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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Today the class is moving from a unit on fractions to one on percentages. Park introduces the new unit even though about half the kids aren't ready for it. She tells her class it's "totally fine" that they are all in different places. Some work ahead, watching Khan videos to explore new material; others review with Park.

One student, Joshua Walker-Ford, is already learning how to convert percentages to decimals. He says no one has taught him how to do this yet, but rather than watch one of Khan's videos, he guesses how it might be done and gets it right. In no time, he completes 10 questions and advances to the next topic. "At my old school, I would understand something in one day, but the teacher would still go over it for two or three days for the kids who didn't get it," he says. "Here I can just get it and move on."

Khan understands kids like Walker-Ford. He was one of them. Growing up in Metairie, La., he chafed at the pace set by the school curriculum. He was raised by a single mom, an immigrant from Kolkata; his father, a pediatrician from Bangladesh, separated from his mom when he was young, moved away and died when Khan was 14. In high school, while his mother was busy starting a convenience store, Khan began participating in math competitions. That's when he met Shantanu Sinha, considered the kid to beat from another area high school. Sinha told Khan how his school allowed him to skip ahead in math. Khan asked to do the same at his own school--and was told no. He says he was so frustrated, he called around to local universities and ended up taking precalculus at Loyola University that summer. (Sinha became a lifelong friend and now works with Khan as president and chief operating officer of Khan Academy.)

Khan's self-directed curriculum helped him get accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then Harvard Business School. M.B.A. in hand, he landed an analyst position at a relatively small hedge fund. There, he happily spent his days researching the financial conditions of publicly traded companies--until his cousin Nadia needed help with her algebra homework.

Hello, Mr. Gates

Khan was in Boston; Nadia was in new Orleans. So he offered to tutor her online. They would both sign on to the Yahoo! Messenger chat service, and Khan would use a tool called Doodle to draw lessons. One day a friend suggested that he record the lessons as videos and upload them to YouTube. "I was immediately dismissive," Khan says. "YouTube is for cats playing pianos, not serious mathematicians." But he tried it anyway. He started getting feedback like "I've learned more in the past three hours on YouTube than I have in three years of math class." "People don't expect to get something of value for free online, so when they do, it's like, Thank you," Khan says.

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