Have you heard of Khan Academy? In case you have not seen it, Khan Academy is a collection of video-based, short lectures by one man, Salman Khan, on a variety of topics. That description does not make it sound very noteworthy. How about the fact that there are over 2,400 videos now, mostly on math and science but also some history, economics, and even current events like explaining the economics of the bailout? More notable is the fact that it is changing the lives of countless children and adults and transforming education because it is so successful. (Of course, there are those who argue that it is harming students rather than helping them).
Why is it so successful? The videos are rather simple, with only drawings and a voice-over. There are no fancy animations, games or engaging lecturer. Perhaps it is the ability of Khan to break-down complicated topics and to explain them extremely well so that a child can understand them. Perhaps it is his simple motive to help tutor children learn, starting with his cousin, which is how all this got started. Or maybe it is the system being designed around the videos, which advance students only once mastery is attained, and give rewards (badges) to students to reward and to encourage them.
Regardless of the reasons, it seems to work very well. Adults use it, homeschoolers use it, and we are planning on using it this year with our own children in some of their courses. I have been using it to prepare to teach physics this year, and it has been tremendously helpful. But the fascinating thing is the effect it is having on public school children, and what this says about child education and the success of homeschooling.
According to this article in Wired, it can have a profound effect on kids in public school. The article describes one class where 10 year-old children are doing advanced trigonometry, which is not normally done until high school or college. The teacher notes that children are allowed to proceed at their own pace and do work that is at their individual level. That is one of the main benefits to homeschooling; children are not chained to a grade level or a class level. Each child can go at his or her own pace, and can do work that is exactly at the right level. Students in this classroom are using Khan Academy to do the same thing, with amazing results.
The instruction is individualized as well, essentially providing one-on-one instruction. That, too, happens when children are educated at home. The article notes that educators have long known that this is a more effective type of instruction, one that is almost impossible with our current model of education. It also “flips” the educational process, with the students learning the materials themselves, then coming to the teacher for specific guidance and any problems. This reverses the model where the teacher lectures and students have to figure it out on their own at home, perhaps with parental help, and the teacher has little time to explain things to individual students and help each individual student attain mastery of the material. Now, children can learn the material on their own time and do their “homework” in class, working problems with the teacher present to help them learn. This, too, is what happens in many (but not all) homeschool models. Most children who are educated at home not only learn at their own pace, but learn much of the material on their own, either from books or multimedia sources, then discuss the information with a parent and work problems with a parent present to assist and to ensure mastery of the material.
Both the teacher and the author of this article, in noting how Khan Academy has revolutionized education in at least this one classroom, essentially list as reasons things that are features and benefits of the homeschool model of education. And it works. It would be fantastic if children in public school could progress at their own pace, work at their own level, and receive individualized instruction and assistance. Khan Academy and others like it may or may not be the answer. But it is intriguing. For the sake of children in public education, I hope that teachers and school administrators are open to exploring ideas and methods like this.
See also this Wall Street Journal article.