Vaccinating Education: An Interview With Sal Khan

Vaccinating Education: An Interview With Sal Khan

As students across the country return to school, there is considerable discussion about what K-12 education will look like in the coming year. Covid-19 refuses to give up without a fight, but as vaccinations slowly spread throughout our nation, students, parents, and educators are hoping that, with the exception of masks and other precautions, back-to-school this fall will resemble something closer to the pre-Covid educational experience. Even if the return to school buildings is more “normal”, the long-haul impacts of the pandemic on institutions and the young people they serve will be felt for the indefinite future. Many questions remain: What knowledge has been lost? Are students prepared for next-level learning? Will graduates be ready for college? Does an A in calculus mean the same this year as it did before? What do students know? Who has been left behind? How do students and schools effectively communicate what has been learned? And, on a more macro level, is the educational experience of the past what’s right for the future?

If recent years are any indication, floods, fires, and flu are the reality of our present and harbingers of our future. Therefore, we need to vaccinate our schools—and ways of educating students—from inevitable disruption and unexpected challenges. We must future-proof our ways of learning.

Salman Khan is the founder and CEO of The Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization with a mission to “provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” He saw these learning challenges coming long ago, and as outlined in his book, “One World Schoolhouse”, he has been advocating a different model for education. In 2014 he founded Khan Lab School (KLS), a bricks and mortar K-12 school, to bring his vision of mastery-based, blended learning to life. In the spring, the first senior class graduated from the Khan Lab High School (KLHS) and I sat down with Khan to explore this model of education and the potential it has to transform the ways we learn and prepare for the future.

Khan’s priority was to build what he calls “fault-tolerant” schooling. For those of you who, like me, don’t hold degrees in computer science, fault tolerance is the ability for a system (education in this case) to continue to function well despite setbacks or isolated failures. Traditional college-prep classrooms do not typically make space for faults, which can lead to a high-stakes focus on earning a specific grade and a fixation on outward achievement. The result is often the perception from students that they must portray perfection while avoiding any hint of uncertainty or failure. At KLHS, students are encouraged to take educational risks and to challenge themselves to a fault. Learning is about deep understanding, not surface perception.

Khan argues that we can, and must, do better in supporting the learning of our K-12 students without allowing young people to slip through the cracks. He bemoans our antiquated approach of promoting students year after year under “a farce of supposed learning.” Khan points to the fact that 65% of students in four-year degree programs and 70% of students in community colleges have to essentially relearn math at the middle school level because they lack proficiency. He adds, “this is especially true for students who are traditionally under-resourced.”

With hundreds of millions of students using Khan Academy’s free adaptive learning platform to further their mastery of a subject, Khan felt that it was a “shame that they rarely had this same opportunity in school.” He says, “schools need to anchor more on student agency and a peer-to-peer model” where adults are not at the center of knowing and learning. He adds, “sometimes the framework of liberating the adults in the learning process can be intimidating,” but in doing so we make space for “rich human connection.” Teachers can take the role of coach and mentor rather than deliverers of content. At Khan Lab High School, relationships between students and inspiring faculty are at the core of the experience, fostering curiosity and ownership that is central to the learning process.

What about applying to college without grades? If the pandemic has taught us anything about college admission, it is that colleges are resourceful and can find ways to identify an applicant’s ability, potential, and character without standardized test scores and traditional grades. Pre-pandemic, grade inflation in many high schools was already spinning out of control, and after a year of disrupted classrooms, pass/fail grades were not uncommon. Khan Lab High School was already deep into using the innovative tool developed by the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) to communicate a more comprehensive understanding of a student’s learning. Along with a growing number of member schools from all over the country (public, private, charter, large, small, urban, rural, well-resourced, and those less so), MTC designed a software platform with an interactive transcript.

The Mastery Transcript allows admission officers (and employers) to gain a true understanding of the subjects that the applicant has not only mastered but also where they have pursued learning at an advanced level. At KLHS, these Advanced Credits include passion projects and independent research—from opera singing, teaching, and filmmaking to Alzheimer’s research, environmental justice, and genome mapping—empowering students to apply what they are learning to the real world. Students must complete 100 hours of additional work to earn Advanced Credit. The fear that college admission offices will not know how to assess students with this transcript is unfounded, as is evident in the growing number of colleges and universities where students have been accepted. In fact, with MTC, schools have a more comprehensive portrait of what a student has learned and the context in which they learned. This gives schools confidence that these applicants can be successful—and thrive—in college.

You might be thinking, this all sounds great in theory, or in a small tuition-based high school, but is it equitable and scalable? Yes, and yes. KLHS has been a laboratory for mastery learning in practice, and Khan explains that “this model of education has equity baked in.” The truth is that many highly educated, affluent families who “know the game” are essentially creating mastery-based environments for their children by surrounding them with experiences and resources—tutoring and enrichment—to learn at a deeper level. For these students, Khan says “school simply becomes a place to be assessed.” He adds that less fortunate students, and those who support them, often are faced with the “tyranny of low expectations” and shuffled along to the next level without having a comprehensive understanding, as “underfunded high schools attempt to emulate the wealthier schools of thirty years ago.”

Mastery learning empowers the student and sets higher expectations for everyone. If learning is not confined by time or space, then it is inherently scalable and not limited to any specific student-to-teacher ratio. Khan argues that it is also cost-effective and replicable because it can rely on existing structures and resources to facilitate learning and allow for curiosity to flourish independently with support.

Khan asks, “what if all high schools, especially those serving under-resourced students, partnered with colleges using the online tools of Khan Academy to provide pathways to deeper learning?” If they could start to earn college credit and the last two years of high school were more aligned with the learning that standardly takes place during the first two years of college, Khan argues that perhaps this would solve the unconscionable reality that the wide majority of students don’t even place into college algebra. KLHS is testing this model and has partnered with Foothill College and other local community colleges in Silicon Valley enabling students to take college courses and explore subjects in more depth than is often available in most secondary schools.

If Khan had his way, schools might never return to “normal,” but would instead seek more effective ways to educate and inspire students everywhere, anytime. As a lab school, he describes KLHS as a “proof of concept” and it has already proven to be a success.