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The power of pause and repeat

The stunning success of Khan Academy, an online learning experiment that has now delivered more than 80-million free lessons worldwide, is well documented at this point. But to listen to MIT and Harvard whiz kid Salman Khan describe his journey is to appreciate the extent to which he has only scratched the surface. For those who are not convinced that digital learning will play a significant role in modern education, Khan shows us four math classrooms in Los Altos, California, public schools that he has flipped upside down.

In those classrooms, teaching is first introduced at home. As homework, students sign in to the online collection of 2,600 videos and interactive software. They proceed at their own pace and, with the benefit of pause and repeat, can dwell on a difficult concept without worrying what a teacher or classmate might think. The next day, the students begin to work through problems in class, as the classroom teacher then becomes a roving mentor who is able to expand upon the lessons from the previous night and work at a deeper level with students at their own pace. In just one year, the number of students in remedial math classes that were deemed to be proficient or advanced nearly doubled and the number of students deemed to be far below basic disappeared.

Khan also showed the progress of one student, a student who moved so haltingly in the beginning weeks that he might have been demoted a level. That student, after finally mastering the topics that did not come easily, excelled so quickly that he finished the semester at the top of his class.

“So the paradigm here,” Khan said, “is that instead of holding fixed the amount of time you have to learn something and then the variable being how well you know it, we’re saying let’s make the variable how long it takes you to master a concept, and let’s make the fixed thing that you’ve really mastered the concept. … In classrooms today, you can fail an exam, and you’re still expected to move on  to the next concept.”

Khan, a former Boston hedge fund analyst, wowed a crowd of 800 educators, advocates and elected officials with a speech at the National Summit on Education Reform in San Francisco that is available online at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.


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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One Comment

In my “night job” as a high school district school board member, we are increasing our use of blended learning and having success. We began two years ago when summer school funds were slashed dramatically and we needed to serve students in a credit recovery mode with fewer teachers. At that time we utilized Apex and it worked well enough that our continuation school brought the approach into the school year. We have since switched to Compass Learning, which utilizes more video combined with text aligned to CA standards. Our comprehensive high schools are introducing blended learning this year.

My two takeaways from Khan’s presentation are:

1. As Jon points out, this approach has the potential to “flip” the school day and use teachers in a more effective way. If the presentation of the material becomes essentially the “homework,” then attention in the classroom can be focused on the concepts and standards that students are struggling with. It also offers the obvious advantage of allowing students to take as much time as they need to listen to a presentation of material, rewind certain parts, and stop and research something elsewhere that may have a connection. This will not be uniformly greeted with warmth by classroom teachers who want to present the material themselves, but it can be what qualifies as a transformation for a classroom model from the 1850s.

2. Khan presented data from the Los Altos School District south of San Francisco that showed in 6 months his program had eliminated the students scoring at “far below basic” on the CA Standards Test in a remedial 7th grade math class. For those outside of CA, our Legislative Analyst equated scoring “far below basic” as equivalent to never reading the test and filling in the answer form. It’s significant that Khan’s program moved those students and greatly increased the number scoring at proficient and basic. In fact the program moved 6% of the students in the class to “advanced,” which is rare in my experience.

As a subset of this, Jon notes his data showing that some students spent an extraordinary time on perhaps one or two principles–one student spent 10 days. But then they got it and within two or three weeks, started to move quite rapidly up the learning scale. One adult member of audience noted that he had viewed one of Khan’s videos 30 times before he understood a pre-calculus concept, something he doubted any tutor would have had the patience to tolerate, but it allowed him to move forward and master the next principles.

Both of these have exciting possibilities for learning and of course, we are just at the beginning of blended learning opportunities and its implications.

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