Khan Academy: A Teaching Revolution?

Salman Khan, creator of Khan Academy (

Here is a revolutionary idea for improving education: Focus on the learning process rather than prepping kids for standardized tests.

This idea, discussed in a recent Economist article, is getting a lot of attention for being employed effectively by the non-profit KhanAcademy. Founded by Salman Khan, a finance "quant," the website offers over 2,400 lectures and accompanying exercises, with a heavy focus on mathematics from basic to the highest levels. KhanAcademy had its origins in 2004 when Salman Khan decided to tutor his young cousin in math remotely. They would work together on the telephone and use Yahoo Doodle as a shared notepad. Khan's tutoring was very effective and he started using YouTube to offer lessons.

After realizing that lots of other students, and even some adults, were viewing his YouTube videos, Khan began using the computer language Javascript to generate practice problems. Next he added a database to track usage. His real breakthrough was making those practice problems adaptive, assessing student abilities on the fly, deducing where more practice was needed, and serving up problems of those types. KhanAcademy has gotten enough attention from philanthropists, including Bill Gates, to continue expanding while keeping its offerings free to anyone who wants them.

Khan's offerings are enabling a tiny revolution, giving teachers the ability to watch as students solve problems and immediately understand which concepts are giving them the most trouble. To accomplish this, children are expected to watch lectures in the form of KhanAcademy videos at home, and then come to class prepared to use what they've learned to solve problems. It is a complete flip of the traditional educational process. Homework is now done in the classroom. 

In the Khan-enabled model, the role of teacher changes. There is a chance to facilitate learning rather than police it. This is unfortunately a novel thought in the K-12 classroom. God forbid we actually trust teachers, as opposed to standardized tests, to monitor student learning and act as coaches in the educational process.

But it is time we start building trust. Despite having been stalled by the traditional naysaying anti-teacher attitude of much K-12 educational reform, the idea of flipping instruction and homework has actually been around and working effectively for over a decade. For about 10 years now, The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) has been working with colleges to help them experiment with the method, and their findings show that "thoughtful course redesigns [along these lines] lead to improved learning." 

In an upcoming article, Bill Tucker of Education Next says that "Khan Academy’s prominence engenders fear of standardization and deprofessionalization among some critics." This criticism is unfortunate. What is really going on is the opposite of standardization and not treating teachers as professionals. There is no reason why teachers cannot employ the model on their own. Rather than teaching to a standardized test, imagine if teachers were actually teaching to a set of instructional materials and educational objectives they prepared. Imagine if they had diagnostic tools at hand that served not as a final notice of what learning took place, but as a guidepost of the progress and pitfalls students were experiencing along the way.

That sounds like true teaching and learning, which is much harder to govern through educational policy decisions made by those outside of the classroom setting. This is exactly why flipping the classroom, no matter how effective it is shown to be, faces an uphill battle.