Sal Khan is a
His goal: revolutionize
the way students learn
By Irene Middleman Thomas
“YOU’RE ASKING ME?” Sal Khan
exclaimed incredulously when invited
by his alma mater, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT), to give
last year’s commencement address.
After all, just four years prior, the
then-31-year-old was a hedge fund
analyst—successful, yes, but not a
world changer. Since then, however, as
the founder of Khan Academy, a nonprofit school dedicated to providing “a
free world-class education for anyone,
anywhere,” Khan has become a world
changer, and was recently named as
one of Time magazine’s 100 Most
Influential People in the World. MIT
chose Khan to inspire its 2012 graduates to change their world.
S WIRL AR T: © HåKON MATHIESEN / AGE FOTOS TOCK
Who better to motivate graduating college students than Khan?
Raised by an immigrant single mother,
he founded his global school from
what began, in 2004, as a simple favor
for his 9-year-old cousin, Nadia, who
needed help passing a crucial math
placement test. From his home in the
Northeast at the time, Khan developed
and posted You Tube videos that used
his voice and a virtual blackboard,
which he drew upon to tutor Nadia
remotely in her New Orleans suburban home. To his surprise, he began to
receive grateful feedback from virtual
strangers who had viewed the videos.
By 2008, Khan had enough interest in
Scan or click
here for a video
the photo of
Sal Khan on
page 31 for an
example of a
his growing series of instructional videos that he incorporated Khan
Academy as a 501(c)( 3) nonprofit. A
year later, he quit his finance job to
devote himself to the tutorials.
Khan’s initial startup funding of
$3.5 million came from Google and
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Today the school is primarily supported by philanthropic donations.
In just five years, Khan Academy
has become widely recognized, publicized by 60 Minutes, Charlie Rose,
National Public Radio, CNN and,
famously, Bill Gates, whose own kids
use Khan Academy. With 6 million
unique users clicking on Khan
Academy videos (mostly made by Sal)
each month, it’s a worldwide phenomenon—and yet, Khan, typically dressed
in a V-neck sweater and jeans, is humble about his achievements. “Even now,
I kind of imagine that I’m making the
videos for a larger collection of cousins,” he says.
A background in learning
“I always enjoyed learning new
things,” he recalls about his own
background as a middle-class public
school student in New Orleans, and
later on as a college student. “I liked
talking to my peers, having direct
conversations with teachers, but I was
frustrated when being lectured to.
College at MIT is about as good as it
gets, but still, I felt that, much of the
time, I got more out of what I did out
of class than in.
“In elementary school, I was lucky
enough to be in programs
that had enrichment activities and small groups.
Also, my mom is a strong-willed woman and has
always questioned norms. My
older sister was a very advanced
student, and interacting with her
rubbed off on me, and made
teachers push me more,” he says.
As Khan says, not everyone has
the motivation and support that he did.
The typical educational system presents
the subject matter for a certain period
of time and then moves on, whether the
material is truly understood or not, a
“The old classroom model simply
doesn’t fit our changing needs,” writes
Khan in his 2012 book, The One World
Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, a
provocative and passionate look at his
philosophies, purpose and plans for
the future of the educational system.
He notes that, in the United
States, widespread evidence shows
that American students score well
below their European and Asian
peers in reading and math. The U.S.