Life’s Work: Salman Khan

Alison Beard in the Harvard Business Review:

R1401M_KHANSalman Khan was working as a hedge fund analyst when he started using online tools to tutor his cousins in math. Nine years later, his nonprofit organization, Khan Academy, draws on the same approach to offer more than 5,000 free, web-based video lessons to millions of students across the globe, disrupting not only schools but also the education industry built around them. Interviewed by Alison Beard

HBR: What are the key concepts students should understand in order to be successful in today’s workplace?

Khan: The one meta-level thing is to take agency over your own learning. In the traditional academic model, you’re passive. You sit in a chair, and the teacher tries to project knowledge at you; some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t. That’s not an effective way to learn. Worse, it creates a mind-set of “you need to teach me,” so when you’re on your own, you think, “I can’t learn.” Anyone in any industry will tell you there’s new stuff to learn every week these days. So you have to say, “What information and people do I have at my disposal? What questions do I need to ask? How do I gauge whether I’ve really understood it?” Khan Academy is designed to give students that agency. If you want to get more tangible, I would say learn how to program a computer, more about the law, and definitely statistics.

In your book, you talk about curiosity being stamped out of kids. How do you bring it back?

Curiosity is a hard thing to squash, but the traditional model of education manages pretty well: Listen to lectures, take notes, feed back what you learned, and then forget it all. You’re not allowed to go beyond the curriculum. Khan Academy is all about giving more breathing room. You want to go deep? Go deep. I had this to some degree at the public school I went to in Louisiana, where there were gifted programs. Every day, starting in second grade, they took me out of class for an hour, and I would go to another room, with a mixed age group. The first time I went, I thought it was the biggest racket. I walked up to Miss Rouselle’s desk, and she asked, “What do you like to do?” I was like, I’m seven years old—shouldn’t you be telling me what to do? But I said, “I like to draw. I like puzzles.” She said, “OK, have you used oil paints? Have you done Mind Benders?” Soon I looked forward to that hour more than I did to spending the night at my friend’s house. And I learned more that applies to what I do today than in the five other hours of the day combined.

More here.