22. Sal Khan: “If It Works for 15 Cousins, It Could Work for a Billion People.”People I (Mostly) Admire
- 1,690 views
- 3 Apr 2021
Khan Academy grew out of Sal Khan’s online math tutorials for his extended family. It’s now a platform used by more than 115 million people in 190 countries. So what does Khan want to do next? How about reinventing in-school learning, too? Find out why Steve nearly moved to Silicon Valley to be part of Khan's latest venture.
When Sal Khan started posting a few free instructional videos on YouTube 15 years ago, I don't think anyone could have imagined what Khan Academy would become. More than 115 million registered users spread across 190 countries in 46 different languages. And it's gone way beyond videos other over 70000 practice problems, quizzes and articles, even state of the art SAT prep, all of it available, completely free to students and parents. Welcome to people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt. I spent much of my time these days working to my center at the University of Chicago to try to change the world for the better.
And I can't tell you how much we've struggled and how little impact we've had relative to what I would have hoped for. Silicon makes it look easy, but in reality it is incredibly hard.
So today I have two goals.
First, I want to get inside the head of silicon to understand what the special sauce is that has made it so incredibly successful in this area so I can do better myself.
Second, although he doesn't advertise it, I have the suspicion that Selkowitz ambitions go far beyond Khan Academy. I think he has an even bolder plan in mind, a complete rethinking of how education works. I also have radical ideas for the future of education, and my pipe dream is that our visions might align and there could be an opportunity for us to work together.
So let's see. Sal Khan, what a treat it is to get to talk to you today. Likewise, I've always been a big fan to you. I'm a huge admirer. But I have to say, I think you set a very dangerous example for other people. You had a good job you liked at a hedge fund that paid you a ton of money. And then you had some crazy vision that you would post short lectures on the Internet and you'd give them away for free, hoping to provide kids another way to learn that sounds like a well-intentioned plan.
It also sounds like the kind of scheme that would fail nine hundred ninety nine times out of a thousand. Wasn't it crazy to think that Khan Academy could actually work?
Yeah, well, before I was in the hedge fund world, I kept being drawn to either tutoring directly, like me being people's tutors, or how can we leverage technology to help people learn ideally at their own time and pace. And so that was always in the back of my mind. Even while I was working at the hedge fund, I would tell my friends I like this job. It's interesting, but I'm only going to do it until I can be independently wealthy and then I'll start a school on my own terms.
And then when my one cousin in particular, Navia, in 2004 needed help, I wanted to help her because she was being put into a slower math track in seventh grade, which has all sorts of implications for her own self-esteem and just her life. So started in a very organic family project type of way. And that same Nadia, who was being put into a remedial math class, was then accelerated into an advanced math class after I lobbied on her behalf, is a bit of a tiger cousin.
Before I knew it, word had spread in my family that free tutoring was going on. So there was about 10, 15 cousins, family, friends I started working with with the background in software I was always fascinated by. Let me see if I can make some tools to streamline what we're doing. I called it Khan Academy just as a joke. It was me with my cousins, although in the back of my mind I said the cool thing about software, if it works for 15 cousins, it could work for a billion people eventually.
So I had some delusional aspirations at the time. And by 2006, a friend suggested that I make videos to supplement my lessons, which I was having trouble doing, and I initially thought it was a bad idea. I said YouTube's frivolous. It's for dogs on skateboards, cats playing piano. It's not for serious learning.
Why did you think the videos would be a bad idea? Because you thought that the back and forth was really important or just because you thought YouTube was frivolous.
It was both I think Technologist's often fall into this trap, and I, with a tech background, was falling into it. I was like, look, I'm writing all this cool software that can adapt to students and giving them as many exercises as they need and giving them feedback. And I get all this data and analytics videos feel so low tech. If this was a good idea, people would have done this with VCRs in the 80s. And then there is another notion, which is at the time YouTube did feel the way Tic-Tac feels now is just for these silly little things.
But then, you know, I gave it a shot. And when I asked for feedback from my family, they famously told me they like me better on YouTube than in person.
So my self-esteem likes to believe that they still appreciated having me on the phone accessible. But they also really appreciated having an on demand, infinitely patient version of their cousin available at 3:00 in the morning that they didn't have to feel embarrassed about if they need to cover something from four grade levels before. For my cousins, many of them, it was transformational. They went from being students struggling to the top students in their school or even in some cases in the city.
The YouTube videos in particular became very discoverable and accessible by people who aren't my cousins. I started getting letters from people all over the world saying how it was helping them, how it was helping their children, and frankly had trouble focusing on my day job. And that's when I took the plunge. I set it up as a not for profit with a mission of free world class education for anyone anywhere. And a lot of my friends are because I live in Silicon Valley at this point.
And they were saying, hey, we'll write a check, you can quit your job and we can do a social good for profit. And that sounded good. But it always led to these conversations of, well, this is how we can monetize the users. And when I read these letters from people around the world, I was like, I don't know if I want to monetize them and I don't know if I want to add any friction's to someone who wants to learn.
So that's why I took a little bit of the bet and set it up as a nonprofit.
Let's say you had gone that VXI direction. What do you think would have happened? I think it would have been a reasonably successful. For profit, maybe super successful, I don't know, but I don't think we would have captured people's imaginations in the same way. I don't think a for profit could, with a straight face, have a mission like free world class education for anyone, anywhere, which is a big mission. But when people start to realize that we actually have a shot of doing it became a very aspirational mission.
Some of our early funders have been people who come from essentially Mitu backgrounds, far more successful people than I ever were, people out of tech or people out of finance. They just liked the notions of what this was. This is about scale. This is about personalization. This is about using the Internet to solve a core problem that they care about.
From the beginning, you made what seems like a really odd choice, which was you never put your own face in the videos. It was always just like a blackboard, which I'm sure any kind of media advisor would have told you. That's a terrible idea. But I think it's worked out for the best, don't you think?
Honestly, when I did it initially, it wasn't out of any super deep strategic vision thing. We forget back in 2006, cell phones didn't have particularly good cameras at the time. And with my family, we were just figuring out ways to see each other's writing. I was using Yahoo Doodle while they heard my voice over the phone and it felt very intimate. It felt like we were sitting next to each other at the kitchen table looking at the piece of paper together.
In hindsight, I realized that it was probably a good move. There's actually a lot of research that the human brain immediately fixates on human faces. If the human face is competing with math, the human face is going to win. Yeah, and so when you focus on the math or the science or other subjects and you're able to use the visual as well, but you're hearing the voice, then it's easier to focus. There's other random things that happened that ended up being really good from a neuroscience point of view.
YouTube in twenty six out of ten minute limit. And so we started making videos that are seven, eight, nine minutes long and there's research that's about how long people can pay attention before they need a break.
Now, one thing I find interesting about your approach is that it was an educational intervention that circumvented schools completely.
I've tried to do all sorts of educational things, almost always in partnership with schools. And I've felt every time I see your circumvention is being absolutely critical to your success. Do you agree? To some degree, I think in those early days, I don't think any major system or state board of education would have taken me particularly seriously. In all fairness, back in 2007, there was a teacher who got excited about these tools I was making for my cousins.
So that actually did help me have some self-confidence in this project. But to your point, the most of the people in those early days were not in classroom settings and then seeing the value of it and then the momentum that you got around that. And then, frankly, many students started telling their teachers about it. And then in many cases, many teachers were using it for themselves. They had to deliver a lesson that they might not be familiar with.
So it allowed the discoverability to be very grassroots and very organic. And in a lot of ways, it validated us. So then when we did start to reach out to districts in a more formal way, they were like, oh yeah, we've heard about this. We use it ourselves. And, you know, as early as 2011, we did start having some formal partnerships with districts and today it's about 50 percent of academy usage. Is this what we would call, you know, independent learners?
And about 50 percent is what we would call teacher directed, which is teachers telling students, you've got academy and you could have taken a different path, which is I'm going to go and I'm going to sit down with the San Francisco school district and I'm going to work with the administrators and try to come up with ways to make a change. And I think there's a real elegance and beauty in how you circumvented the system.
Sometimes inertia and tradition and bureaucracy can slow things down. And just trying to convince people oftentimes will take all of the energy or you get to a consensus and then some of the innovation goes away. The similar thing happened with covid hit Codecademy usage went through the roof. But there's always been a dream of like we have to provide people synchronous learning at scale with live human beings. And I've always dreamt about couldn't we use a volunteer model or a peer to peer model?
Even within Codecademy, it was hard initially when you started another not for profit called School Housetop World to do peer to peer tutoring. And so I'm always a big believer and OK, start a small and scrappy project that can experiment and move nimble and move fast and can move without permission, so to speak. And then as it gets scale and it gets traction, you can start to integrate it more deeply with the more established players, especially if you're talking about the school system, to be able to have that proof of concept already working.
And then once it's working, it's much easier to get traction.
I saw you give a TED talk and you used an analogy of education to Home-building that I found so powerful.
Could you tell that story?
Yeah. In a traditional academic system, students get exposed to some concept through a lecture usually. Then they do some homework. That lecture homework goes on for about two or three weeks and they take a test. And on that test you get a 90 percent, I get an 80 percent. Even though we identify gaps, the class moves on to the next subject. Probably the subject is going to build on those gaps.
At some point, those gaps become debilitating. And we're all used to this because that's the system we grew up in. But when you apply that same thinking to other domains, it seems somewhat absurd. For example, Home-building So if I did the same process with Home-building, I would tell the contractor, hey, we have two weeks to build the foundation, do what you can, the contractor shows up, maybe it rains, maybe some of the supplies don't show up.
They do what they can. And after two weeks, you bring the inspector in and the inspector says that part's not quite up to code. The concrete still wet over there. I'll give it an 80 percent. And you say, great, that's a C. Let's build the first floor contractor. You have three weeks. Do it. You can once again, they do what they can. Inspector shows up in two or three weeks, says, all right, I'll give it a seventy percent great C minus D plus whatever.
Let's build the second floor and then all of a sudden you're building the third floor and the whole structure collapses. And if you have the reaction that many people have in education, you'd say, well, maybe it's because we had a bad contractor or maybe we need more inspection. But what's clear in this thought experiment, it's neither of those you can have the best contractor on the planet and you could have perfect inspection. But when you inspect and then you ignore the deficiencies and then you build on top of it, you're doomed to have the structure collapse.
And that's exactly what's happening in education.
And what you're describing is referred to as mastery learning in the classroom.
This is the reason why so many students struggle, especially in topics like math, as they accumulate these gaps. Because you're sitting in sixth grade, the class is talking about basic exponents, even that a student who got the 95 percent, that five percent could have been a careless error or it could have been a really important gap in their intuition or in their understanding. And those gaps keep accumulating over time. And that's why you see so many kids, especially in classes like algebra or calculus, they start hitting walls.
How long do people spend watching Khan Academy videos?
On an average month, we see about half a billion learning minutes per day on Khan Academy. So we see about 12 billion learning minutes per year.
And how big is the budget for it and how many people to have employed globally?
We have over two hundred folks, about one hundred and seven. Any of them are based in the US and the annual budget is about 60 million a year. Every time I say that, it gives me a little bit of a cortisol spike because I have to fundraise a lot of that. But as part of my fundraising, I always remind folks that's the budget of a large high school in the United States and our reach is literally trying to educate the world.
I never want to make kind of can be bigger than what it is. But I think now, especially in the US, people view it as a pretty essential part of the education system.
So I just tried to do the math in my head and maybe I blew it. But going from 12 billion minutes of individual learning per year and I tried to divide it by your budget. And I think I came up with the cost of about 33 cents per student per hour. And if that's true, then it just gives you an idea of how incredibly cheap it is relative to traditional education models, that number that.
Thirty three cents per hour. And I'm pretty sure you got the math right. That's an hour of actual learning. That's not like an hour of sitting in a class, looking at the clock, passing a note. That is an hour of I am engaged on an exercise, answering questions, getting feedback. I never want to say that this is a complete substitute. It's an and there's a lot of people around the world where this raises the floor dramatically for them because they don't have access to courses or a proper school or there's not someone around them who can teach the subjects.
And then there's a lot of people, and this is the majority in the US where they might go to a decent school, but they just need help.
I want to challenge you on something. So you just said Khan Academy for most students is in. And as a parent of children who use Khan Academy, that's what I thought of. It has. But as I've thought harder about it and read more about you, I think you're much more subversive and much more revolutionary than that.
Isn't it true that your actual goal is to completely overturn education, to transform it so it really will be unrecognizable? You hate the current system, don't you? I don't hate the current system. I think the current education system, it's become very fashionable to beat up on it, especially from reformers like myself. But for the most part, it is actually quite powerful, especially when you compare to what existed before the current system, before mass public education.
And there's definitely moments in my schooling where I'm like, wow, this is a bit boring or I wish it was done this way. But there's a lot of other moments in my education where I felt that, hey, this is great. And especially in hindsight, I was like, wow, that was an incredible teacher I had that was really able to engage. So a lot of what I think about is how do we optimize those good parts?
And to me, that's where technology can be an interesting angle. If teachers can have more of the students be able to fill in the gaps at their own time and pace, and they don't have to slow down and focus on remediation, as much more students will be able to be at the learning edge when they show up to classroom.
I still think you're not being 100 percent truthful because it strikes me that the classroom model we use makes zero sense. It was derived in a time when technology wasn't available. And in a world of technology, it seems like the right thing to do is to revolutionize the classroom. And doesn't that require a total rethinking of the technology of the classroom, what the production function we use for learning?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I believe so strongly in what you were just referring to, that I started a lab school in 2014 to do exactly this, to reimagine every aspect of the school. Teachers don't lecture at Khan Lab School. They sit alongside students have Socratic dialog with them, run simulations, teach the students to then teach themselves or to teach each other and have a lot more experiential learning students learn at their own time and pace. School is not the only place where learning happens, it's the base.
But then they're going out into the world and doing interesting things. The reason why I started school, to your point, is I wanted to show what is possible when tools like Khan Academy, when tools like schoolhouse that world exist and are accessible, it gives you the opportunity of reimagining the school. But it reimagines in a way that every teacher who's either worked at Cottonmouth School or who has visited Khan Lab School says, This is my dream school. The teacher and the students like it as well.
So that's my aspiration, is that the whole world looks like Khan Lab School in 10 or 20 years.
You're listening to people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt and just conversation with Sal Khan after this short break, they'll return to talk more about the Khan lab school.
Hey, so two things caught my attention in the discussion so far. First, it is incredible how cost effective Khan Academy is as a teaching device in the USA, the government spends about fifteen thousand dollars per student per year and K-12 public education kids spend about 180 days in school in the school days, roughly six point five hours long. So doing the math, that equates to 13 dollars per student per hour.
A cut academy cut. It costs about 30 cents per hour. That's 40 times cheaper. The opportunities, if we could rethink our teaching model, are just enormous. The second thing I found really fascinating about our interview is how reluctant Sal Khan was to say that he had a radical vision for overhauling education. Did you notice how I just kept on asking him the same question over and over in different ways before he finally opened up to it? I'm so curious to learn more about the Khan lab school idea you referred to.
Could it be the basis for rethinking our educational system? And I also want to dove into the specifics of why it had so much success and what people like you and me can steal from him in that regard.
Or maybe Burrow's a better word than steal.
Can you tell me more about Khan Lab school, how is the evidence coming in of how successful it is? We started the school in 2014 by that point, Khan Academy that had become reasonably well known. I had written a book called The One World Schoolhouse, where the first third of the book was a bit of the history of education. How did we get to where we are? The middle third of the book was my personal narrative. How did I fall into all of this that we've just talked about?
And then the last third of the book was, let's imagine a world where we can think from first principles, and that's mastery, learning, personalization, the future of credentials. What are the subjects that we really do need to learn versus the ones that we don't necessarily have to learn as much anymore? What's the future of higher education? And then I'll admit selfishly, my oldest was four and a half years old. I was going to go into kindergarten and I had already been making the rounds and giving TED talks about mastery, learning and personalization.
And I said it would be hypocritical for me not having my own child immersed in this type of a school. And so I started talking to, frankly, other employees at Khan Academy who felt the same. And I put a slide deck together and I kind of convinced families of 30 kids ages five through 10 years old to go into this experiment. We were able to get a space from Google in an office building for we were in to start the school, reclaim a little bit of the parking lot for a playground.
And we got started. This isn't a school where we had an IQ test to join and we had kids who started off the school who are in the bottom quartile on standardized test scores. All of those kids, we haven't published this as a study. So this is pseudo anecdotal, but it's based on real data. All of those kids in the bottom quartile are now operating in the top decile because I would argue they had a chance to learn at their own time and pace fill in those gaps.
When you get an 80 percent of traditional system, you're told your C student, when our students get an 80 percent, they're like you're at an 80 percent, keep working on it 100 percent. So it completely changes even how they perceive themselves. The expectations are fundamentally different. We are also seeing really powerful things with the mixed age environment. There's actually some research about this, that when older students are with younger students, all sorts of good things happen, which is frankly in line with human nature.
For most of the three hundred thousand years of human evolution, we lived in these multi aged clans or tribes. But especially, I think the positivity happens for the middle school or the high school students because they now feel a responsibility. And I think it takes a lot of that negative energy that often goes into bullying or all that middle school angst, and it takes it into a positive place. We actually have our first graduating class this year and we're seeing that they have been able to navigate what is otherwise, especially in Silicon Valley, a very stressful college application process.
And they're getting very good college placement. It's really what the colleges have been asking for, kids who have authentic interests, who actually have mastery of content, which is exactly what the school is focused on.
How long is the waiting list and how do I get on it?
The rate limiting factor to your point has actually been real estate. Silicon Valley real estate is not a trivial thing. And so we did have the school limited pretty significantly. But now we're moving actually the upper school to echolocate with a community college where these kids are going to be able to have this really great journey, but also finish a good chunk, if not most of college before they graduate high school. And then we're moving to another campus. The whole school K through 12 right now is about two hundred students.
We think we're going to expand to about three hundred students.
What prevents you from doing five of these schools or one hundred of these schools or ten thousand of these schools? Well, that's part of the idea. We've been trying to stay relatively under the radar for the last seven or eight years. But now that we are showing that it's working, that the kids are healthy and happy, over the next few years, you're going to see a spread much faster. One of the things that I keep pushing the team is we've got to show that it can be done in an economic model that could fit most places.
It's now at the scale that it's about. It's pretty close to the average cost per student for the local public schools. If you factor out the cost of real estate that we have to pay real estate, a lot of them don't.
One of the potential challenges to this model is that there's a real efficiency from a cost perspective of having one teacher teach 30 kids the same thing, whether or not it's the right thing to teach the kids at the same time, it's obviously not, but it's an efficient way to do it. But what you're saying is in the lab school, you're actually finding that because of probably cost efficiencies to come from other sources, like the teachers don't really have to lecture anymore.
Instead, the kids are largely working independently. I would suspect most of the time you can actually make this on par in terms of costs with the traditional teaching model.
Yeah, and it's not just the kids working independently. In fact, they are oftentimes spending time with teachers, but that time with teachers is much more focused. So it might be a small group for fifteen minutes that is focused on exactly what those kids need at that moment. While an. The group of kids are learning at their own time and pace, and we're also seeing this type of phenomenon in mainstream public classrooms, but the school is able to rethink everything.
So even how we do scheduling and use of space and all of these other things that enable these ideas that, hey, your age shouldn't be the indicator of what you're getting exposed to, that if you're ready to move ahead or if you need to back up either way, there's no shame or no stigma. You should just be able to do that. When I meet educators, they all agree class time should not be passive lecture. It should be interactive.
You have to differentiate. For students, this is always what's been the gold standard, but it's just been hard to implement in the traditional Prussian education model that we developed from two hundred years ago.
So you've hit on this model that really works and you've proved it to yourself, at least with the lab school.
Do you not have impatience for making a broader transformation? I would think you would bristle at the fact that you see these answers and it'll be how long decades at best before these are available in a widespread way. Does that frustrate you? Oh, yeah, don't be fooled by my relaxing tone of voice, which maybe I fine tuned over thousands of videos on Codecademy, but no, I've had to develop a practice of meditation so I can sleep. I've been known to be so obsessed and agitated and impatient about things and want to make them happen fast because, yeah, the real wholesale change that is a long game that's going to be decades in the whole scheme of education.
If we can get a major change in 10 or 20 or 30 years, that is worth it. Codecademy we did surveys at four year colleges and this was a few years ago when Codecademy was at a lower scale. And the question that we randomly sample students, has Codecademy had a meaningful impact on your education? And we thought it'd be lucky if 10 percent of college students said yes. It turned out that 60 percent of college students at the schools that we surveyed said Khan Academy had a meaningful impact on my education.
So that tells me that we're already making a dent. We just have to make more and more of a dent between adding more subjects, making the interface more engaging. And then there's another piece that I've been impatient about around credentialling. We're realizing, wait, if someone is able to get mastery on Khan Academy, if they can record themselves, but their face and their screen while they take the unit test, while they explain their reasoning out loud and it's peer reviewed, that then certifies them to go on a journey to become a tutor.
But it also shows that they know the material. And University of Chicago has been using schoolhouse that world certification as a factor in college admissions. We're talking to universities about, look, if someone can tutor Precalculus or someone can tutor biology, why can't we give them college credit for that tutoring? You know, to your point, you've been pushing me to say that I'm being more bold, that my tone lets off. You know, these are big ideas.
I want to create a world where for close to free, you can essentially get everything that you need to know to work to get a job, to go to grad school. Now, for some kids, that might be all they need, but for other kids, they're going to need an in-person community. They're going to need supports. In fact, I would argue for most kids. And so that's where you want to interface well with the existing system.
So the test prep industry firms like Stanley Kaplan, the Princeton Review, that's a multibillion dollar industry. Now, Khan Academy comes along and provides completely free, amazing SAT prep materials.
Do you think you cause that entire industry to unravel College Board, the folks who administer the SAT, they reached out to us saying, look, the College Board has just ignored the test prep industry because we never wanted to validate them. But at least the perception of inequity and maybe the reality is real. We have to address it. When Nadia was preparing for the SAT, I went through the College Board SAT book and I did every math question and video form.
And college was what we loved about those, which apparently they were looking at is that you never did with the test prep industry did was just like, OK, this is hard. This is how you guys I always said, look, you might think this is hard, but this is really just an application of what you learned in Algebra one, where if you think about it this way or if you're having trouble with it, why don't you go review this other video or do these other exercises on Khan Academy and they're like, that's how it should be.
It should not be gaming the test. It should be becoming more college ready. And then the test will measure that. And that's what they said. Would you want a partner to make the world's best test prep in conjunction with each other? That happens to be free. And we said yes, absolutely.
So obviously the aim was to democratize the SAT. But a few times in my own research, I've set up plans where I make things available to everyone with the goal of hopefully having high take up on the bottom end and maybe less. I take up on the high end, but oftentimes I've found it's just not true. It's the opposite. Are you able to see in your data whether you're hitting the middle and the bottom more than the top, or how does it pan out?
It's a really good point. And this is something that both us and the College Board wanted to really understand. What we have seen over the years is the proportion if you go by race, it's about the same as the proportion of test takers of the SAT. We are slightly overweighted on black students and Latino students, but it's roughly the same proportion now on income and on parents education level. We have seen some of the phenomena that you're talking about where we have a higher proportion of children from higher income and kids with more educated parents.
With that said, though, you don't look at over proportional proportion to understand what is driving equity or not, you have to say, what is the world look like with this resource and what does the world look like without this resource? So the world without this resource, the affluent, they're going to Kaplin, they're going to Princeton Review, they're getting the help. The poor kids aren't getting the help. You add Khan Academy. Now, the rich kids, some of them are staying with Kaplan Princeton Review, but some of them are saying, wait, this kind of academy thing is better.
So they're switching to academy not because it's free, they're switching because it's better. That's actually validating the. Platform, it would be a problem if the rich kid stayed with Kaplan and Princeton Review and only four kids were using the new platform, it would continue to that perception that free isn't as good as paid. And now all of a sudden, you have a huge swath of kids from historically under-resourced groups who are actually able to get test prep. The analogy that I draw as a museum or a library or park, in many cases, museums or libraries or parks might be disproportionately being used by affluent people.
But if you take those parks away, the affluent are going to go to their backyards or they're going to form private parks, or if they take the libraries away, they're going to buy the books, they're going to have access while the poor are not going to have access.
So I've been spending a lot of my time lately fighting a different educational battle than the one that you're focused on. I strongly believe we are teaching kids the wrong things. And I believe that much more time and effort should be put into teaching students about data analysis, understanding the difference between correlation and causality, how to work with spreadsheets or data visualization, computer programing.
What's your view on this? Yeah, I agree, and I would add personal finance or just general finance, and they're probably a little accounting, a little bit of law, I will say someone who I love calculus, I teach calculus. I made hundreds of videos on calculus, statistics and data science. And all of these things that we just listed are more useful than calculus for pretty much everyone. There is a system it was decided essentially in 1890 by the Committee of Ten, which was 10 university presidents in the US that sat down and said what is important?
And they're the ones that actually determine that you learn chemistry in 11th grade and biology in 10th grade and physics and 12th grade. And obviously they were doing that before we even knew about DNA or we had the modern Federal Reserve or an interstate highway system. And we really haven't been able to revisit these things because it has so much inertia to it.
I also think that we should put much more effort in schools helping children to understand their own emotional life. So mindfulness and conflict resolution dealing with stress and trauma.
And these are things that every adult I know spent an enormous amount of time on belatedly. What do you think about bringing that radical change in the school curriculum and how might you do it if you agree? That would be a good idea?
Oh, I'm a huge believer in it. I often shy away from talking publicly about it because it's not measured in the same way that your math scores are, that it doesn't get as much attention. But at our lab school, we don't just have P.E. We have our wellness and we have inner wellness. The students meditate, they're learning to self regulate. There's some hidden cognitive behavioral therapy that we're working with the kids. They learn to become more aware of their own thoughts and aware of their own feelings.
We have epidemics right now globally, but especially in the US around stress, anxiety, loneliness. How can we address these? Our lab school, I would say about 30, 40 percent of the energy is on that because the academic stuff is happening in a lot of ways easier. We're able to put more energy there. I have published on Codecademy some guided meditations for students and things like that. Personally, I started meditating religiously for the past two or three years and it's changed my own life.
I continue to be impatient and angsty about all of this change happening, but I wake up in the middle of the night a lot less when I talk to schools, people in education about data science, the answer's always yes. That makes a ton of sense. How can we do it? And when I talk to them about emotional wellness, usually it's complete silence. I think the schools just feel completely unprepared for taking that step.
They're feeling overwhelmed because even on the things that are measured, which is essentially math, reading and writing, we know the data is not good. And so I think a lot of these systems feel so overwhelmed. The reality is if kids actually learn to write an eighth grade level, if they learn to read at an 8th grade level and they truly master 8th grade math, they're going to be very empowered. Because the sad reality is very few high school students have actually mastered reading, writing and math at the eighth grade level.
By the time they graduate from high school many times, by the time they graduate from college, they really haven't done that.
Almost nobody uses 10th and 11th or 12th grade math ever in their everyday life. I agree with you 100 percent that a great goal would be for everyone to understand ninth grade math at the end of 12th grade. But the way the incentives are set up now and the way the high stakes testing works, schools are incentivized to piecemeal as best they can, 10th grade, 11th grade, 12th grade learning, and it doesn't leave any time to go back and actually get the mastery of ninth grade.
I would argue that they could be incented. Right. It's just it takes a little bit of a leap of faith. The same is true of the higher education system at my hedge funds. I remember talking to a CFO of a company and I remember like, well, you know, based on my calculations, it looks like you make about I think it's like a jeans company. It looks like you make about twenty dollars per unit on your jeans. Like, how did you know that's not public information.
You published your quantity you sold and you published your profit in two different periods. It's called a system of equations like eighth grade. You know, this is someone who went to fancy business school and they learned all that stuff. They probably got A's in it, but they didn't realize that this is just basic algebra. If you really master 12th grade or first year college biology, chemistry, physics and math, you are like dangerous in the world and a good.
You've had so much success. Do you have trouble reining in your ego at all? That's why I meditate. No, well, look for me, I'm a big believer in. Your ego creates most of your suffering in the world when most of the suffering in your own mind, I'd like to believe that I've never taken myself seriously. I've taken some of what I've worked on very seriously. Like when I worked at the hedge fund, I was driven like, OK, I have to do well.
Obviously, part of my ego was like, I want to be, quote, successful in this field. But a lot of it was I want to be able to support my family and do things that are intellectually stimulating. But then when you transition into a mission like academies, you're like, wow, this is important if you fail. So maybe millions of people aren't going to be able to learn as much or whatever. And so that creates a certain form of stress.
I guess you could say it's somewhat ego driven in that it's associated with your identity. Schussel, you've tied your identity to this mission. You've got to make this succeed. And one thing that's helped me not be as stressed or anxious, although I still am sometimes is to say, sorry, you've got to let go of that. Your identity, your persona. You're like, these are just completely human constructed things. And trust me, I have more than my share of failures and times where I've been knocked down and things aren't looking good.
And so I also need to remind myself in those times that, look, this isn't about this thing called Saule, this physical body, this persona that you identify with. This is about just trying to do every day what you think is right. And then the chips fall where they do. This goes back to things like Buddhist's and V-Tech philosophy of don't get attached to the results. That's what's going to cause suffering. But do what you think is right.
Is there anybody in your organization who will tell you you're wrong?
Is there anyone who wouldn't? So that's good. I mean, so you cultivated that because that's really hard. You're such a good talker and you've had such great results and you're such a visionary. It's really hard for me to believe that the people who would work for you would feel the ability to tell you you're wrong. I'd love to hear from them.
But what you just said is very nice and very flattering. But I think if anything, I almost feel like the people who work a lot with me almost go into an engagement with me saying, well, you know, Sal can be convincing. So I'm almost going to put like extra guards up to be extra, you know, play devil's advocate. Obviously, you want to cultivate a place where it's not about being right. It's all about the mission.
So it's easy to say, though, that you want to have an organization that is mission driven. But are there particular things you've done at the academy? Are there are norms around failure around telling you you're wrong that make it easier for people to do that than a typical?
One of the big questions when we started, especially not for profit, is how we're going to attract top talent, especially in a place like Silicon Valley where people could go work at Google and Facebook and get all the stock options and whatever else. I remember reading a study back when I was a hedge fund analyst and it said that beyond a certain level pay and things like bonuses, actually they're not that great of an incentive or they can even be a disincentive at some point.
And what really people care about, they definitely need enough pay to feel valued and feel like they can support their family at a reasonable standard of living. But beyond that, it's all about having a mission that you feel like a real purpose, feeling that you're working around other people who are alongside and are invested in you and having intellectually stimulating work that really leverages your skills. When we give job offers to, let's say, an engineer or a designer, most of them already have job offers are coming from many of these tech companies that pay a lot and we get 70 or 80 percent of them.
Not only are we attracting these people, we're getting some of the best people in the world joining us, because I think some of the best people in the world are drawn to purpose.
There are a lot of people who are thinking about careers and they're not sure whether to follow a for profit path or a not for profit path. Do you have advice for people about how to make a wise decision in that case? When I meet people who are in college or just graduating from college, I tell them, just ask a lot of questions and don't be afraid to ask nosy questions. And then based on that information, find a path that, especially early in your career, is going to grow you and challenge you the most.
Where you're going to get invested in you're compensated fairly. You have great managers who are willing to keep giving you more and more, frankly, as much as you're willing to take. But at the same time, make sure that you have space for your interests and your passions outside of work, that you don't define yourself, your persona, by just that one job. I give the example, the hedge fund I worked at. It's not your typical Dan Wall, who was my boss.
I was ready to work 80 hours a week because I thought that's what you had to do at a hedge fund. But I remember after the first week or two is like now why are you still working like six or seven p.m.? And I was like, oh, no. Then I got to analyze these companies. He's like, go home. I said, OK, I'll analyze them from home. He's like, no, no, no, go home and don't do this.
And I was like, confused. And he's like, look, so our job as investors is to avoid making bad decisions and make a few good decisions every year. If we just work ourselves silly, you're going to end up making bad decisions. And so he's like, you need to have other interests. You need to recharge when you come to work, be there 110 percent. I was like, all right, Dan, I will do that.
And that's what allowed me to tutor my cousins and write software for them. And all of this a lot of my peers who went on a similar track to me, they weren't lucky enough to have a Dan. Well, as a manager, by the time they're in the 30s or 40s, they're making a ton of money, but they've completely forgotten what they wanted to do with that. They've completely forgotten their passions or they've gotten the golden handcuffs. But one of the good things is I've always lived quite frugally, so I've never been attached to a certain standard of living.
A part of it is fear. When I grew up, my family wasn't well off. But that also gives you a certain form of freedom so that you can sometimes pursue these other things.
Yeah, I'm glad you added that, because I was going to say that I give almost the exact same advice that you just gave, but with one addendum, which is if you do take a job that pays you a lot, don't get addicted to the money because then you're stuck and those golden handcuffs are brutal.
I love the ideas underpinning his Khan lab school, and I was only half joking when I asked about getting my kids on the waiting list. My wife and I actually talked about moving to Silicon Valley for that reason, but we decided it would be better to get Sal to start another khan lab school here in Chicago. So that's what's at the top of my to do list for today. People I mostly admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions and coming soon, Sadir breaks the Internet.
This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levy is our producer and Dan Dessler is the engineer. Our staff also includes Allison Craig Lowe, Mark McCluskey, Greg Rippin and Emma Tyrrell. All of the music you heard on the show was composed by Louis Scarra to listen ad free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at Tima at Freakonomics Dotcom. That's P. I am a at Freakonomics Dotcom. Thanks for listening. Trust me, I have many low self-esteem moments, so I will call you any time you remind me of how dynamic I am.
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