Columns, Imagine That

The accidental revolution

Turning the classroom on its head

Laura Mann

The affable young man in the orange sweater scans his audience with wide eyes, his face twitching as he suppresses a huge smile. Salman Khan shows all the signs of knowing a fantastic secret that will change the lives of everyone who listens, and he is thrilled to be able to share his secret with the TED audience he is speaking to, and, in turn, the world.

In 2004, Khan was a young, successful hedge fund manager with degrees from MIT and Harvard under his belt. When he found out that his young cousin was struggling in her math classes, he offered to help tutor her by making videos explaining the concepts. As well as sending the videos to his cousin, Khan made the content public, so anyone who wanted to watch and learn from the videos could access them for free on YouTube.

Although Khan didn’t expect a huge response, a funny thing soon started happening. His video tutorials began racking up views, and he started getting mail from not only struggling students, but educators who used the Khan videos to tutor their students. Over the next few years, Khan’s tutorials became so popular that, in 2009, Khan quit his hedge fund job to devote more time to the video tutorials. By 2010, the donations began raining in; Bill Gates contributed $5 million to Khan’s free tutoring website, dubbed Khan Academy, and, in 2012, Salman Khan was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. Schools around the world have begun using Khan’s at-home tutorials as part of their curricula, and the initial reports have been glowing. Khan’s video tutorials work, and the world is taking notice.

Flipping the classroom experience

In order to understand why Khan’s method works, we must begin rethinking questions about how kids learn. In the traditional classroom structure, the pace of learning is dictated by the teacher. Kids complete assignments and are given a grade; then the entire class moves on to the next concept. The child needs to only understand enough of the material to get a passing grade, which means that many of the kids didn’t absorb the material. By contrast, some of the kids probably got the concepts right away, and were bored waiting for the rest of the class to catch up with them.

The traditional response to this has been to put some kids in accelerated classes, and others in decelerated learning environments.

The traditional response to this has been to put some kids in accelerated classes, and others in decelerated learning environments. However, teachers who required their students to view Khan’s videos as homework assignments found that the videos allowed kids to learn at their own pace, without the social stigma associated with separating kids according to their academic ability. Kids who didn’t understand a concept could re-watch the video until they got it; kids who got the concepts right away could move on to the next segment. After viewing the videos, the kids were coming back to the classroom more prepared to discuss the concepts.

In his 2011 TED talk, Khan recounts, “I started getting letters from teachers, who would write, ‘We’ve used your videos to flip the classroom. You’ve given the lectures, so now what we do […] is assign the lectures for homework, and what used to be homework, [we] now have students doing in the classroom’.” In other words, the time that used to be spent lecturing can now be utilized to help individual kids with assignments. The lectures, delivered by Khan, are the homework. The classroom time is spent providing the individual attention that our kids so sorely need.

The best part is, the Khan Academy videos are free. Head over to to view the thousands of available video tutorials, and to experience a revolution in the making. Salman Khan, and other educators like him, are breaking down classroom walls, and turning education into the global, yet very individual, experience that it needs to be for our kids to succeed.

Imagine that!

Laura Mann recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. Her father Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (, a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”

© Michael Mann, 2012, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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