The following is a conversation between, Sal Khan, Founder of the Khan Academy, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: My first guest this evening has been called the world’s best-known teacher and a true pioneer. He is none other than Sal Khan, the Founder of the Khan Academy. Sal, welcome to The Business of Giving!
Sal: Great to be here.
Denver: Yours is a remarkable story, Sal. How a simple and a thoughtful act on your part to help your cousin led to a series of cascading events that resulted in the Khan Academy with more than 580 million online lessons in over 36 languages. Tell us about this extraordinary, if not somewhat unlikely journey of yours.
Sal: If you rewind back about 11 years—my background was in software but I was an analyst in an investment firm. And as you mentioned, my cousin, Nadia, she was having trouble with Math, unit conversion in particular. She was 12 years old. So I started working with her and she got caught up in Math. Actually, because of her difficulty, she was being placed into a slower math class, but when she got caught up and actually got a little ahead of her class, who from tutoring over the phone, then I became what I call a tiger cousin. I said, “I really think, Nadia, you should retake the placement test.” They let her, and she was able to get into kind of a faster track. And then I started working with her younger brothers and word got around the family that free tutoring was going on, and I soon found myself with about 10, 15 cousins and family friends all over the country.
The first version of Khan Academy had nothing to do with videos. It was a software to give my cousins practice. So even the ones that were good students had gaps in their knowledge, because they might have gotten a B on some test in fifth grade and they never learned that fully on, say, dividing decimals, so I wanted them to get a good foundation. And then it was a friend that suggested in November 2006 that, “Why don’t you record some of your lessons as YouTube videos to help scale them?” I nearly thought it was a horrible idea. I said, “YouTube is for cats playing piano,” but I got over the idea that it wasn’t my idea. I gave it a shot and it soon became clear that people who are not my cousins were watching. At first, a lot of those comments were “thank you” and even that I thought was a big deal. In YouTube, most of the comments are not “thank you.” But then I started getting people saying “this is why I was able to pass algebra class” or “this is why I’m able to go back to college.” And so, you fast forward to 2009, I set it up as a not-for-profit organization and quit my day job to see if we could turn this into a real thing.
“Fixed mindset, you either think you have the math gene or you don’t; while growth mindset, you recognize that you don’t know your potential but you keep stepping out of your comfort zone and you embrace failure and you embrace struggle and you realize that when you get something wrong, that’s a change to grow, that’s actually when your brain biologically does grow the most.”
Denver: Well, you had certainly have. You’ve made a very interesting distinction with your cousin, Nadia, between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Why don’t you tell us what the difference is between the two and how it impacts your work?
Sal: This whole idea of mindset is actually a whole bunch of academic literature coming from folks like Carol Dweck about it. It’s this idea that people can roughly, in a given domain, either have a fixed or growth mindset. Fixed mindset, you either think you have the math gene or you don’t; while growth mindset, you recognize that you don’t know your potential but you keep stepping out of your comfort zone and you embrace failure and you embrace struggle and you realize that when you get something wrong, that’s a change to grow, that’s actually when your brain biologically does grow the most.
Nadia, when I started working with her, she had a pretty fixed mindset. She didn’t think that she was meant to do math, that she had the math gene so to speak, and it took a couple of weeks of unwinding that and deprogramming that and she slowly developed a growth mindset. The same Nadia who in sixth grade thought that she couldn’t get unit conversion, by the time she was in ninth grade was taking calculus at the local university. So it just shows you how much mindset can affect your actual ability.
“A lot of times, especially in math and science, you’re used to seeing a professor do something perfectly on the board and you find that intimidating, but you have to realize that most of this is an art of how do you solve some of these problems…people connect with that as well…we give them the intuition but we give it in a very kind of real, organic way.”
Denver: That’s truly remarkable. Now, beyond the looks of your video, Sal, which now are very professionally produced, have they changed much since you started in terms of how you impart the information?
Sal: I’m not the only person making videos and Khan Academy is much, much more than videos. A lot of what we’ve invested in is actually based on some of that software that I had originally prototyped. We have software students running the program and all of that. In terms of the videos themselves, I’m flattered that you think that they are professionally produced. It’s all pretty basic. I use a slightly better microphone, but they’re still kind of a chalk talk, they’ve very conversational.
I think why people connect with them is they feel real. When I or someone else at Khan Academy does an exercise, we don’t try to kind of cover up our mistakes. We’ll say, “Hey. We’ll do it in real time. We’ll show our thinking. We’ll be transparent.” A lot of times, especially in math and science, you’re used to seeing a professor do something perfectly on the board and you find that intimidating, but you have to realize that most of this is an art of how do you solve some of these problems. So I think people connect with that as well, that we give them the intuition but we give it in a very kind of real, organic way.
Denver: Yes. Very well said. Let me ask you for your perspective on the US Educational System. We spend an awful lot of money, I think it’s about $1.3 trillion. But there is tremendous frustration that the results simply are not there. We’re 25th in math, 17th in science, 14th in reading. What do you think the basic problem is, Sal?
Sal: I will defend the US education system. We are a very large and a very diverse country, so it’s kind of sometimes unfair to compare us to a Singapore or a Finland or a Shanghai – not China, Shanghai – often the comparisons are made to. But I think there’s a lot that we could do. And your point about resources, there hasn’t been a strong correlation that different geographies spend different amounts on resources, and I’m not an expert there. But I do think that now that we do have tools like Khan Academy and there are others where students can get knowledge at their own time and pace, they can do exercises at their own time and pace, it allows us to restructure the system. I saw it with my cousins. A lot of them were trying to do good, do well in Math, but they had a gap. They got a C on an exam on basic exponent, and then that gap persisted. So when they got to Algebra, they found Algebra hard not because Algebra was hard or they weren’t bright – it’s because they had that gap. That gap forms when you push everyone together at the same pace, which you have to do in kind of a traditional lecture model.
But now we can go to these models where students can learn at their own time and pace. They can get on-demand help. I think we can start to move the dial there. So that’s kind of the more forward-thinking types of change. I think some of the more meat-and-potatoes one is actually just time in the classroom. You can actually explain most of the delta between the US average and Shanghai average by time in the classroom. Summer learning loss is a very real thing.
But the other thing I say is it’s not so much about moving up in those rankings. The US goes from 20th to 10th or whatever, that’s great. But I actually think it’s more about making our system, for lack of a word, more American. If you look at innovation in the last 50 years, it’s only getting more and more focused in the US and that’s because regardless of the school system, and I think to some degree, because of it, because I think even the US school system does favor more creative thinking, more autonomy, more agency than a lot of parts of the world. You do have more of a culture of entrepreneurship and risk-taking than you do in the rest of the world. I think our school system should double down on that. Have more space for projects, more space for entrepreneurship, more space—embrace risk, not stigmatize it.
Denver: Do you think we’re getting the teachers we need? I know that Michael Milken has said once that the number one goal for those with the lowest 10% of SAT scores was to become a teacher. Are we going to able the most talented people back into our classrooms?
Sal: There are many amazing teachers who despite not getting compensated as they should and everything, they’re in it. But I do think that there is an opportunity for us if we were to compensate and promote the teaching profession the way you would other professions like medicine, law or engineering, you could absolutely get a much larger pool of people going into the field and that does make a huge difference.
Denver: You have a remarkable user base. I think it’s about 31 million registered users. Have you given any thought as to how to best leverage this enormous base?
Sal: As users, they come to us for different reasons. They might need help for a test that they’re taking tomorrow. They might want to be practicing for the SAT that they’re going to take in a couple of months or learn to program a computer or they’re just curious the scale of the solar system, whatever. We view it as a huge opportunity to “Can we help change their mindset? Can we help them with other things that are…” So we’re always looking at once we—these 33 million users now and about a million of them are teachers, what can we give them that allows to further empower themselves or the people they work with – the students or parents and their children? So, yes, we view it as a huge opportunity. It’s a huge responsibility that we take very seriously.
Denver: You continue to grow, to develop these new partnerships, and I think one of the more exciting ones you have, Sal, is this partnership you have with the College Board around prep for the new line of SATs, which is coming online next year. Tell us a little bit about that partnership.
Sal: The College Board, which most folks know are the creators of the SATs. They’re the administrators of the SAT. They’re 100-year-old organization and they’re launching a new SAT in 2016 that’s more aligned with what students learn in school. As part of that, for the first time in their hundred-year history, they’re saying, “Hey. Look. There has been this thing called the test prep industry. And it has at least created the perception and probably rally that the playing field is not level, even though the goal is for this test to promote a meritocracy.” So they reached out to us. They saw a lot of the work that we had done around our exercises, our exercise platform, and said, “Hey. Could we work together to create the world’s best test prep that happens to be free?” We were pretty pumped about it because our mission is a free, world-class education for anyone anywhere. Tests like the SAT are really important for a lot of folks with education.
So we’ve been working on it. We launched the first version of it this past summer and we’re continuing to invest a lot into it. And once again, it’s not just videos. There are videos, but it’s interactive software. There’s a diagnostic on students. It’s kind of the strength training or at least you can say weak point training. It’s knows, “Hey, you’re good at this aspect of the SAT, but you need more help in this aspect of reading comprehension or this aspect of algebra.” So it makes sure you’d get help there. The items, we’ve created in conjunction with the College Board, so they’re very authentic. So, we’re very excited about helping to level the playing field there.
“Anytime you have something growing cost-wise 3-, 4-, 5% faster than inflation, regardless of what was happening online, that can’t happen forever.”
Denver: That’s great. With the advent of online education, with you guys, Udacity and all the massive open online courses, what do you think these means to the university system in this country? These are increasingly expensive propositions, and I know, and I’m sure you know, Sal, so many graduates who are saddled with these student loans which seem like forever. What do you think is going to happen with the universities? What are they going to have to do going forward?
Sal: Anytime you have something growing cost-wise 3-, 4-, 5% faster than inflation, regardless of what was happening online, that can’t happen forever. You already have people very seriously questioning the ROIs, especially these students saddled with hundreds of thousand dollars in debt and then sometimes being underemployed on the other side of that. So I think, especially you have all these online catalysts, things are going to change over the next five to 10 years. I think there’s always going to be room for college education that’s going to be challenged in healthy ways. I think there’s going to be alternate paths that can also get you to a good middle class, upper middle class professional life that will not cost $200,000 or possibly four years, and I think there’s going to be a lot more healthy scrutiny around, “Look, what you do all those four years matter.”
A lot of times when a freshman show up, the college community makes it seem like regardless of what you major in, all outcomes are equal, and there’s a reality that it’s not. I think there should be more transparency and I think the students are going to demand from colleges “Hey, we’ll give me more information about people who did this, where do they end up? How much do they make? How happy are they in 10 or 15 years? How well do they think it was worth it?” And I think there’s going to be, whether it’s online or kind of shorter micro- courses through a community college, I think there’s going to be alternate routes that get people where they need to go. I mean, we already see that with these coder schools happening. Who makes six-figure salaries coming out of nine months of training?
“We thought it would be really fun and powerful for us to have our own lab where we can try out these ideas and the stuff that works, we can share with the rest of the world and hopefully catalyze broader change in this direction – mastery-based learning, students learning through inquiry, more focus on meta-cognitive skills, creativity, entrepreneurship, whatever else.”
Denver: Very interesting. I was really surprised to learn that it was your dream to start a school, a physical school even before you started Khan Academy, but it was, and now you’ve got one. So tell us about the Khan Lab School.
Sal: Even before Khan Academy, even before the internet [unintelligible 00:13:11] high school and college, I guess I was somewhat reflective of the system that I was a part of and [unintelligible 00:13:20] I have ideas and I didn’t know how good these ideas were or not, but I did dream about one day being a Dumbledore-type figure and it seemed like that would be good way to spend a life, and it’s always been a dream.
And obviously, Khan Academy kind of became a virtual version of that, but I never view that as a replacement for the physical. For me, tools like Khan Academy give us a chance to reimagine the physical so it’s not based on lectures, so students can learn at their own pace, so that you can have a mix-aged environment. We work with a lot of great schools around the country that are doing dimensions of this, but we thought it would be really fun and powerful for us to have our own lab where we can try out these ideas and the stuff that works, we can share with the rest of the world and hopefully catalyze broader change in this direction – mastery-based learning, students learning through inquiry, more focus on meta-cognitive skills, creativity, entrepreneurship, whatever else.
Denver: And I guess all these children at this school of yours, between 5- and 12-years-old, are all in one classroom, is that right?
Sal: They’re part of one community. There’s actually five—I guess a couple of them are 13 now, and we’re going to expand to a high school next year. They get together for certain parts of the day and it’s really incredible. You’ll see a 5-year-old skin her knee and then a 12-year-old will come and help them out, and so they really do feel this bonding that you don’t see traditionally. We all have our memories of middle school where it’s a little bit Lord of the Flies. It’s just something that happens when you have mixed-age, which is what human beings have been for 200,000 years of human history, we were around this mixed-aged – our families, our clan, their tribe. And so, I think it brings back that where the younger students get that direct mentorship and then the older students, I think this is the key, they get to exercise leadership, which in a traditional system, they don’t get to. I think that’s where a lot of teenage angst comes from, it’s that they are proto-adults but they’re still treated to some degree like children and they don’t have real responsibility. So we’re trying to bring some of that back.
But we separate depending on their independence level, not age, although they correlate. They have breakouts, there are different rooms. So there is a big common area, plenty of different rooms where they break out. Some projects are roughly correlated with age, but some projects are cross-aged, where you might have a 13-year-old leading and the 5- or 6-year-olds might be the helper. But we try to get as much as integration across the ages as possible.
Denver: And you see this as an all-year proposition, don’t you?
Sal: This is something that we wanted to challenge. This whole idea of this summer vacation comes from when most of the world, especially the US, was an agrarian society, and that’s not the case anymore. And so there’s a lot—that three months is a pretty powerful opportunity and we’re also full day. The idea, once again, when some people hear that, they’re like “Oh, wow. All my great memories were during summer vacation or after school or whatever.” The idea is for year-round to have that magic. So, yes, you do have several hours a day that are core skills, you learn it your own time and pace, but most of that full-day, full-year, is you’re building projects, you’re working in teams, you’re having a dialogue about something.
Denver: You started Khan Academy in earnest about seven years or so ago, and it’s amazing what you’ve been able to do and how far you’ve come. I will be curious as how your job has changed from a founder, I would imagine pretty much doing everything to now running a very significant enterprise? Do you have trouble shedding some of those original duties and assuming new ones? What is your primary job right now, Sal?
Sal: One of my goals is how do I keep some of my original duties. Back in the day, when I was one guy operating out of a walk-in closet, I was obviously making videos but I was also writing codes and fundraising and whatever else. You fast forward to today, there’s an incredible team at Khan Academy. I think that’s one of the things that aren’t talked about as much as they should be, is that it’s much, much more than just me now, and it’s really, I would say, the best team in tech [unintelligible 00:17:34] has been attracted to this mission. We’re obviously not able to get people stock options. We’re a not-for-profit. No one owns Khan Academy. So I still spend my mornings as much as I can making content. That’s something that I enjoy personally but I actually think it keeps me close to the reality of…
Denver: Absolutely. A lot of times, I think people lose touch when they stop doing the thing that the business is built around. That’s why I think it’s wonderful you’re doing that.
Sal: That’s my joy, too. To be able to learn, continue to learn and teach. That’s why in 2009, when I quit my job, I didn’t think Khan Academy was going to get this big this fast. I just said, “Hey, if I can get a professor salary and just continue making videos, I’ll be the happiest person on the planet,” so I don’t want to let go of that. But the second half, two-thirds of my day are some combination of working with the rest of the team on kind of the direction of the organization, our priorities, and kind of the external things, whether it’s helping raise funds or doing things like this.
Denver: And I bet you’ve had your sleepless nights along the way. A lot of times, people look at ventures like yours which are successful and think it was just meant to be, but I would imagine it was a little scary there along the way.
Sal: Yes. There were sleepless nights obviously in 2009 when I quit my job. Our first child has just been born, we’re living off of savings and I thought I’d—I had a good career before [unintelligible] having this strange vision and that was an incredibly stressful period. But now, I think some of the times when there is so much opportunity and so much responsibility that you want to do good on, you don’t want to mess up the opportunity. And we’re a larger team now. How do we make sure that we continue to attract and motivate and take advantage of the opportunity that’s there? Sometimes it can be a little stressful, but for the most part, I consider myself pretty blessed.
Denver: I remember reading about Charity Water, which I just think is a wonderful nonprofit organization, and they said that when somebody comes to visit their website, they don’t look at them as a donor. They look at this as the beginning of 10- to 20-year relationship. And I was very impressed until I heard you speak about Khan Academy and what it may look like 100 or even 500 years from now. Very few people, Sal, have that kind of a long-term perspective. I’m just a bit curious, where does that come from and how does that impact your day-to-day work and operations?
Sal: I probably was in middle school when I first read the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov, and I recommend everybody listening to go out and read the whole series. But what struck me in middle school back then—the whole premise of the book is [unintelligible 00:20:24] is a galaxy and this one kind of economist mathematician is able to predict that the Galactic Empire is about to enter a 10,000 year dark ages and he wants to turn it into only a thousand-year dark age by putting all of the galaxies knowledge together in a foundation. And I remember when I read it, I was like, “Wow. That’s such an epic timescale and no one…” And I remember thinking of this in middle school, and the more I saw society in high school and college and even in the work, I was like, “Wow. People really don’t think on that timescale. Most people are thinking one to five years, five years at best.”
Denver: That’s right. And it’s getting shorter all the time.
Sal: It’s getting shorter all the time. And so when I was trying to figure out what should Khan Academy be, and I obviously read a lot of science fiction, and a lot of science fiction is about these kind of epic timescales and what can happen with humanity and kind of the scope of history, I said, “Wow.” And look, this was very delusional for a guy operating out of a walk-in closet. But I said, “We’re at some type of an inflection point in history. We have this—but maybe we can, Khan Academy could be a new type of institution. Maybe it can be like a foundation like in the Foundation Series that can literally empower anybody on the planet.” We have a lot of work ahead of us to get there, but it’s a lot less delusional now. And yes, the dream is that it lasts like a great university or the Smithsonian, these things can last hundreds of years or longer, and just keep our fingers crossed.
Denver: Well, that is a wonderful mindset. Well, Sal Khan, the Founder of Khan Academy, thanks so much for appearing on The Business of Giving. You got to recommend a book, so now I get to recommend a book, and that is The One World Schoolhouse. If you look like what Sal is saying and his thinking and the way to look at education, I really urge people to pick it up. It is an absolutely great read. Thanks so much for being here, Sal.
Sal: Thank you.
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