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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The next level is flipping the classroom. When Khan Academy was just ramping up and I was still doing this as a hobby, I would get these emails from teachers saying that they didn’t have to give these lectures anymore. They could say, “We are covering systems of equations or we are covering meiosis. Here is a Khan Academy video that you might want to watch before our next class.” Then, they could use class time to actually do problem solving with students and work directly with them. They essentially had “flipped” the classroom. What used to be homework—the problem solving—was now in the classroom; what used to be class work—the lectures—was now happening at home.

The deepest [application] is the classrooms where the students really are all learning at their own pace. Teachers have the students working on the Khan Academy exercises and videos at their own time and pace, and then the teachers get data and can intervene when appropriate. The class time is being used for interventions with or between students or open-ended projects.

Really, we want to see who is pushing the envelope the most, see if it is working and then why it is working, and then try to share those practices with other teachers.

How does this new type of school level the playing field for all students?

Historically, whenever someone has talked about solutions for the underserved, they would always think about cheap approximations to what the rich had. But any child who has access to the Khan Academy site now has access to the same resources that Bill Gates’ kids are using.

The good thing is, especially in the developed world, computers and broadband are already fairly common. Even in the developing world, things are getting cheap enough that they are starting to become practical, especially on mobile platforms. At minimum, students now have access to this interactive tutoring. Ideally, they will also be able to supercharge what is happening in their classrooms. They would be able to have access to differentiated instruction. This is what kings’ children had. Not even Bill Gates’ children have this personalized attention in their schools. We are saying there is now a way for teachers to give personalized attention to students in a scalable way.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?

What surprising change in society is around the corner that no one sees coming?

From my last interviewee, Steven Johnson, author of Future Perfect, which claims that the key to progress is peer networks, as opposed to top-down, hierarchical structures: When you look back on all your big thoughts, what is the biggest thing that you missed? What was the biggest hole in your thinking?

When I started this, Wikipedia and these things already existed. I was a 100 percent believer in the peer networks, and I still am. But I assumed for something like this dream of Khan Academy, we were going to have to get millions of people, or at least thousands or hundreds of people, making content. The shocking thing for me was how scalable even one person could be in this domain.

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