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Khan Academy CEO Talks Coding And Move To Brick-And-Mortar Schools

Khan Academy founder and CEO Sal Khan speaks onstage during "The State of Digital Education" at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California.  (Kimberly White/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
Khan Academy founder and CEO Sal Khan speaks onstage during "The State of Digital Education" at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Kimberly White/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

This week, millions of people around the world are participating in “The Hour of Code,” a movement to promote computer programming in a changing digital world.

Here & Now’s Eric Westervelt, speaks with Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, about the importance of STEM education and his move from online education to brick-and-mortar schools.

Interview Highlights: Sal Khan

What inspired you to start coding when you were a student?

“I was probably early high school or late middle school and I had one of those TI-85 calculators. I just started reading the manual and I realized I could make video games on it. And so that was my first hook, and that was back in the day when you didn’t have the Internet to look up things and to get help, but that immediately got me hooked, where you said ‘Hey, you can create anything you want using a computer.”

Why should kids learn the basics of coding?

“I think in the next few decades, at least having a strong familiarity with software and what programming can accomplish is pretty powerful.”

It seems like we have a long way to go before coding becomes an educational tool

“The hard thing about programming is it hasn’t been there traditionally so you know we’re trying to find space for it in the traditional school system. A lot of educators haven’t been exposed to it when they were young. So that’s the challenge, but there’s also an opportunity in that there isn’t anything to replace. It’s green field, it’s a new area and there’s all sorts of incredible tools for people to learn. And when I talk about people, I’m not just talking about students, I’m talking about people of all ages. I encourage parents, teachers, people of all walks of life to start dabbling a little bit.”

What are the benefits for adults who are learning to code?

“In almost any profession that you’re in now, software is starting to play a larger and larger role. And the folks who at least have a familiarity with how a program works, how does software work, what is it capable of, what is it not capable of, they’re going to be in a really great position to, especially if they wanted to start something, be entrepreneurial. You know, a lot of people have these phobias because they were in school. You know, they remember seeing the chalk board and remembering not knowing what was going on mainly because they were pushed ahead while they had these gaps. But now you have all of these resources where you can go at your own time or pace and what we hear over and over again is that they find it fun.”

Why did you want to open up the Khan Lab School – a brick-and-mortar school?

“A lot of people when they think about virtual anything, they do make that comparison of say an Amazon.com versus a Barnes & Nobles. We at Khan Academy never viewed it that way. We view the virtual as something that can empower the physical, that if students can get lectures at their own time and pace, they can get exercises, they can have a programming platform. That doesn’t mean that the classroom gets replaced, the classroom gets liberated. It doesn’t have to be about a lecture anymore, students don’t have to learn at the same time and pace. Classroom time could be much more about Socratic dialogue, building projects, whatever else. So we wanted to prove it out. We’ve been working with a lot of great schools who have been doing aspects of this, but we started a lab underneath our offices, literally, where we have mixed age, it’s full year, full day. The students do mastery-based, personalized learning for kind of the first half of the day. We have a lot of focus on kind of meta-cognitive skills like entrepreneurship and creativity. The second half of the day – and they’re here until six o’clock – they’re building stuff, they’re making things.”

Is it a kind of Montessori-esque program?

“You could almost imagine this is a bit of a Montessori 2.0. I mean, the whole principle of Montessori is students learn by exploration, play, they learn at their own time and pace, they have mixed age. And mixed age allows older students to mentor and younger students to get that mentorship and what we’re doing is exactly that. But Montessori has historically struggled as you go into the more advanced subjects, as you get to your algebra and your physics and your chemistry, and that’s where tools like Khan Academy come into play, because now students can still learn at their own time and pace, and they can still explore, and they can pull the information they need to solve real world problems. So we are inspired by Montessori and I would like to think that Maria Montessori would be pretty excited if she saw what was going on.”

Are you at risk of creating a two-tier system with your free lectures and your pricey private school?

“You know, Khan Academy is on track and hopefully it does reach hundreds of millions, billions of students and empowers them where if they have a low-cost cell phone, they can start to self-educate themselves. But we think the opportunity now is not just online. We want to catalyze change more broadly, you know, what does a physical classroom look like. Break out of this kind of Prussian factory model of education and what we said was we needed to create a lab school, but we don’t just want to create another one-off, progressive, private school. So everything that we’re doing in this lab school we’re sharing – we’re sharing with local public, private schools. All the curricula, we’re going to open source it figure out what works, what doesn’t. And when you figure out things that do work, share it with the rest of the planet.”

Has your own idea of what makes a good educator changed since you launched Khan Academy?

“Well, I think there’s some reality to that notion that these lectures are lectures. And if you look at a Khan Academy video they’re these kind of traditional chalk-talk explanations. What’s different is how someone consumes or the attitude. You know, if you go to a traditional lecture hall, it’s pushed onto you while a Khan Academy-like video, you only watch it if you need to watch it. You’re like ‘Hey, wait. I don’t quite get that. Let me go get a 10-minute explanation, and now I want to learn the next thing, so when you have lectures on demand, it really just kind of takes them off the table. They’re there and they are useful sometimes, and then it allows you to work at your own time and pace and you only watch the videos if you want an on-demand explanation.”




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