This piece reflects on the genesis of the revolutionary educational platform Khan Academy, highlighting a few key insights that can encourage educators who are seeking to make a difference where they are.
Imagine yourself walking along a beach after high tide has receded. There are hundreds of starfish stranded on the shore. You know that they won’t survive if they are not returned to the water soon. You contemplate picking them up and throwing them back into the sea. But there are so many of them. Will you even be able to make a dent in the situation?
If the scenario sounds familiar to you, it is because it is an adaptation of a popular folk-tale known as the ‘starfish story’, where a man encounters and questions the efforts of a young child trying to save the starfish one at a time. It highlights something of the experience of one person who is faced with a vast challenge. For those of us who are educators, this may be something we can resonate with. The task to shape the hearts and minds of the future generation has never been straightforward. Moreover, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation can seem even more daunting. In fact, one may be tempted to look longingly at gravity-defying and game-changing educators and wonder if the capacity for meaningful impact belongs to only a select few. Take Khan Academy for instance. The learning platform, which has a vision to provide free world-class education for anyone, anywhere in the world, services millions of students everyday.
However, peeling back into the platform’s ‘origin story’ reveals a surprisingly humble initial set of circumstances that are probably familiar to many of us. Here are three key reflections on the founder, Sal Khan’s story that can hopefully inspire us in our own efforts to make a difference.
Khan’s journey began with just one person – his cousin, Nadia. As she was struggling with mathematics in school, he started tutoring her. He slowly expanded from tutoring just Nadia to more cousins, but initially never imagined that this would go any further than his extended family. Yet, the strategies he devised to tutor his cousins laid the foundation for the platform as we see it today.
People who do revolutionary things often don’t start out trying to change the world. Rather they stumble upon the path towards big things in their effort to meet small needs around them. So, if the problems plaguing the education landscape feel overwhelmingly big, feel free to take a step back and start with the needs immediately around you. The scope can be as small as one person. You never know if the difference made to them may sow seeds for a great change later on.
As Khan went from tutoring Nadia to multiple cousins at once, he found it difficult to maintain meaningful individual connections across a larger group. His friend then suggested that he put up YouTube tutorial videos. That way, tutoring sessions could be focused less on delivering content but on the specific issues that they needed to address. This was back in 2006, when YouTube was not perceived as a legitimate platform for educational content. In the words of Khan himself, “YouTube is for cats playing piano, not serious mathematics”. But he eventually considered this new notion a viable strategy to counter his problem. As he put up videos, he discovered to his amusement (and possible horror) that his cousins “preferred (him) on YouTube than in person”.
When we face challenges, it can be tempting to start by referring to esteemed pedagogical methods and established tricks of the trade to try and mould them to our contexts. While existing strategies can be useful, no solution is one-size-fits-all. What we need can sometimes be found if we analyse the unique problem we have before us and ask ourselves, ‘What do I need in order to solve this problem?’ Sometimes your search for an answer may lead you to try new things. You are free to explore and find what works best for your specific situation, even if it involves doing something different to established ideas.
Khan started off his tutoring by coding a software that automatically generated and graded mathematics problems. He then realised that he needed more information about where they were struggling with as they solved the questions, so he built a database behind the software to track their real-time progress. He then proceeded to make videos to allow for more meaningful interaction during tutoring sessions. He expanded his video list to more subjects than mathematics, … the list goes on. He didn’t figure it all out in one day. Rather, he increased the depth and complexity of his approach with every issue that he encountered. This spirit of iteration is part of Khan Academy’s DNA even now.
As educators, you may feel pressured to figure out the best teaching strategy as quickly as possible. However, there is no need to get everything right all at once. Mistakes are often our best teachers. What we need is to continue refining our approach, letting the results of our previous actions inform our next steps. This frees us up to try things even if they may fail. But more importantly, it allows you as the educator to be kinder to yourself and see your role as a growth journey, and not individually graded snapshots of performances.
‘I think more than anything Nadia just liked the fact that someone was taking an interest in her life’.
At the heart of every meaningful impact is someone who cares about those around them. It’s what drove Sal Khan back in 2004 and it drives every great educator today. Whether you’re a battle-worn soldier or a hopeful would-be recruit, you may not all go on to build a Khan Academy. But just like the child in the starfish story, if you start somewhere, you can answer to anyone who asks what difference it makes, “It made a difference to that one”.