The One World Schoolhouse

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In “The One World Schoolhouse”, Sal Khan writes an approachable critique of modern education, and goes further than most other critics by proposing implementable improvements… and then actually implementing them in real life through his eponymous Khan Academy. If you haven’t heard of it, Khan Academy was unintentionally started in 2003 when Sal, still working on Wall St., offered to help tutor his cousin in grade school maths. As of 2017, his videos on YouTube (channel started in ’06) have been viewed over 1.2 billion times, and an externally hosted platform is used by over 40 million students and 2 million teachers every month.

Written in 2012, however, OWS, is in dire need of an update for two reasons: (1) AI, AI’s potential to shape the future of education by delivering mass, personalized content cannot be understated, (2) in 2014, Khan started a fully-fledged school: Khan Lab School in Mountain View, California whose early results seem promising - link to 2017 Economist article which talks about edtech in context and whose early paragraphs detail the experience an enrolled 10-year old whose precociousness and self-confidence are at levels a middle-aged man might dream of, link to 2015 Wired article that talks specifically about KLS.

In absence of these things, OWS is a relatively underwhelming read, half of which delineates a general critique of modern education (which I’ll outline) and half of which runs through the story of the Khan Academy. In my opinion, it would have been better if each got a separate book or they were more agilely blended together.

Critique of the modern education system

In this 1989 study it was concluded that between 1893 and 1979, "instructional practice in [public schools] remained about the same"

  • ‘Tracking’, AKA streaming in Singapore, is bad because it means that for some students, their entire careers can start down a slippery slope simply because of one bad test day - moving spoken word piece about this
    • "What sense does it make to … send the message that [a percentage of kids] have nothing to contribute?"
  • Class size helps but it is not a silver bullet
    • 'No child left behind' really means 'every other child slowed down to account for one slower child'
  • Hour-long class periods aren’t conducive to learning
    • 10-18 minutes is the limit of a student's attention span
    • Further, traditional class time crowds out learning time. Indeed, hour-long lectures could be replaced with hour-long lectures could be replaced with 10 minutes of video, and 20 minutes of self-paced problem-solving. The 9-5 school day could also be bisected as a result - too bad society is too used to it
  • ‘Subjects’ are destructive educational constructs that inhibit associative learning, this further implies that initial gaps in knowledge become exponentially larger as one progresses through the traditional educational system - in Khan's words (Swiss Chess Learning caused by low standards of testing)
    • "In algebra, for example, students are taught to memorize the formula for the vertex of a parabola. Then they separately memorize the quadratic formula. In yet another lesson, they probably learn to "complete the square." The reality, however, is that all those formulas are expressions of essentially he same mathematical logic, so why aren't they taught together as the multiple facets of the same concept."
    • Nobel laureate Kandel's work showed that memory persists best when "[information is associated] meaningfully and systemically with knowledge already well established in memory," i.e. knowledge builds on knowledge and should never be learnt in isolation
  • Lack of self-determination and agency in one's own education = demotivating
  • Homework is screwed up because quantity is seen as a proxy for quality, especially in the arts which shouldn't really be graded at all
  • Testing also sucks, and in general credentials (the traditional resume) holds no place in today's society
    • And in my experience can crowd out creativity: in Singapore, using a different method to solve a math problem can lead to 0 credit
  • 10+ week summer holiday is destructive towards memory consolidation and is a vestige of America's agrarian past
  • If school is meant to prepare you for the workplace, then why is often only 3 months (junior summer internship) of a 4 year program dedicated to it? Take a leaf out of Waterloo University's book… the average student has work placements of up to 24 months on graduation
  • Age segregation is silly because it is the primary manifestation of tracking, but also because it deprives older students of the possibility to be leaders and younger students of having role models
    • OWS is a reference to how his dream school is one classroom for students of all ages

All of the above are common refrains for critics of modern education, and Khan does not add much to the conversation here. A version of this was elaborated in The End of Average by Todd Rose, which I have notes for here, wherein Rose goes on to explain how the above elements are products of Taylorist (Frederick Wilson Taylor) styles of management: "educational Taylorists declared the mission of education to be to prepare mass numbers of students to work in a Taylorized economy." He also spells out why and how he would fully replace the current grading system with a standardized certification of competency system, which in today's college bubble we are in dire need of.

“School bells were introduced to emulate factory bells, in order to mentally prepare children for their future careers.” – John Gatto, The Underground History of American Education (2002)

In the AI age where 65% of children starting grade school this year will end up doing jobs that haven't been invented yet (and the jobs of the rest will be at risk of automation), creativity and self-ownership are the principles we should be inculcating in children today, not the blue vs. white collar, office vs. factory lackey preparatory prison that the Taylorist educational system represented.

Khan poses a relatable question in regards to his undergraduate experience at MIT (typical big 'prof-lebrity' experience of long lectures in huge classrooms): "Was this education or an endurance contest?" He later followed the track of some upperclassmen who were able to double their course loads by avoiding seat time and "simply pursuing whatever actually helped [them] learn." … Too bad I can't do the same at Amherst.

Khan Academy stuff

  • Generally learned by seeing what worked best, e.g. 10 minute video length
  • The blackboard aesthetic is a metaphor for how knowledge is borne out of ignorance/darkness
  • Lack of equipment was a boon as this prevented him from showing his face, which removed a potential distraction
  • When he was bootstrapping (w/ no cash flow), he received Hail Mary cheques from Ann Doerr before Bill Gates got him some mad press with an Aspen shoutout (back in 2010, here)

More Khan

  • He's obviously against all the bad things outlined in the critique, and a big proponent of mastery learning
    • Which can be contrasted with the traditional academic model with this beautiful mnemonic: "in a traditional academic model, the time allotted to learn something is fi is fixed while the comprehension of the concept is variable… 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."