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Review: Salman Khan’s One World Schoolhouse

one world schoolhouse

This review first ran in the Dec. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The One World Schoolhouse

By Salman Khan

Hachette Book Group

$29.99

There’s a gap in Hamilton that we need to close in a hurry.

At George R. Allan in West Hamilton, 79 per cent of Grade 3 students are at or above the provincial standard for mathematics. That’s 19 percentage points higher than the average for all schools in the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and 11 percentage points above the provincial average.

But just a short drive away in Central Hamilton, only 20 per cent of Grade 3 students at Cathy Wever are at or above the provincial standard for math. The score’s slightly higher among Grade 6 students at 35 per cent.

While there’s significant spread in scores between the two schools, the kids have exactly the same unlimited potential. Brilliance isn’t restricted by postal code.

How well those Grade 3 students fulfill their potential will go a long way to deciding the future of Hamilton. We need every one of those students to make an outsized contribution when they join the workforce at the back end of the next decade.  High skilled workers for high skilled and paying jobs will be at a premium.

And Hamilton won’t fire on all cylinders if one in three adults and four in 10 kids in Central Hamilton continuing to live in poverty.

When it comes to helping more kids make sense of math and stay engaged at school, we all have skin in the game. And the Khan Academy could be a big part of the solution.

The Khan Academy is a nonprofit with a mission to deliver a free education to anyone, anywhere.  The academy’s founder is 36-year-old Salman Khan, an MIT and Harvard grad who was working as a hedge fund manager by day and posting 10-minute math tutorials on YouTube at night to tutor his niece.

Today, six million students of all ages watch the Khan Academy’s 3,400 no frills digital blackboard videos every month. They take interactive quizzes, get computerized feedback and earn badges. The Academy’s online material, which is available at no charge, is now part of the curriculum in 20,000 classrooms around the world

Khan is out to challenge long-held assumptions and rethink how we teach and learn. “The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs,” says Khan. “It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information.

“The old model is based on pushing students together in age-group batches with one-pace-fits-all curricula and hoping they pick something up along the way. It isn’t clear that this was the best model 100 years ago; it certainly isn’t anymore.”

Khan advocates a model of active, self-paced learning where there’s no shame or stigma in progressing slowly and no dreaded moment when the class must move on regardless of whether students actually comprehend what they’ve just been taught.

The move to self-paced learning recognizes a fundamental truth: we all learn at different speeds. “Some people seem to catch on to things in quick bursts of intuition; others grunt and grind their way to comprehension. Quicker isn’t necessarily smarter and slower definitely isn’t dumber.”

What’s more, Khan says technology allows students to learn when they concentrate best. “Why do we still insist that the heaviest lifting in teaching and learning should take place in the confines of a classroom and to the impersonal rhythm of bells and buzzers?”.

Khan isn’t looking for technology to replace teachers. Rather than spend scarce class time delivering hour-long lectures to a passive audience, teachers would devote more time to doing what they best – helping students who are struggling to master the material. “The promise of technology is to liberate teachers from those largely mechanical chores so that they have more time for human interactions. It would raise both the status and the morale of teachers by freeing them from drudgery and allowing them more time to teach, to help.”

In nearly every chapter of his book, Khan takes aim at customs that date back to the 18th century. Bringing our education system into the 21st century is imperative, says Khan.

By one estimate, 65 per cent of those Grade 3 students at George R. Allan and Cathy Wever schools will end up doing jobs that haven’t been invented yet. So how do we educate and prepare our kids for a future that none of us can predict?

“Since we can’t predict exactly what today’s young people will need to know in 10 or 20 years, what we teach them is less important than how they learn to teach themselves. The crucial task of education is to teach kids how to learn. To lead them to want to learn. To nurture curiosity, to encourage wonder, and to instill confidence so that later on they’ll have to tools for finding answers to the many questions we don’t yet know how to ask.

“This is not an abstract conversation,” Khan says about reimagining education. “It’s about the future of real kids, families, communities and nations.”

Every parent and educator in Hamilton should read Khan’s book, spend some time at www.khanacademy.org and then think of how we could bring the Khan Academy into every school and neighbourhood where kids are hungry to learn.

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