'Kids should be problem solving with each other; should be peer-tutoring'
Image: Eric Millette for Forbes
What’s your view on the education system in India and China?
On some level, it’s more rigorous in that there’s more emphasis on tackling many hard problems. On the Khan Academy I took a bunch of IIT-JEE math questions and something shocked me about them. See, a lot of really difficult American math problems, the ones they use to select the math team for a really elite university, if you see them in the wrong way they are difficult and computationally intensive, but if you see the trick of understanding the intuition they become very simple problems.
What amazed me about the IIT-JEE talk was there was some trick, some intuition that you had to understand but even when you understood the intuition it was still very painful! In a US math competition problem, if you understood the intuition it became very elegant and very simple. In an IIT math problem [even after understanding the trick] you still had to do three pages of math where you could make a careless mistake!
What does that tell you about the education system in India?
It’s almost like hazing for lack of a better word. That you’re going to be mathematically hazed! That may or may not be constructive, but it is our only way to filter you since there are so many people gunning for this thing. But that’s only a small percentage of Indian and American students who take exam questions. My broader point is, there is more emphasis in the subcontinent and probably in China on formulas. You recover more things but it’s much more “cram as much into your head as possible”. The American system is by no means perfect, but the one thing America and the West do well is ask “hey what do you think about this? What’s your critical reasoning skill? Why don’t you take ownership for yourself and be independent?”
You had mentioned in your book about how the role of the classroom and the role of home learning need to be interchanged. When we have extensive home learning, could it lead to a lot of indiscipline?
What I’m advocating isn’t a shift of the focus of learning from school to home, it’s the other way around.
A lot of the learning takes place on our own when we’re at home studying for the exam, doing the problem solving. Unfortunately, you didn’t have any help: If you didn’t have friends or parents to help you, you were lost. What I advocate is that during classroom time—when you get human beings together—we should be interactive with each other, we should be problem solving with each other, we should be peer-tutoring. To my mind, the classroom is a very important place but it shouldn’t be about quietly listening. It should be about actively taking ownership of your own learning, interacting with your professor and tutoring your peers. In a lot of the world, especially in Asia, school is nothing but a filter.
A lot of companies are selling technology as some sort for proxy for smarter learning. It could be smart whiteboards? How do you look at it?
I think anything that costs more money has the burden of proof on them. Some of these things like smart whiteboards… now if you gave me a chalkboard, I could use it just as well. I think the exciting thing about technology is that at minimum levels, it’s cheaper than other things.
Textbooks for example. At least in the West one can account for technology that’s already cheaper than getting textbooks and now it’s already replacing textbooks.
Textbooks try to explain concepts, I’d argue that the on-demand video does that better; textbooks try to give you practice problems, I’d argue that the exercises we have at Khan Academy or any other site like it do a much better job is doing diagnostics and giving students and teachers feedback. On top of that, what is also exciting is that at Khan Academy we are able to do large-scale experiments and large-scale testing so a large part of our funding is to work with third parties to validate these things, to work with schools to see how test scores are doing, to see what students and teachers’ attitudes to math [is]. We really can prove it out. But I agree with you, I think with technology everyone should be extremely sceptical, especially when it costs so much money.
As approaches to learn change, shouldn’t we look at how we test children?
The one thing I always emphasise is that even though Khan Academy is known for its videos, most of our resources within our team of 40 work on the software side. And our goal is to be a really deep diagnostic assessment platform. Not assessment in the traditional sense. In the traditional sense it tells you if you’re smart or dumb: “Oh I got a C!” We think we’re pretty close already but over the next six months, you’re going to see that anyone can take an assessment in algebra, you can take a half an hour adaptive exam and it will give you feedback on where you are. If you want to improve your weak points, it will send you to the relevant Khan Academy tutorials. But then if the next day if you feel like you’ve improved, you can take it again and you can take it as many times as you want.
So this is like completing a feedback loop, right?
Exactly. We believe that assessment should be continuous and on demand. Every teacher on the planet should not have to write their own assessment against different standards or have to grade their own assessments. We can use all of the data from the data analytics from millions of students to get to the best custom assessment.
In your book you talk of your days at MIT. You mention how you and a friend became class-skippers. How can we make the classroom of the future so that people don’t have to want to skip classes? What would it look like?
I loved MIT and loved the people but I did skip the bulk of my classes. Students go because they’re there and they’re paying this tuition and they’re culturally told that these classrooms are an important part of your experience. But if you look objectively and where your own personal learning was happening, it was happening outside of the classroom. It was happening in the lab, writing software or studying on your own. I found it far more efficient to instead of spending that one hour or 90 minutes in class—where I would zone out—to go work in the lab and I retained it better and I learnt a lot more. It’s not a dig on MIT, it’s a dig on that model. And to MIT’s credit, they are on the leading edge of recognising this.