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Big Ideas from TED 2011: Letting Students Drive Their Education

Our education system doesn't work for for teachers, parents, students, and certainly not our economy. Luckily the Khan Academy is on the challenge.

The way we teach our kids is...well, stupid. Our overcrowded classrooms with one-size-fits-all solutions teach good students that success and knowledge is the ability to complete tests with little or no relevance in the real world, and leave students who struggle in a spiral of failure that can dictate the limits of their future. It is a system that is good for no one—not teachers, not parents, not students, and definitely not an economy receiving more bored drones than engaged minds.

A few years ago, a New York City hedge fund analyst Salman Khan was tutoring his cousins. They lived halfway across the country however, and in order to make it easier to coordinate their schedules, he started making short video versions of his tutorials. And then a funny thing happened. His cousins reported that they liked learning from his videos better than from him.

At first Khan was surprised. Why wouldn't they want the ability to actually interact with him? But then he thought about it from their standpoint and it began to make more sense. Having a video made it so they could repeat and replay anything that they didn't understand as many times as necessary. They could refer back to weeks-old lessons without having to feel embarrassed about it. They could learn without another person standing over their shoulder asking, "do you understand yet?"

And then another funny thing happened. He had posted the videos on YouTube, and without any marketing on his part, more and more people started watching. And more and more people started emailing and leaving comments about how much they had helped. As Khan joked in his TED talk yesterday "this was weird for me. As a hedge fund analyst I wasn't used to doing anything of social value."

He started to make more talks and then more, and then more, and eventually the Khan Academy was born. To date, Khan has posted more than 2,200 talks on everything from basic math to history. Between 100,000 and 200,000 lectures are watched every day. But the big idea isn't about traffic and video views; it is about fundamentally changing how education happens.

The Khan Academy's big idea is that all education should be self-driven. Rather than penalizing failure and rewarding test-taking ability (like our current paradigm), education should encourage failure and experimentation but demand mastery. In the last year, Khan Academy has been testing out a total education system. In a classroom in Los Gatos, California, there is an experiment underway in which every student uses class time to do digital lessons at their own pace. Students perform learning problems for as long as it takes to master the concept, and when they get hung up, digital analytics help teachers give them precise, tailored help.

Among other lessons learned so far, the Los Gatos experiment is showing how students previously thought to be slower or less gifted, in many cases, are simply hung up on core concepts, and once they plow through they can accelerate past other students.

The implications of Khan's work are nothing short of a total reevaluation of education. In a world in which the only constant is the increase in the pace of change, we simply can't afford to give our kids anything less than an education system that actually gives them what they need to be successful.

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