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Khan Academy Founder: No, You're Not Dumb. Anyone Can Learn Anything….

This may surprise you, but Sal Khan used to skip classes at MIT. They were too long and boring, he often thought, particularly lectures. “I found it much more valuable to learn the material at my own time and pace,” he says. “I learned a lot more going into the computer lab or the science lab or the circuits lab, fiddling with things and playing and getting my hands dirty.”   

That same renegade spirit of independence and innovation, of learning on your own terms on your own time, is still the heart and soul of Khan Academy, the revolutionary, somewhat controversial online learning platform the 38-year-old math whiz engineer singlehandedly founded 10 years ago. What began as a handful of tutoring videos the former hedge fund analyst uploaded to YouTube to help his cousins with their algebra homework has since mushroomed into a massive digital classroom for the world.

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To date, the free, non-profit learning hub has delivered more than 580 million of Khan’s straightforward video lessons on demand, with students completing around four million companion exercises on any given day. The Academy is in the midst of a growth spurt offline as well, with an excess of 1 million registered teachers around the globe incorporating the supplemental teaching tool into their classrooms.      

We recently caught up with Khan, who discussed how his own education shaped his passion project, his belief that anyone can learn anything and what’s next for Khan Academy, online and off.

The transcript that follows has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you develop a passion for education? Who inspired you?
Education has helped me a lot. My father’s side of the family was very active in education. My parents separated when I was two and then my father passed away, so I never really knew that side of the family. But, when I got to know them, they’re intensely academic. My mother’s side of the family, they’re more the artists. We have a lot of dancers and singers who don’t fit with certain stereotypes that they’re all engineers and they’re all super invested in math.

I went to a fairly normal, middle of the road public school in a suburb of New Orleans, but it gave me huge opportunities. I had a lot of friends there who were just smart as I am. They seem to learn things just as fast, but they’re hitting walls in algebra class and chemistry class. That’s when I started questioning the notion of mastery-based learning. It wasn’t completely obvious to me then, but I just knew something was off.

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You often say that anyone can learn anything. Why do you think that?
If you’re doing well in school you can have one of two things: You can say, “Oh, well, I have the DNA for doing it. Or you can say, “No, my brain was able to tackle it. I had the right mindset.” I saw those ideas in action early in high school.

Also, I tutored others as part of this math honors society I was in. I noticed that if you tutored people the right way, engaged with them the right way, they would improve. I saw C and D students all of the sudden do very, very well and become some of the best math students in the state.

Then I go to college at MIT and I saw a lot of people struggle there, too, mainly because they aren’t adequately prepared. It was the same thing. It was clear to me that it wasn’t intelligence at play, it was much more preparation. The people who did well were the people who saw the material for the third time, had a lot of rigor and didn’t have any gaps in their knowledge. The people who really struggled were the folks who weren’t familiar with the material and didn’t have a super solid grasp. It has nothing to do with some type of innate intelligence.

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