Reboot the School

Salman Khan's YouTube Lessons Have Already Made Him A Geek Celebrity. Now He Wants To Reinvent Homework, Banish Classroom Lectures--And Maybe Save Education

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Jamie Chung for TIME

Salman Khan

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It's 8:30 a.m. in an office above a tea shop in downtown Mountain View, Calif., and Khan is about to create a new lesson for his online audience. His classroom is an office dominated by a large bookcase full of textbooks and sci-fi novels he has collected over the years. His chalkboard is a black Wacom computer tablet parked on a desk made from old telephone poles. On the tablet he sketches the colorful diagrams and equations that are hallmarks of Khan Academy videos.

Today's first lesson is a new entry in his series on macroeconomics: a discussion of how human emotions transition from optimism to denial, then panic and fear, and finally hope and relief, as a market fluctuates from a growth period to a depression and back again. Khan begins by doing two minutes' worth of research on Google, looking for graphs that affirm what he remembers from his econ class in college, then flips through a few pages in a 4-in.-thick economics textbook sitting on his desk and clicks a button to start recording. Dragging a stylus across the tablet, he sketches the business cycle on the screen, leaning into a microphone that captures his narration. After two minutes, he stops and deletes the recording. He never goes back and edits out mistakes but starts over from the beginning if he is "bumbling around" or loses his flow. "If my own thinking isn't clear, that's not helpful to the person listening," he says.

He doesn't use a script. In fact, he admits, "I don't know what I'm going to say half the time." But the low production values of Khan's videos are part of what makes them so effective. A student can hear Khan thinking things through aloud, using intuition and solving the problem with his viewers rather than for them. The unscripted nature of the videos makes him more relatable--it's as if he's sitting right next to you explaining the concepts as your own private tutor.

After the 11-min. video is uploaded, Khan pauses, checks his e-mail and runs through his mental to-do list. There won't be a meal break; Khan skips breakfast and lunch, preferring to subsist only on hot water during the day and to eat a day's worth of food at night. "A lion runs the fastest when he is hungry," he says.

This morning's macroeconomics video is aimed primarily at college-level students; other lessons range from basic addition to calculus. There's also everything from astronomy and chemistry to computer science and SAT prep. Once online, Khan's lectures become available to anyone, for free, at any time and any place. Many will call up one of his videos at home as they struggle through an assignment or review for an exam, getting a better understanding of material their teachers have already explained with their own classroom chalk talks. That's fine with Khan. "That's how we got popular," he says.

But Khan believes he's onto something much bigger--a buzzy concept educators call the "flipped classroom." In Khan's view, there is no need for students to be divided into grades by age. Instead, they should learn at their own pace, moving on to the next lesson only when they have mastered the concept before it. Students would watch videos that introduce the concepts as homework and then go to class to demonstrate their learning. And there would be no need for a teacher to stand in front of the class and give a lecture ever again.

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