Sal Khan On Fighting Anti-Intellectualism and Bringing Free, World Class Education to Anyone Anywhere
We speak to the founder of education nonprofit Khan Academy in our new issue.
30 June 2016
We speak to the founder of education nonprofit Khan Academy in our new issue.
Salman "Sal" Khan is a former hedge fund analyst turned education entrepreneur who founded Khan Academy, a nonprofit that uses online video courses to bring free, high-quality instruction and personalized learning to anyone in the world.
Did you have a mentor, or do you still have a mentor today?
In hindsight, I've had many mentors. My first career after college was in tech. In college I majored in math and computer science, and my first job was at Oracle as a product manager. I consider my first boss, Thomas Kurian, a great mentor. Then after business school when I went into finance, our portfolio manager (and my boss), Dan Wohl, was also a really great mentor. I think the great thing about working at a hedge fund or investment firm is that the whole job is just about connecting the dots between different parts of the world and trying to figure out if there's something other people have missed. So he was obviously a mentor there, but I would say even more importantly he taught me about work-life balance. I remember when I joined right out of business school, I was ready to work hard -- well, work long. He told me, "You gotta go home as soon as the markets close. They close the market at 4:30–5." I was like, "No, no, no," and he was like, "Look, our job is not to make a bunch of bad decisions. Our job is to make a few really good decisions, and if you don't recharge and have balance, over time you're just going to get burnt out and make bad decisions." That was a very unconventional way of viewing the world, especially for that industry, but I think also in pretty much any industry. To have this very strong emphasis on balance was very powerful, and in a lot of ways, that is what even gave me the space to start Khan Academy as a hobby.
Were you starting work on Khan Academy and coming up with the idea while you were able to have a life outside of the hedge fund?
Yeah, I started the job with the hedge fund in the spring of 2003, and I started tutoring my first cousin in fall of 2004. At that time, it wasn't Khan Academy -- it was just me tutoring my cousin Nadia. But I wouldn't have had time to tutor Nadia if it weren't for Dan encouraging and even forcing me to have space in my life. Then I would tutor other cousins, and it was something I just really enjoyed. It was a way of having a meaningful connection with family that was far away. And my background was in computer science, so I was like, "Oh, let me write some software for them, let me do this, let me do that," so it was just a fun creative outlet that you're not able to leverage at work. It was a significant hobby for me.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishments?
I married well. I say that somewhat jokingly, but it is true. At the end of the day, who you marry -- people don't talk about it a lot, but it has pretty large implications for you in life. What I'm proud of, or I guess you could say what I feel very lucky for -- I don't know if it's an accomplishment, but what I strive for in my life -- is to be able to wake up in the morning and do what I truly enjoy and do it with people who I truly enjoy and feel like we're able to have an impact on the world in our own way. And at the same time, have a nice home life. We're on this planet for a few decades, so what are you there for? Just to get a corner office?
What are the biggest motivators in your life?
Khan Academy's mission is a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. That's a pretty big motivator! I'm excited about that. We're already seeing traction, and we're already seeing millions of students use it. We get letters every day, and those are very, very motivating in and of themselves. But then when we think about where this could go in 10, 15, 20 years, whether you're a child in a slum someplace or a middle-class student in the US, there's always going to be this resource that you can use to self-educate yourself, to prove what you know to the world, to plug into society. If you're in a middle-class environment, you'll have much better resources than you've had before. Your classroom will be liberated to focus on more human engagement. You'll have many of your students, rich or poor, who get disengaged but who will now be in a position to contribute to society at a very high, deep and satisfying level for them. So that's incredibly fun. And on top of that, I still make videos. I'm a manager now, and I do a lot of external things. All of those things are incredibly interesting and fun just in and of themselves, and the fact that they're working towards this mission … I consider myself the luckiest person on the planet.
What were you like as a kid?
When I was very young, like elementary school, I enjoyed learning. I actually thought of myself more as someone who liked to draw. I wanted to be an architect or cartoonist or artist of some kind when I grew up. Then around middle school and high school, I started to get more into math and science...I got much more serious about my studies during my sophomore and junior years of high school. That was also when I got really into teaching. There was this math club that I was leading, and a big part of what we did was tutor our peers in math. That's where I started to really see that a lot of, frankly, very bright peers were struggling in math for what I thought were very bad reasons. They had disengaged -- they'd be in algebra class and they had gaps in dividing decimals and in negative numbers that were holding them back. Over and over again I saw these small interventions -- and oftentimes it was an intervention of mindset more than skill set -- without which any of these people could be completely capable of doing just fine. That was always intriguing to me, even when I went to college.
What kind of student were you?
If you asked my teachers, I would guess that 1/5 of my teachers loved having me in the classroom, 1/5 of my teachers hated having me in the classroom and then the other 3/5 didn't notice that I was in the classroom. I was definitely very intellectually interested in the subject matter. One of the turning points was when I was the lead singer in a heavy metal band, and my sophomore year we had our first real "gig," but it was the same weekend as the National Academic Games. So I view that as one of those decision points in life you go down.
What did you pick?
That's interesting! So the other band members are musicians, and you run an education nonprofit. So there you go.
Everyone made the right choice.
What can we do to combat this pervasive instinct for a lot of young people to "play down" how bright they are? Kids disengage from school or don't want to participate in class because they maybe feel insecure or embarrassed to be smart in front of their peers. Is there something that you guys are trying to do at Khan Academy to really get young people to engage and not be afraid to share their minds with other people like teachers?
I think about that a lot. To some degree, that's everything if your school has a baseline culture of 'learning is interesting' and curiosity -- and it's not just the students, it's also the teachers and the faculty. You often see adults, even if their job [is to teach] -- some of these teachers are very passionate and super engaged, but some of them look at the subject matter with a bit of scorn. My personal theory is that the reason why you have this negative culture where even if you're engaged with something, you have to pretend like you're not, is because as students are pushed forward, they have these gaps in their knowledge. And we literally identify the gaps -- when we give them a test and they get a "C," they have a gap, but then the whole class moves on to the next concept. So at some point, these students have trouble engaging in the classroom. Some of those students who have trouble engaging become the wallflowers; they become really introverted and lack self-confidence. But some subset of these kids' self-esteem goes into a kind of immune response, and they start saying, "Alright, no, this stuff isn't important. I'm going to stick it to the school, and I'm going to make sure that no one else can focus on this stuff either."
If you're an otherwise bright kid and you're in algebra class and stuff isn't making sense, you have two choices. You can either say, "Okay, I'm stupid and I'm just going to hide and pretend," or you can say, "You know what, I'm going to make it my goal to show everyone that this is not important," and to make it so that everyone realizes how much bullshit this is. And so if you have a couple kids in a class like that who have stronger personalities and they're the kind of "cool kids," then yeah, that's what sets that culture up. I've seen in even very normal schools if the cool kid is intellectually engaged, that actually changes everything. All of a sudden, the quarterback of the football team actually cares about his studies and is actually interested -- not just in it for the grades but actually thinks it's cool -- then all of a sudden you have a very different culture at your school as opposed to the other way around. My view, and this is a lot of what Khan Academy works on, is if we can give students more agency over their own learning, and if they're not talked to or pushed ahead at someone else's pace, if they're not promoted with gaps in their knowledge, if they're not constantly feeling judged, then you'll have a different culture. You'll allow everyone to engage at their level -- they don't have any shame. And then you allow learning to be a community activity where a student who is engaged and knows the material a little better can help students who are still learning it. It doesn't become an "us against the teacher" type of thing, and we've seen it. We've seen it in multiple schools that we've worked with. If you give students that agency and let them personalize [their learning], the culture improves.
What kinds of projects are you and Khan Academy working on this year that you are excited about?
The international stuff is cool. It's not just translating or re-doing the videos. It's exercises, the teacher dashboards, and it's aligning it to the different curricula, especially with some of the areas that we're very focused on, like India and Latin America. So that's very, very exciting. And we're already talking to some governments about replacing the need for textbooks and things like that. So that's very exciting.
On top of that, we have this whole partnership with the College Board around the SAT. They've redesigned the SAT, and they've called out this inequity around test prep. So we've been working with them to create what we call "The World's Best Test Prep," which happens to be free. That's been exciting. This last test administration, over 50% of the SAT takers used Khan Academy. We're already seeing a 20% reduction in paid test prep, and probably what's the coolest thing is that we are seeing students who take the PSAT -- which is 80% of American students -- they now can go to Khan Academy and type in their College Board code, and the PSAT now acts as a diagnostic for personalized learning on Khan Academy. It immediately knows what you're strong and weak at -- not just math, but reading and grammar as well. So that's very exciting. We are starting work on what we call the Educator Portal. We've always had tools for teachers, but these are more explicit tools for teachers and even professional developments and things like that. Those are the big areas.
What do you do to unwind and turn your brain off? Do you ever look at dumb websites or memes?
No, I have never! I have never! No, I'm kidding. There are some days I definitely watch TV that I'm not proud of. But on better days, those nights that I unwind and feel better for it, I usually do some yoga or go to the gym or go swimming, or I'll read a good book.
Are you watching or reading anything in particular that you're enjoying right now?
There's this book by Aravind Adiga called The White Tiger, which is about a servant in India from his point of view. Before that, I was re-reading the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, which I like to re-read every now and then. It was a bit of inspiration for Khan Academy.
Photo courtesy of Khan Academy