Positive Leadership

Revolutionizing Education (with Sal Khan)

March 01, 2023 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 5 Episode 4
Revolutionizing Education (with Sal Khan)
Positive Leadership
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Positive Leadership
Revolutionizing Education (with Sal Khan)
Mar 01, 2023 Season 5 Episode 4
Jean-Philippe Courtois

What gets you up in the morning? 

For the American educator, Sal Khan, it all starts with a cold shower.

Building and maintaining positive energy is important for Sal, who is revolutionizing education with Khan Academy, a free, non-profit platform with more than 145 million users in 190 countries.

Listen to JP’s conversation with Sal to hear more about how he turned an idea from a family phone call into a global phenomenon.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

Show Notes Transcript

What gets you up in the morning? 

For the American educator, Sal Khan, it all starts with a cold shower.

Building and maintaining positive energy is important for Sal, who is revolutionizing education with Khan Academy, a free, non-profit platform with more than 145 million users in 190 countries.

Listen to JP’s conversation with Sal to hear more about how he turned an idea from a family phone call into a global phenomenon.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’m Jean-Philippe Courtois. This is Positive Leadership, the podcast that helps you grow as an individual, as a leader, and ultimately as a global citizen. 


SAL KHAN: The goal of education is to allow more people to have a happy and meaningful life. That's all I would want for anyone on the planet. And it's not even a wealth thing. You know, as long as you feel like, okay, I do this thing and I'm trying to do it with excellence, I have a growth mindset about it and I have a shot at contributing to the world and supporting myself and having a family, then that's a good life. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: We need to rethink the premise of education to support a more purpose driven society in a more inclusive education system so nobody is left behind. In my role as a chair of the Board of SKEMA Business School, it is something I'm very passionate about. My guest today, Sal Khan, is revolutionising education. In 2008, Sal set up the not for profit Khan Academy, an online education platform offering practice exercises based on the principle of mastery learning. Today, it has more than 145 million registered users. I was really excited to talk to Sal about his mission to provide a free world class education for anyone and anywhere, and to learn about the path he's taken on his leadership journey. Fantastic to have you Sal, to have this conversation. 


SAL KHAN: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.  


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I think as someone who has always been keen to fulfil your potential by being what I'm calling a change maker, and I'm interested in where the desire comes from in the first place. So I'd like you maybe to start with some of your roots. I know you are born in 1976 to some Bengali parents, your mum coming from India, I think, and your father from Bangladesh. How did your family roots and the culture around your family, siblings and others influence your entrepreneurial approach that got you to morph from a hedge fund analyst to a social entrepreneur? 


SAL KHAN: Yeah. Well, let me see if I can If I can connect some dots, maybe. My father came to the US in 1968. For those who don't know about US immigration policy, late sixties was the first time that they allowed significant immigration from really non-European countries. There was a healthcare worker shortage. So, my father came as a doctor and then he settled. He did a residency in New Orleans, settled there. Then he had an arranged marriage to my mom in 72. My sister was born in 73. I was born in 76. My parents separated shortly thereafter, so unlike most South Asian families at the time, my mom raised us as a single mother, and my father kind of became a little bit… And he passed away shortly afterwards. For me, from an education point of view, it was helpful, my older sister Farrah, was three years older and was just naturally a very good student, and so I think she became something of a role model for me. And also, when you go to a teacher and the teacher taught your sister three years before and she was bright, they just expect that you're going to do something, even you don’t show initial signs of it. So, I think that was helpful. I think the other thing that was really helpful was, you know, my mother worked essentially as a cashier at convenience stores and things like that. So, she was working minimum wage jobs. We were living probably right around the poverty line. But the fact that we were part of a South Asian community where, you know, all of the other South Asian kids I knew… There weren't a lot in the eighties back then. Now there are more. You know, most of their families, because of the immigration policy, were doctors and engineers and all of that. So I think in terms of identity, in terms of who you get to socialise with. We would go from our apartment, we'd go to a party at one of their houses. We're like, okay, I want to live like this one day. How do you get there? You have to get your education. So I think that's kind of the background. I think you know, you fast forward to your question about maybe what inspired me to go from being the hedge fund person to working on Khan Academy and then giving up the hedge fund. I think it's a recognition that my path and my sister's path and everyone I knew was so strongly supported by having a reasonably good education system. The education system outside of New Orleans and Louisiana, it’s not famous. No one talks about it. But I will say and it wasn't perfect, but I had enough of an opportunity to really tap into my potential. And so I think when Khan Academy was getting off the ground, there's a couple of paths to take it. One path was, Hey, it's just going to be a fun hobby for me. Another path would be maybe I could be some type of a YouTube influencer type person in education, and that would have been fun. I would have made videos all day. Another path would have been starting it as a company of some kind. But I recognised that something like education, I would have felt guilty when I was such a beneficiary of it, of a free education, I would have… And even when I went to college at MIT, they gave me huge financial aid because my family didn't make much money. So it would be hypocritical for me to say, Hey, there's something that I think I could help deliver it very low marginal cost if I can get the right philanthropic support, let me at least try. And you know, there could be many millions or hundreds of millions or billions of students who can similarly tap into their potential. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: For Sal, being able to fulfil his potential by having the opportunity to study at MIT was huge. It helped turn him into the social entrepreneur is today. Sal has his heart set on going to MIT from when he was seven. But in high school, when he found out how much it was going to cost, he thought it would be impossible. A school like MIT was just too expensive for a family like his. 


SAL KHAN: You know, honestly, this is where I give my sister a little bit more credit. When I found out how much it costs to go to universities like this, I said, there's no way we're going to be able to do this. So I would probably have given up on it. But my sister, who is three years older, she had gotten into Brown University, which is similarly expensive, but they gave her significant financial aid. She had loans and all of that, but they made it doable. And had she not set that example, I probably wouldn't have thought that it was doable. I didn't know that these schools would give… They were pretty generous and actually they've become more generous over time. So when I got there, for me it was like going to Hogwarts. It's like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts. You know, it felt magical. It felt like I had found, you know… In a typical public high school, middle school, you kind of have to play it cool a little bit. You can't seem like you're too interested in things, you know. And even the way the classrooms are structured, you can't really pursue your passions much. But, you know, when you go to a school like MIT, everyone around you is similarly curious. There's no shame in that. And tending to be around peers and around faculty who are literally trying to do things that could change the world. It's inspiring and it makes you have a higher expectation for yourself. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Sal’s expectations for himself were nothing short of incredible. He graduated from MIT with three degrees, a Bachelor of Science and Mathematics, a combined Bachelors in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and a Masters degree in electrical engineering. That's pretty much unheard of. It was a few years later, in 2004, when he took the first steps toward setting up what would become the Khan Academy after his own came to visit from New Orleans and mentioned that his 12 year old cousin Nadia, was having trouble with math. 


SAL KHAN: So I asked Nadia about it. She said she's having trouble with unit conversion. Because of that, she was placed into a slower math track and I don't think either of them fully appreciated that if you're put into a slower math track in middle school, it stays with you your whole life. So I said, Nadia, I want to work on this with you. I'm 100% sure you can understand this material. How about when you go back to New Orleans, I tutor you? So, she agreed. I think she was sceptical. But then she goes back to New Orleans. This was, yeah, August of 2004. I just started tutoring her over the phone. We used, you know, there was very basic forms of Internet communication, instant messenger, Yahoo, Doodle, that kind of thing. The first two weeks I was just trying to rebuild her self-esteem when it comes to math and science. But once that she got unit conversion, then I started to get her caught up with her class. And she frankly, she got a little ahead of the class. And at that point, I called up her school and I said, I think Nadia Iman should be able to retake that placement exam from last year. They said, Who are you? I said, I'm her cousin. And they let her. The same Nadia, who was originally tracked into let's call it a remedial track was then put into an advanced track. So, I was hooked. It was a small intervention for me, so I started tutoring her younger brothers. Word spreads in my family. Before I know it, I'm tutoring 10-15 cousins every day after work. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: What was the moment, the trigger, where you said, Hey, here comes the Khan Academy? This is my vocation, this is my life. Or was it more of a gradual process where, you know, you iterated and decided to give it a shot? 


SAL KHAN: If you had asked me in 2003-2004 what I wanted to do when I'm 50 or 60 years old, I always said I wanted to start a school on my terms. I always said that because my high school experience, I give it credit because it helped get me to where I got, but at the same time, there were many things about that I wish I that I think could have been done differently. And I did okay. But I saw many of my peers who I think could have done very well, not do well. And I think it's because the way things were structured and how they were motivated or not motivated. So I always I always felt that there would be a better way of doing it. At the same time, you know, growing up with fairly humble means, having a lot of debt coming out of undergraduate and business school, especially when you have a background in tech or business, or you work at a hedge fund and I'm like, okay, I'm going to go that route first. And what I would rationalise to myself, I said, I'm going to do that until I could become independently wealthy. And then once I'm independently wealthy, I'm going to start a school on my terms so I don't have to ask anyone's permission. That's kind of what I kept telling myself. So, when my cousins needed tutoring. There was a little bit of a motivation of like, well, you know, if I keep telling myself this, but let me get into the problem a little bit. Let me start working on it then. You know, with a software background, as we all know, if you make software that's useful for even ten people, there's no reason why it can't be useful for 10 million people. So I started writing software for them to give them practice, feedback. Then a friend suggested that I make videos to supplement that. I initially thought it was sceptical because videos felt very low tech, but I did that and those took on a life of their own. I just hosted them on YouTube. People discovered them. So by 2007-2008, there were, you know, 40,000-50,000 folks who are using the videos, using the software. So then I started to think, okay, this could one day be a real thing. I always thought I would start a physical school, but this could be a virtual school, but I still thought I was to work at the hedge fund for another five to ten years until I could. I wasn't. And I am not independently wealthy, but by the time 2008-2009 came along and there were so many people using… I had frankly had trouble focusing on my day job and I felt like there's something real here. So my wife and I, we looked at our finances. She was still doing her fellowship. Our first child had just been born in 2009. The social return on investment here is so high. Let me work on this for a year and we'll live off of savings and see if I can find someone to support this so that we can at least keep going. And so that's when I took the plunge. I set it up as a not for profit 2008 with the mission of free world class education for anyone anywhere and in 2009 quit my day job. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So basically gave yourself one year to kind prove to yourself that was something that could be sustainable. And you decided as well, Sal, to actually set up a not for profit. Right? Was it something you debated in your mind in terms of the form, the shape of a social enterprise non-profit foundation as opposed to a commercial business of education? 


SAL KHAN: Yeah. You know, it's interesting. The whole time I did it, I always said, hey this is going to be something that's just, you know, anyone should be able to access it. Like, that was my mental framework. I hadn't thought about what its corporate structure would be at the time. Then in 2007-2008, by this point, actually the firm I worked for had moved out to Silicon Valley, so I was living in the middle of Silicon Valley and people started to reach out to me saying, Hey, what we think what you're doing is really interesting. And a few offered to write a check right then and there. You know, a couple hundred thousand dollars, you could support your family and work on this project. And it was very tempting. But by the second or third meeting, when we started talking about like, you know, okay, well, how are you going to monetise it? What's the premium offering? What you're going to put behind a paywall, or even advertising? I was like, Well, you know, I don't want people like even in the early days on YouTube, I could have turned on the ads, but I was like, I don't want someone to watch an ad if they want to learn algebra. So, you know, and I just never turned the ads on. So I kind of went through a mental exercise of like, okay, imagine a home run as a for profit. Maybe you can become the next Facebook or Microsoft or Google. That's great. All of those types of companies, you know, are able to do huge impact at scale, but then I thought, well, what's a home run in a not for profit space? And you know, there's an irony here because in business school there's a class called Social Enterprise, which is about non-profits. I didn't take that class seriously at all. At Harvard Business School they don't grade you, but they'll tell you if you would have failed a class. And that's one class that I completely punted. And I essentially got a three in that class, which meant I got the bottom 10% because I didn't take it that seriously. But there was a certain irony here and that now… I said, wow, maybe the structure to do this here is like, what's the home run here? Because as my hedge fund, I would talk to, you know, publicly traded companies, 5-6 day. And I saw how capital structure and having annoying people like me calling them, really trying to figure out what their EPS were going to be this coming corner. How much did that actually drove their incentives And when even if you have a founder who has control of the organisation, who has an altruistic mission, as soon as it gets sold to someone else or they become a minority voter, the company will evolve — sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad ways, while this this hobby, this baby of mine, Khan Academy, I was like, I want this thing to be around past me. And I want it to always be focused on this mission. And I was like, Well, the only way to do that is as a not for profit. And imagine a home run as a not for profit. Not for profit home runs, or even less likely than for profit home runs. But when they do succeed, they transform the world. What are the not-for-profit home runs? Imagine the great universities of the world, your Oxford, your Cambridge, your Harvards. Imagine the great institutions, the Smithsonians, the museums, the library systems of the world. I was like, Well, why couldn't Khan Academy…? And it was a little bit delusional at the time. Maybe I've been reading too many science fiction books, but I said, Why couldn't Khan Academy be one of tuition like a great university, but it exists on the internet? The Internet had all of the other analogues to the real world, right? You could buy things on the internet, you could socialise on the internet. Why couldn't you learn on the internet? And why couldn't it be like the public school system but at a bigger scale? 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You know, as you shared this vision, Sal, early on in the first few years, I wonder when and how you decided some key principles, such as very much a student centred approach, very much adopting the mastery learning practice. Can you tell us more about that, the way you picked up some of those core principles and maybe educate a bit our listeners on mastery learning, which is something interesting I found? 


SAL KHAN: In my own personal experience, like even when I was in high school and in college, I found that I learned much faster not going to class and listening to lectures and sitting with a textbook and just trying to go at my own pace through the textbook and doing as many problems as possible. And then sometimes, if there were other peers in the room asking them a few questions or me answering their questions. When we did it that way, I would learn ten times faster. And so, I had that experience. Then I also had the experience that in high school I was the president of the Math Club. 




SAL KHAN: But our math club was cooler than most. But the school actually took us pretty serious. They created a program. We actually almost became part of the faculty where any student who was having trouble at our entire high school was then tutored by the math club. And I saw time and time again these students, a lot of my classmates or someone who are younger, who hated math, but they came because they had to have at least a C to stay on the football team or have a C to stay on the basketball team or be a cheerleader. So they would come to this tutoring session and I would be the lead tutor and there would be, you know, 10 or 20 other tutors. And I saw that when you when you gave these students personal attention and you actually explained the concepts in intuitive ways, some of these kids who thought they hated math joined the math club. So we had you know, we had guys from the football team on the math club. Very unusual. Nadia, I saw the same thing. Nadia thought she was bad at math — a little bit of intervention of personalisation. So that helped form this idea that, look, if people just had the opportunity and the incentive to fill in any gaps they have, if they have more practice and less lecture, and that practice is with immediate feedback and it's at the level that they need. Right? Sometimes we get practice on things we don't need, but practice on the things you actually need. People can learn dramatically faster. I didn't have a word for it at that point, but I said, This is what we need to build. So that's Khan Academy, I started building. It was only about 2010 that I realised that this wasn't my idea. There was a word for this. It's called mastery learning. And it's arguably the oldest way of learning. And in fact, it's the way that you learn anything that is mission critical. It's the way that if you're in the military, they do mastery learning. They don't say, oh, you kind of know how to operate the rifle. Now let's move on to grenades. No, no. You need to know how to do this because your life depends on it. So we're going to work on it until you really master it. And in most of human history, this is the way that people learned. It was very expensive. If you're Alexander the Great, you had Aristotle as your tutor and you probably had a few other tutors, yes, they can personalise for you. They can make sure you master, you know, military strategy or economics or whatever it is. But 200 years ago, we had to make a compromise when we had the very utopian idea of free mass public education, which has transformed the world. But to do that, they said, okay, it's the industrial revolution. We can't give everyone a personal tutor. Let's put students in batches of 25-30 students. Let's apply some processes to them, give them some lecture, move them together at the same pace, and every two, three, four weeks we give them a test. Some kids will do well, some kids won’t. Too bad. We keep that process. After about 10-12 years, we start sorting them out. The kids who consistently have good grades, they will go into this field, the kids in the middle grades go to these. The other kids can become laborers of some kind. That was the industrial revolution, and we've essentially had that same model all the way to today. Now, what's interesting is, if we were talking 100 years ago about mastery learning, we'd both agree it's a good idea, but we're like, how can you do it for every student? What's exciting now is with the help of technology, you can actually have one teacher with a classroom of 30, but have a situation where he or she can actually personalise for every student. And also the world we live in is now demanding that. It’s not okay to have the industrial revolution pyramid of labour anymore where most people are ending up fairly unskilled. We now need the opposite. Most people need to end up fairly skilled. So even more important that people are able to master their statistics, their math, their reading and writing. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Sal’s words there really resonate with me. To build a more inclusive, healthy, sustainable society, we have to help everyone get the skills they need to thrive in a digital economy, and that includes being a lifelong learner and teaching for mastery and courageous, lifelong learning. When students are given time to learn and succeed, they are more likely to value perseverance, have confidence in their skills and understand their own learning needs. And I like the way he frames it, making the analogy there with the military because these educational skills we are talking about are indeed life critical. We talked a lot about the Khan Academy, but you've actually expanded your impact by creating the Khan Lab school, which is a bricks and mortar school you set up in 2014, I think in California. You describe it as a student centred school where kids learn by themselves and teachers assist them. In a way, total inversion of the usual power structure that you find a traditional classroom. So can you tell us in a few hours how does it work actually in a real world, that system? 


SAL KHAN: Yeah, you know, back in 2012-2013, I was telling the world about all these ideas and then my own son in 2014 was going to be school aged. And I said, I don't want to be a hypocrite. And two, I wanted my own children to be able to benefit from this. And I wanted to show the world that it's doable, that you could do this in a physical environment. So that's why we started Khan Lab School, and it works pretty much as you just described, where students are able to, for the most part, learn at their own time and pace. If they haven't mastered something, they always have the opportunity incentive to go back and master it. And what happens is because they're able to frankly learn more efficiently here and they're learning for learning the material versus just getting a grade. They're more intrinsically motivated, they're more communal in that they help each other a lot and it frees up time for other things. So, more passions, more… You know, a lot of our students at the high school, at Khan Lab School, they are doing internships that are traditionally only available to fairly advanced college students. They're starting businesses, they're doing this and that. And then once again, that's because they're not just jumping through hoops like most high school students have to. They're actually able to pursue their passions while mastering the content. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Now, I'd like to connect the dots between the education learning process and the entrepreneurial process. If I may, I’d like to use the example of Saras Sarasvathy’s theory called effectuation. You may have heard about that, I'm sure, because you know so much about entrepreneurship as well. But for our listeners, let me just tell them what it is very quickly. It is basically an approach where you identify the next best step by assessing the resources available in order to achieve your goals. And it's built around a few core principles. One is built in hand. You have to create a with the resources you have here and now, not project yourself being rich and so on. Two, this is about the affordable loss. You should only invest as much as you're willing to lose. And you talked about the one year you had in mind about how much you could lose yourself starting the Khan Academy. And the third one is the lemonade principle — mistakes and surprises are inevitable and can be used to look for new opportunities all the time. So I was wondering how some of those ideas applied in a way that was not necessarily formal, but you just did it in your own experience, and particularly when it comes to mistakes and surprises, and if you could share with our listeners, well, one or two big mistakes or big good or bad surprises along the way that got you to the next level in terms of expanding the impact of the Khan Academy? 


SAL KHAN: Yeah, you know, I like that framework and it does describe a lot of not only how I operated back in the day, but frankly still do. And the only thing I would add to that is, you know, you can be kind of a local optimiser, as you just described, but unless you have a clear goal, that local optimisation can take you into random places. And, you know, in the late nineties I did your traditional entrepreneurship and your traditional entrepreneur, you're just trying to make a startup and that local optimisation will take you here then there or there. And I think what was different for me, and I think it's been key for Khan Academy is yes, absolutely a ton of local optimisation and figuring out how much I can invest while still being able to cut loose a little bit. But I also… And I told myself this even when I quit my day job for a year, I said, I want to make this thing unkillable. So even if even if I don't succeed in that first year, I'm not going to give it up. It's too important. This is somehow going to be part of my life's work. And then I'll hopefully just try to go back and get a job, a real job, and then still work on it, and then maybe in another four or five years, try again. So that's one. I guess that does go back to the what are you, what losses are you willing to take, but not give up on it. And then the other one is having this very big true north that like, hey, I really want to have a shot at making this be an institution that helps. If someone else pulls it off, that's great. I mean, that's the other difference thing about social entrepreneurship. If someone else solves a problem, sure. Awesome. But like, I didn't think and I still don't think that if Khan Academy didn't exist, I don't think anyone else is actually trying to solve this very important problem. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Even today, you don't see other initiatives in the world trying to achieve kind of the same purpose? 


SAL KHAN: The global public education system. We work with them, we don't view ourselves as a replacement, but they have a lot of inertia around the old ways, so to speak. And so that's why they're eager to partner with us, because we can fill in their gaps where they can’t. We can also be a safety net where there's not, but, you know, there's a certain irony that in 2010, if you talk to venture capitalists, they would say the one space that they're not going to invest in is EdTech. EdTech was horrible. They said the education marketplace is so bizarre. And then when we came on the scene and we showed that there was actually scalable product market fit, so to speak, you know, when we're scaling to one million, 5 million, then all of a sudden, in a weird way, we helped unlock the EdTech opportunity. And so to your point, there are other people working on the problem loosely, primarily from the for profit, and some are doing good things. But I think what we're now seeing is, a lot of them, even though they might have started with a very similar mission to Khan Academy of like let's democratise education, because of what their true north is, which isn't bad, it's just inevitable, they’ve had to go to corporate training. They've had to go to… you know, I'm thinking of folks like the MOOCs and things like that. In order to create a return for the for profit investors, they have to go into corporate training. You already have a college degree, but I'm going to give you another skill that can get you a job. And that's good. That's all important stuff. But in terms of people saying, okay, we genuinely want to make everything from pre K through the core of college free or as free or as close to free as possible, it’s called accessible, and then make that a pathway. Yeah, I think there's a lot of well-intentioned people who talk about it, but very few organisations that are actually doing it. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah. So I’d like to build on this dialogue we have on education and particularly understand the way you've been or not influenced by famous author Carol Dweck, with her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and the growth mindset, I must say, within Microsoft, we've been quite inspired for the last almost eight years now in our transformation by trying to challenge ourselves with a better, more open mindset from time to time, as opposed to a rigid mindset at other times because nobody's perfect anyways. But tell me more about the way that that book and publication or philosophy has influenced, or not, the way you've been shaping, again, the learning process and the teaching process as well? 


SAL KHAN: Yeah, and this is another one of these things like mastery learning. I did not know about Carol Dweck and growth mindset until I became an educator, a formal educator of sorts. But you know, for those folks listening, it's really just this idea that in a domain folks tend to have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is I'm either good at this or I'm not, maybe because of my DNA. And a growth mindset is I don't know how good I am at this, and the way I'm going to find out is I keep stepping out of my comfort zone. And I view failure as not a failure. I view it as an opportunity to grow. And my whole life journey, I did not realise this. I mean, in certain areas, like in sports, I probably did not have as much of… Now I have a growth mindset. I'm a pretty athletic 46-year-old now, but I was not… 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: We’ll talk about it later. 


SAL KHAN: My only trophy in high school was I had the highest GPA in wrestling. But actually I'll take credit for I did have a growth mindset. That's why I joined the wrestling team. That's great because I knew I needed to step out of my comfort zone. That was not my comfort zone to be on the wrestling team. I was actually quite shy in high school. I ran for student government. I lost. That was growth mindset. Then when I went to college, I was still kind of on the shyer side. I joined an improv comedy team, right? Like those are things that I now in hindsight realise, okay, I was fortunate because I was pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. And so I saw that with Nadia. Certain cousins… Nadia was not doing well in math, but she was willing to engage. She was willing to work with me, listen, work on problems. I had a few family members and friends who I tried to… I'm like, Hey, I'm doing this thing. They're like, no, no, no, no, no, not for me. I'm not into it. I don't want to. They had more of a fixed mindset. And so, I saw that. And so when Khan Academy was happening, and that's when I started to really learn about Carol Dweck and the work, I was like, once again, like mastery learning, there’s a whole framework around this. And so it's definitely something that we've taken to heart. And I gave a talk at TED. This was a 2015 about how everyone in education talks about growth mindset now. They talk about the importance of it, but at the same time, a traditional education system doesn't completely go against a growth mindset, right? A teacher will say, Hey, you should have a growth mindset. You know, nothing's wrong with getting a question wrong. You should just try again. But then they say, okay, and here's your test paper. You just got a D. You’re a D student. Or you failed. Bad on you. You should be embarrassed. And I know teachers don't want that. That's not what they intend. Teachers want the growth mindset, but there's the system. The system is making that happen. A real growth mindset is mastery learning. Okay. You're at 80% right now. Keep working on it until you get a 90%. Or maybe you move on to the next thing. But at any time, if you want to make that 80% to a 90%, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to do that. So, you know, growth mindset, mastery, learning, two sides of the same coin. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It's interesting what Sal says there about the similarities between growth mindset and mastery learning. Carol Dweck and others have shown that you can do interventions with people to help them grow their growth mindset, to remind them that their brain is like a muscle. The more they use it, the stronger it gets. It's one of the reasons I'm such a huge advocate of mentoring and coaching both at Microsoft and with my foundation. But something else I see a lot of, which has incredible value, is peer to peer learning. And I wonder how Sal was leveraging that experience to help students develop a growth mindset even more. 


SAL KHAN: What we've built at Khan Academy now is the students can start in pre K and learn at their own time and pace and master concepts and get videos and do practice and personalise. And they can go all the way into calculus and physics and biology and history and they can do everything. But the reality is, is that there's very few students who will have the motivation on their own to go through all. There are examples. I mean, there's young girl in Afghanistan. Taliban kept her from going to school. Khan Academy became her education. There was a young man who was in jail. He gets out. Even while he was in jail, he had some access. That became his education. So, we have these stories. But generally speaking, the human element, the human support, mentorship, tutoring is key. You know, I always say if I had to pick, even from my own kids, the best technology with no human versus the best human with no technology, I would pick the best human with no technology any day. And so that's why we've invested so much on working with the traditional public education system, making tools for teachers. They should view Khan Academy as almost their teaching assistant, as something that can assist them. And, you know, the best use cases of Khan Academy have been where peers can use it together, where I'm working on something, but if I need help, I could go to you. And the way that we've been trying to scale that is by, you know… We have another not for profit we started. A sister non-profit to Khan Academy called schoolhouse.world, which does peer to peer tutoring. Just as what I was doing in high school, but now you can do it across tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. So, you know, the big picture goal is we want to let the technology do as much as possible, but then also can the technology facilitate other peer to peer interactions so that you can provide all the layers of support someone needs? The other idea, not just idea, that we're working on as an intermediary, which is I think artificial intelligence is becoming very, very, very interesting. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You know, with artificial general intelligence, large language models, and of course, the infamous ChatGPT-3, how do you see the role of the teacher changing, Sal? And how will you change your learning approach if you are considering it for your students as they use such tools in their day to day activities? Because I just learned that all the universities in the world are now shutting down, of course, and prohibiting access to ChatGPT-3 to actually write your essays or some more work. So what is your point of view on the way it's going to happen within or without the control of the education system? 


SAL KHAN: Yeah, first of all, I think the education system is doing the exact wrong thing because they're essentially trying to stick their head in the ground and hope that nothing's happening. And all that's happening is this kids are just going to get around the firewall or if, you know, just go at home and use and still use these models. And so, they should have just rethought. And in the future, they're going to be using these models to write papers, to write when they're in a work environment, white papers, etc.. So it's like I want you to embrace it and maybe these models could actually do certain things that are enhancing of the education experience. So, you know, ChatGPT, we’ve also been experimenting with other models that that haven't been public yet. We are at the cusp of being able to have a Socratic conversation. Even ChatGPT can do it to a certain degree, so that's where we should be thinking about it. Hey, this is an opportunity when we think about… Like right now on Khan Academy, a teacher could assign a practice exercise. They can assign a video. But what if a large language model could have a Socratic conversation with you about the video? And then what if the large language model can write a synopsis of that conversation and send it to the teacher or send it to the parent. All of a sudden, it's now truly acting as a true teaching assistant, an excellent teaching assistant. And so that's what I'm interested in, is how this could potentially be another very, very powerful modality acting as a teaching assistant. And then from a student's point of view, a thing like Khan Academy is going to feel even that much more like a tutor or a mentor. They're going to be able to have conversations with it. So, you know, we're not there yet. The models aren't perfect. They still hallucinate. They still make up stuff. They're infamously bad at math. But I don't think the solution is to put our heads in the ground. There's the essay issue, there's college admissions, you know. And so to me that says find something else to leverage instead of just putting your head in the ground because what's going to happen is now just the kids who are the rule breakers are going to be the ones who are going to benefit. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’d love to talk a little bit about positive leadership, positive psychology. And, you know, one of the first steps of practicing positive leadership is, first of all, taking care of yourself by working on your well-being, your physical energy, your mental energy, and basically building and managing your positive energy in yourself every single day. I understand you are an advocate of taking a cold shower every day or maybe a couple of times a week. I've tried myself. I'm not doing that every single day of my life. So can you share with us such practices? You also talk about sports that you have been raising, it seems to me, in your life as well. So what are those habits and routines you've built into your daily, weekly cadence now? 


SAL KHAN: I am a big believer in some of these habits that like when you when you get your day off to the right foot, it builds momentum. At least it does for me. So this morning, I woke up at six in the morning. We actually just got a dog, so I took her for a walk.  


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: A new one? She’s here? 


SAL KHAN: She’s under the table. That’s why I'm every now and then I'm looking down. But, you know, the first thing I do in the morning, to your point, is I take a cold shower and yes, it is jarring. And actually, I take a shower in my kid's bathroom because our shower doesn't get cold enough. It doesn't give you that pure cold water. So I take a shower there and you know, you do it a while and you actually start looking forward to it. The first 10-15 seconds are always hard, but that feeling afterwards, you don't need coffee, you don't need anything. And then you're like, okay, nothing else in my day is going to be any harder than that. I actually am very ritualistic about making my bed or making mine and my wife’s bed. So, I do that. And then, you know, I most days I'll try to meditate about 20 to 30 minutes as well. So that's kind of like my morning thing. And then on top of that, most days — now this will sound kind of extreme, and please, I don't want people to take, you know, my advice — I don't eat until I get all of my work done. 




SAL KHAN: Well, I eat healthier and better when I'm more relaxed and I tell myself, like, Hey, get all your work done and then you'll get a nice, relaxing meal. And so, you know, I usually end up… That meal is normally dinner, but I find that it actually makes me more productive and clearer thinking. And, you know, now intermittent fasting is obviously a big thing and there's a lot of data that backs it up. But those are kind of my somewhat odd rituals. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I'd like to talk about another support network. You know, I had Bill George on, who recently built the pharmacy of Medtronic and is professor at Harvard Business School, and Bill has been part of a men's group for decades and is a huge advocate of having — and I think you are having as well — what is a regular meetup in your local community if I'm not mistaken. Can you tell me more about it? How does it work for you? And what do you get out of that? 


SAL KHAN: Yeah, you know, this was a thing that, you know, my wife and I, we both grew up in in Muslim families, but neither of our families were particularly religious, and we weren't either. But we always said, you know, there is something nice about having a some type of community and you get together on a regular basis and you talk about things that transcend the day to day of paying your taxes and your career and all of that. And so we said, you know, wouldn't it be nice if we had a place where we could do that, but it isn't limited to people of your own faith and it could be broader, it could talk about philosophy and etc… So one of the things that we started about two or three years ago is, I would send out like a quote to a bunch of friends via email and pre-pandemic we started meeting in a park and we were just talk about things like, you know, purpose or ego or the nature of reality or whatever. And some of the quotes, some of the reading, would be from religious traditions, but it would be from multiple religious traditions, and we would start with a meditation. And so, it was a really nice thing. And then once the pandemic started, we did this over Zoom, and it was nice because we were able to get people from a broader area. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And you continued that after the pandemic as well? 


SAL KHAN: We’ve been doing it pretty consistently. The last couple of months we've fallen off a little bit. But I did find that by doing it, it definitely grounds you a lot better for the week. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: People who are more socially connected to family, friends or their community are happier, physically healthier. And guess what? They live longer with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected. Having a sense of community and belonging has so many benefits. If you feel that you don't have enough people in your life, do something about it. Join a book club, a sports team, or volunteer with the local charity, or take inspiration from Sal’s example and start your own group. Thanks so much, Sal. It was a wonderful, insightful, exciting, stimulating conversation. And thanks for changing the world by educating people to be more happy and more fulfilled their lives. Thanks a lot. 


SAL KHAN: Thanks for having me. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You've been listening to the Positive Leadership podcasts with me, Jean-Philippe Courtois. If you enjoyed this episode, please make sure you share it with your friends and leave us a comment in writing. And head over to my LinkedIn page to subscribe to my newsletter, Positive Leadership and You, where I explore top tips to help you grow as an individual leader and ultimately as a global citizen. Until the next episode, goodbye.