Listen to my interview with Sal Khan (transcript):
We live in a time when a person can learn just about anything online. And when it comes to creating free instructional videos, Khan Academy has been leading the pack for the last decade, starting first with math videos, then branching out to include tutorials on science, computer programming, history, economics, and even grammar.
Recently, Khan has added a new layer to its platform that could really be a game-changer for all of us: the Mastery System. This system allows students to go beyond cherry-picking videos and instead take full courses, measuring their progress as they go, earning mastery points, reaching new skill levels, and completing challenges.
In our podcast interview, founder Sal Khan explained that this capability has been a goal since Khan Academy’s inception; it just took time to get it into place.
“Arguably it’s the oldest way of learning,” he said, “that you should learn at a pace that’s comfortable for you and then master concepts as you go on. Benjamin Bloom famously coined this in the ‘80s in his famous 2 Sigma study where he showed that if students are able to learn at their own time and pace in a mastery learning framework—which he defined as a framework where if the student’s at 70 percent or 80 percent correct, they should have as many chances as necessary to get to 90 percent-plus correct—that the same student at the 50th percentile could now be two standard deviations higher than that. And that was a big seminal study. It’s taught in ed schools. Everyone knows about it. No one really intellectually disagrees with it.”
Sounds about right: Most teachers would agree that differentiating instruction for students has always been the ideal, but few have ever figured out how to make it happen on a large scale.
“The issue is the pragmatic,” Khan says. “How do you implement it?”
With the new Mastery System, Khan is making it happen, and they’re making it free and accessible to anyone who wants it. Here’s an overview of how the system works:
A Supplement, Not a Replacement
It’s important to note here that no digital learning program can replace many of the experiences students should be having in our classrooms. A rich, robust, empowering education gives students regular opportunities to talk with each other, actively problem-solve with real-world tasks, collaborate on multifaceted projects, impact their communities, and wrestle with life’s big questions. These need to be designed and facilitated by live human beings who build relationships with students.
With that being said, platforms like Khan Academy can effectively take over some of our instructional tasks—like differentiating lessons based on student readiness, assessing individual skills, and assigning tasks to fill gaps—so that we can focus our time on planning and implementing those activities that build relationships and engage students at higher levels.
No one agrees with this sentiment more than Khan himself.
“Teachers need better information so that they can focus their efforts,” he says. “Students need better feedback, and they need to be able to adjust to their pacing. We need ways for class time to be more active and human, so that you can have more interaction, not less.”
“It’s more valuable for a teacher to be able to do that human intervention than to have to spend hours every night grading and assigning. So that’s where the technology’s very valuable. If a student is confused on something, and if a hint on a problem or an on-demand, three-minute video can unblock the student, great. That allows the teacher to have more capacity to either do a deeper intervention with that student, a kind of focus on the social emotional side, or do high-order tasks in the classroom, projects, simulations, etc.”
Even a Little Makes a Difference
You might not be ready to completely revamp your instruction in order to add in something like Khan’s Mastery System. The good news is, you don’t have to. Schools that are doing just a little bit of mastery learning practice each week are seeing impressive results. In a study where students consistently did 30 to 60 minutes of mastery learning practice every week, student growth in math was 33% higher than those who did less than 15 minutes per week.
“Teachers are telling us, hey, this feels very doable,” Khan says. “Every teacher I talk to, they’re telling me, look, I know I have children in my room who are not ready for the standards I need to cover. But I need to cover them. And I also know there are some kids in the room who might already know some of those standards, but I still have to cover those standards. So they’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
With Khan’s Mastery System, teachers can tackle the differentiation problem without having to abandon their need to cover the required curriculum.
“There’s a way that we can start to have a little bit of our cake and eat it too,” Khan explains. “Maybe three or four days you do more of a traditional model, so you can ensure that coverage is happening, that everyone is having exposure to grade level material, but one class period a week can be focused on that personalized practice. “
The Mastery System is still pretty new, so it’s not available for all of Khan
Academy’s courses. Currently, teachers can access the Mastery Learning framework for the following courses:
- All math courses from kindergarten through college
- Physics and Biology
- AP U.S. Government and Politics
All of these are also available in Spanish ates.khanacademy.org. In the upcoming months and years, more courses will be added.
Raising the Bar for Everyone, Everywhere
Khan sees tools like the Mastery System as part of a larger shift in history.
“I think we’re at a unique opportunity right now,” he says. “If 400 years ago you went to Western Europe and you saw who’s literate, you would have seen about 15 percent of the population knew how to read. And I suspect that if you asked someone who did know how to read, say a member of the clergy, what percentage of the population think is even capable of reading, they might have said maybe 30 percent.”
“But you fast forward now, you know it would have been a widely pessimistic prediction. Pretty close to 100 percent can read, and that’s because of mass, free, public education that happened in the 18th and 19th centuries.”
“That was the industrial revolution. Now we’re at another inflection point in history. Now people talk about what’s going to happen with 21st century: Labor is facing threats from automation and globalization. How do we get more kids to be in that top of that pyramid and that creative class, to help push forward the frontiers of medicine and science and art?”
“And I think if I ask a lot of people today, how many people would think are capable of being, contributing to cancer research, they might say, maybe optimistically 10 percent? But I think that’s kind of similar blinders on. And I genuinely believe that the task at hand, it’s not just nice to have. We want to work with educators around the world to figure out how we get to where we can shock ourselves in an optimistic way that most people are going to be able to participate in the fullest way possible in society and advance what we are as a species together.”
To get started with the Mastery System, visit KhanAcademy.org.