Special Report

Why School Should Be More Like Summer Camp

Salman Khan, a rising star in the education world, has a vision for a new kind of classroom

(Jacket design by Anne Twomey/Portrait by Brad Swonetz)

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Before that, you would have the master teacher work with one student or small group of students at a time. They said, “Well, how do we get that to scale? We put these students in age-based cohorts and move them at the same pace.”

In the mid-1800s, the model got brought over to the U.S., with a very egalitarian motive: Let’s have universal public education and do it reasonably cost effectively. The Land Grant universities come about, so university was much more accessible. We start to have textbooks, but we need to standardize what a high school diploma means, so we understand what students are coming to the universities with or are entering the job market with. That is when you had the Committee of Ten say there will be primary school and secondary school. In secondary school, you will learn algebra and then geometry and then trigonometry. You will learn physics near the end, and you will learn earth science near the beginning.

As someone with three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, you have had success within this system. But, what, in your mind, are its biggest flaws?

The biggest flaw is the dearth of time for creativity. This is probably hitting the affluent more than anyone else, strangely enough. I actually felt like I was lucky growing up. My mom was a single mom. We didn’t have a lot of money, so I didn’t take any classes. I was what they used to call in the ‘80s a “latchkey kid.” I would come home, and my mom wouldn’t come home for a couple of hours. I essentially had the afternoons at my disposal.

Frankly, most of my peers, their kids are completely booked. From morning until nighttime they are either in school or some type of soccer or piano practice or they are doing homework, and then they go to sleep. There is no breathing room at all for a child of any age to say, let me create something. Let me invent a new game. Let me just play.

You have created a library of over 3,000 videos explaining everything from basic trigonometry to the Law of Thermodynamics to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Obamacare. What is the key to an effective video lecture—one that will get through to students?

The tone should be respectful. Respectful means not talking down and not talking above. You have to view the viewer as someone who is just like you, someone who is smart and capable of knowing the information, but who just doesn’t know it right now.

Make sure that you cover all of the details. Make sure you cover all the whys. Make sure you draw all the connections. These are things I never had the luxury to do in my schooling. I never had the time or luxury to think, why do I carry a “1” when I add? The class was moving on. But now I do have time. This is my job. My value-add is to think about those and to try to give a little bit more of that intuition and texture. If it can be a little bit quirky and funny, I think it connects with people even more.

How are teachers incorporating your videos and software into their instruction?

The simplest way is teachers writing on the top of the chalkboard on Day 1, if you are ever stuck on anything in this classroom, this site called Khan Academy might help you. There are a lot of supplemental learners—people who are taking a chemistry class at their high school or university and using Khan Academy as a tutor.

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