On the Road with Jake: Sal Kahn and Factory Education
The latest post in our periodic series of DSST Ed-Tech Manager, Jake Firman’s, blended learning discoveries. Jake kept it close to home this past Saturday, May 5, when he heard Sal Kahn speak at the Morgridge Share Fair in Denver.
I love being at events like the Morgridge Share Fair. The energy and excitement around ed-tech is palpable, and it’s an incredible feeling to know that I’m in a room of hundreds of minds, focused on one goal…revolutionizing education through technology. Awesome!
The Share Fair kicked off with a talk by the legendary ed-celeb, Sal Khan. His talk, which lasted just over an hour, was an awesome blend of telling his story of getting Khan Academy started, and his incredible vision for the future of education. Khan Academy is most known for its wide bank of educational videos on YouTube, but it has grown to much more than that. They’re now doing work around mapping math concepts in what they call “Knowledge Maps”, and guiding students through the continuum of learning through videos, auto-generating practice problems and interactive exercises. I saw this tool in action when I visited Summit Prep in San Jose; it was impressive, but the frame that Sal put on this work brought it into a whole new light, making it far more ground-breaking in my mind.
Sal views the current “factory” model of education in a very unique way, thinking of it in terms of what is fixed, and what is varied. He says that in our current system, we hold fixed what students have to learn, and when they have to learn it. What is variable is how well the students learn it. We say that students must learn concept A this week, and we will move on to concept B at the end of that week, whether you have 60% proficiency, or 100% proficiency. This is analogous, Khan said, to building a house and telling the contractor that the foundation MUST be poured in 2 weeks, even if it’s the dead of winter with wind, rain and snow falling constantly. The contractor does everything possible to get the foundation poured by your deadline, but when the inspector comes he notes that the concrete was too wet and there were noticeable cracks in the foundation, giving it an overall grade of about 70%. You immediately say, “Great! Passing grade!”, and require the builder to move on to the first story. You continue to build floors on a fixed timeline, on top of a rushed and shaky foundation. Finally, when the house is built and crumbles quickly, you turn around and blame the contractor. If our students need more time to build the foundation…they should be given it, before we force them to build upon it. (Note...if you're interested in hearing more about the idea of the current "factory-mode" of education, this video from Sir Ken Robinson is a must-see.)
In the blended classroom that Sal discusses, technology is able to address the common gaps in foundational knowledge, guiding students to the resources they need, freeing up the teacher to, as he puts it, “move up the value chain,” focusing on the more complex issues of teaching. If the data gathered from digital learning can focus a teacher’s attention on the students who are struggling for more complex reasons (deep, unique misconceptions, or outside factors like family and social issues), their time is suddenly being spent on far more valuable areas. Freeing the teacher from if-then decisions, and repeated lecture-style introductions to new material can increase the value that they add to students’ learning experience in profound ways. This idea is foundational in the work we’re trying to do in our blended learning exploration at DSST.
Yet another parallel between our core beliefs at DSST and Khan’s perspective was his discussion of empowering students to drive their own learning. Sal discussed the importance of delivering data and choice to students to harness curiosity and inquisitiveness. This is so crucially important to the equation of learning because the learner’s mentality and thirst for knowledge is arguably more important than the content itself.