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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Students will build a portfolio of their creative works; it will serve as their academic credentials to show, “Look, I really do know geometry, or I really do have a basic understanding of American History.” It will also include an evaluation as a peer mentor. How good was the student at helping other people? At explaining things? At first it sounds like a very pie-in-the-sky, touchy-feely thing, but this is actually what employers care about.

So you don’t believe in letter grades?

For me, letter grades are a very superficial thing. An “A” can make it look like there was rigor when there wasn’t any. What does an “A” mean? It depends on how hard or rigorous the assessments were. It gives you very little information. They allow us to assess people, realize they have gaps in their knowledge and then just push them forward, guaranteeing that at some point they are going to get frustrated and kind of fall off the bus.

You call for the end of summer vacation. Why?

We want students to learn! Right now, students are spending nine months stressed, going through drills, memorizing things before an exam and then forgetting it. Then, they go to summer vacation. Some of the most affluent or motivated kids might be able to pull off having a very creative summer vacation, but most don’t. For most, it is just kind of lost time.

When people say, “Summer vacation, those are my best memories. That is when I actually got to do creative things. That is when we actually got to travel,” I say, yeah, exactly, that is what the whole year should be like. Make school year-round, but also make it much more like a creative summer camp.

What is the biggest obstacle to reaching this school of the future?

It is very hard to de-program the model that we grew up in. To some degree, our notion of school is adults scheduling every hour of a child’s time. You have to de-program that in the leaders of the first one or two or ten schools. But, I think all of this can be done over the next five or ten years.

As you say, we take the traditional school model for granted—teachers lecturing for 40-90 minute class periods devoted to separate subjects and then assigning homework. But, how and when did this take root?

The Prussians came up with it. To their credit, they said, “We want to have everyone educated.” How do we get everyone educated? Well, it was the late 1700s, early 1800s. Assembly line factories were producing things fairly inexpensively and in reasonable quality, so the Prussians said let’s see if we can industrial revolutionize teaching.

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