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LISTEN — Class Disrupted Podcast Episode 3: Why Can’t Sal Khan Just Teach Everyone?

By Michael B. Horn and Diane Tavenner | June 1, 2020

Courtesy of Khan Academy

Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every Tuesday).

Parents everywhere are staring down summer and thinking ahead to whether schools will open next year, and what it might look like if they do. The bottom line is that there’s a lot we don’t know. But we do know it will look very different. While that’s scary, there’s also great opportunity in this moment.

Resources like Khan Academy are valued more than ever, and yet they are not in themselves enough. In this episode of Class Disrupted, we talk with Sal Khan about why Khan Academy can’t — and shouldn’t — teach everyone everything. We discuss why the classroom element is so important and why — as we look toward next year — we can seize on new ways of learning that aren’t constrained by the frameworks of the past.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane: I thought this week we could start by just checking in with each other. You’ve got 5-year-old twins at home. How’s it going?

Michael: Don’t I ever have 5-year-old twins at home. You know, Diane, we quickly created a routine for our family to give the girls certainty about what each day would look like along with opportunities for them to have choice in what they wanted to do. And, importantly from their perspective, when they wanted to snack. It feels like we’re ordering online right now constantly because they must be going through growth spurts. But we did it so that they could understand what we control and what they control and give them some security in these times, but also keep building their agency and executive functioning skills that I thought their school was doing a really good job of when they were enrolled physically.

But you know, I will say there are hard moments. The school took a bit of a while to get into gear with its own schedule, and so as it’s evolved, that’s impacted our schedule and our rhythms as well. And we’re staring down summer right now, which I think explains why in the last week alone, my wife and I are getting a dozen texts or messages on Facebook groups each day about next year.

The parents of all my kids’ friends are basically saying: What’s going to happen? What do we do about the kids’ school? Should we look at online school? This whole thing we’ve got going on right now, it’s just not sustainable, and it’s not sustainable for us, either. I’ll say, kind of like the haircut that you see on me right now.

Diane: You look fabulous.

Michael: Thank you. But you know, we’re all making do, right? I’m curious, how are you? You’re on the other end of the spectrum, with an 18-year-old at home, which I imagine can’t be easy either.

Diane: You know, it’s so interesting because 18, 5, there’s a lot of differences there, and there’s a ton of similarities. We’re at the moment where this year is kind of in the bag for us. And like you said, everyone’s attention has turned to next year. Fortunately with an 18-year-old, I’m not so worried about summer because he can take care of himself. So I’m not panicking about what I do with him. But my gosh, are we thinking about next year! And all of his friends, and everyone we know, and you know, for 18-year-olds, this is a huge question, Michael.

Do they go to college? Do they not? Do they take a gap year? Do they not? How do they even know if there’s even going to be college? Will it be online? Will it not? There’s a huge financial implication here. So very similar questions are coming up, just for a different stage of life.

Michael: Yeah, indeed. And there’s so much noise right now and so many trade-offs that it’s just hard to see straight because the news and the implications and the forecasts change. Not just every week, but honestly, every single day. And so the other part that I think is really hard for this, for a lot of families, is it’s hard to generalize too much. There are trade-offs that look different for every single family based on the circumstance that you uniquely are in. Right, Diane?

Diane: I mean, it couldn’t be more true. And people keep calling and asking for advice, and it’s like you have to ask 100 questions to get to the nuance of their situation. That’s absolutely right. Or giving any advice because it’s so personal to every single person, and the reality is that there are lots of things we do not know and we are not going to know, and people feel like they are going to have to make decisions with minimal information. And that just feels yucky. I mean, there’s just no way around that.

Michael: It’s scary. We are having very intense conversations in my house about this right now.

Diane. And both of us are optimists. And so what I would say is there’s so much we don’t know, but Michael, there’s a lot of stuff we do know.

Michael: Totally. And I was really encouraged by our last episode and all that Larry Berger shared about digital learning and how when it’s done right, it offers so much potential.

Diane: It’s so true. And you know, we’ve been talking about this myth that digital means we don’t need teachers anymore, which it just doesn’t make any sense at all. And I think everyone is feeling that and experiencing that in the country, in the world right now. Just because we have digital stuff does not mean you don’t need a teacher.

Michael: And I’m so tired of the myth, as I think I’ve made clear, and probably some of those listening to it are sick of me saying, but the best digital learning tools out there, they let teachers do their job at a higher level and they give them time to look at each individual student and understand where their unique learning blocks might be and how they can unlock their potential.

Diane: Exactly. And you know, one of the interesting things that is coming from these conversations is, all right, we have, we’ve now talked about really great digital tools that are amazing, that do that stuff. We’ve talked about teachers being integral to that, and we’ve talked to some teachers who are like, yeah, I love these digital tools.

And so logically, some people are like, well, if you put those two things together, is that all you need? And of course, the first place they go, then, Michael, is Sal Khan because Sal Khan’s the world’s most famous teacher. He has really amazing digital tools that reach 100 million people on the planet.

I can’t even imagine 100 million. But 100 million people are using Khan Academy right now. And so people are saying, why can’t Sal Khan just teach everyone?

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Michael: If only. You know, parents might think that all great learning requires is a digital tool and a teacher, but even that’s not going to fill your cup. The problem is that it’s just not a complete education. Kids obviously need to learn knowledge, right? Just because we have Google for everything doesn’t mean you don’t need the foundation and knowledge, right? But there are also some key power skills and habits that cross any content area that are really critical to master, and they need to practice all of these things in an engaging, hands-on way that really motivates and activates them in the process. And so what that means is we need a different approach to what learning looks like altogether.

Diane: I totally agree with you, and here’s the cool thing: Sal Khan agrees with you too. I am fortunate to live in the same neighborhood as him, and so I thought, well, if everyone is asking this question about Sal, why don’t we just ask the question of Sal himself?

And don’t worry, we didn’t break any social distancing norms, but I did catch up with Sal and got to ask him this question and more.

**

Diane: I don’t know if people realize you’re a dad, and I’m so interested to hear, how’s shelter-in-place going as a dad of three kids?

Sal: I have an 11-year-old, an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old. I think in this time of social distancing, everything is relative. And relatively speaking, we have it pretty good.

I have a lot of support. My wife’s a physician, but she’s not a frontline worker. So she’s able to see a lot of her patients remotely right now. And my mother-in-law lives with us, and our school has done a great job of keeping our kids learning. The 5-year-old’s been a little bit difficult, but all in all, it’s been pretty good.

Diane: I know that Khan Academy is doing 1 million things right now in the world. What are the big highlights for you? I imagine you just feel this huge sense of urgency.

Sal: Yeah. I think a sense of urgency sums it up. There’s an urgency to keep people learning through the crisis. And then there’s also a moment we’re in wherein there’s an open-mindedness to things that there wasn’t an open-mindedness to three months ago. And you feel like there’s a window there that if you can go in there, show something works, and really help folks, that it can create more of a permanent positive change.

A lot of folks online have been seeing their traffic really go through the roof. We’ve had about 300 percent of normal registrations, or five to 10 times of normal. Parent registrations are 20 times. And so our No. 1 job is to stay up and running.

And then as soon as we realized that we were going to have mass school closures around the world, we’ve attempted to get into high gear. We’ve had kind of a war room atmosphere, although we’re starting to get pretty tired.

I remember that first weekend, the rest of the world was telling parents and teachers and students, “Here’s 500 resources on the internet, have fun.” And that’s stressful. So we said, OK, can we archetype schedules for students of different ages, just so the parents could get their head around it. Could we start doing webinars for teachers and parents and students so they can get their head around things, and understand either how to use Khan Academy or just how to do this quarantine schooling thing that folks are trying to pull off.

And so we’ve been gearing up for, how do we keep people learning, not only through the end of [the] school year, but through the summer and then for back-to-school? I know both you and I are big believers in the notion that students learn at different paces, that they have different gaps in their knowledge.

And that’s always been the case. If you’re a sixth-grade teacher, you always have had students with different gaps, preparedness. And that’s where online tools have proven valuable over the last many years. But this year it’s going to be that much worse. You’re going to have that much more variance.

And so we are accelerating these courses that we’re calling “getting ready for”: So it might be “getting ready for sixth grade,” “getting ready for fifth grade.” And these are exactly what you need to know, starting at one plus one equals two, but that get you to grade level as quickly as possible with some acceleration mechanics, because obviously your average sixth-grader will know a lot of that material. And so the model we’re going to advocate this coming back to school, ideally over the summer, but for sure, maybe the first week of school, is, Hey, whatever grade level you’re at, do the “getting ready for” grade level course for the first week.

If kids know the material, they’ll get through it in a couple of hours. If they don’t know the material, they need to fill in those gaps and then start with grade-level material. The kids who haven’t finished the “getting ready for” material, they can do that in parallel while you’re doing the grade-level materials.

Diane: One of the key questions parents are asking is, what does my child actually need to know?

But the other big question they ask, quite frankly, is, “Why can’t Sal Khan just teach everyone everything they need to know?” You know, you’re the most famous teacher in the world. Why can’t everyone just learn everything they need to on Khan Academy?

Sal: Well there’s layers to that question. Let’s just use math as an example. If you want your students to remediate all their gaps they might have to keep up with the grade level or even move ahead, Khan Academy can be great. There’s a young girl in Afghanistan — I tell her story a lot — Sultana. The Taliban kept her from going to school. She gets on Khan Academy at around age 12. She was hyper-motivated, so she got through most of Khan Academy in our own time and pace, through [calculus], [statistics], physics, and then smuggled herself into Pakistan to take the SAT because it’s not administered in Afghanistan. And then she actually got political asylum — I’ve kept in touch with her — and last time I heard from her she was doing quantum computing research at [the California Institute of Technology]. There is a class of student that is hyper-motivated and can get onto Khan Academy, and it’s a lifeline for them.

Even for the Sultanas of the world, though, I still think she would have preferred, and I think everyone would have preferred, if she had a community of learners to be with, if she had adult figures who could mentor her, who could put that arm on her shoulder, who could help her grapple with other aspects of life.

You know, school isn’t just about learning to factor a quadratic. It’s also about learning to deal with others, how to get through conflict, and you get mentored by a lot of folks. So there’s a lot of that in school. And Sultana is an outlier. I think a lot of families — a lot of kids — they need a combination.

It’s great to have tools where you can get feedback and personalization, and if you’re stuck on something, you get a hint or you can get a video lesson, but there’s nothing like having either an older peer or a teacher, ideally both. Or it doesn’t have to be an older peer, it can be another peer who can help unstick you, who can help motivate you to be a part of a culture of learning.

At my kid’s school, his friends are reading. There’s a culture of reading. The teachers are inculcating a culture of reading, so they want to read. That doesn’t happen just randomly. So I think the ideal is the best of both worlds.

What I tell parents is you want both, but if your child is able to do even 30 minutes a day, 40 minutes a day in each math, and reading, and writing, they’re going to do just fine through the crisis. But you don’t want that to be their entire education. You want the learning to happen and the socialization and the mentorship and that close connection with teachers and students.

Diane: Maybe a lot of people don’t realize you actually started a school, the Khan Lab [School]. I’ve had the privilege of being there. And all that you’re saying actually comes to life in that school.

Sal: Yeah, and Diane, in a lot of ways, you were my inspiration. I was like, Diane has done incredible things. We were always working with a lot of incredible schools, Summit, and the Summit network being one set of them.

I wrote The One World Schoolhouse, and it was published in 2012. The first third of the book was, how did the system get to where it is? The middle third is my journey falling into this Khan Academy adventure. And the last third is, all right, what does the world need out of schooling and what could it look like given the tools we have? When I wrote it, it was just me sitting in this closet, theorizing things like, “Ooh, maybe we shouldn’t have summer vacation.” You know, I still believe that. So, you know, some of the stuff is very low-tech. Why do we have summer vacation? It was because kids and teachers had to work on the farm. That doesn’t happen anymore. And frankly, it’s a source of inequity because yours and my children, we can send them to cool summer camps that are enriching, while other children, especially lower-income kids, can’t.

I didn’t grow up that rich. I used to watch TV all day. I think I literally watched 14 hours of TV during the summers. So that’s a source of inequity. And we know kids not only don’t learn, they forget. The regular school day ending at two or three in the afternoon is another source of inequity. It was designed for a Leave It to Beaver world. Kids whose parents might not have gone to college, kids who have English as a second language, or who don’t have a lot of resources, or whose parents are a dishwasher working until 7 or 8 p.m., they’re not going to get the support for their homework or with tutors, while upper-middle-class and affluent families can do that type of thing.

So that’s very basic stuff. Peer-to-peer mixed-age learning is another. I’m a big believer in it — that’s the way humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years. And only in the last 200 have we kind of compartmentalized them into an age band, plus or minus six months.

And when you start to think about the technology — actually, I won’t even talk about the technology because I always say it’s not about the technology, it’s about the pedagogical idea. The pedagogical ideas are that students should be able to learn at their own time and pace. We know every student learns different concepts at different paces. Fast doesn’t mean smart. Slow doesn’t mean dumb. And oftentimes the same kid who’s fast on one concept might be slow on the next. And that’s OK.

Then there’s this notion of mastery learning, which I know you believe strongly in as well. In the traditional system, you get a C on a test, it goes into your permanent record. You get labeled, you’ll get branded with the C on your forehead, and you know, that C is in some basic concept. You didn’t know 20 percent of the material. The class will then move on to the more advanced concept, expecting you to understand that somehow. So we believe, hey, if you got a C on it, keep on working on it. Maybe the class moves on, maybe you move on a little bit. You do need to move on and make sure you see other material. But there should always be opportunities and incentives for you to go back and fill in those gaps so that those gaps don’t become debilitating.

We’ve imagined the transcript of the future should look different. It shouldn’t be about how much time you spent in a seat or how long it took you to learn things. It should be competency-based. Did you know it or did you not? And if you don’t know it, you can go back and improve it.

It should have your portfolio of creative work. It should have some type of narrative assessment from peers and from faculty. So that was the theory behind starting [Khan Lab School]. And I have to say it, it’s been an adventure. I know I don’t have to tell you. It’s one thing to write about it, and I knew that, and it’s a whole other thing to try to build it. And that’s how you learn. I know you believe in project-based learning, too. This is a project and you’re gonna learn from it. And so there’s a lot that I’ve learned. Overall, almost all of these dimensions I think have borne fruit.

One of the hardest things is helping people realize that some of the constraints that they’ve assumed have always been there, are not there. And sometimes even when you explicitly remove it, it’s hard. It’s like how baby elephants are handled — they have metal shackles, and then when they’re older they have rope shackles that an elephant can clearly break, and even when you remove them, they still won’t leave the cage, so to speak. And I think there’s a lot of that.

Diane: No, that resonates with me a lot. I often hear, well, we can’t do that. And I always say, why? Is there a policy? Is there a law? Is there a rule in there? And when you dig down, no, there’s none of that. It’s just this leftover.

Sal: Oh yeah. There’s all sorts of examples. Can you time-shift things where not everyone has to be teaching every subject all the time? And that way you can go deeper on certain subjects and certain times. Those types of things are just in some ways common sense, but they can be very mind-blowing.

Diane: It’s true. I think one of the things that is probably surprising to people is when I visit the Khan Lab Academy, what I see are kids like setting goals. And I see them working collaboratively and I see them chasing down big questions they have, and in dialogue, and what I don’t often see is a ton of technology, which probably shocks people. It’s like this tool. It’s not like all the kids are on a computer just facing a screen, which is what I think a lot of people think of when they think of you or they think of me, and it’s just not what we actually think a full education looks like.

Sal: I think it’s the same thing for the Summit schools. We want to have as much interactivity and personalization as possible. That’s the pedagogical principle. And if it’s chalk that gets you there, if it’s just better carpeting, or if it’s technology, if it’s Khan Academy, whatever it might be, it’s any and all of the above.

And you’re absolutely right. I always talk about, how can technology unlock the human experience? People think it might dehumanize the classroom, but you know, those lecture halls we were in in college with 300 kids and, you know, half of us were falling asleep? Half of the kids don’t even show up. There’s a lecturer just reading from notes that they’ve given for the last 10 years. That’s a dehumanizing experience where we’re all in the room together, but we’re not interacting. We’re not asking questions, we’re not exploring. And so if there’s a way that students can get some of the lectures, some of their practice feedback at their own time and pace, that way when they get into the room, when they get into the building, there should be more interaction, more helping each other.

So you’re absolutely right. And I have to give a shout-out to the teachers. When my kids had to come home, especially with my 11- and 8-year-old who have now been in the program for several years, they’re more productive than I am right now. They want me to get out of the way. They’re like, “I got a Zoom call right now, dad. Don’t bother me. Don’t use up the internet.”

Diane: Yeah. I have the exact same thing with my son right now. He’s balancing getting ready for college and finishing high school, and he’s got his own schedule, and exactly that. Everyone likes to talk about executive functioning skills and the skills that make you successful in the world. And I think what kids in your school do is they practice. They just practice those skills every single day. And so when the moment comes, they have them and they’re able to use them. It’s different from what we’re hearing parents across the country saying, things like, “Oh my gosh, I’m trying to manage my child’s emails and website, all this stuff coming in.” They don’t have the skill set to do that and they’re really lost.

Sal: Yeah. And that’s probably the most important skill. That’s a super-important skill in college and, frankly, life.

Diane: One of the key things that I really admire about you is this is what you believe is best for all kids. And it’s what you’re fighting for, for all kids, not just some kids. And in a moment where inequity is so top of mind, I think that’s really critical.

Sal: I tell the Lab School team, it’s not just about serving the 200 kids who go there. We’ve got to open source. We got to figure out how this model scales. It’s essentially a virtual school right now. And we’ll go back to being a physical school when it’s appropriate, but probably will stay a hybrid school for at least the next several months. We’re thinking about: How do we expand it? How do we make it a virtual school? As you know, in Silicon Valley, real estate has been the rate-limiting factor.

Diane: We’re thinking about the exact same thing. Look, the reality is next year there are kids who won’t be able to return to our buildings for health reasons and whatnot. And so how do we serve all of them and more?

Well, I want to just end with, how you said there are urgencies around opportunity right now. Are there one or two really significant opportunities you feel like this moment has that we should be collectively trying to reach for?

Sal: I think there’s several. I’ve talked a lot about what Khan Academy is doing with getting kids up to grade level, the personalization, obviously dashboards for teachers, districts. That’s one set.

Then there’s this competency-based learning notion. So I’m exploring — it’s kind of a Sal project, not a Khan Academy project — ways that students could get … you know, imagine if you finish Algebra II on Khan Academy, you get college algebra credit, and for those who don’t know, college algebra is called the killing fields of the community college system. So many kids, because of college algebra, end up with debt and no degree. So if all students could get that credit in ninth, 10th, 11th grade, it would be huge. And then obviously, why not other courses? You can start getting credit sooner in a competency-based mechanism.

And then every teacher in the country and probably the world right now is trying to figure out, “How do I use videoconferencing to teach and learn?” And once again it’s a Sal project and not a Khan Academy project, but I’m working with Long Beach School District, and we’re calling it schoolhouse.world. The name is awfully close to One World Schoolhouse.

It’s based on Khan Academy taxonomy, and we’re starting with math. Every student in the district would have access. So say there’s an Algebra II, unit three, on something like factoring quadratics, and a student’s having trouble. Khan Academy by itself isn’t enough, and they need to be unstuck somehow.

And the teachers in the district, not just in the school, the teachers in the whole district can say, “Oh, wow, look, there’s a lot of demand for that. I can schedule a Zoom session on Thursday at 9 p.m. Pacific and do that.” And then the students can thank their teachers, “Hey, that was amazing. I really liked it.” It’s kind of this peer-to-peer cloud matching service that’s always been the holy grail. Khan Academy is great for a lot of the asynchronous learning, but the ideal is that plus that human element that can get you unstuck, motivate you, figure out what’s going on in your life.

And so one of the dreams is, you click a button and someone is there to help you. Now there’s two models. It could be a stranger, and there’s a lot of safety concerns that we’re trying to work through. Or it could be a cohort that you’re always a part of and that you form a relationship with.

I think there’s a huge need for it, and I don’t view it as virtual-only. I view it as, you can create a virtual system, but then it can plug in nicely with the physical experiences. Just like we’ve been talking about. This integration is really key.

Diane: Those are all inspiring ideas. I’m hopeful that you guys can figure that one out and much more, and I’m so grateful you took time with us this morning. Thank you for being with us. And all you’re doing for the world.

Sal: Well, same to you, Diane. Thanks for having me. And you’re one of my heroes. And I look forward to seeing how this adventure goes for the next few months for both of us.

Diane: I’ll see you in the neighborhood.

Sal: See you in the neighborhood.

***

Michael: That was an incredible conversation, Diane. It makes me jealous that you get to be neighbors with him and have those conversations when social distancing is not a thing far more often, because his optimism is so contagious. And his ideas make so much sense, but they’re also inspirational in the sense of, yeah, we should be doing that. School should look like this. And I guess what I’m wondering is: Why aren’t schools doing this? Why aren’t they following through and really using, particularly with summer coming up, the opportunity to start piloting these things and make it a reality?

Diane: Yeah, it’s a good question, Michael, and it’s one that kind of perplexes both of us, but you know, I think one of the reasons schools aren’t doing these things is there’s so much they don’t know about next year. And so I think people feel a little frozen. But at the same time, there’s a lot of things that we actually do know about next year and that we can assume. And so from my perspective, like, let’s identify those and build from there. So we definitely know that next year, money is going to be tight for schools. There’s just no way around it. That’s our reality. So that’s true.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Budgets are cratering everywhere. States aren’t going to have dollars. Districts certainly aren’t going to have dollars. It’s going to be hard to fund some of the changes that we’re talking about or give teachers the planning time that they need to make some of these shifts, and on top of that, we can’t guarantee safety from COVID-19. It’s certainly going to be around with us in September, and I’m pretty sure there will not be a vaccine at that point, and so that’s going to limit the opportunities, honestly, for educators to get together and start to plan these things as well.

Diane: Right. And for kids to be on campus and what that looks like. And so the reality is next year, some of our kids and some of our families are not going to be at in-person schools. Some of our teachers won’t be there as well. And people are really going to be having to weigh the need and want to return to an in-person school with the risk. And that’s a reality. So that all adds up to that next year is not going to be normal. It’s just not. And so that we know for sure.

Michael: Yeah. And you know, one of the things I’m getting a ton of right now is the question, “Should I enroll my children in a virtual school if they’re going to be virtual anyway? Why not enroll with folks who have a lot of experience facilitating a full-time virtual experience?”

And there’s, you know, there’s schools that have been around for 15 years at this point, longer actually in some cases, that have been doing this for a while. And I guess I’d say two things, but I’m curious how you’d respond, Diane. One, for some families, I’m sure virtual school would make a lot of sense, and it’s worth looking into. Some of this is going to be geographic considerations of, “Do you have a good virtual school in your area?”

But I’m not going to recommend it one way or the other because it’s just, there’s too many questions that you need to sort through that are personal to the family and the circumstances and your community environment and your values to make a decision there.

Diane: I’m curious what your second one is.

Michael: Yeah. I guess the second thing, which I think is the more productive conversation, is how can you not only look at those virtual school options and figure out which ones start to accord with these new realities. And I’ll just say two things that I think are interesting on the full-time virtual schools. One is many of them were actually built around a lot of the old assumptions as the traditional schools themselves. And so you might say, well, they’re freed from all these constraints. Why can’t they do things differently? But they actually suffer from a lot of the limitations that we’ve talked about, just like traditional schools do. And we’ll get into some of those more in future episodes. A lot of these virtual schools require you to count the number of minutes that you’re in front of a computer, not what you’re actually learning and how you’re learning. So they actually replicate a lot of these experiences sometimes. So you want to be really intentional about picking a good virtual school is the first thing.

But I guess the second thing is, why not have a more productive conversation about how you can start to help your school move forward in the ways that we’re starting to talk about? You know, how can you help your school pivot amidst this time and start to build some bridges or pathways into the future of schooling that we’re describing in this podcast, which I think is a large reason why both of us were excited to get together and have this conversation for people.

Diane: It’s interesting, at the start of this episode, I was wearing my parent hat, but now I’m going to switch and I’m going to wear my school leader hat and say to you, parents have a ton of questions and a ton of uncertainty. Well, we do in schools as well. You know, we’re dealing with a lot of open questions around the requirements we’ll have. And so part of the reason we don’t have clear answers for the fall yet is we don’t have clear answers ourselves. And so I love this idea of bridges that you just introduced, and it’s something we’re talking about a lot, and as we plan for next year, and we know it won’t look like it did this year, pre-COVID-19, and we hope it doesn’t. That in some ways it gets better going forward in the future. But in this in-between time, we really want to do things that build a bridge to that better future. And we always talk about that as being different from building a pier. And a pier, if you imagine this, goes into the ocean and dumps you in the ocean, right? It doesn’t take you to your future that you want, whereas a bridge is taking you where you want to go in the future. And so that’s core to how we’re thinking about this right now.

Michael: It’s such a good metaphor. It reminds me also of how Sal talked about the elephant story and the shackles and the inability to pivot. And it’s something I’ve studied a ton in the disruptive innovation work that I’ve done, around how organizations struggle to go do what they haven’t done before and break out of these old molds. But I guess the push I would have for educators and parents listening is, how can you create those areas within your school where you can start to experiment in these new ways?

And just for example, I wrote in Forbes a couple months ago about a parent in my community who is really struggling because she suffers from an immune challenge and she didn’t want to send her kid to school before they had canceled. So this is back in March before school had been canceled. And the school basically said, well, it’s going to be an unexcused absence. And this will count against you and so forth, and it just, it drove me nuts because what we really ought to be recognizing in this time is that learning can happen anywhere. It certainly can happen on the internet digitally. You can connect with mentors and people in real time to help guide you and do amazing projects in your community.

What we should be focused on is not where the learning occurs, but did the learning occur, and do the right experiences get presented to students? And move away from this compliance and what educators call “seat time” mentality. You know, measuring the minutes you sit in a seat as opposed to what you’ve been learning. I mean, going back to the elephant metaphor, but stretching it a little bit, we’ve been measuring the wrong end of students for about a hundred years in this country. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

We could start to build these bridges where you just have pockets that say, “Hey, for those families that want that full-time virtual experience next year, we’re going to offer you a more robust way to do that. For those families that want to try to come in full time, we’ve got a way for you to do that because there’ll be fewer of you. And for those of you that want a hybrid experience, which I think is going to be a lot of families, we’re going to find some creative ways to facilitate that for you, too.”

Diane: And Michael, I think what has to drive all of that, and where I come back to what allows us to know we’re building a bridge and not a pier is, what do we actually want out of next year? And this all has to go back to, at the end of the day, what’s the purpose of school? Why do you send your child to school? And you know, as parents, there’s multiple reasons why, but I think that, you know, as a mom, what I’m thinking about is: What am I getting out of this for my child? Is it just learning math? Is it just learning to read? Is it socialization? Is it child care? Is it my child learning how to become a better person? Is it that he’s learning how to have skills that are going to help him be successful in life? Is it all of those things? But we really have to go back and think about what do we really want out of this for kids. And then think differently about how we get to that.

Michael: Such a good point because we actually did research on this question about what parents want when they choose a school. And some, they’re trying to help their kids get out of a troubling situation and escape that so that they can recover, really. And they view it as hopefully temporary. Some families are picking schools because they want to be among a group of like-minded families from a social-emotional community-values perspective and the like. Some are just because they want to execute their plan for their kids and they’ve got a set of academic experiences they want to make sure their children go through.

What I reflect upon when I hear that is what you did at Summit, and we talked about this early on, but I think it bears repeating. You gave the families in your school and the students — actually, you empowered the students to make this decision — four different pathways to match where they were, and what they wanted out of the experience in their current circumstance.

Diane: That’s absolutely what we did, and I think that’s at the heart of it. A school needs to figure out how to serve very different students, very different families, very different circumstances. And next year is going to bring an ever more obvious set of differences. I would argue that they’ve always been there and maybe we just didn’t see them, and now it’s just more obvious.

And so, really, what I think we’re talking about is the schools that you and I imagine and that we want, and of the future, that we think really serve kids, are able to do this. That’s what they do. They personalize for families. They enable people to pick different pathways and get what they need from it, and they’re flexible and all those things. And so what feels secure to me about next year is doing school in a way that leads us in that direction, and then is also responsive in the moment that we’re in.

Michael: I think that’s the perfect launching point for the rest of this podcast series, because the reason, really, we’re having this conversation is to sort of go back to some first principles and ask schools in their communities to step back and say: What do you want out of your schooling experience? What do you want your children to know and be able to do? Learn the skills, learn values, learn habits of success. And in the next episode, I’m really excited, Diane, because we’re going to get to start to tackle some of those other questions, right? We’ve laid out the digital pathway, I think, to something much more robust than what most people have experienced so far, and now we’re going to get an opportunity to tackle all of the other experiences that you can start to provide, that Sal started to talk about, that you should be doing, that schooling should be about, that should be independent of the question of where does it occur, but more what are those experiences we want to make sure learners have.

Diane: I can’t wait, Michael. It’s going to be really fun.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a lifelong educator and innovator and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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