Sal Khan's Advice for Student Leaders

by Jeff Camp | October 15, 2020 | 0 Comments
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Nerd Fame

One of the most recognizable and respected voices of the millennium so far belongs to a man who is not a pundit or politician. He is not a performer or media personality. Improbably, he's an educator.

Sal Khan has helped millions of students around the globe learn about topics from algebra to world history. Perhaps the world's best-known living teacher, he has talked about learning with everyone from lawmakers to muppets. He has a powerful point of view about how education ought to work.

Are education leaders listening? Can student leaders help them hear?


The Louisiana-born son of immigrants from Bangladesh, Sal is a quick-witted MIT graduate with degrees in mathematics, computer science and business administration. He’s also really, really good at explaining things.

When Sal's niece was struggling with a math class, Sal said he would help out as a remote tutor. Other members of the family wanted help, too, so to overcome challenges of schedule and distance, he recorded short, to-the-point video explanations, one concept at a time, using a virtual blackboard. "They liked me better on YouTube than in person,” he quips.

The mission of Khan Academy: A free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere.

YouTube made it possible for Sal to share these tutorials for free. As the library of these video explanations grew, people started using and sharing them. Benefactors like Bill Gates enabled Khan to quit his day job and focus on teaching for a much, much bigger audience: everyone. What started as a list of videos became lessons organized into courses, complete with problem sets and quizzes translated for learners worldwide. Today, the mission of Khan Academy is to provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere.

Sal at the Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders

In the summer of 2020 Sal spoke at the first-ever Ed100 Academy for California Student Leaders. This online-only conference, held over the course of 3½ days, brought together more than 500 high school student leaders from across the state, all of them "digital natives" born after the turn of the millennium. At some level, just about every one of these students was a student of Khan Academy.

Khan appeared at the conference on the afternoon of the second day, in conversation with Brenna Pangelinan, who had just concluded her term as the student member of the California State Board of Education. She asked him to reflect on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the evolution of education. He made it clear that the crisis is an opportunity to think differently about what schools are for.

“Learning can't be bound by time or space,” he said. “You need to go to kind of a mastery learning model where how you get there matters less than whether you get there.”

Few schools really focus on teaching for mastery, because students learn at different rates and require varying amounts of time to achieve it. Try to move a class too fast and students fall behind. Move too slow and students lose interest. In a mastery-based model, he emphasized, just-kinda-getting-it is not an option. “If you haven't gotten there yet we're not just going to label you a ‘C student’ or a ‘B student’ or a ‘D student.’ We'll say keep working on it so you get to that true level of mastery.”

Students turn to Khan Academy when school-as-usual isn’t cutting it. Like this year.

Students and teachers tend to turn to Khan Academy when school-as-usual isn’t cutting it. For lots of students this year, school-as-virtual isn’t cutting it.

“When COVID hit, our traffic became 300% of what it normally is,” Khan said. “We realized that we need to provide more supports for teachers and parents so they could navigate all of this craziness for students — so that's kind of the mode we've been in for the last five or six months.”

A New Priority: Support Schools

The crisis is pushing Khan Academy in a direction it was already trying to go: serve all students, not just the ones that are off-schedule. “About two three years ago we said look, we want to reach all students — and the best way to reach all students is to really go formally through school districts, not just the teachers that happen to adopt it.”

Brenna agreed that many students use Khan Academy “on their own,” but pointed out that many teachers don’t feel comfortable using it. She asked Sal how student leaders could help “bridge that gap to integrate Khan Academy into their curriculum.”

Khan suggested that teachers care what students think. It makes a difference to tell a teacher, “Hey, look I’ve been using this resource and it’s super useful.” Acknowledging that sometimes teachers might not be “tech comfortable,” he suggested that student leaders could get them set up. “You all could really help the teacher — you know, I'll be your ‘shadow T.A.’” The next level, he suggested, would be for students to be advocates for a new model of instruction: “Hey, teacher, traditional lesson plans and curricula just don't work in this COVID world so we're going to have to move to some combination of asynchronous student-based learning plus synchronous sessions on Zoom or whatever else and so here's a model especially for a math or a science course....”

Do Schools Prepare Students for Their Future?

Brenna asked Sal to take a step back. “Do you think our education system successfully prepares students for their future? What reforms do you think are needed?”

“There’s a disconnect between what is taught and what students need to learn”

“I could speak about this for hours,” he replied. “I would say to some degree. If someone gets through college with decent grades, what that tells me for sure is that they're probably someone who can kind of set goals and stick to it. College does expect some level of independence so that they don't have to have someone kind of spoon feed everything. It doesn't tell me a lot about what actual hard skills they have. I mean, we all know you can take all these courses, but as soon as folks take the test or especially leave the campus it starts to disappear. It's not optimized for retention.”

“The courses you take in high school were dictated by ten university presidents in the 1890s,” he continued, referring to the Committee of Ten. “This was before we knew that DNA was the basis of heredity. Before we had the interstate highway system. Before our modern understanding of germs and biology. But we're still learning the exact same courses that those folks determined 130 years ago.”

“If I had my druthers, what I would do — look, I love calculus, calculus is great, it's still very relevant in a lot of domains — but I would prioritize statistics and data science, or even just data literacy! How do you make sense of data? How do you know what's true and what's not true? Statistics is useful in pretty much any field. I would do much more financial literacy and accounting. There's no reason why you can't learn some of that stuff in middle school, much less high school or college. Law — I mean, I think it's almost criminal that if you look at what a first year law student learns you're like, ‘why wasn't this taught to everyone in middle school?’”

College Smackdown

Many of the students who use Khan Academy have college on their mind. Sal reserved some of his sharpest criticism for the higher education system.

“Clearly, given that all bachelor's degrees in the U.S. are four years, people didn't say, ‘Oh you want to become a computer scientist? This is what you need to know,’ or ‘You want to become an art historian? This is what you want to know.’ They said ‘We want to keep these folks here for four years... let's fill it up with stuff!’”

“What's the odds that you need the exact same amount of content or time to learn electrical engineering versus astrophysics versus art history? It’s unlikely. These are very different fields…”

“The university system was designed in the 19th century — actually pre-19th century — as a finishing school for the elite. Then obviously it was an aspirational thing as we had a broader middle class from the industrial revolution. But we kept the same patterns of essentially what Harvard or Yale looked like 200 years ago.”

“Even pre-COVID these cost structures weren’t sustainable”

These are familiar questions that Khan has been asking educators to face for years. Is the goal of school really learning and competency? If so, what's the point of advancing students when they are unready? And how do grades really help? Referring to competency-based education, Khan argued that the COVID crisis could trigger important changes in higher education. “I think what you're going to see five, ten years in the future... The university degree is always going to be a pathway, but you're going to see alternative pathways where people can get the same opportunities by proving their mastery of certain skills — and it could even be soft skills. The universities are going to have to adapt a bit, unbundle what they're offering and take a hard look at their cost structures. Because even pre-COVID these cost structures weren't sustainable. You can't grow faster than the rate of inflation forever… at some point people will say ‘wait, is this really a good use of resources?”

In closing, Khan offered a chilling note of caution for students and parents making a college decision. “A lot of universities are going to be in financial difficulty… If COVID lasts two years and a lot of folks aren't able to go to campus for at least a year or two you're going to see a lot of universities not be able to make it.”

For more from Sal Khan about how schools are responding to the pandemic, hear his interview on the EdSource podcast.

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