One World Schoolhouse – Book Review

khan_one-world-schoolhouseAs Sal Khan admits in his book, One World Schoolhouse, that he has not proposed anything particularly new, but the popularity of his non-profit Khan Academy website has given him a prominent platform to advocate for educational change in the United States and around the world.

Ever since my high school aged son started using Khan Academy lessons to help him with the Physics class he was struggling with, I’ve been impressed with how helpful the web based lessons can be to helping students learn and master difficult mathematical concepts.  Some students and teachers use the Kahn Academy for more than just remedial tutoring, and instead replace in-class lectures with the lessons, and then spend the majority of class time working through problems and related projects.

This teaching method struck a chord with me, so much so that I’ve created “flipped” or “blended” versions of two of guest lectures that I give at my University. I’m happy to report that the observed learning outcomes and student feedback from the new blended format lectures has been excellent.

In One World Schoolhouse, Sal talks about how the tutoring of one of his nieces was the impetus for him to begin tutoring part time, while working as a hedge fund manager. This snowballed, and turned into his passion, as he tutored more and more relatives and family friends.  After a lot of positive feedback to both the lecture videos and online exercises, he took the plunge and started a one year experiment, to see if he could turn his passion into a career. After struggling for several months he, received one or two foundation grants to fund his little non-profit. With the publicity this garnered, he received several more large grants from the likes of Bill Gates and Google, and his organization was fully funded and in a position to hire some full time staff to help him.

With this additional help, the Academy was able to respond to collaboration requests from the Los Altos School District, to work with them on their math curriculum for two grade levels.  After the trial period was complete, the district adopted the Khan Academy model for several grades of math instruction.

Sal then goes on to outline what his ideal of education would look like (subject to change based on rigorous study and e

valuation over time).  Here are the highlights I pulled out in bullet form:

  • Large K12 classrooms of 70-90 students in a range of grades & abilities. Have multiple teachers assigned to the class who have a variety of academic interests.
  • Each student would develop a learning plan with one of their teachers. -> Differentiated Education.
  • 1-2 hours a day would be spent working through material in a system like the Khan Academy for the kids to deeply master skills at their own pace… not in lockstep with their classmates.
    • learning units would be presented in 3 to 10 minute units.
    • learning units would be linked to each other in order to build on acquired knowledge and skills.
  • The rest of the school day would be spent on project work where they would apply the skills they’re learning or have mastered.
  • if they run into a problem, or need a skill in the course of the project, they’d be pointed in the direction of the resources they’d need to master the skill.
  • There would be a number of projects suggested by the teachers that they could do, but would also be encouraged to.
  • Tracking student’s progression through core concepts in an online tool allows a teacher to quickly identify who needs 1-1 attending. Student further along in an area could mentor and teach learning or struggling classmates.
  • A portfolio of creative work is probably a better indicator of a student’s abilities and potential than how they perform on a standardized test.  Getting universities on board to evaluate a student’s portfolio rather than their transcripts will need to be addresses.
  • Don’t be dogmatic about the use of pedagogy and technology.  Proceed based on available evidence, and the individual needs of students. Refine and test what we’re doing to make sure outcomes are improving.


Before I highlight some quotes from One World Schoolhouse that I found interesting, I should say that while I like many of the suggestions that Sal makes, like Sal, I believe that educators and universities should be conducting research studies and trials to determine how effective these pedagogies are across different academic disciplines and different age groups.  If they turn out to be as effective as some early trials indicate, then we can begin the hard work of training our teachers and giving them the tools they’d need to adopt  these new pedagogies.  If not, then we can all move along and look for other ways to improve on the way we teach.

That said, here are some quotes I found interesting:

  • “When it comes to education, technology is not to be feared, but embraced; used wisely and sensitively, computer-based lessons actually allow teachers to do more teaching, and the classroom to become a workshop for mutual helping, rather than passive sitting.” -pg 34
  • “In a traditional academic model, the time allotted to learn something is fixed while the comprehension of the concept is variable. Washburne was advocating the opposite. What should be fixed is a high level of comprehension and what should be variable is the amount of time students have to understand a concept.” –  pg 39
  • “In gradually developing my own approach to teaching, one of my central objectives was to reverse this balkanizing tendency. In my view, no subject is ever finished. No concept is sealed off from other concepts. Knowledge is continuous; ideas flow.” – pg 51
  • “I’m not proposing that we shut down the schools and start over. What I am suggesting, however, is that we adopt a more questioning and skeptical stance toward the educational customs and assumptions we’ve inherited.”
  • “Most students, rather than appreciating algebra as a keen and versatile tool for navigating through the world, see it as one more hurdle to be passed, a class rather than a gateway.”
  • “There are two related points I’m driving at here. The first is that creativity in general tends to be egregiously underappreciated and often selected against in our schools. The second point – and in my view this is nothing short of tragic – is that many educators fail to see math, science, and engineering as “creative” fields at all.” – pg 98
  • “This notion of ‘flipping the classroom’ was around before the Khan Academy existed and clearly wasn’t my idea. However, the popularity of the Khan Academy video library seems to have pushed it into mainstream thinking.” – pg 118
  • “The promise of technology is to liberate teachers from those largely mechanical chores so that they have more time for human interactions.” – pg 123
  • “If high school persuaded me of the crucial importance of independent study and self-paced learning, it took college to convince me of the incredible inefficiency, irrelevance, and even inhumanity of the standard broadcast lecture.” – pg 186
  • “The school I envision would embrace technology not for its own sake, but as a means to improve deep conceptual understanding, to make quality, relevant education far more portable, and – somewhat counterintuitively – to humanize the classroom.” – pg 251

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