Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse

The old classroom model simply doesn't fit our changing needs. It's a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information. The old model is based on pushing students together in age-group batches with one-pace-fits-all curricula and hoping they pick up something along the way. It isn't clear that this was the best model one hundred years ago; it certainly isn't any more.

So writes Salman Khan in the introduction to his book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.

There is just so much to admire in what Khan has achieved. From those tiny beginnings – a few short animated maths lessons in Yahoo's Doodle for his cousin Nadia back in 2004, later graduating to uploading them to Youtube for other relatives – his Academy now serves more than 6 million visitors every month.

I extolled his virtues three-and-a-half years ago on my old blog, quoting him at the time as saying:

I see a world where anyone with access to a computer and the internet will be able to go to the Khan Academy and get a world-class education. It will be the world's free virtual school.

Not only is the Academy vastly bigger than it was then, it also has, if his book is anything to go by, a mature and thoughtful philosophy underpinning it. And it is a philosophy that I find myself in general agreement with. At one point, he writes:

How does education happen?

I see it as an extremely active, even athletic process. Teachers can convery information. They can assist and they can inspire – and these are important and beautiful things. At the end of the day, however, the fact is that we educate ourselves.

I'm not sure about the 'athletic' reference, but 'we educate ourselves' is the core premiss of I Am Learner, of course.

I am genuinely impressed by what has been acheved to date, and I can see that Sal Khan has done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking in recent years about education generally, particularly about American education, with its foundations in the Prussian school model, and about the nature of learning. He is a very smart man, and I would expect nothing less of him than to have built a sound vision, and a radical vision at that, to support the Academy.

I do have a particular misgiving, however, about the all-embracing and global ambition of the Academy as I believe there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of the vision. It is a flaw that matters if we take Khan's vision as he presents it and as he applies it to the Academy, but on the other hand it is a flaw that perhaps ultimately doesn't really matter, since, whatever Sal Khan's vision, people across the world can use the resources he provides as they choose.

Let me explain.

At the very core of the Khan Academy philosophy is the notion of Mastery Learning. Indeed he devotes a chapter in his book to this very subject. As he says:

At its most fundamental, mastery learning simply suggests that students should adequately comprehend a given concept before being expected to understand a more advanced one.

At one level, mastery learning is simply a common-sense, humane and compassionate approach to teaching and learning, in that learners are able to proceed in their learning at varying rates towards whatever levels of mastery they can achieve (although, despite its humanity and compassion, it is a notion that, to my knowledge, not a single education system anywhere in the world has truly acknowledged and implemented). In other words, the pace of instruction in this approach is not externally prescribed by the teacher (or by the system at a higher level) but by the individual learner himself or herself. This is a core element of the Khan Academy philosophy, and one that, at one level, I agree with wholeheartedly.

However the philosophy comes apart at the seams for me when we look at the other critical aspect of mastery learning, namely the notion that you cannot learn what comes next until you have mastered what went before. In mathematics, and to a large extent, in the sciences, this makes a lot of sense (although even in these subjects arguably only up to a point). But in the arts and the humanities, it is, for me, simply not the case for most of the expanse of knowledge and learning that they encompass.

Of course it is possible to argue that, for discrete portions of the arts or the humanities, there might be a hierarchy of concepts to be learned and understood (probably true, too, in terms of the learning of basic literacy, but here, for the youngest children, the intervention of a skilled teacher is critical), but in the round, the notion of a rigid progression of increased complexity and increased difficulty in a subject just doesn't hold water. It is entirely possible, I know, to create a syllabus in the arts and humanities that does just that, that posits a step-by-step progression (and many have done so), but in my book such a curriculum is diminished and impoverished by its attempt to shoe-horn these areas of knowledge into such a paradigm.

As I say however, perhaps it doesn't matter ultimately, since people can choose to use the resources of the Academy as they see fit. They are not forced to use the resources in the strict progression laid down, and can choose to access them as they wish. I wonder though whether having this small but critical flaw at the heart of the Academy by the very fact of its implementation means that the resources created by Khan in areas outside mathematics and the sciences will never be as rich as they otherwise might be.

One final point – even Sal Khan, I am sure, does not really believe that the Khan Academy can become the One World Schoolhouse that his book envisages in its title. The world's knowledge is simply too vast, too complex, too fast-growing, too ideological, too contentious, too diverse and too uncategorizable ever to be captured in a single organization's attempts to create that global schoolhouse. But when you take the Academy as just one element amongst the limitless throng of data, information, materials, resources, debates and disputations, and you give people the tools to let them access people, processes and data as they see fit, that one schoolhouse can begin to take shape.

But that is a whole other story to which I will return.