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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Flipping 800 Years of Teaching

You may not have thought about it much back in seventh-grade history as you struggled to keep your eyes open during a review of key Revolutionary War battles, but the concept of a classroom in which a teacher stands at the front to deliver a lesson goes back a long way. All the way, in fact, to medieval universities of the 14th century. Gutenberg and the printing press were still 100 years in the future, and teachers were human textbooks. Even after it became possible to reproduce teaching materials, the lecture remained entrenched in the classroom setup.

Eventually new technologies arrived to help teachers present information to students. In the beginning of the 20th century, early forms of the projector prompted Thomas Edison to predict, "Books will soon be obsolete in schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye." In the 1920s, radios became prevalent in classrooms, allowing "schools of the air" to broadcast lessons to millions of American students.

During the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, classroom computers began to take off. In 1984, U.S. public schools had one computer for every 92 students; by 2008 the ratio was 1 to 3.1. Also by 2008, nearly 100% of public schools had Internet access.

Lots of technology--and little proof of results. There have been few major long-term studies on the effectiveness of technology in education. A 2007 report commissioned by Congress found that test scores in classrooms that were randomly assigned to use reading and math software were not significantly higher than those in classrooms that did not use the software. Some studies have found technology to be moderately effective in improving student performance in reading but not math, while other studies have found the exact opposite.

Khan says the issue isn't the computers; it's how we're using them. The traditional classroom model essentially forces educators to teach to the middle. High-achieving students aren't challenged, and low-achieving students are made to move on to the next concept before they've mastered the previous one. In the flipped classroom, proponents are fond of saying, the teacher shifts from being the sage on the stage to being the guide on the side. With lecture material covered at home as kids watch those online videos, elements traditionally associated with homework--math-problem sets, history essays, science projects and so on--can become the focus in the classroom. All that lecture time is converted to personalized attention. Everyone's work is tracked and measured in real time, so teachers know where to direct their attention. There's no more teaching to the middle: from bottom to top, all students work at their own pace.

Khan's vision faces its biggest test yet in a pilot project at Eastside Prep, a charter school where all the students are economically disadvantaged and, if they make it, will be the first in their families to go to college. In the classroom of teacher Suney Park, when it's time for math, the kids get out their netbooks to work on what Park calls the "Khaniculum."

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