Friday, March 28, 2014

Filling the Swiss Cheese Holes

A major problem with our current one-size-fits-all education is the gaps that occur in learning. Thirty or forty kids are presented with material at one time. They may work on some problems or research one topic, but then the instructor moves on. Those who don’t get it fall behind. Even those who do get most of the material, move on with what Salman Khan calls Swiss-cheese-like holes in their learning.

Khan has the solution for filling the holes. It is a technological solution, as many before him have promoted, but this one may stick in certain subjects.

 In his book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, Khan describes his vision for inexpensively achieving full, 100% mastery learning in a mixed-age environment with minimal in-class lecturing and maximum special attention.

His technology is short, ten- to fifteen- minute video lectures and an elaborate tracking software both to indicate student progress and to highlight those who might be stuck, thereby requiring further tutoring. The software is also designed to motivate students with immediate awareness of how much they have accomplished.

With thousands of videos now available from the Khan Academy, mostly in math and science, teachers are flipping their classrooms, that is, assigning the video lectures as homework, releasing class time for troubleshooting and special attention. Khan’s notion of mixed ages goes with his strong belief in the need for self-paced learning, regardless of age.

Adult learners have flocked to his videos and praised Khan for the ease with which they can fill gaps in their decades old learning.

A big chunk of Khan’s book is a chronicle of how he stumbled on this idea. And “stumble” is the correct word here, as it is with many innovations that go through much trial and error.

His story has been told in many places (1, 2, 3). Khan, a hedge fund manager, took on the task in 2004 of tutoring his younger cousin in math, first by long-distance telephone and occasionally with in-person visits. Other family members soon became his long-distance “tutees,” as he called them, but the process was cumbersome. It was a friend who suggested that he make videos and put them on YouTube, a thought he considered ridiculous.

He did make a few videos and they became a hit, not just with his relatives, but initially with hundreds, then thousands and thousands of other people all over the world.

Khan at the time was working out of a converted walk-in closet. He decided to form a non-profit corporation so the videos could be made available without charge. However, he had no money. He quit his day job and at one point, as he put it, was burning through $5000 a month in savings. Finally, one donor offered him $10,000, then upped the ante to $100,000 when she learned he was working out of his closet. Then Google offered $2 million to translate his videos into the ten most popular languages and the Gates Foundation offered even more.

Khan’s notion of a “one world schoolhouse,” he says, is an updated version of the one-room schoolhouse. Mixed ages with time for special attention. His videos and software, he argues, can make education inexpensively available to everyone in the world. No one should or need be left behind, as occurs in our one-size-fits-all system, because his software tracks progress and reveals the students who need that extra attention.

He is strongly opposed to the bad kind of bureaucratic tracking that takes students who are, say, stuck on a particular type of problem and then branded as slow. Such a student needlessly gets left behind, and, long-term, may even be tracked out of a college education.

As a firm believer in mastery learning, he also thinks grades and scores should be dumped.

Khan does suffer from a number of conventionalities. For example, he makes no mention of Montessori or her use of mixed age classrooms with special attention from the teachers. And he trashes the classroom lecture, ignoring the fact that his videos are just that. And like many bright students who seem to think they can get it all in the book, he vehemently denies that the lecture can have any value at all in the classroom.

The worst conventionality is that he is not anywhere close to thinking of or mentioning a free market in education. This is unfortunate.

Nevertheless, if anyone can make a stab at tearing down today’s educational shibboleths, it may be Salman Khan and his software-driven self-paced learning videos.

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