I’m currently reading The One World Schoolhouse by Salmon Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy. The Khan Academy started when Sal was tutoring his cousin Nadia. She was intuitive and brilliant, but had failed a crucial math test because she didn’t understand unit conversion. Sal makes an interesting point:

Why did she have trouble with unit conversion? She didn’t know, and neither did I. But let’s think about a few of the possible reasons that she might not have “gotten” this particular topic. Maybe she was absent on the day it was introduced in class. Maybe she was physically present but not at her best. Maybe she was sleepy, or had a bellyache, or was upset about an argument with her mom. Maybe she had an exam in the class that came next, and was cramming for that instead of paying attention. Maybe she had a crush on a boy two rows over and was daydreaming about him. Maybe her teacher was in a hurry to move on and just didn’t explain it as well.

These are only conjectures; the point is that there are any number of things that might have prevented Nadia from catching on to unit conversion, and that once the concept had passed her by, it wasn’t coming back to class. That module had been covered. Those problems had been worked on and erased. There was a curriculum to follow, a schedule to keep; the class had to move on. …

People learn at different rates. Some people seem to catch on to things in quick bursts of intuition; others grunt and grind their way towards comprehension. Quick isn’t necessarily smarter and slower definitely isn’t dumber. Further catching on quickly isn’t the same as understanding thoroughly. So the pace of learning is a question of style, not relative intelligence. …

The point is that whether there are ten or twenty or fifty kids in a class, there will be disparities in their grasp of a topic at any given time. Even a one-to-one ratio is not ideal if the teachers feels forced to march the student along at a state-mandated pace, regardless of how well the concepts are understood. When that rather arbitrary “snapshot” moment comes along—when it’s time to wrap up the module, give the exam, and move on—there will still likely be some students who haven’t quite figured things out. They could probably figure things out eventually—but that’s exactly the problem. The standard classroom model doesn’t really allow for eventual understanding. The class—of whatever size—has moved on.

Sal’s point is that “lessons should be paced to the individual student’s needs, not to some arbitrary calendar,” and I think he’s right. The relevant question, however, is this: “How are teachers supposed to tailors their lessons for the individual needs of 20 disparate students?” It’s not possible. It’s not possible. At least, not the way classrooms are currently run. There are some things that need to change quite dramatically in order to make this possible.

I believe that it is possible, if we change our mindset and do things differently. I’m going to explore this in more detail as I read more of Sal’s book.