In fact, after reading Salman Khan's book, The One World Schoolhouse, I discovered the deep and faulty roots upon which my universal standardization mindset relied. And I am chagrined that I limited those students' opportunities. Khan characterizes this approach as the Prussian Model, and includes a discussion of it within his long and deliberately focused history of education that culminates, for his purposes, in the creation of the Khan Academy and his vision of what might come next.
Khan started his academy modestly (the short history can be found many places including within the book) but quickly assumed an anything-but-modest goal: to "provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere." He argues that this flies in the face of current practice in every way possible, noting that the American system, at least, is inefficient, limiting, and stuck in outdated methodologies. One of his favorite targets is the "broadcast lecture," where teachers talk while students passively receive, if they receive at all. This target is emblematic of the problems he claims are at the core of current educational practice: students aren't challenged to think or learn, and they aren't given the means of preparing themselves for participation in - and leadership of - the real world. He blames the long-held practice of age-based grouping of students and advocates for "classes" (though his vision of class is nothing like what most schools now include) that are mixed-age and that prioritize "flow" between disciplines today's schools absolutely separate.
Khan's vision includes learning and working spaces that include large numbers of students working with technology and in collaborative groups, mentored (or coached) by teams of teachers who would provide guidance and feedback without relying on a standardized curriculum, traditional testing, and (a favorite target of mine) grades. He says this will remove the adversarial relationship students intuit with their teachers and will eliminate the teacher as audience and judge of work that grounds classroom practice in inauthentic situations and thus stifles creativity and effort. The resulting liberation he sees for teachers is captured by his own early experiences tutoring through videos and software he quickly outgrew, where he "could begin to understand not only what ... students were learning but how they were learning." He says, and I absolutely agree, that this is the outcome for teachers of skills-based instruction, and the logically derived outcome for students is practical application of knowledge and ownership of their learning process. And he advocates for reporting this in authentic ways, ways that are not based solely on test scores and maybe not on GPA at all, but through narrative data, compiled over a period of years and truly reflective of a student's growth and engagement with learning and preparation for success in a career that probably doesn't even exist when the student starts school. Khan summarizes this line of thinking in a particularly memorable way: "Since we can't predict exactly what today's young people will need to know in ten or twenty years, what we teach them is less important than how they learn to teach themselves."
And how Khan is getting students to learn is really the remarkable part of the book, and of the Khan Academy story. Students use those videos - I've watched it happen in my own house - and figure things out. He emphasizes foundational mastery that students can build on, with teachers as scaffolds. He sees the potential of online education to bring the world together and connect parts of the world never before reached, but maintains that it is not the answer, only part of the answer. The answer in full is empowering students, so that every student has an equal opportunity to gain mastery, so that every student is prepared to keep learning, so that every student is motivated to achieve and create. He wants students to experiment, to find their own niche, or more than one, to try and fail without being labeled a failure, to learn in a way that will let them continue thinking as they leave school, and to define their futures on their own terms.
Those futures are first defined by postsecondary life, and Khan extends his vision of education into college, though I am not impressed with the chapter he devotes to the subject. This might be because Khan is clearly not impressed with college as it is most often currently constituted (he graduated from M.I.T., but includes his irregular class attendance as part of his argument). Now I'm not opposed to his ideas in the chapter simply because I'm a part of the system he bashes; I see problems at EKU and have not only undertaken changes in my classes very much like some of those Khan promotes but have also led others in my department and across campus to change their pedagogical practices as well. Instead, I was put off by the dramatic change in tone from the rest of the book to this section: he refers to himself more than once as an optimist but is so darkly negative when talking about college that his proposed extension of foundational ideas into college practice is nearly lost. My recommendation: if you're going to read the book, stop with a few chapters left. You'll get the idea, you'll be inspired to make changes, and you won't be left with a bad taste in your mouth.
Every once in a while I run into one of my students from my Bryan Station High School or Scott County High School days. Nearly always they will tell me that I was a good teacher, how much they enjoyed my class, maybe even how much they learned in it. I thank them, but I know how much better I could have been, how much more good I could have done them. I'm better now, and my students benefit from it. Importantly, I also know that I can get better still, and I try every semester, even every week, to improve my instructional practices to increase students' learning opportunities. And I'm grateful that I am in a position where I can help other teachers empower their students too.