Khan and beyond

Innovations like Sal Khan’s videos work wonders for delivering academic content efficiently and equitably.  But what happens once we’ve won our game of academic content delivery?  As a civilization, we can’t survive on algebra and five-paragraph essays alone…

The other night I was awake for a long time trying to figure out why I don’t love Khan Academy.

I should, shouldn’t I?  Here are just a few reasons:

• Thanks to Sal’s videos, kids who want or need information and can’t get it any other way can, from anywhere, as long as they have internet access and a streaming device.

According to Sal, the videos are having the surprising effect (as far as video goes) of humanizing classrooms.  Videos are assigned for homework, and then students do their practicing in the classroom where teachers can help and clarify, rather than sitting passively in class and then struggling with homework problems without benefit of human support.

• It’s free.

• Kids (and adults) can use it in private, so they can watch an explanation again and again if they need to without feeling self-conscious about it.

• You get to go at your own pace, which means lots more kids (assuming they’re compelled to do so) can master the material even if they don’t get it the first time.

And frankly, given what I’ve seen in many schools, it would be more effective, efficient, and humane to hand a child a checklist of video lessons and set them loose on it than to subject them to the steady demoralizing boredom and/or confusion that many of them endure in their current school situations. It’s not my first choice of learning models, but for many children it would be a dramatic improvement.

This system Sal Khan has created is a huge step forward in the delivery of academic content – the likes of algebra, chemistry, art history.  The playing field is considerably more level than it was when it comes to this content.  As long as you have access to the Web, and as long as you can learn by listening to an explanation and watching a series of illustrations and other displays, you can have this body of knowledge.  This is a very big deal.

What’s my problem, then? Do I object to the content?  No.  I don’t have anything against academic content, and I certainly don’t have anything against its equitable delivery and availability.  In fact, I quite enjoy doing things like calculating the lengths of hypotenuses and conjugating verbs.  Do I think academic content isn’t important anymore, and we might as well just train young people for the work force and let the rest fade into history?  No, though I do think a little more attention to what kids will actually need to make it in the world would be a good idea.

What I’m worried about is how confined our educational reform efforts are to the delivery of academic content.  Why do we want kids to know algebra and chemistry and art history?  I don’t think it’s because we’ve decided that these are the most important things to know, the most useful or edifying bodies of knowledge.  I think it’s because if you know these things, then you’re educated, and if you’re educated, we imagine, you’ll be successful.  No matter that most careers don’t require much in the way of algebra, or chemistry, or art history.  This mismatch between the education we offer young people and the actual work they’ll be expected to perform is in fact a very serious matter.  We know, when it comes down to it, that it’s not algebra and chemistry that prepares you to be a good project manager or a good graphic designer.  We insist on it anyway because we’re used to the way things are.  We’re used to the algebra and the chemistry as access to jobs.  We’re used to having academic prowess as a sorting mechanism, a signal to potential employers that those with these courses on their transcripts, with the degrees comprised of these disciplines, are the ones who have risen to the top.

And we know that employers are using it as such.  The employers who use this strategy to choose candidates (as most are) are not suffering from delusions that college has prepared their new hires for the jobs they will do.  They’re simply trusting academic education as a sorting mechanism.  It’s very very costly on a large scale  – there are people much better suited to various professions who are screened out by academic failure while those who are ill-suited are chosen based on their academic success.  But because we have no other model, no model in which we might more closely match training and capacity to vocation, we keep on trusting the one we have.  In our eagerness to give every child a chance, to make every child successful, to compete in the global economy by honing and rehoning the delivery of academic content, we also hone an academic tunnel vision that doesn’t, ultimately, serve our children, or the economy, in the way we’re trusting it to.

In our exclusive emphasis on academic content we prevent young people from investigating myriad other areas of learning and development that might actually be of greater value to them (and I mean in the workplace; in a market economy, not just in the realm of personal fulfillment and enjoyment). We’re not confronting the fact that once we’ve overcome the challenge of academic content delivery, we’ll still have to figure out how to put people to work, how to deal with the fact that we need cognitive diversity, diversity of preference, in order to get done what there is to do (not to mention in order to improve conditions, to innovate, to advance).  And we’ll notice then that we’ve sacrificed people’s best learning years for a body of knowledge that for some will be quite useful, for others only narrowly so, and still others nearly not at all.

It’s not that I don’t want everyone to be able to learn algebra if they need or want to.  I very much do.  I just don’t want us to be so obsessed with it that we judge our success and effectiveness according to algebra learned, thus sending the message that other capacities (ability to grow food, prowess in mechanical design, repair, invention, skill in nurturing and guiding young people to name a few) are less valuable and less worth pursuing.  Academic tunnel vision sets the bar very low for humanity, and it’s short-sighted.  What do we plan to do once we’ve won the game of delivery, and everyone has the education we’ve said we want them to have?  We don’t have enough jobs to go around as it is, and only a fraction of young people currently succeed at learning the academic content we mandate. That isn’t at all to say that everyone shouldn’t have equal access to content, but soon we will have still greater numbers asking “Where’s the job you said I could have if I stayed in school, did my homework, learned this list of stuff, and got good grades?”

Sal’s closing the gap of accessibility; leveling the playing field by leaps and bounds.  But there’s much much more to do in the way of actualizing human potential, more we’ll need to learn, to pass along, to nurture and cultivate, in order to live fully, to face what’s coming, to thrive. There’s more possible for us, realms we haven’t imagined and won’t as long as we’re stuck in this tunnel.  I think we’d be wise to start now in building aspirations that transcend a series of academic lessons.


If we facilitate more of a balance between academic work and other exploration/pursuit of mastery, will it cost our kids a successful future? It can seem that way. It can seem as though a choice to support existing capacities is a choice to support kids in the present, but not necessarily a choice to prepare them for the reality of adult life. If we let them do what they want, we think it’ll make them happy now, but later they won’t have the skills they need to earn a living.

We’ve held this as true for so long – academic study as the path to a successful adult life – that we forget to check to be sure that academic study is in fact offering all that we believe it is. We forget to look to see whether anything essential is missing, or whether a particular child might need more (or less, or just other) than the usual fare. Continue reading

Beauty, utility, and the 3Rs

One of the tragedies of being forced into academic study (particularly when you’re very young, and particularly if you happen to be initially drawn to pursuits that don’t occur on paper like building, climbing, or singing) is that it bypasses and undermines your opportunity to discover these things in the context of your own experience and exploration of the world.  If someone has already decided what you need to know about something, you don’t get to notice and endeavor to investigate the beauty or utility of it.  While that may be a helpful arrangement for, say, an apprentice who has sought out the tutelage of a master, it’s not usually a helpful arrangement for young children, who are busy with the work of looking around and figuring out what to participate in and pursue.

It’s odd that we think that kids won’t encounter on their own, for example, a reason or desire to read or calculate.  Children are fully surrounded by such needs and opportunities, just as they are surrounded early on by needs and opportunities to move about and communicate.  Continue reading