Sal Khan’s History of (the structure of) Education

In a video interview with Forbes magazine, Sal Khan worked through a history of education, starting with an industrial view of the classroom experience (which Khan calls the Prussian model) and ending with Internet-based personalized learning such as his Khan Academy.

From this perspective, education has the potential to evolve from an age-defined small cohort model to a capability-defined infinite system where the individual is not restrained by the relative progress of others.  Following that thread, such a system could not only change the dynamic of the classroom, but could reinvent the classroom, or even remove the bricks and mortar classroom altogether.  Such potential greatly benefits students, according to this perspective.

There is pushback on this general belief system, as well as this interpretation of history — Audrey Watters provides a detailed critique of what Khan leaves out of his history, summarizing the facts into a call for perspective:

…some things have changed, clearly. Some things, less so. Change — and history — is always messier than the straight line someone would draw to depict a timeline of important education-related events. But there is always change nonetheless, even at an institutional level. These systems do not just whir forward unceasingly like machinery.

The problem (or potential) with Khan’s point and Watters’ counterpoint is that both are correct.  Distilling education down to the structure of K-12 classroom matriculation ignores every other variable in education; it strips all dimension from the subject and makes it easy to argue for a certain viewpoint.  At the same time, Khan has identified one aspect of education, viewed it as problematic, and has proposed a solution…a solution that has gained considerable traction over the past several years.  Basic research design asks us to focus on a single variable to consider when developing research protocol and tests.  That being said, at the end of such research, the researcher is expected to address limitations of the research and the perspective in a call for further development.  

Khan’s video would be less disingenuous if it were more specific — The History of K-12 Student Matriculation in Education (#cfhe12) instead of the bellicose The History of Education.  Khan’s argument not only fails to address the numerous social, cultural, technical and pedagogical changes in education since 1892, but it also ignores the wealth of research in distance education, a great deal of which attempts to break out of the cohort paradigm due to the needs of individual students in individual environment, research that would be amiable to Khan’s viewpoint.  At the same time, there is a debate to be had regarding personalizing learning and pacing learning, because both assume the path of learning and require prior knowledge as well as assuming a matriculation through content, and assuming matriculation seems less about personalization and more about pacing.

Another interesting thought to ponder, from Watters:

This idea that the U.S. public education system is based on a “factory model” and remains unchanged since the Industrial Revolution is a history that you’ll often hear from Silicon Valley-types and education reformers alike.

Again, there is scholarly research supporting this belief (see David Annand), and Khan’s failure to cite any research can be viewed by educational researchers as indicative of a disinterest in educational research (a thought supported by his removal of educational progress from 1892 to present).  Peter Levine, both a professor of Business and a venture capitalist, does the same thing in an announcement of his firm’s investment in the xMOOC Udacity:

I…recognize that education methods have not fundamentally changed in hundreds—possibly even thousands—of years. The core learning structure has always been and remains one teacher and a limited number of students. This structure reduces learning opportunities for much of the world’s population (even in first-world countries) and limits the impact of the best educators to no more than a few dozen lucky individuals a year.

As a researcher, I would press Levine (and Khan) on why the distance education opportunities and methodologies since 1892 did not replace the cohort learning model (and a belief that higher education institutions did not invest in distance methods ignores a great amount of institutional history).  I also would discuss what learning opportunities means to Levine and Khan, as the model advocated through Udacity and Khan Academy is the “sage on the stage” pedagogy, except in an asynchronous mode.  Khan and Levine are interested in structural changes rather than pedagogical ones, and that is an important distinction as we research and define this movement in education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s