You use the phrase “humanize the classroom” a lot. Can you explain what that means?
Most of the classrooms I remember, and a lot of the ones I visit now, don’t look that different. The kids are in a room. The desks are facing the chalkboard—or I guess now it’s a whiteboard or a SMART board. Most of class time is spent with a lecture and kids of taking notes. Every now and then, there is some interaction. But humans— especially young humans—aren’t good at sitting still and passively listening. They want to do things. They want to talk to each other. They want to form human bonds with each other. So when I think of a human classroom, I think of a classroom that’s not 10 percent asking questions of the teacher. It’s 100 percent asking questions of the teacher, and the teacher asking questions of students, and the students talking to each other, working on things together. That, to me, is a far more human experience.
Are you finding that teachers are open to this?
I haven’t had someone stand up and say, “No, no, no. I think actually it should be about the lecture.” The teachers who are using us, we’ve heard nothing but good things about how they feel more empowered. Where I would say where there’s resistance is more of just how people perceive us. A lot of the press narrative has been around the videos. That was minute eight of my TED talk. The next 10 minutes was talking about how we optimized human interaction and allowed students to work at their own pace and armed students and teachers with data and all these other things. Because so many people think that teaching is about lecturing, they think that this guy who’s making videos is trying to replace teachers with a virtual tool. But that’s not it. This is coming from the guy who’s made 3,000 videos: I don’t think the lecture is the most important part of the learning process.
One other criticism that I’ve heard is that your approach isn’t radical enough.
That’s an interesting one. Some of these people call themselves constructivists or constructionists, and for them it’s all about students learning through discovering the process—you shouldn’t kind of feed information to them. And there’s been a debate, especially in math circles and science circles, about what works better—discovery or lectures and problem sets? Our philosophy is that these are not competing interests. These are actually complementary skill sets that students need to pick up. There’s value in being able to do a lot of the classical physics problems. The great physicists of our time learned that way. They had good physics instructors who made them do hard problems.
How far can self-paced learning go? Like what are the institutional obstacles to doing this like public school–wide?
It seems like fastest adopters here are actually some of the leading institutions, either the higher education or the K–12 level. Fast-forward to a world five or 10 years in the future, where the best schools in the country have, to some degree, transitioned to a model where they are not lecturing anymore, where they are a competency-based model. And you have data showing that it’s working. I think it’s very hard for the rest of the system to just say, “We don’t want to be like the best. We just want to do what we’ve been doing.”
So what will Khan Academy look like five years from now?
In five years I would like Khan Academy to be a platform where you can go and say, “I want to learn American history. I want to learn algebra. I want to learn quantum physics.” Pretty much any mainstream topic. And it’ll say, “Okay, great—here’s the diagnostic for you.” You take the diagnostic and then it immediately turns into this kind of active tutor, to pace you and make sure you retain things.