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Radio interview: Sal on AirTalk talking about his new book

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(pop music) Larry: It started with just a few little videos on algebra to help out a cousin who needed assistance in school, and, from there, it grew and grew and grew into more than 3,200 YouTube videos, giving all kinds of instruction. It's known as the Khan Academy, but, more than just that, it's leading to a rethinking of how education is delivered in the nation's classrooms and at home. Salman Khan's new book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined. Sal, thank you for joining us. We appreciate it very much. Sal: Thanks for having me. Larry: Take us back to what was going on. Here you are, you're doing your hedge fund management and research, and you have a cousin who needs some help. How does it all spring from this? Sal: Yeah; she needed help. She's 12 years old. She was in New Orleans, which is where I grew up. I was in Boston at the time. I offered to tutor her everyday after work for me, after school for her; she agreed. It worked out. We just work out, do it over the phone, and we used a little bit of this Yahoo Chat to kind of communicate. She eventually got into the kind of the more appropriate math track for her, and I start tutoring her brothers. Word got around in the family that free tutoring was happening. So, you fast forward about 18 months, and I was tutoring about 10 or 15 family members everyday after work; and it was a friend- By this point, I had moved out to Northern California, and a friend said, "Well, to help yoursef scale, "why don't you put some of these on YouTube?" and I thought it was a silly idea, that YouTube was for cats playing piano, but I gave it a shot. >From there, it just caught on, I guess. Larry: How long did it take for the word to get out and for people to start using these videos? Sal: It was just this I think word of mouth thing, that starting in 2006 a parent would tell another parent, a student would tell another student, a teacher would tell another teacher. By 2009, there were several hundreds of thousands of people using it on a regular basis. That's when I quit my day job to start this as a not for profit and work on this full time, and then, by 2010, it had grown. By that point, we started to get a little bit of press as well. We're now at about almost 7 million students every month are using it. Larry: Wow. There's a criticism from The Washington Post, where this teacher has his own company, I guess it is, and was featured in a blog in The Washington Post, and part of the knock was that you said you spend a couple of minutes researching and do it, but I thought part of the appeal of the videos is there is a sort of a naturalness there. It's the less formal aspect of it I think is part of the appeal. Sal: Yeah. I think there's two dimensions to preparation. I think one dimension is preparation of your mind, which is hopefully happened over your entire lifetime, but obviously if I go into a topic that I'm not expert in at the moment, I will spend hours on it. But I agree with you. I think what people connected to was it was very conversational. They could tell it was some guy making this for his cousins. I didn't edit out my thought processes. You could kind of hear me thinking in real time. Sometimes I would go down one avenue, that was a logical avenue, but say, "Well actually, this isn't working out. "Let's back up." Too often in math and science, you just get the final solution, and it seems so easy and perfect, but it seems impossible to you. I think people appreciated that it felt much more human, much more approachable in this way. Larry: Much like it is in a show like this, which is unscripted and a conversation, or a program like Morning Edition, where it's all scripted and you have two anchors. Both have their place. They're just different approaches. Sal: Exactly. I think when I talk to a lot of ... and I've had the privilege of working with a lot of amazing teachers, and they tell me. I mean, the things that connect with students more are the ones that are unscripted. Your mind has to be very clear and very distilled about what you want to talk about and how you might communicate it, but humans realize when you're reading something versus when you're actually thinking and communicating from your heart. Larry: Let's talk about taking this as a model and incorporating it into the classroom in Los Altos, up in the Bay Area, where you reside. They're actually incorporating this. How does it work? Sal: They first reached out to us 2010, when we got our first real funding from Google and the Gates Foundation to work on this. At the time, we thought it was a completely supplemental thing. Khan Academy is your free tutor out there. But, as I write about in the book, they kind of reached out to us and said, "What would you do with a 5th grade math classroom, "now that you exist, your tools exist?" I said, "I don't think it makes sense to use "class time to give lectures anymore. "Lectures might be useful, but now you can "pause and repeat and watch them on demand. "Let's use class time for something more constructive. "Why don't we ask student teaching each other? "Why don't we have more one on one time with the teacher?" And as soon as you also remove lectures from the classroom, now, all of a sudden, you don't have to have every student working at the same pace. You could have them all kind of mastering concepts then moving on. They thought it was an interesting idea, so they gave it a shot. This was two years ago, and since then it's been district-wide, and they've been seeing some pretty interesting results. Larry: You know the criticism that some have, the concern is that for the students who don't have much parental support, have difficult time getting access to computer, they're going to be left behind, and the whiz kids are going to do great because they can go at their own pace. Sal: Well, I think this addresses that more than the traditional model does. The traditional model that we all grew up in, you go home, you have homework, and that's where frankly a lot of the learning should happen, when you're doing the problem solving. It's the educated kids who have older siblings, or who have parents who might be able to help them on the schoolwork, or whose parents are even home and they're not at work, and then they go to class and they do something very passive and they get frustrated. What we're advocating is that actually doing the problem-solving, which is a much more important part, in class, where they're surrounded by peers and they have a support network, so you don't have the child whose parents aren't home from work or whose parents don't have a high school diploma, who can't help them on an algebra homework, getting frustrated. Now they're in class; they're surrounded. They have the teacher, the peers, there's a ton of help. There's one classroom where there was a student who spoke very little English. In a traditional classroom, that kid would just be left behind, even though actually we found out he was quite good at mathematics. What allowed to happen in this model is that the teacher was able to spend extra time with him. The teacher didn't speak Spanish, but several of the students did, and so the students were able to be peer tutors and make sure that the student could keep up. I think there is an issue about access to technology, and we are working at charter schools in San Jose and Oakland, places that are more underserved, but actually they were seeing some of the biggest gains. The trick is how do we give access to the technology? But you could do it by keeping computer labs open longer, by having after school programs and other things. Larry: So even if they're not a quiet space at home, there's another place that kids can go to see those lectures. We're talking with Salman Khan. He's the founder of the nonprofit Khan Academy, and author of The One World School House: Education Reimagined; and part of the case that he makes in this book is that the kind of low cost delivery of education in this model could revolutionize underdeveloped countries, those that just don't have access to education, that this could be a huge way of addressing that. How would you, though, deal with that kind of problem solving, the in classroom, the need for the educated professional? Sal: Yeah, well, in the developed world, where students have access to a teacher, I think this supercharges that physical part of it. This isn't about virtual versus physical. It's not Amazon.com versus Barnes and Noble's. This is about let's take lecture off the table, because lecture, and we have in the book a study that proved that lecture is probably the worst possible use of time and very little learning actually goes on, make that on demand, at a student's time, they can remediate and not be embarassed, and make class time all about problem solving, all about interaction with the teachers. So, in our mind, if you have a teacher, they become that much more valuable because you get to interact with them. In the developing world, you have a different problem. Even if you have the resources, you might not have a teacher in the village who can address that topic. Even if you do, the students are at all different skill levels. Some might be illiterate. Some might be somehow roughly at their own grade level. What we say is, in those context, and there's an orphanage in Mongolia, actually several that are using us in this way, it's better than nothing. It can give you a very strong academic scaffold. You have a community of learners online who can help you. And sometimes you're getting help from a teacher on the other side of the planet, or another student on the other side of the planet. Or some of these kids are actually helping kids in the developed world. So, for us, it's not an either/or. The ideal is you have amazing teachers, but if you have nothing, like these orphanages in Mongolia, you're getting something. Larry: You can use webcams, things like that to be able to make a two-way, interactive followup to online lectures? Sal: Yeah, that's stuff that we have planned. I talk a lot about it in the book. I think Khan Academy is in very, very early stages, and we set it up as a not for profit, so it really has this potential to be this institution to deliver education for the world for free. I hope in 50 or 100 years, well after ... well, hopefully I'm around in 50 years, but even after I'm gone, people will still be working on the problem of how can we make this more interactive, more engaging, and connect more learners around the world? Larry: Salman Khan, author of The One World School House: Education Reimagined. I'd love to hear from you your questions or comments about Khan Academy, about the more than 3,200 YouTube teaching videos that are there, how it's being used by school districts, by individual schools as well. We're at 866-893-KPCC, 866-893-5722, or the AirTalk page at KPCC.org. TR asked an interesting question he has on the page, "Are there tests that an adult can take to assess their math shortcomings on the Khan Academy site?" Sal: Yeah. That's what we're working on right now. We already have a significant exercise. Anyone can go to Khan Academy, log in. Actually, our team now, we're 36 people; it's not just me. Most of them are software engineers and educators who are working on exactly what's being described. You get as many problems as you need. It assesses you. It keeps progressing you forward. You get feedback on what you're doing. What we want to do is broaden that to well beyond mathematics, so you can get assessment on things, diagnostics, and then show what you know, and if you're having trouble in a certain domain, there are these tutorials that can help you out. Larry: One thing I forgot to mention, because this is really a central part of your approach, is that everybody needs to be able to show that they've mastered a step before they move on to the next one, and schools are in a tough spot trying to do that. Sal: I talked about in the book pretty heavily is all the debate about education essentially misses the point. It's all kind of on the fringes of this model that we have that few people realize we inherited from the Prussians, a country that does not exist anymore, 200 years ago. The Prussian model was based on how do we educate a lot of people cost effectively? Well, it was the beginning of the industrial revolution, so we'll do the same thing. We'll bash them together in these age cohorts. They go to the same pace. They go to these stations, which are these classes. Knowledge is applied to them. Some, it sticks; some, it doesn't. Then you sift out the product, and some become doctors and some don't become doctors or engineers. What we're saying is we think we can break out of that Prussian model now because that Prussian model pretty much dooms people to hit walls in their understanding. Right now, in the model, you get a C on your exam on basic exponents, it moves you to the next topic the next week, where you go to negative exponents or logarithms, somehow expecting you to master that, even though you had that weak foundation. And so, we say no. Master that concept, at least get a basic proficiency in it, and only then is it realistic for you to be able to understand something that builds on top of it. Larry: It's funny, when I was in 6th grade, it was way pre-Internet, I was in an experimental classroom public school in Inglewood here in Southern California. They were trying something where they combine 5th and 6th grade, so it was a joint classroom, and there was almost no lecture. The teacher sat in the middle of the room, and we had work stations in different subject areas, again, so there are no videos, essentially, but all kinds of stations. You work at your own pace. There were tests along the way to make sure you had mastery before you moved on; and it was my favorite year of school, because in areas where I was good, I could go really fast; in areas where I needed more help, I had the teacher available, one on one, to be able to help me through it. I don't know how long that ever last or what happened to it, but for me it was perfect for my learning style. It just seems like those kinds of experiments were often very hard to come by when you've got such disparate student level of achievement. Sal: Yeah. I think what you're describing, it's not just for you. I think almost any human being would say that is how they naturally learn. In the book, I talk about that is how people naturally learn, through activity, through personalization, through interaction with other human beings. What I think is special about this time in history is that there are many experiments like the one you were a part of in your childhood. There are a lot of schools that are moving in that direction, but it's not mainstream. What we're seeing now is because of the technology, because of this broad adoption that things like Khan Academy are seeing, it's starting to be mainstream. The coordination is starting to empower teachers to do that. Larry: We still do group projects, too, which I know your summer camp, that's a big part of it, right? Sal: Right. One thing I talk a lot about in the book is everyone's all paranoid about are we falling behind Estonia or South Korea or Finland because of our algebra test scores, and it's worth not being complacent about that, but what I emphasize is America is becoming more and more the center of the world's innovation, and that's because we have this culture of creativity. Failure isn't stigmatized. What I see, instead of making our Prussian model more like the one in Finland or South Korea or Singapore, let's make ours more American, where it's more personalized, more time with other human beings, and time for creativity. Creativity is probably the single most important thing today, but our current model completely squeezes time for it out of the equation. Larry: Bill in Huntington Beach, you're on AirTalk. Bill: Hi. I want to express my gratitude for the Khan Academy and all the tapes that are out there. I'm a 55-year-old grad student, returning to civil engineering. It's been 30 years since I first took calculus and I'd lost it all. And so, I really literally relearned the subject over the span of a few months. Thanks to Sal and his great tapes. Larry: Wow; so not just kids? Sal: No. We see that in the data. Stories like that is what keep our whole team motivated. Larry: Maurice in San Dimas, welcome. Maurice: Hi, Larry. My wife is a teacher in San Gabriel Valley, teaching chemistry, and she loved the videos, and actually uses it as homework assignments as a review, more than anything. The main problem that I see is that the school district doesn't let her actually play the videos in the classroom because it's on YouTube. Sal: Yeah. That's a very real issue. A lot of classrooms block YouTube. Some countries block YouTube. On Khan Academy, there's like a little link where you can acces it on mirrored sites, some of the videos, but I think school districts are ... and that's a short term solution. The school districts are starting to realize that YouTube does have educational value, and YouTube is starting to realize that as well. I think collectively we're all working on solutions to address exactly what you described. Larry: Roxanne in West Lake Village says she's a math tutor, refers students to Khan Academy all the time. Then parents ask, "Why do I need to hire tutors?" But there's still a great need because kids need to practice the hands on, just like when learning baseball. Sal: Once again, Khan Academy is not there to replace humans; it's there to supercharge humans. All of this started off as me being a tutor, and it wasn't to replace myself, it was really to allow my ... and get the half an hour that I had with Nadia to be more constructive, so I didn't have to lecture for things for her and she didn't have to be embarassed to ask a question from 4th grade. She could get it on demand. And so, yeah, that's what you've got to tell parents, that the tutor is now more valuable and can take things to another level with students. Larry: Jennifer in Fullerton, wondering about translation for other countries. You're looking at new videos to serve in other languages or dubbing yourself? Sal: We actually have a fairly extensive project. We've translated and redone 7,000 videos into other languages, the 12 major languages of the world. If you go to the bottom of the site, you see a little drop down. We have actually 1,000 in Spanish, 1,000 in Portuguese, and a bunch of others. Larry: Wow. Jonathan in Long Beach says, "The technology really streamlined the college system." He's a student at Long Beach City College. He says, "Lectures go on and on, "regurgitation and inefficient." Salman Khan, thank you for being with us. Appreciate it very much. We'll see how much your ideas make their way into mainstream American education. Sal: Thank you. Larry: The One World School House: Education Reimagined, by the founder of the nonprofit Khan Academy, Salman Khan. It's AirTalk on 89.3 KPCC. Have a great afternoon. BBC News Hour comes up next, and then The World-