The One World Schoolhouse (Salman Khan)

30 March 2020

Shiri Avni

One upshot of being stuck at home due to Corona is that it has provided me with the time to review a wonderful book called The One World Schoolhouse (2012). The autobiography was written by Khan Academy’s founder, Salman Khan, and retells Khan’s journey into the domain of online education. If you’ve ever encountered Khan Academy, then you probably know that Khan’s vision is simply stated: free, high-quality education for everyone. But how did Khan develop one of the world’s most recognized educational non-profits? The One World Schoolhouse shares his fascinating story.

Khan Academy's logo

Khan Academy's logo is widely recognized globally
Photo from Khan Academy.

Khan’s Vision & Beginnings

The journey actually didn’t begin with YouTube videos. Instead, it began when Khan, while working as a hedge fund analyst, began to remotely tutor his cousin in math in his spare time. His cousin, Nadia, had performed poorly on a math test at school and was beginning to give up on the entire subject. Khan, however, knew she was bright and that there was no reason for her not to do well, so he offered to tutor her online. Word spread, and soon afterwards, several other kids approached Khan for online tutoring as well.

It got to the point where Khan was scheduling Skype sessions for

“three or four students at a time. The logistics were unwieldy, and the lessons themselves not as effective as working one-to-one. To help automate things, I wrote some software that would generate questions and keep track of how each student did with the responses. I enjoyed writing the program, and it did give me valuable insights into where I should focus the time during the live sessions.”

However, Khan was becoming increasingly overwhelmed time-wise, and that’s when a friend of his suggested posting pre-made videos on YouTube, which would enable each of Khan’s students to watch them when he/she was free.

Video Style

From the beginning, a unique aspect of Khan’s videos was that he didn’t appear in them. The book explains that one reason for this was because Khan simply didn’t own a quality video camera, and didn’t want to buy one due to budget constraints. In his words,

“It seemed like a slippery slope. If I had a camera, I would have to worry about the lighting. If I had good lighting, I would have to give thought to what I was wearing and whether I had spinach in my teeth… [Also,] I wanted students to feel like they were sitting next to me at the kitchen table, elbow to elbow, working out problems together. I didn’t want to appear as a talking head at a blackboard.”

A funny anecdote is that Khan’s videos, beloved for their short length, actually were initially short partly because of YouTube’s then-policy of limiting videos to 10 minutes. However, Khan also notes that educational theorists had long ago determined that 10-18 minutes is an ideal session duration for most students. Unfortunately, this is just one way in which today’s classrooms, with their 1 hour intervals, fail to be conducive to engaged learning.

Mastery Learning instead of A’s, B’s, and C’s

If there’s one thing that I would love readers to take away from the book is Khan’s focus on the concept of ‘mastery learning’. Mastery learning proposes that students should comprehend a given concept before moving on to tackle a more advanced one. Furthermore, mastery learning is based on the notion that every student can properly learn a topic if given the right conditions, and that students should be able to self-manage how much time they spend on each topic. Khan provides an interesting survey of the history of mastery learning, with its high days in the 1920s followed by its disintegration due to economic constrictions (no longer relevant) and resistance of bureaucrats.

With mastery learning, there is no need for grades (in the typical A’s, B’s, C’s sense), because a student would only progress to the next topic once he/she has mastered the previous topic to a highly satisfactory level. For instance, kids often have difficulties with multiplication owing to lack of understanding in addition.

Active & Critical Citizens

Importantly, mastery learning prompts students to become responsible for their own learning - as they themselves decide when to proceed to the next topic. In today’s modern and ever-evolving world, knowing how to self-learn is a key tool for children’s eventual success in the industry. In that spirit, Khan is passionate about teaching kids to be active and self-reliant; in contrast, in most places today, kids are forcibly taught to be passive and unalert while sitting quietly and listening for an hour.

Khan provides an interesting if opinionated history account of the development of the modern classroom. In Khan’s eyes, 18th century Prussia was the influential country which developed the basic classroom model seen in much of the world. However, Khan believes the Prussian model promotes passive, dull citizens:

“The idea was not to produce independent thinkers, but to churn out loyal and tractable citizens who would learn the value of submitting to the authority of parents, teachers, church, and ultimately king.”

A 1930s class learning to count.

A 1930s class learning to count. See HackEducation for a critique of Khan's narrative of education's modern history.
Photo from HackEducation.

For instance, a crucial part in developing passive citizens is the breaking down of knowledge into fragmented topics. A student may know X things separately, but miss the larger picture of how those X things come together. Quoting Khan again, “subjects could be taught by rote memorization, whereas mastering larger ideas called for free and unbridled thinking”.

In my own schooling, I have experienced “fragmented” learning rather than in-depth and inter-connected learning. In Israel, we are taught about the historical anti-semitism but don’t relate it to modern prejudices and xenophobia. Throughout my physics studies, the physical models we were taught were presented in an narrow avenue, without delving into the value of these models in biology, computing, and other disciplines. In computer science, finite automata are taught as theoretical concepts without connecting them to real-life applications like string matching algorithms. It often feels as if the largest challenge is to connect between isolated knowledge points while overburdened with studying for various, seemingly unrelated subjects.

Concluding Remarks

My discussion thus far has barely scratched the surface of the first third of Khan’s book. The latter two thirds of the autobiography delve into further analysis of today’s ‘broken model’, proposals for fixing it, and Khan’s winding road to leading a successful non-profit (which was not at all easy; he almost went back to being a hedge fund analyst). If you’ve ever wondered about how our education system got to where it is today, and if you’re interested in reading about another man’s vision for how it could be, then The One World Classroom is certainly valuable reading.

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