Academy is still primarily a Math tutoring organization. Khan himself shows a great aptitude for STEM subjects, and while he admits the importance of other subjects in the humanities, he’s clearly more adept at math and science. This "flaw" might be forgiven since every teacher or author is liable to have their own strengths as they enter the great educational conversation. Khan seems self-aware here, admitting his own penchant for math in high school and college. And he doesn’t preach that STEM is more important or that other subjects are disposable. Instead, he strives to promote a well-rounded education. He just happens to reflect implicit favoritism for the STEM subjects. This bias could even be an asset in the current climate since U.S. schools are often faulted for lagging behind in math and science. Nevertheless, The One World Schoolhouse does reflect the same STEM-heavy focus that we see in Khan Academy.

Furthermore, the "mastery learning" model makes great sense for some subject areas like math and science but is not as clearly suited for other subjects like literature, philosophy, or religious studies. The problem is that many subject areas don’t seem to allow discrete objective "competencies" that stack on top of each other like we see, for example, with Math. A beginner math student can start with counting, then number recognition, then addition, eventually progressing to written addition problems, subtraction, multiplication, division, variables, and so on. But how does one organize the great works of the Western World into these neat little "competencies"?

Perhaps we can organize books by reading level but that becomes a bit arbitrary since reading competency varies widely among students of all grade levels, and "fast" readers may have poor retention while "slow" readers may have great comprehension. Meanwhile, some books are hard to read but the story is simple (i.e., Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter), or it’s difficult to understand but easy to read (i.e., poetry), or it’s easy to read but filled with adult situations, violence, profanity, and morally questionable material (i.e., Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye). Or a story may be easy to understand, and easy to read, but it’s implications are so deep and wide that it merits mature discussion afterwards. Dr. Suess’s Horton Hears a Who comes to mind here — the reading is elementary but some of the embedded ideas are graduate-level.

How should the fields of Art and Humanities be divided into discrete competencies? That answer isn’t clear at all. Mastery learning might have an intrinsic drawback here. To be fair, however, there are still many elements within fine arts, language arts, and social science ("the humanities") that fit fine within a mastery learning model, for example, recognizing colors, mixing colors, vocabulary, penmanship, grammar, reading comprehension, historical names, dates, and so on. But much of what distinguishes humanities training is found in the murky and tangled depths of subjectivity, educated guesses, generalizations, causal analysis, non-linear thinking, and basically all the cognitive skills that are hard to fit into a multiple-choice test. Perhaps Khan has a solution to this problem, but so far, the solution hasn’t presented itself.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to Khan’s proposal is that he seems unaware that every educational system can be "gamed." He offers stiff critique of conventional classroom models, seeing all sorts of loopholes easily exploited by students. But this kind of problem isn’t unique to conventional classrooms. Even Khan Academy can be "gamed." Every educational system can be exploited, short-circuited, and misused. No system is perfect. There is always a risk of students or teachers "gaming the system." I’m sure Khan would admit as much if asked, but nowhere in the book does he admit clearly that the One World Schoolhouse would have its own set of drawbacks, themselves vulnerable to gaming. Khan’s proposal could still be a smashing success and a huge improvement on current models, but it is not without its own flaws. In this way, Khan’s progressive educational leanings can come across as naively utopian at times.

Overall, Salman Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined is an important book for forward-looking educators and theorists, and for those educators who are willing to move their classrooms towards the future. Like every ambitious contribution in educational theory, this book should be weighed carefully. In this case, it’s a heavyweight since it comes with vocal praise from such luminaries as Bill Gates, George Lucas, Al Gore, Noble Prize winner Muhmad Yunus, TED talks curator Chris Anderson, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and many more.

Some of Khan’s proposals, such as mastery learning and the flipped classroom, can be readily applied in countless classrooms across the country and around the globe. Other proposals, like age-mixed classrooms, and peer tutoring, might not be so easy to incorporate. Can you imagine how noisy it would be to have 20 some kids from elementary to high school in the same classroom trying to get their work done? I’m not sure I could think in there. One need not marry the entire idea of the One World Classroom to learn from the critiques and suggestions in this book. His progressive and humanistic ideas may be too optimistic or unrealistic in some people’s eyes.

That said, Khan still seems to be on the right path, a tech-savvy, socially conscious, and humane path toward enlightenment. There’s no mistaking the fact that the educational world is changing. And if Khan is right, some major breakthroughs loom on the horizon for those educators who are willing to reimagine the modern classroom in terms of unparalleled access, tech-friendly strategies, portable learning, and personalized lessons.

We’re talking about free top-tier education for most everyone everywhere.

Ambitious? You bet.

Doable? Maybe so, maybe so.

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