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The Great Teacher

Posted by Jim Stergios  October 14, 2011 04:02 PM

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I've written before about the opportunity lost by the Gates Foundation and the US Department of Education because of their insistence on approaches defined by compliance and centralized decision-making rather than seeding innovation and rewarding results.

Instead of ramping up bureaucracies in Seattle and DC, respectively, and instead of spending billions to get states to adopt a single agenda, they could, I've argued in many settings, create a large prize that rewards results and lets states figure out a variety of ways to get there.

Some readers noted that the example of the X Prize Foundation, which I have pointed to, is interesting but does not have a direct correlation to education. Essentially, they haven't seen it done in education so it's not a doable. Hmmm. Well, OK, why wouldn't a sizable prize in education leverage a hundred-fold the prize amount if it were to apply to education? After all, education is a sector that attracts hundreds of billions of dollars a year in state, local and federal investment, not to mention the philanthropic dollars that come into the education space.

And then there is the fact that in 2008 Google launched Project 10^100: “a call for ideas that could help as many people as possible, and a program to bring the best of those ideas to life.”

And what has this project helped advance? Salman Khan.

Salman Khan may do more with the $2 million given to him by Google than all of the hundreds of millions of dollars the Gates Foundation and the US Department of Education are spending on creating national systems bureaucracies.

The Khan Academy is an organization with a clear mission, which is defines as: “A free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”

The Khan Academy is the brainchild of a very smart MIT and Harvard Business School grad, who while living in Boston started creating videos for his cousins in Louisiana who were having trouble understanding some basic math concepts. Soon he was posting up short videos explaining concepts because as he has noted many times, it seemed like they enjoyed not having an uncle watching over and instead having the ability to stop and rewind and make sure they got things at their own pace.

You can see his own compelling telling of the story here.

Fast forward to early 2010. Now several years into his venture, Khan is getting attention from PBS NewsHour noting how one man in a renovated closet in Palo Alto created 1200 videos for anyone to use anywhere, anytime and then CNN in March 2010, which highlighted “one man who is helping to educate the world.”

This is where the prize comes in. In 2008, Google decided to celebrate its 10th anniversary by creating the Project 10^100 competition. In the fall of 2010, Google chose 5 winners out of 150,000 entries. Khan Academy was one of the five, and Khan is plowing the $2 million prize money back into translating the Academy into the major world languages and building out the software. His goal: To become an all-out virtual school. Again, for free.

A visit to will give you a sense of what they’ve done with the money from Google (and now from many other investors, including Bill Gates!). Anyone can access the video library, which is now supplemented by practice exercises, assessment tools, and ways for users or parents or teachers to track the progress they’ve made, the time on task, proficiencies gained, and places in need of additional work. The topics range from the simplest mathematics to multiplication, pre-Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, math for Physics, and calculus.

Students explore math much as they would space. Khan has created a “knowledge map” that guides students, as they gain proficiencies in lower mathematical functions to higher-order math. In each subject, e.g., multiplication, you have to answer 10 computer-generated questions correctly in a row, and then the Academy suggests follow-up subjects. If students don’t get the answers right they can ask for a hint and receive a step-by-step description of how to answer the question, or they can access a brief 10-minute video teaching or refreshing them on the concept.

This kind of private innovation is a must if we are to help prepare students outside of the classroom and make sure they are more ready to learn in the classroom. Many students will, in fact, find that they are learning more outside the classroom through Khan Academy than in their classes. But the larger point is that with the current compliance-focused policies of the Gates Foundation and the US Department of Education, we are not getting Google and we are not getting Apple. We are getting Microsoft. The Microsoft/Gates vision for education is largely one that is premised on a market share—and that is much more of a control—strategy than on one conducive to innovation.

What Sal Khan is, is a good teacher—really engaging, positive, self-deprecating and supportive, back-to-essentials in his approach, and kind. What Sal Khan has done is find a technology solution that gives access to hundreds of thousands of individuals every day to a great teacher.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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