The One World Schoolhouse

It seems it was about halfway through my encore or second career as a teacher in a graduate business program that I became aware of the work of Salman Khan, the person who introduced the concept of the flipped classroom.  Using his approach, students read texts or more often watch videos for homework, then come to class to work problems.  Khan started by teaching his cousin to improve her grasp of high school algebra, and the concept grew.  His book, The One World Schoolhouse, tells the fascinating story of how this evolved to have the significant impact it has today, including securing funding from the Gates foundation, and creating what is in my view one of the most progressive non profit organizations engaged in education today.    I was aware of Khan’s work through occasional articles in the popular press; I even tried his flipped classroom idea with graduate students to good effect.  But it wasn’t until very recently that I took the time to read his book, which was released in paperback in July, 2013.  The book conveys exceptional insight into learning.  If you haven’t yet read it, and you have any interest in the current debate about our education system, then learn from my mistake: move it to the top of your reading priority list NOW.

Khan sets the tone early by stating that the current crisis in education is not about graduation rates nor even test scores.  It is about what those things mean in the lives of the students they impact.  It’s about potential realized or squandered, dignity enhanced or denied.  Here is a very brief distillation of what I saw as key ideas from the book:

Learning is individual; schooling is mass production.  Learning is driven by the curiosity and interest of the learner; education is driven by the needs of society.  Learning is wholistic–pursuing a topic until curiosity is appeased; schooling is broken into short time periods devoted to disjoint subjects.  What our world needs today is creative, inventive, inquisitive and enthusiastic contributors; what schools aim to produce is citizens who submit to authority.   Standardized testing fits standardized curricula; students are individual with varied interests, knowledge and skills.  Technology can aid learning; it is only a tool, though, not a magic bullet.  Grades reduce to a single number the performance of students who are multifaceted and multidimensional; their worth cannot be captured by single numbers.  The most critical goal of education is teaching students how to learn; much schooling teaches them simply to memorize.  Learning can be supported with flexible scaffolding; schooling builds rigid structures to work within.

Those ideas and more are explored in detail; the good news is that Khan presents many creative yet realistic arguments for how to evolve from our current faltering system to one which prepares students for the challenges ahead.  I argue this book is a must read for anyone who is in any way remotely involved in learning, teaching, schooling, education or in establishing frameworks for any of these.

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