The Khan Academy: To Teach His Own

UPDATED: December 13, 2012
PUBLISHED: December 13, 2012

From his tiny office above a San Francisco teahouse, Sal Khan is teaching me calculus. He hunches over a computer screen, talking and drawing figures on a pad. The numbers and symbols appear on the screen as he explains them. His T-shirt is ratty, his feet bare, and a three-day beard peppers his face.

I sit in the dark with the screen illuminating my face, which I scrunch in concentration and confusion. I’m shirtless and shoeless; only an old pair of gym shorts covers me. My hair is in corkscrews from constantly twirling it as I try to understand the basic derivatives and integrals that dance on the screen.

Together, we’re not exactly poster children for the perfect teacher-student experience. But Khan is teaching me the way he’s taught millions of others—quick, simplified tutorials scheduled on my time—the way that’s made him the talk of the education world and won him praise (and investment) from parents such as Bill and Melinda Gates and forward-thinking organizations like Google.

The fact we’ve never met, or that his lesson was recorded for mass consumption in California long before I sat down at my desk in Dallas, doesn’t seem to matter at all. His methods and success are igniting a new discussion on the mechanisms of education, how we learn, and what our schools will look like in 20 years.

Those are heady questions, but all Khan seems to want to do is teach—anything, to anyone.

It wasn’t always that way. In 2004, Khan was using his Harvard and MIT education as a successful hedge fund analyst in Boston. Back home in New Orleans, his cousin Nadia was struggling to earn placement in her school’s advanced math track, so Khan began to tutor her by phone. Soon other family members wanted lessons. By 2006, Khan was posting YouTube videos, working through concepts and problems while he explained the key learning points. It didn’t take long for complete strangers to find and use his lessons.

“The videos and software, it was very intellectually rewarding to work on that stuff,” Khan says. “It became even more rewarding when I got feedback from my cousins and then people all over the world who said they were benefiting from it.”

By 2009, the former math club chair was hooked on teaching. He began working on his instructional videos more and more as grander ideas took hold. “It’s where my mind was all the time,” Khan recalls when we spoke by phone. “I thought it would be irresponsible to continue in my other career. The real constraint behind taking the plunge was: Can I support my family doing this? It seemed like there was an opportunity to do something really good, but I had never seen anyone make a career doing what I was about to do.… That was the scary part; it was a bit of a leap into the unknown.”

That leap included leaving his lucrative hedge fund job and living off his life savings for nine months while he developed the Khan Academy—an online classroom filled with instructional videos, step-by-step examples and practice problems. Feedback supplied by the program makes it readily apparent which students are struggling and where, so teachers and parents can help them through rough patches and get them on the same level as kids progressing more quickly. Everyone learns at his own pace on the site. And everyone learns for free.

Khan survived on advertising and earned enough donations to keep the academy afloat until it could get in front of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and later Google, each entity donating several million dollars to the cause. Suddenly Khan had the resources to take an organized product to the masses.

“Pioneers like Sal Khan are already showing how effective online tools can be,” Bill Gates wrote in his annual foundation letter. “His website continues to grow its library of short instructional videos on topics from basic arithmetic to complicated subjects like biology and physics. The videos are a tremendous resource for students of any age.”

“I’ve used Khan Academy with my kids,” Gates told Time. “I’m amazed at the breadth of Sal’s subject expertise and his ability to make complicated topics understandable. Sal Khan is a true education pioneer. He started by posting a math lesson, but his impact on education might truly be incalculable.”

Gates has since doubled down his support of Khan, and additional multimillion-dollar pledges keep rolling into the nonprofit’s coffers.

“When we got more press, more letters—all of these things kept validating it,” Khan says. “We were heading in the right direction, and it gave me the confidence to run it. Once we started getting some funding, it was pretty incredible. Of course, Bill Gates changed things. We had traction pre-Bill Gates, but he just took it to another level of this global awareness. And it’s continued from there in the press.… It’s just continued to snowball.”

More and more teachers are supplementing lesson plans with the Khan Academy. Currently, at least 10,000 teachers use the program’s rich collection of video lessons and practice problems. As students complete problems, a virtual goldmine of data becomes available to them and their teachers, parents or coaches.

“Public or private, we need problem-solvers and good ideas in education,” says Andrea Hodge, executive director of the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program at Rice University. “Sal gives a glimpse of what is possible when we are purposeful about applying our talents, knowledge and skills to enrich the lives of others. I’m contacted every week by MBAs, educators and parents who want to enhance education. I hope they see Kahn Academy and say ‘Hey, I can do that!’ Heck, I hope they do better.”

Along with “global awareness” comes scrutiny. Even with thousands of teachers embracing the academy’s concepts, there are just as many warning Khan’s methods won’t revolutionize education or radically change a kid’s abilities.

“There is no panacea for education,” says Lisa Van Gemert, a former teacher and principal who now leads the Gifted Youth program for American Mensa and trains thousands of teachers on the best methods for working with the most talented students. “This will not solve what is wrong with education, and the course of it is likely very similar to antibiotics—eventually you will see Khan-resistant strains of students. With or without this, kids will still fail to achieve if there is not involvement from parents, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and if they don’t step away from too much recreational technology.”

For his part, Khan agrees. “Sometimes we get these hyperbolic headlines.… We’re not a silver bullet. We are in a very nascent stage. We’re part of the future of education, but we aren’t by ourselves going to be able to move mountains.”

To do that, you need foot soldiers—people on the ground to make sure the operation is moving smoothly. To test how well the program and the classroom can work together, the academy and San Francisco area schools “flip” classes. In the evenings, students are lectured and learn concepts at home through the Khan Academy. When the bell rings in the morning, teachers can look at the data provided by the program to see where students are struggling, who is missing which types of questions, even how long they spent on the videos and when they stopped or rewound the footage.

Instead of the traditional lecture, where one teacher talks to 30 students who may or may not fully absorb the lesson, these flipped classes feature students working together to master concepts taught online the night before while the teacher moves around the room to talk to kids and offer additional help. Interaction and discussion become the new norms.

If all of that sounds radical, it’s because it is. The age-old model of education was born from the industrial revolution. The goal was to churn out skilled workers, and kids were pushed through the system like widgets.

“America is not going to go back to being a low-wage manufacturing country,” Google chairman Eric Schmidt told 60 Minutes last spring. “We’re going to be a country of advanced manufacturing, sophisticated services, global brands—all of those require higher-order reasoning skills, which might be better taught using the Khan Academy approach.”

Khan aims to challenge accepted norms in education, wondering whether it makes sense to shuttle students from one subject to another every 50 minutes or even to separate them by age.

“The classroom of the past, the apprenticeship of the past, was not done that way,” Khan says. “How can we look at the tools at our disposal to move to a self-paced… learning model, one that helps spur creativity and multiple ways of learning?”

Khan’s innovative methods and approachable style have skeptics and believers alike flocking to his site. Its 3,000-plus videos have been viewed more than 175 million times, and students complete an average of 2 million problems a day. Radical or not, people are learning at Khan’s feet.

“He’s friendly, engaging and has a transferable confidence,” Van Gemert says. “There’s a can-do feeling that comes with the whole setup. How hard could something be that he can explain in 10 minutes?”

He may be able to explain something in 10 minutes, but that doesn’t mean I can learn it. Back in the darkness of my office, Khan’s voice floats out of the speakers, illustrating how easy calculus is when I break it down properly. I remind myself how Khan says everyone learns at his own pace. “You’re not stupid because you forgot your calculus,” Khan told me. I’m smart enough to know my weakness lies in numbers.

Khan himself has bigger challenges than teaching me math. He wants to broaden the scope of his academy’s content, get it into poor countries and find a way to bring his ideas to the physical classroom—a place he firmly believes in, despite what some think. Whether that means creating his own schools or partnering with progressive districts remains unclear. Either way, Khan’s happy to have found his calling in a tiny office above a teashop.

“I’m not wealthy; there is no money distorting me,” Khan explains. “Through this adventure, I’ve had access to people I viewed as almost demigods, these surreal figures, and now they’re real people in my life. And that’s been pretty tremendous. But I view that as a blessing.… My life passion is coming out of me. My biggest fear is Khan Academy, for whatever reason, isn’t able to deliver on its mission. We have such a ripe opportunity, and all the tools seem to be there.”

 Those last two sentences pop in my brain as I shut down my browser, defeated by calculus for another evening. Luckily, Khan is reaching far better students than this 30 something writer in an old pair of gym shorts.