Sal Khan: Imagine if we built homes the way we teach students

The idea of competency-based instruction is not new. Florida educators were using technology to tailor student learning two decades ago, and it can trace its origin back more than a century.

But more recent advances in technology have allowed educators to begin upending the traditional “seat-time” model, in which students advance based on what they learn rather than move through the material in a fixed amount of time. That’s one of the goals of Khan Academy’s new “learning dashboard,” which lays out “missions” for students to complete, with the idea that completing a mission will signal mastery of specific math standards.

sal khanSalman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, explained the significance of the organization’s growth beyond video during a speech at this year’s National Charter Schools Conference in Las Vegas. Right now, the learning dashboard is focused on math — perhaps the subject where learning is most cumulative.  This is an excerpt from the keynote presentation he delivered on the conference’s first day, edited lightly for length.

(Right now, at most schools), we shepherd (students) together at a set pace. Class time, there might be some lectures. They might do some homework. The next day, we might a review homework a little bit, get a little bit more lecture. And you can continue that cycle for maybe, about two or three weeks. And then you have an exam.

Let’s say that unit was on basic exponents. And on that exam, I get an 80 percent, you get a 90 percent, and you get a 60 percent.

The exam has identified gaps. The person who got a 60 percent — 40 percent of the material, they didn’t really get. Even the person who got an A, got a 95 percent, what was that 5 percent they didn’t know? Even though that happened, the whole class then moves on to the next concept — say, negative exponents — pretty much ensuring that students are going to have trouble working on that.

And to put in focus how strange that is, imagine if we did other things in our life that way. Say, home-building. So you get the contractor in, and you say, ‘You have a total of three weeks to build a foundation, do what you can.’

So he does what he can. Maybe there are delays. Maybe some of the supplies don’t show up on time. Maybe some of the workers fall sick. And then, three weeks later, the inspector comes in and says, ‘Well, the concrete’s still wet over there. That part’s not quite up to code. I’ll give it an 80 percent.’

Oh, great. That’s a C. Let’s build the first floor.

Same process. We have two weeks. Do what we can, and we get 90 percent. ‘Great, that’s a B.’ Let’s build the second floor, third floor. Then all of a sudden, when you get to the fourth floor, the whole thing collapses.

What’s often the reaction in education is to say, ‘Oh, we had a bad contractor, or we needed more inspection.’

And who knows, maybe that played a role. But the real thing was the process. The process was broken. You’re artificially constraining how long we had to work on something. Then you went through the trouble of having an inspection, of having a test. When the test identified weaknesses, identified deficiencies, you just really view those as a value judgment on the building or a value judgment on the student, and then you move on to the next concept.

What we believe is not a new idea. It’s not new to Khan Academy. It’s existed for hundreds of years, this idea of mastery-based learning. It only now becomes more doable in the context of a classroom of 25 or 30 students. Instead of holding fixed when and how long a student has to learn something, and the variable being how well they learn it: A, B, C, D, F, do it the other way around. What should be fixed is that every student should master the concept – should master exponents. They should all get to the A level, and what’s variable is when and how long they actually have to work on it.

As a lot of you all know, Khan Academy started as this completely supplemental tool. A lot of it was just kind of stuff that I was putting together for my cousins. Then we attracted some support. We were able to start building a team. As many of you all know, school districts started to use us, and now many of you. Our goal was always: Can we create a resource that is enterprise-grade? Something that is exhaustive, that fully meets all the standards. A teacher, a parent, anyone who uses it can feel it’s really covering with the proper rigor everything the student needs to see.

So we’ve launched a few months ago, in preparation for this fall with the adoption of the Common Core in most of the states that you all are in, we have these missions. You can select a mission, and the student can work on them at their own time and pace. If a student’s having difficulty, they can back up to a previous grade’s mission. The idea here is when a student finishes a mission – we’ve been working with the authors of the Common Core on this – they really do understand the material in the Common Core.

There’s always been this tension when you have standards, when you have high-stakes exams and all that, where, gee, maybe the standards are good, but does it end up teaching to the test? Does it somehow end up taking creativity away from the classroom? The idea is that if teachers can feel good, if their students finish the mission and they’re getting reports on where all the students are, they don’t have to go into that mode, and it will hopefully liberate more class time to do more Socratic dialogue, to do more projects, to do more inquiry.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)

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