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Re-imagining education

By Ian Keese - posted Monday, 21 January 2013

'Re-imagining education' is the subtitle of Salman Khan's The One World Schoolhouse (Hodder and Stoughton, 2012). Khan reflects that in the late nineteenth century people in countries like Australia and the United States believed that every child had the right to free education and set up systems to ensure that this was possible. However a hundred years later, and particularly in Australia, education was seen as a commodity where if you were rich enough you could purchase a 'Better model".

Khan's vision is that the Internet can be the means to return to that earlier ideal, and not just for western democracies but for students in villages in places like Africa and Central Asia in effect to create a "one world schoolhouse"

Khan did not begin with this vision. Instead he began with a problem. In 2004 his 12 year old cousin Nadia had done poorly in a Maths examination. Khan knew that his cousin was quite bright and feared that this poor result would result in her doing a lower level of maths in the future and reducing her career possibilities.


He discovered that while she knew most of the topics perfectly she had a mental block on one topic – that of unit conversion. This is, of course, a particular problem in the United States where people still have to cope with inches, feet and miles and pounds and ounces. Because the class had moved on from this topic, she would not get a chance to revise this and so Khan decided to help her.

Khan worked in Boston as a Hedge Fund Analyst and Nadia lived in New Orleans so they communicated by computer and telephone. Other family members then wanted help and as the number of people being tutored grew, a friend suggested to him that he put tutorials on You Tube as videos. These videos involved an electronic blackboard on which Khan wrote notes as he explained the processes. In all cases all you hear is his voice – he remains out of sight. Currently there are over 3500 videos available and over 250 million lessons have been delivered.

As the video clips began to take off sponsorship came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Bill Gates discovered the videos through using them for his children), the O'Sullivan Foundation and Google. Khan was able to leave his job in the finance sector and focus on education. As he and his small team developed more sophisticated testing and analysis tools, Khan rediscovered almost by accident some very important educational principals.

Individualised instruction: Classroom teaching by its nature is a basically a one size fits all process. Lessons are aimed at the middle students and the teacher will move on when most students appear to have mastered the topic. Those who have mastered the topic quickly will have to bide their time, while the slowest students will have to move on without this.

Of course good teachers find some ways around this – for example by using the more able students as tutors for the least able – but in the case of the Khan Academy a student can repeat or return to a video clip as often as necessary.

Mastery learning: if a student scores 85% in a maths exam it might be assumed that they are ready to progress to the next stage. But that 15% that has not been mastered could be very significant: it might involve an element that is essential in later stages. In the Khan Academy lessons one is not considered to have mastered a concept and ready to move on to the next stage until one can correctly answer ten randomly generated questions on that concept in a row.


Hierarchy of knowledge: In the maths and sciences there is a clear hierarchy of knowledge. One cannot for example handle ratios until one understands fractions. This hierarchy is clearly mapped out and if a student is not successful at one level they are directed to the necessary prior knowledge.

None of this is to take away from the role of the classroom teacher. Khan speaks often about flipping the classroom. When in a lecture he said that it could be better if lessons took place at home and the 'homework' took place in the classroom he received spontaneous applause from the audience of educators. Technology can be used to humanise the classroom.

Is this transferable to other disciplines?

Kahn has tried to adapt his approach to a few areas of history, mainly that of the United States as well as to isolated periods of European History. He adopts a similar approach to that used in his mathematics lessons – an electronic blackboard with a few relevant images such as maps, illustrations of individuals involved and extracts from documents. Here there are no questions to check understanding but students can pose their own questions; all students have access to the questions asked and the answers provided..

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This is a review of The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Kahn (Hodder and Stoughton, 2012).

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About the Author

Ian Keese has degrees in Science and the Arts. He has been a secondary school history teacher and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators. He lives in Melbourne and writes on history and education or anything else in which he becomes interested.

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