Allowing Students to Excel

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Salmon Khan is an entrepreneur who developed the incredible website, The website had thousands of instructional videos related to math and science, and even has a way for students to self-assess their knowledge. It’s basically an online school, for free, for students who want to learn at their own pace. The site awards badge and medals for achievement, just like a video game.

I was just reading about some teachers who have used Khan academy in their classroom. The idea is rather brilliant: instead of lecturing in the classrooms, they have the students watch videos from Khan academy as their homework. Then, they come to school and do their problem sets there. The homework-classroom relationship was flipped. This way, instead of lecturing and teaching, teachers could spend class helping students who are stuck on problems, and giving them individualized instruction and assistance. The article I was reading made a good point:

As more high-quality lecture materials go online, teachers and administrators alike are beginning to realize that when it comes to simply explaining something, there’s probably someone out there who’s doing it better. So, they tell me, why complete? Focus instead on offering the sort of fine-grained, personalized help that only a live teacher can offer.

I think this is brilliant. Another consequence of this is that students were able to start learning at their own pace. The reason for keeping students at the same pace was so that the teacher could lecture to the entire class. But once that was no longer necessary, the teacher could let the students get ahead. One teacher reported that some of her fifth graders had started learning algebra and geometry. This hasn’t gone over well with some, though. The article explains:

Even if Kahn is truly liberating students to advance at their own pace, it’s not clear that the school’s will be able to cope. The very concept of grade levels implies groups of students moving along together at an even pace. So what happens when, using Kahn academy, you wind up with a kid in fifth grade who has mastered high school trigonomotry and physics–but is still functioning like a regular 10-year-old when it comes to writing, history, and social studies? Khan’s programer, Ben Kamens, has heard from teachers who’ve seen Kahn Academy presentations and loved the idea but wondered whether they could modify it “to stop students from becoming this advanced.”

That last sentence strikes me as part of the biggest problem in education: we’re no longer teaching students, we’re teaching curriculums and programs. A student who gets ahead messes up the institution’s program. It bothers me that schools don’t allow students to truly excel, for the sake of making life easier for teachers. This reminds me of people who think that nobody can get rich unless everybody can. In the real-world, people can be at different levels. In schools, however, an non-equal distribution of skills causes headaches for teachers. It’s time for that to change.

Sites like Khan academy do offer a potential solution to the problem: make instruction such that students can self-teach and pace themselves, and allow teachers to assist those who struggle. This gives students the one-on-one they don’t get when the teacher is lecturing all day, and allows each student to learn at their own level and pace. To apply this institution wide would require schools to all-but-abandon traditional “grade levels.” This, I think, is a good thing—why should we assume that every 8 year old is at the same level? Why should we keep some students from getting ahead?


  1. I love the whole premise, makes total sense to me.
    It is very much the same as the Zaki Gordon Institute
    for Independent Filmmaking.

  2. Very good points. My son’s math teacher has started making videos himself, and assigns watching the videos as homework, so that he is free to help with geometry and trigonometry problems in class. This is great, because under the old way, my older son would spend hours agonizing over problems that he just didn’t get, and which I was ill-equipped to help him with. Thus he would waste an entire evening trying to figure out something that the teacher could have explained to him in five minutes.

    The idea of dispensing with grades is a new one on me, but I absolutely love it. I have no doubt that one of my sons, at least, could have finished high school in 10th grade if he were allowed to move at his own pace. Since it’s a private school, we are stuck paying another $16,000 or so in tuition in order for him to progress to graduation at the same pace as the rest of his class.

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