I left a successful 15-year career as a public school educator in 1998. The exodus was precipitated by a brewing storm of internal conflict between my personal code of ethics and what I describe as bureaucratic nonsense.
Today, as a mentor and trainer within the realm of professional coaching, I’m ever curious about innovation and effective learning methodologies. My first encounter with the dynamic Sal Khan was his TEDTalk on the subject of revitalizing educational processes. My second encounter was his feature in the Costco magazine. When I finally read his book, The One World School House (find on amazon here), many of my earlier revolts against the prescriptive educational system were validated. While I’m not writing to demonize public education and the gifted educators who selflessly teach our youth, I am a proponent of Sal Khan. Many of his attitudes, theories, and experiments are worth noting if you have a passion for pedagogy.
Here are a few of the resonating moments I had with this book:
How do we, as individuals, decide to be better, be more? This takes diligence, self discipline and a sense of personal responsibility. Sal Kahn believes that “. . . personal responsibility is not only undervalued but actually discouraged by the standard classroom model, with its enforced passivity and rigid boundaries of curriculum and time. Denied the opportunity to make even the most basic decisions about how and what they will learn, students stop short of full commitment” (p. 43). When we lock our children into a box with only one pathway in or out, how can they feel empowered to be better, be more?
Comprehension, I believe, is always the shining beacon for educators, but all too often this goal is obscured by standards, schedules, deadlines—the bureaucracy of business. “In a traditional academic model, the time allotted to learn something is fixed while the comprehension of the concept is variable . . . What should be fixed is a high level of comprehension and what should be variable is the amount of time students have to understand a concept” (p. 39).
The testing system within public schools is incredibly frustrating because, “. . . tests are by their nature partial and selective. Say a particular module has covered concepts A through G. The test—by design or by randomness—mainly addresses concepts B, D and F. The students who, on a hunch or by sheer dumb luck, have geared their preparation toward that subset of the subject matter will probably test much better. Does this suggest greater mastery of the entire subject? . . . Tests measure the approximate state of a student’s memory and perhaps understanding, in regard to a particular subset of subject matter at a given moment in time, it being understood that the measurement can vary considerably and randomly according to the particular questions being asked” (p. 92). Honestly, the importance being placed upon standardized tests at the time I was teaching was half of the reason I left.
And let’s not forget HOMEWORK! I struggled with parents and principals dictating one particular homework mandate after another. As it turns out, Sal and I had the same concern about homework: “How much homework is the right amount? . . . The reason we can’t come up with a meaningful answer is that we’re asking the wrong question. We should be asking something far more basic. Not how much homework, but why homework in the first place?” (p. 111).
I strongly identified with Khan when he stated, “Since we can’t predict exactly what today’s young people will need to know in ten or twenty years, what we teach them is less important than how they learn to teach themselves” (p. 180). To this I say, “Amen.” And to you, as a reader, I would add: if you are a parent, teacher, student or champion of the educational process, this is a quick and thoughtful read. If this blog has been useful, I would also suggest you watch Khan’s TEDTalk and take a few free modules online at www.khanadacemy.org.