Though it was many years ago, my first attempt to make a living was as a high school teacher and coach. Of the many lessons I learned while confronting a hundred and fifty or so teenagers every day in classes on mathematics, Russian language, and computer programming (FORTRAN), two stand out.
First, there was the desk sign my mentor at Rich Central in Olympia Fields, Illinois gave me on my first day. “To Teach Is To Learn Twice” it read. Wisdom at its most pure. When you think you really know something, try explaining it to someone else. You will quickly discover that trying to transport what is in your mind to someone else’s mind is quite the challenge.
The second lesson was that high school teaching was more than formulas, vocabulary, and paper tape (dating myself!) transmissions to a computer at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I quickly discovered that those hundred and fifty teenagers were, in varying degrees, in need of no small amount of ratification of ideas about character, about the famous words of J.C. Watts, African American and former congressman (R-Oklahoma): “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.” (I had to get by without Congressman Watts’ quote, as the quote came years after my high school teaching, but I hope my message at the time was equivalent to his eloquence.)
And now along comes Salman Kahn, son of a father from Bangladesh and mother from Kolkata (Calcutta), India, raised mostly by his mother in Metairie, Louisiana, now 35, a “geek celebrity,” creator of over 3,000 online educational videos viewed by 160 million students (since 2006) in 234 countries and subject of a 5-page article in the July 9, 2012 issue of TIME magazine, Kayla Webley, author..
The “Kahn Academy” is, simply put, “…the largest blended-learning experiment in the nation.”
What is the experiment? Instead of classroom lecture by day and homework away from school at night, students receive their instruction from videos at night and come to school to do the exercises during the day with teachers available to help and encourage. In other words, turn the school day and night upside-down.
The videos are not simply lectures on a computer screen. They include interactive exercises.
Advantages include allowing students to work at their own pace and “…go to school to demonstrate their learning…” and receive person to person help. Webley mentions that some teachers worry that students will reach graduation with different skill sets and that students in low-income districts may not have access to computers at home.
Another potential problem I would add is the unmotivated student. Asking him or her to hook up with an instructional video instead of the dozens of other things kids would prefer to do doesn’t seem likely to work out. Then again, the traditional classroom approach hasn’t solved that problem either. Could be that the individual attention inherent in the Kahn approach would make a difference.
Personally, as a teacher I would have liked to try Kahn’s upside-down learning approach. I think young people would learn more from their teachers by conversing with them than by sitting at their desks while the teacher lectures. I don’t see why there could not also be times when a teacher discovers a large number of students are “stuck” on a particular concept and addresses the situation by calling for everyone’s attention for a few minutes to straighten things out, then returns to assisting individuals who still may need help.
Support for Kahn’s work has come from an impressive list of people and companies, including Bill Gates ($4.5 million), Google ($2 million), Netflix CEO Reed Hastings ($3 million) and Irish entrepreneur Sean O’Sullivan ($5 million).
The numbers don’t lie. The Kahn Academy is already being used in 15,000 classrooms. More than 2 million exercises are being completed every day – today. There are 5 million kids out there already using these videos each month.
I see a tsunami of change washing over the process of educating our children.