Like Coca-Cola, penicillin and plastic, it seems inventing a workable school reform plan is only going to happen accidentally. Everything that should work (NCLB, teaching to the test, the bell curve) doesn’t, and some novel approaches to learning show more promise than 110 years of testing and measurement. Dr. Tony Wagner, Harvard Professor and author of The Global Achievement Gap, calls this “reconceptualization”.
In a column we could label “reconceptualizing”, one of the most exciting innovations is happening online with Salmen Kahn‘s discovery of a learning model that works almost magically. Khan created a series of videos demonstrating math concepts as a way to help his family members understand challenging ideas. As he created more videos, a thought occurred: He could create a self-paced software allowing learners to study at their own rate. Students could practice concepts at home and hone them with teacher-mentors at school. According to the Huffington Post, “his innovative methodology turns the classroom dynamic upside down.” The article goes on to characterize Khan’s own view of the discovery, “Khan says his program’s success is largely happenstance.” Happenstance or not, deep pockets such as Bill Gates and Google have been funding the Kahn Academy of late and according to Forbes online, “You Tube told him he has the most popular open-course video library on its site, with more views than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley.”
Khan is not the only innovator in the reconceptualization game. But he does represent a type of thinking emanating from theorists outside the usual channels. Sometimes the brilliant accident occurs when the innovator is thinking about something else. Khan simply wanted to make some videos to teach his cousins a few math concepts. When they shared these videos with friends, it spread like an Internet meme. Fortunately, Khan’s experiment doesn’t carry a lot of overhead. This may be one reason educators in Los Altos, California have been willing to try his ideas in a school setting.
For more on this story, look for a continuation in the next three posts.