What if Superman's a YouTube Hero?

Mar 3, 2011, 1:25 AM, Posted by

Picture this—a 51 year old on a recent transcontinental flight with nose poked into an iPod Touch watching a documentary—tears streaming.  My co-passengers almost certainly noticed—not clear what they thought.  I have no idea why I downloaded “Waiting for Superman” the day before my flight to this week’s TED2011 in Long Beach.  I had intended to watch that movie for months—but just hadn’t found the time.  Whatever the reason, the last minutes of that film hit me hard.  It’s ironic because just a few days prior, I posted on Facebook about a different movie: “127 Hours”.  My Facebook post gamely highlighted that movie’s disturbing intensity as an intrepid, solo hiker finds himself literally swallowed and held by a desert canyon—with his right arm essentially and permanently trapped by a fallen boulder.  The character played by James Franco is forced to make a horrific life or death decision—no one was coming to rescue—ultimately he chooses life and saves himself.  My post pointed out that “127 Hours” wasn’t for the squeamish—and I wasn’t squeamish. 

 Given that bravado, it’s curious that just days later I would go to pieces when those “Superman” kids and their families in spite of their best desperate efforts, couldn’t find a way out of their own entrapment.  The kids don’t even get a real choice—they’re just stuck.  I get that the topic is hard, complicated, controversial—but for me, that failed school tragedy is not about “the teachers” or “the unions” or silver bullet solutions like “charter schools”.  Nope, my tears weren’t about the adults at all; rather, they were for those kids (and all the kids) trapped in failed and mediocre schools without choices or options and what that entrapment means for their lives.  Obviously, we can and must do better—we can’t leave them stuck in deep failed school canyons; they need our help. 

On the plane earlier this week all I could do was weep ineffectually.  You can imagine my surprise when upon arriving at TED I found a “Waiting for Superman” DVD in the pre-meeting materials. (Cue Twilight Zone music…).  That might have been that—just serendipity—a coincidence to ponder—except yesterday afternoon during a session called “Knowledge Revolution” curated by Bill Gates, enter Salman Khan with his well-received TED presentation. (See mention in great Day Two Summary)  It seems Mr. Khan left his hedge fund job a while back because he’s passionate about teaching kids.  In fact he’s so passionate about it that he did something amazing—creating, so far, over 2,000 YouTube video lectures on a range of topics now posted  here.  All these video lectures are free and available to anyone—they’re also wonderful.  Khan says kids can watch the lectures at home and do practical homework tasks together in the classroom—reversing the current teaching mindset.  His site includes sophisticated tracking capabilities for teachers—so teachers will know who’s mastered what topics and who needs targeted help.  Also, kids who have mastered certain areas can serve as mentors for peers who haven’t.  In fact, with these powerful tools, the learning environment is not contained to the actual classroom.  There’s no reason, he says, that a student in Calcutta couldn’t help a child in Kansas City—and vice versa.  Khan, in fact, envisions a global, one world classroom.  Yesterday, that inspiring vision brought the TED crowd to their feet with loud, joyful cheers.  Maybe there is hope.  Maybe we, the adults, need to solve this intractable entrapment by thinking, collaborating and acting in a multitude of radically different yet reinforcing, out of the box, ways—and do it quickly—for our stuck kids.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.