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.
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)
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(This story appears in the 21 December, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)
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