Takeaways from Sal Kahn’s talk – Education Reimagined

Teri Moore, author of The Secular Homeschooler– a Nonreligious Guide for Helping Kids Build Competence, Independence and Ethics Outside of a School Environment (and a personal source of insights for me on how to engender real, outside-the-box learning), asked me to tell her about the recent talk I went to – Sal Kahn from the Kahn Academy: Education Reimagined.


Dear Teri,

Sal Kahn’s talk yesterday had some great content. Here are notes for you. The talented and well-spoken Amir Abo-­Shaeer, who is the head of the local Engineering Academy at Dos Pueblos High School, led a Q & A with Sal. He was great; asked very good questions and had some fantastic insights of his own.

They started out going over how Kahn Academy came about, and a lot of what he said you can easily find in his Ted Talk/speeches online, so I won’t go over that. Here are some thoughts/ideas on the rest:

a. Kahn Academy is a marvelous modern way to learn, starting to help schools move toward flipped classrooms, aka go through KA videos on your own, come to class to discuss/apply it work on projects. This idea was mentioned several times. Teachers are sending feedback more and more often that they are using Kahn Academy content with great success.

If I look at what Will Richardson writes in “Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere”, he notes that WHAT we teach, HOW we teach, and WHEN we teach all need to change. I’d say that Kahn Academy is at the forefront of the HOW and WHEN.  It’s focused on helping students where they struggle with existing content, which makes sense as this is how Sal started, tutoring his cousins! Kahn Academy has a little bit of new “WHAT” – growth mindset, how to coach students (for parents), how to learn.

(But I don’t see anything addressing soft skills, ideation, goal setting. I’d like to see them have some courses on what skills are important as technology replaces human labor for a growing number of repetitive manual AND cognitive tasks…And maybe something like http://www.my10yearplan.com which our HS District students start in 9th grade, to think beyond college, to think about what kind of life they want post education, and plan for that.)

b. Going to college seems to be end goal, didn’t hear anything about disruption in higher education and alternatives to college. However, they did discuss credentialing and wanting new signals/credentials other than a associate/bachelors etc, something that more accurately reflects learning and abilities.

c. Kahn Academy has worked with the College Board and is part of the new SAT – they have study courses for it. Sal sees the PSAT, SAT as changing so instead of being a static signal, you’d take a test and then work on areas where you want to improve, take again.

d. Common Core – they did have to change courses and probably updated about 1000 courses to align with common core. Common core standards are good, Sal likes them, as it does represent a deeper understanding.

e. He said he tried to figure out why we do school subjects in one hour, or two hour blocks, and figures it’s due to a) cost/resources required to get people together and b) how often most people need to go to the bathroom. ha ha never thought about it.

f. He pointed out that 100 years ago, it wasn’t possible or economical to have personalized learning – no way you could get each student an individual tutor, right? So children organized by age blocks, education segmented into topics, and moving kids along even if they haven’t mastered subjects (e.g., a C grade = means they have missed 20-30% of content which can get tougher and tougher) made sense as a way to scale and deliver learning as efficiently as possible with the tools at hand (when knowledge was locked up in books and teacher’s heads). But now that knowledge is freely available for anyone with online access, we can focus on actual learning and discard some of the now-outdated ways students learn.

g. I’m very interested in WHAT students need to learn to thrive in the technological context we’re seeing, so what Sal said at the very end in response to a question from an audience member resonated the most for me. A HS student asked him what Kahn Academy looks at for hiring. He said unfortunately we do still look at credentials/degrees, but the first thing he does is click on any links to see what that person has created – software, writings, etc.

So the advice he’d give is: do well in school and enjoy it as much as you can – but if you have to choose between an A- and a B+, with the B+ giving you time to do projects or other learning you love, go for the B+. He said go out and create something – build something or write something but have a portfolio of some sort that shows what you’re about. (He mentioned that an engineer of theirs CREATED jquery…and they hired him without ever looking at his degrees/grades.)

g. He didn’t mention it but I looked through the actual KA jobs list last week – very cool in that they ask for more than cover letter/CV – for example a course content role had a link to an economics article and instructed applicant to spend no more than 2 hrs writing up a course outline based on it.  So essentially a WORK SAMPLE is what they wanted for this knowledge worker job.

h. Amir asked Sal if they are envisioning new learning methods or technology, aka 3-D courses. What do you think Kahn Academy will be like in 20 years? Sal said they are experimenting and trying things out, but didn’t say anything on specifics.

i. In response to an audience member’s question asking how to help, Amir’s answer stuck with me – he said that to do anything innovative in the current system is unbelievably difficult, you have no idea. He said that getting community support (i.e., for the Engineering Academy they have volunteer working professionals who come in to help with soldering circuit boards, and local tech companies like Flir and Raytheon support them) gives them clout and helps him make things happen. So he encouraged people to help in this way.

(The last point is a big reason why public education is so behind, don’t you think? Innovation needs flexibility and by its very nature has to break the rules.





One thought on “Takeaways from Sal Kahn’s talk – Education Reimagined

  1. UPDATED: yesterday I posted without thoroughly reviewing as I had to pick up my son from student shadowing at Santa Barbara High School – so today I made a couple of corrections to section g…(I had A+ and B- instead of A- and B+, said KA looks at grades but credentials/degrees is more accurate)

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