Post-Modern Education?


Today’s author is Michael Gelbart, the DTF for the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences (SEAS).Khan Book

Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, recently published his first book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. For those not familiar with it, the Khan Academy is an online education nonprofit with the mission statement, “A free world class education for anyone, anywhere.” The site offers short video lectures on a wide range of topics, practice exercises, and tools for school teachers to track student progress. 

The book discusses a variety of topics such as the history of education, educational theory, the development of the Khan Academy itself, and criticisms of the current school system. Then, towards the end of the book, Khan introduces his own opinions about what schools should look like. In his view, classes should have 75-100 students with several teachers per class, students of all ages should be mixed together, there should be no boundaries between different disciplines, students should spend 1-2 hours with an educational software such as Khan Academy, and the majority of the day should be reserved for creative exploration.

Reflecting upon Khan’s suggestions, I realized that my elementary school experience in Vancouver, Canada was fairly similar to what Khan describes. From ages 10-12 I participated in a Multi-Age Cluster Class (MACC), a program in which about 20 students from grades 5-7 are mixed together and the time is very unstructured. Every Friday morning we had “creative outputs” time when we could do anything as long as it was creative. From what I remember, the most popular activity was playing a card game called Magic: The Gathering; I am not sure how useful this activity really is, although one of my childhood friends who played the most is now a professional poker player with more than $2 million in winnings.

Just as Khan prescribes, much of the learning was at our own pace. I used educational software to learn math on my own, and in my last year I decided not to do any math at all and help teach it to the younger kids instead. In fact, the class was so forward-thinking that we were allowed to choose our own grades! I remember deciding not to give myself all A’s for the sake of credibility, but I didn’t know which subject should get the B. I eventually settled on Social Studies, because I thought if I picked Phys Ed then I might look like a nerd. I don’t think it helped.

For me, the MACC was great, exactly for the reasons Khan suggests: I could learn at my own pace, I could be creative, and there was plenty of time for socializing. However, the class was officially for “gifted” students. To be clear, I am not sure what this label signifies, but at least we (and presumably the teachers as well) were selected in some – albeit possibly arbitrary – way. Can this type of classroom be scaled to an entire nation? Is Khan’s software enough to do the trick? If he tries to implement his ideas on a large scale, I am truly curious to see how they turn out.

2 thoughts on “Post-Modern Education?

  1. Have you seen the actual “lessons” at Khan Academy? Where he tells us that two times one is “two plus itself times one”? Where he states that drill and practice are *not* what learning is about — except that he also states several times that the way people learn math is to do a whole bunch of problems, and then they intuit the concepts… which flies in the face of the abundant formally and informally gathered evidence that actually our math students rely extremely heavily on grinding out procedures they don’t understand.
    Of course, given that philosophy, his videos are pretty much entirely procedural, don’t connect to previous knowledge and all too often describe a procedure in a way that requires more advanced knowledge than most people have (check out his lesson on taking averages, where he’s got algebra dividing by variables in the second problem he presents).
    In my opinion, His view of the classroom is just great for already-independent-learners whose parents are well educated so they don’t really need somebody in teh schools to *teach* anything… can we say Mathew Effect?

    • Mr. Khan does approach education the way an engineer might approach a mechanical problem, which seems a bit too limited and rigid a way to deal with a social problem. That said, there is something to be said about enlarging classes and having a small army of teachers there as well.

      I could see something like a college seminar set-up, in which the first 20 minutes are made up of the main teacher introducing a concept, and then a number of assistant teachers go in and form very small groups that then tackle and drill the concept.

      There’s more to this idea, but enough to say that not everyone will agree on how to teach a particular concept, but the proof is in the pudding. Mr. Khan’s site seems to help a number of people, and for that, it should be celebrated and built upon.

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