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Aurora Institute

The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan (Part 1)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

I’m always asked which books or resources folks should use to learn about competency-based education. The good news is that there are now a lot of books that can be helpful. However, the challenge is that different books are helpful in different ways and districts/schools are in different places with different needs. So what I’m going to do is pick one to two books a month and highlight what I think is helpful in it, what might be missing that you’ll need to get elsewhere, and share my personal “talking with the text” about how it pushes my thinking. However, I’m sure each of us would engage with the ideas in different ways. Too bad we can’t have a virtual book group. Or can we? – Chris

Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse is a joy to read, simply full of engaging stories and language. It won’t tax you if you are tired from a hard week. In fact, the chapters are short and can be picked up here and there when you get a chance.

Khan speaks from his own experience about how he became interested in education. He explains what is problematic with the traditional education system as well as what it means to focus on mastery learning. I love the windows into history that explain how we got where we are. The last section in which he lays out his vision for the Khan Academy is fascinating.

Khan Academy is truly an amazing gift to the world, especially for students around the globe who have limited access to higher levels of teaching. There are, of course, critiques, but I think they tend to be reflections of the limitations of the delivery system more than of what Khan Academy seeks to do. No matter: in the world of K-12 competency-based districts and schools, online instruction is best considered as one method of delivering instruction among many and/or as a supplemental resource for students who need more time to practice or a launching pad from which they can fly.

There is no doubt that the introduction of instruction by video has been a powerful innovation. Many students I have spoken with talk about how watching videos allows them to access the information several times, over and over and over. Videos allow them to stop and mark down when they get confused and go talk to their teacher the next day about it. But most will add that they prefer videos by their teachers. Why? The reaction is always the same: I know my teacher and who is that guy anyway on Khan Academy? Learning is truly a social process, and kids want instruction from the person with whom they have the relationship – not a disembodied voice.

Back to the book. Here are a few chapters I think could be used as powerful starting points for conversations with school boards, parents, community members, educators, and older students. I highlight key points raised and periodically veer off into implications and new insights on my journey of understanding competency education. Italics are used for direct quotes.

Mastery Learning  

Khan describes mastery learning: At its most fundamental, mastery learning simply suggests that students should adequately comprehend a given concept before being expected to understand a more advanced one. He then goes on to explain the powerful ideas behind mastery learning: First, it was predicated on the belief that all students could learn if provided with the conditions appropriate to their needs; no one should be “held back” or put on a track that leads to academic failure. Second, mastery learning structured its curriculum not in terms of time, but in terms of certain target levels of comprehension and achievement. This turned traditional quietly but entirely upside down.

I love that phrase of turning “the traditional quietly but entirely upside down.” One of the qualities I value in competency-based education is the humility educators bring to their work. This isn’t a reform where someone boasts they’ve disrupted the education system or developed a new add-on program that will change the future for all children. Educators become quite humble, quietly humble, as they take collective responsibility because they know there is still much to learn to build the capacity to fully educate students.  

And turning something upside down is a wonderful way to capture the paradigm shift that happens and keeps happening. I’ve been living and breathing competency education for eight years, and I’m still discovering new understandings of what it means to go from a school that expects students to be compliant to one where students are active learners; to go from a fixed mindset that ranks students to one based on the idea that intelligence is founded on effort and the right mix of supports; to go from one based on comprehension to one that seeks out real-world opportunities for students to apply skills.

How Education Happens

This chapter provides a quick and easy overview of the cognitive learning sciences. The chapter could have been much stronger if it had also summarized the learning sciences in the psychological disciplines and made connections with social, emotional, and motivational aspects of learning. Thus, it is a good piece to open up discussion on the learning sciences with someone who is totally new to the field, but they’ll need to understand that there are different domains of research into learning and, in general, there has been little synthesis. (We’ve done our best in the forthcoming report Levers and Logic Models to synthesize, but it’s a big, booming set of research so don’t consider it comprehensive.)

Khan highlights a few important findings of the cognitive learning sciences:

  1. We educate ourselves. In other words, learning is an active process done by the learner.
  2. Learning involves physical changes in the brain.The brain changes as we learn or exercise our brain: we create more synaptic connections. Collectively, the web of connections and associations comprises what we think of informally as understanding.  
  3. The process by which short-term memory becomes long-term memory is called consolidation. Working memory is described as fragile and easily disrupted, and long-term memory is laid out as more stable. Associative learning, relating something newly learned to something already known, is important in helping to firmly implant new ideas into long-term memory. This is often shorthanded as connecting to prior learning.

What I found fascinating in this section is that Khan questions the artificial separation of traditional academic subjects. We lop them off at ultimately arbitrary places: we ghettoize them.  Our schools have organized the academic subjects into silos that may be making it harder to create these important associative connections. There has been some good research into the instructional learning progressions that explores how students can best move from one concept to the next within a discipline. Is it possible that there may be even better ways for students to move from one concept to the next in interdisciplinary contexts? Khan again: Genetics is taught in biology while probability is taught in math, even though one is really an application of the other.

This is important for us to examine and determine how limiting is the way we have organized academic subjects to learning. The Winnetka Plan, one of the earlier efforts towards personalized learning that emphasized individualized units organized into packages of worksheets, only had one slice of the set of practices that are important in creating a mastery-based system. Could we be at risk of the same vulnerability that we don’t have the full set of essential strategies in place? What if we aren’t going to see the desired results because we are constraining ourselves, locking down innovation, all because of the habit of thinking of academics as math, reading, social studies, and science?

In the next article on The One World Schoolhouse, I pick up on the chapter on Filling in the Gaps.

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