Salman Khan: An Educator with a Mission

By Desda Moss Jun 15, 2016
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Interview by John Scorza

“As our the people in it more inextricably connected, the world itself comes to resemble one vast, inclusive schoolhouse.”
―Salman Khan

Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, is a man with an ambitious mission. He wants to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere. Today’s technology provides the tools to make education more portable, flexible and personal—and far more accessible.

In his book, The One World School House (Grand Central Publishing, 2012), Khan calls for a fundamental change from the often-dreary classroom experience of lectures and rote memorization.

He wants to restore excitement and active participation in learning. Under his model, students would work at their own pace; hands-on learning and interactive projects would be the norm; and teachers would serve as mentors and guides.

The nonprofit Khan Academy offers online educational videos and other tools to more than 26 million registered students in 190 countries. In a recent interview, Khan, @khanacademy on Twitter, shared some of his ideas and also had a lesson or two for HR professionals who want to harness the power of virtual learning, which he’ll share as a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C., to be held June 19-22.

Are traditional schools giving students the knowledge and skills they need to excel in the workplace?

There are definitely kids coming out of the system ready to work. But it’s not clear whether that is in spite of the traditional academic model or because of it. For example, most students who know computer programming well enough to get jobs at Google or Facebook didn’t learn that skill in a classroom; they developed it on their own.
I’d argue that a lot of the students who do well in any field have great communication skills. Writing is an incredibly powerful tool that is fostered to different degrees at various schools.
In general, though, with traditional educational models, the thinking is very much “You’re the student and I’m the teacher; follow my instructions.” The byproduct of that is that students are so accustomed to being told what to do that they’re not sure how to proceed when they are given an open-ended problem that requires them to take initiative.
 
In 2014, you opened the bricks-and-mortar Khan Lab School. Do physical classrooms offer learning opportunities that aren’t provided online?

The online Khan Academy dives pretty deeply into fundamental subjects such as math, but it isn’t a holistic learning experience. In The One World School House, I envisioned what a school of the future could look like in a world where you have access to virtual learning tools. That’s what the Lab School is. There’s a huge emphasis on students building their metacognitive traits—that is, their ability to think about thinking—and learning entrepreneurship, empathy and teamwork. They use technology to master all the core ideas in math, science, reading and writing. But a lot of the day is spent on dialogue, simulations and more open-ended projects—whatever interests them.
 
How can online learning fill students’ educational gaps?
 
I’ve never viewed online learning as a replacement for a traditional education, but rather as something that could supercharge or liberate it. With virtual tools, you can do on-demand exercises and progress at your own pace. And then when you go to the classroom, there can be much more human interaction with peers and teachers. When human beings get together, they can do the things computers could never do. But computers can be leveraged to allow for the personalization of learning.
 
What needs to happen for online learning to reach its full potential?
 
Lots has happened, and progress is occurring faster than I would have guessed. If you need help in almost any subject—especially math and science—you can get it online. I think in the next five to 10 years, if you want practice or feedback or explanations, you will be able to get that in practically any field. Then you’ll be able to take proof of that knowledge to the local college or to an employer—and that should carry some weight.
And there will even be mechanisms for people to tutor each other virtually. I don’t think the most powerful credential of the future will be your SAT score; it will be how good of a mentor or tutor you are in a specific domain. Those are the people I would want to hire—the good tutors—because not only do they know the content, but they can also communicate well and have empathy.
 
What can HR do to help employees learn and develop in a business setting?
 
Make the knowledge accessible when it’s convenient for workers and let them learn at their own pace and in a way that won’t embarrass them. In every job I’ve ever had, I had at least 10 silly questions that I was always afraid to ask. But if you make the information available on demand, and there’s no stigma and no shame, people will access it.
And make sure employees know that if they can demonstrate that they’ve reached a high competency level, their salary is going to go up or they’re more likely to get a promotion. That’s a natural incentive for people to want to learn—on their own time, at their own pace.
HR could also set up support networks made up of small groups of people to help each other as they try to reach a goal, making all the tools available to them virtually.
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