What’s your view on the education system in India and China?
On some level, it’s more rigorous in that there’s more emphasis on tackling many hard problems. On the Khan Academy I took a bunch of IIT-JEE math questions and something shocked me about them. See, a lot of really difficult American math problems, the ones they use to select the math team for a really elite university, if you see them in the wrong way they are difficult and computationally intensive, but if you see the trick of understanding the intuition they become very simple problems.
What amazed me about the IIT-JEE talk was there was some trick, some intuition that you had to understand but even when you understood the intuition it was still very painful! In a US math competition problem, if you understood the intuition it became very elegant and very simple. In an IIT math problem [even after understanding the trick] you still had to do three pages of math where you could make a careless mistake!
What does that tell you about the education system in India?
It’s almost like hazing for lack of a better word. That you’re going to be mathematically hazed! That may or may not be constructive, but it is our only way to filter you since there are so many people gunning for this thing. But that’s only a small percentage of Indian and American students who take exam questions. My broader point is, there is more emphasis in the subcontinent and probably in China on formulas. You recover more things but it’s much more “cram as much into your head as possible”. The American system is by no means perfect, but the one thing America and the West do well is ask “hey what do you think about this? What’s your critical reasoning skill? Why don’t you take ownership for yourself and be independent?” You had mentioned in your book about how the role of the classroom and the role of home learning need to be interchanged. When we have extensive home learning, could it lead to a lot of indiscipline?
What I’m advocating isn’t a shift of the focus of learning from school to home, it’s the other way around.
A lot of the learning takes place on our own when we’re at home studying for the exam, doing the problem solving. Unfortunately, you didn’t have any help: If you didn’t have friends or parents to help you, you were lost. What I advocate is that during classroom time—when you get human beings together—we should be interactive with each other, we should be problem solving with each other, we should be peer-tutoring. To my mind, the classroom is a very important place but it shouldn’t be about quietly listening. It should be about actively taking ownership of your own learning, interacting with your professor and tutoring your peers. In a lot of the world, especially in Asia, school is nothing but a filter. A lot of companies are selling technology as some sort for proxy for smarter learning. It could be smart whiteboards? How do you look at it?
I think anything that costs more money has the burden of proof on them. Some of these things like smart whiteboards… now if you gave me a chalkboard, I could use it just as well. I think the exciting thing about technology is that at minimum levels, it’s cheaper than other things.
Textbooks for example. At least in the West one can account for technology that’s already cheaper than getting textbooks and now it’s already replacing textbooks.
Textbooks try to explain concepts, I’d argue that the on-demand video does that better; textbooks try to give you practice problems, I’d argue that the exercises we have at Khan Academy or any other site like it do a much better job is doing diagnostics and giving students and teachers feedback. On top of that, what is also exciting is that at Khan Academy we are able to do large-scale experiments and large-scale testing so a large part of our funding is to work with third parties to validate these things, to work with schools to see how test scores are doing, to see what students and teachers’ attitudes to math [is]. We really can prove it out. But I agree with you, I think with technology everyone should be extremely sceptical, especially when it costs so much money.
As approaches to learn change, shouldn’t we look at how we test children?
The one thing I always emphasise is that even though Khan Academy is known for its videos, most of our resources within our team of 40 work on the software side. And our goal is to be a really deep diagnostic assessment platform. Not assessment in the traditional sense. In the traditional sense it tells you if you’re smart or dumb: “Oh I got a C!” We think we’re pretty close already but over the next six months, you’re going to see that anyone can take an assessment in algebra, you can take a half an hour adaptive exam and it will give you feedback on where you are. If you want to improve your weak points, it will send you to the relevant Khan Academy tutorials. But then if the next day if you feel like you’ve improved, you can take it again and you can take it as many times as you want.
So this is like completing a feedback loop, right?
Exactly. We believe that assessment should be continuous and on demand. Every teacher on the planet should not have to write their own assessment against different standards or have to grade their own assessments. We can use all of the data from the data analytics from millions of students to get to the best custom assessment.In your book you talk of your days at MIT. You mention how you and a friend became class-skippers. How can we make the classroom of the future so that people don’t have to want to skip classes? What would it look like?
I loved MIT and loved the people but I did skip the bulk of my classes. Students go because they’re there and they’re paying this tuition and they’re culturally told that these classrooms are an important part of your experience. But if you look objectively and where your own personal learning was happening, it was happening outside of the classroom. It was happening in the lab, writing software or studying on your own. I found it far more efficient to instead of spending that one hour or 90 minutes in class—where I would zone out—to go work in the lab and I retained it better and I learnt a lot more. It’s not a dig on MIT, it’s a dig on that model. And to MIT’s credit, they are on the leading edge of recognising this.
The way you’re describing the classroom is almost like the concert hall. You practice your violin and then you come to the concert hall [classroom] and make music.
If you’re a musician! It’s very similar to what goes on in certain contexts already. I’m sure even in India you have humanities seminars where the professor will say, “So what do you think?” In business schools, it’s all interaction. A good business professor often steps aside and facilitates the students talking to each other. It’s a powerful skill. What we’re advocating is, why not do this in math and sciences and the other traditionally ‘large lectures’? Another analogy: The difference between the math practice and your sports team. If you’re on the cricket team, the teacher is your coach and you’re all trying to become better. The teacher doesn’t say you’re a C student and you’re stupid; the teacher says let’s all master this skill together and you’re all trying to improve against some external benchmark.
You say that conventional teaching is one of the loneliest jobs in the world. How can we change this?
It is very isolating being a teacher: One teacher with 20, 30, 40 kids. It’s also isolating for the students because there’s very little interaction with their peers. When we say it’s a team sport, you’re not lecturing any more and everyone is working at their own pace. There can be multiple teachers in the room. There can be larger rooms and the teams can consist of peers. In high school, I was on the wrestling team; it wasn’t just our lectures screaming at us, a lot of instruction came from senior members of the team who are more accomplished. Right now we’re squandering that opportunity where in a class of 30, I’m getting information from one person, the teacher, and their message is very ‘one size fits all’. There might be several students in the class that could explain it in a way that really resonates with me. There are some amazing 16-year-olds out there who are master teachers, who are already communicating the knowledge.
So you see this sort of stuff taking place? Being practiced?
It’s happening fairly fast given the scale of the problem. There’s a school here in California, ‘Summit Charter School’, which has gone full into this model where the students, at a given stage, pick a goal. They are all different goals based on where they are in their learning. They have all these resources—Khan Academy is one of them—when they feel like they’ve learned that concept they sign up for an assessment. They can do this any day. If they do well on the assessment, they are given credit for it and then they keep going. The school also runs these projects and labs that students can sign up for themselves. It’s 200 students with seven teachers all at once. It is actually a better ratio than many places. They have their peers also helping them. The best school in Los Angeles, called Marlboro Girls School, where 7th to 12th grade girls all have the same math class, all working at their own pace, tutoring each other. There are 20,000 classrooms in the US doing this in some way or the other.
How important is sleep and playtime for kids in a modern context?
There has been debate about homework but no correlation between homework and success and the only thing that people have seen correlations with are between sleep and success and having dinner with their parents and success. Both those things are actively crowded out by homework. I have no data here, but to some degree creativity is a product of boredom.
I feel a lot of kids get over scheduled and never have any time to say, “OK, what do I want to do with my time? Let me figure out something. Let me create something.” Hundred-and-fifty years ago the skills we needed were people who listened to you, did their jobs and didn’t ask any questions. Now the skills you need are the exact opposite: You want them to be responsible, to be smart, but you want them to ask questions and be creative. Our traditional school systems take these curious five- and six-year-olds who want to explore everything and make them into these passive soldiers and then in their early 20s you ask them to be creative and be innovative and by this time it’s been hammered out of them.
Have you been mistaken for the Indian Salman Khan?
Well, I’ve never been mistaken in person—we look a little different! I was once at a hotel in Delhi and I believed that I was getting mistaken because the giggly girls from the front desk kept calling my room. Strangely enough, I still get emails thinking I am the same Salman Khan and they are impressed that I can not only do movies but also teach math.
(Sriram Balasubramanian is a freelance journalist)
(This story appears in the 21 December, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)