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Saturday December 20th 2014

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Khan Academy: What’s the Big Deal?

On Friday, Jeb Bush held a National Summit on Education Reform here in the Bay Area at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. Fittingly, not a single teacher was in attendance—although quite a few were outside picketing the event with members of the Occupy movement. Among other keynotes, which included Melinda Gates and Rupert Murdoch, was up-and-coming educator Sal Khan of Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy is an international success boasting thousands upon thousands of viewers a day. Any article you read about Sal Khan will undoubtedly describe him as “amiable”, or “unassuming.” Oftentimes it is both. He began recording lectures with just over $200 in equipment in order to help his niece understand Algebra. Khan is now making over six-figures and has investors chomping at his more than 2,800 bits. He sounds swell, and his video lectures are supposedly revolutionizing education.

So last week I gathered my students and decided to show them this great resource. I projected Khan Academy onscreen and clicked on a couple of his lectures.

Underwhelming is a word that comes to mind.

Let me explain. For what it is, the Khan Academy is great. It is an online tutoring website that offers some good tutorials for people interested in delving deeper into a subject they are struggling in, or perhaps simply curious about. Khan speaks in a clear, simple-yet-sophisticated way, and uses some cool technology to enhance his lectures. For what it is, it is perfect.

Yet Jeb Bush’s National Summit on Education Reform, “Excellence in Action”, is acting like all of a sudden the Khan Academy is the future of education. I find that idea laughable.

This continues the trend of trying to supplant teachers with anything that won’t cost money or need health benefits. They’ve tried textbooks with formulaic, dry curriculum; scripted curriculum that actually tells the teacher every word to say, clickers that let the students know when they are allowed to speak; and the dreaded pacing guide. Predictably, the discourse now focuses on replacing teachers with cheap video equipment, a floating cursor, and the voice of someone who sounds like your favorite uncle.

First just let me say that Khan is a good lecturer; he is funny, intelligent, witty, and yes, unassuming. He’s not bad. Although I will say I can name ten teachers at my school who are much better. The reason that number isn’t higher is because I don’t know every single teacher at my school. Not to take anything away from Khan- but his lectures sound exactly like what happens in our classrooms every day. He is an average, maybe above average lecturer. He also isn’t dealing with 37 kids trying to both flirt and fight with each other at the same time.

Lisa Kreiger of the Mercury News writes, “Valedictorian of his high school class with a perfect math SAT score, he always regretted the way educators failed to show the beauty of what they taught.” This makes a good point: as valedictorian with a perfect SAT score, Sal Khan must have had some pretty crappy teachers. Please. For every bad teacher there is a good one—or five. You want to know what isn’t very inspiring? Listening to Sal Khan lecture about the French Revolution.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Mr. Khan’s audience consists of people going online in their free time to look up math problems. Talk about preaching to the choir. These people also have a computer and an internet hookup, as well as a quiet place to study. That describes very few of the low-income students we have. If teenagers in this country came to school interested enough in math to put in extra time listening to a tutor, our schools would be working a lot better, trust me.

Plus, if we wanted 2,800 lectures on video, we could have given a few teachers the $200 for video equipment. But the idea of that happening is lunacy.

The problem we find in our schools is that we are dealing with humans, and they need more than an invisible voice talking to them, no matter how unassuming and amiable. Today, while I was about to engage a class in writing about their culture (sorry, it was more than just a lecture), my high school went into Lockdown. This could mean anything from an active shooter on campus, a gang fight, the riot police storming the grounds, or maybe a simple bomb-threat (it ended up being a combination of two of those). Either way, we had to lock our doors, the bells were turned off, and no one was allowed out of our classrooms until further notice. I went through the day’s agenda like I always do, because it really wasn’t anything new in my job. You didn’t hear anything on the news, did you?

Now let me go on record again as saying I think Khan’s lectures are a great resource. He provides solid tutoring on many subjects, and it’s free. I love it. I think he’s doing a great job. His lectures can be a good interactive lesson as part of a larger unit of differentiated instruction. They would probably work very well with Smartboards. Essentially he is creating visual lessons for lecturing—or as we call it here on the ground level, developing curriculum. He is doing what we do every day during our prep periods, only he isn’t doing any of the other stuff all studies show you need to do to teach real students in real classrooms.

Look, I don’t have a problem with Sal Khan, I have a problem with our educational “leaders” thinking he is doing anything we don’t already do everyday.

So to think the future of education lies in a disembodied voice that lectures squinting students on a blinking screen is ludicrous. Krieger reminds us of Sal Khan’s dream: “He dreams of a world free of dense text books, crowded lecture halls and bored students.” That’s just what my students are waiting for to be engaged in school—an onscreen lecture on trigonometry. Because in the real world, this is how my students responded to my unveiling of the Khan Academy in my classroom last week: “So…he’s teaching.” They said. “He’s kinda boring, ain’t he?”

But maybe Jeb Bush and Rupert Murdoch are right about Sal Khan. Maybe we will one day have glorious “lecture libraries”, where students will sit huddled and hunched over watching a television screen scribbling notes. Hell, it will probably be channel 999 and a subsidiary of Fox News.

The only thing I can think of that would be better would be to have Sal himself in front of the kids lecturing in the flesh. Of course then you would just call him a teacher.

Reader Feedback

6 Responses to “Khan Academy: What’s the Big Deal?”

  1. Matt, I am strongly inclined to agree with you about the exaggerated claims of Khan Academy as an education panacea. However, I don’t think you’re being quite fair to Sal Khan.

    For the reasons you’ve described (and many more), Khan Academy will not solve all of our education system’s many problems. Though I’m not faced with the socio-economic problems in my classes that you seeming are, I recognize they are real and vexing. Meanwhile, I think one of the biggest problems with KA is that it promotes the idea that good math learning should be knowledge of ‘how-to’ compute. Computation isn’t mathematics, and we should be using computers to teach math. See my post about this here: http://mikegwaltney.net/blog/?p=178

    But Matt, I think you’ve set up Khan for criticism by suggesting that he thinks his strategies are the panacea others claim they are. In fairness, Khan consistently claims his work should free up teachers to actually deepen connections between teachers and students – he understands and always says teachers are more important than the videos or the technology. He doesn’t claim he’s a better lecturer than other teachers, rather, he insists the pedagogy of lecture ‘in-the-room’ is the problem. Face-time with students should be focused on discussion, problem-solving, critical thinking exercises, not lectures. This is the beauty and genius of the flipped classroom strategy that KA follows. In the end, it’s not about the quality of the lecturer, it’s about the student’s ability to stop, start, rewind, and review the lecture that makes it powerful. Not to mention the greater possibility for visuals that digital video holds over classroom lecture.

    I realize there are loads of ways to get students engaged, and Khan’s is not the only one. But if you consider most math instruction happening in this country – lecture on a new computation, followed by 10-20 minutes of quiet practice, followed by “do the odds/evens in the back of the book for homework” – you have to agree that time with the teacher in class after watching a lecture outside of class time is a huge improvement. You’re right, it’s not a panacea, but in my mind, it’s a massive step in the right direction.

    Best, Mike

    • Mike,
      I might give you the point that in the subject of Math, some teachers could benefit from a series of videos they could play at the front of the room while they are working the rows and helping students. Yet, in the end you are missing my point. Even this “flipped” classroom, as you call it, won’t work with the kind of teacher who isn’t good at lecturing, and teaching in general. Look, unless you’re talking about paying teachers more and making sure we have highly intelligent, energetic leaders in the room, nothing will improve.

      Let me give you an example. There is a program called AVID that is nation-wide that focuses on peer studying and support. It has its own curriculum and protocols. When a great teacher is in the room, AVID works, when it is a bad teacher, AVID doesn’t work. KA is the same. The problem in education is not direct instruction, and our inability to reach our students on their desks. Lecturing is teaching, and if you take our voice from the subject matter, we are not teachers anymore, we are Techs. None of this matters, don’t you see? There is this idea that we can fix education BY TAKING THE TEACHER OUT OF THE EQUATION AT EVERY STEP. What we need is for ALL teachers to be highly qualified, and the only way to get that is to increase pay.

      I concede at many points in my piece that Khan is great for what he is. But the problem with education is not In-the-Room Lecture. That is direct instruction, and it works. It IS teaching (as long as you do everything else along with it, scaffolding, individual instruction, group work, etc.). Direct instruction is the least of our worries. Anyways, taking questions during lecture is the best way to address problem issues to the entire class. If one student has a question, chances are 40% of the room has the same question. In one fell swoop you’ve answered it for everyone, instead of walking around the room answering the same question at 20 different desks. In the end, most of us need help lecturing like we need help driving to work in the morning.

      And I’m sorry, but when Sal Khan says he dreams of a future free of bored students being lectured at, and how he hated how teachers weren’t able to show the beauty of what they teach, if that doesn’t piss you off, I don’t know what will. And when he sees the future of education as “Lecture Libraries,” instead of classrooms with teachers in it, if that doesn’t sound like he’s talking of a panacea, I don’t know what does.

  2. Alexandra says:

    Meh. People have already done lectures. People have already done video lectures. If Sal Khan is the future of education, the future looks an awful lot like the past. I wrote a blog response, from the perspective of someone in a school that already does this.

  3. Steven says:

    Hi Matt,

    My personal opinion is that by taking the frontal teaching out of the classroom, you can spend more time on individual needs.

    So not everything thats been done in the classroom of now needs to be. That’s the revolution.

  4. Matt says:

    This sounds like thinly veiled jealousy to me, and I’ve been seeing a lot surrounding the Khan Academy. I’ve never even used Khan Academy, and I can tell you didn’t go into this article intending to give a fair assessment of a potential resource. If all you wanted to do is to say “We teach hard too! Why don’t we get any recognition?” then can it. If this resource is popular, then maybe there’s something to it, and just maybe we should applaude this man for doing what you claim you want your students to do: succeed.

  5. […] classrooms?Flipping classrooms sounds like it does some good things, although I still maintain it doesn’t do anything good teachers don’t already do. Good teachers are already up on their feet getting to every student every day. Good teachers […]

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