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I realized I had no hope of trying to conceal the bewilderment in my eyes. Then I remembered having heard about something called Khan Academy. That free online video resource had sprung from the math tutorials an MIT grad had created from his Boston apartment to help his young cousin in Louisiana understand her middle school math. “Let’s check it out,” I told my daughter.
If you’ve never seen a Khan Academy video, you really have to — even if you have no need for tutoring. What began with a couple of short lessons that hedge fund analyst Sal Khan uploaded to YouTube has now ballooned into a Silicon Valley nonprofit with a global reach and Bill Gates’s backing. But the brilliance of the enterprise is that it continues to rest on the raw power of Khan’s stripped-down video clips.
I typed in “the distributive property” and up popped a YouTube tutorial. In addition to guiding us through the lesson, Khan explained the building blocks behind it. This is especially important in math, where understanding one concept relies on the scaffolding of having mastered the concepts that came before it. Khan is a natural teacher. Through his narration, he conveys the message: “Don’t sweat it. We’re going to figure this out.” As my daughter and I watched, we both started to buy into it.
On the nights that followed, my daughter continued to come to me if she struggled with a particular problem. Together, we’d go to Khan Academy and work it out. Before long, I was back in the math groove enough that I could offer her guidance without checking the website. Before long, my daughter realized she actually “got” this math, and her requests for assistance dried up. Interestingly, she began seeing me as a different kind of resource, occasionally asking for advice on other subjects. When she had to do a research project for social studies, she seemed ready to hear my Wikipedia speech: “It’s a great place to start, but get off the page as quickly as possible before your standards get soft. Move down to the bottom of the page and click on the links to primary sources.”
I realized that coming clean with my daughter when I didn’t know an answer liberated me to offer something a lot more valuable: I could share my experience and judgment about how and where she might find the answers herself.
Not long after trying Khan Academy, I reached out to its founder and asked how an ex-engineer and former finance guy could be such a gifted instructor. “If I’m really honest with myself,” the 36-year-old Khan told me, “it goes back to my own school days” in Louisiana, as the bright son of immigrants from India and Bangladesh. “You learn in middle school that the fastest way to get beaten up is if you come across as arrogant, condescending, or talk down to people. And the best way not to do that is, in your mind, not to be arrogant, condescending, or talk down to people.”
Growing up, Khan lived with his mother, who was so busy working at a convenience store and servicing vending machines that she didn’t have the time to help him with his homework. Nowadays, he and his staff have found that Khan Academy provides “a huge opportunity for parents to connect with their children.”
The idea that homework and technology, two areas that are usually sources of friction between parents and kids, could instead be opportunities for positive interaction and collaborative learning is surprising. But it shouldn’t be. Parents of preschoolers spend plenty of time at the computer with their kids exploring educational websites. As our kids get older, however, we tend to take on the role of enforcers (“No screen time until you finish your homework”). After all, if you don’t put some limits in place, you can easily lose your tweens and teens to their digital silos. That’s the main reason my wife and I continue to resist installing Wi-Fi in our house — a stance that our three daughters argue is idiotic. Still, we figure that requiring them to take the extra step of having to log in from a wired computer or ask to borrow one of our phones introduces just enough inconvenience to boost the likelihood that they’ll hang around for a face-to-face conversation rather than retreat to their own devices.
I was hesitant to bring up my outlier Wi-Fi stance during my conversation with Khan because he’s become the toast of Silicon Valley. Consider that the tech heavyweights blurbing his new book, The One World Schoolhouse , include not just Bill Gates but also Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, TED curator Chris Anderson, and telecom titan Carlos Slim Helu, the world’s richest man. Innovators like Khan embolden tech evangelists like the editors of Wired magazine, who crowed on a recent cover that the robots have already won, putting human teachers and artists and even therapists on the road to irrelevance. Continued...