Wrath At Khan? What Should Teachers Expect From Khan Academy?

Karim Ani of Mathalicious isn’t drinking the Khan-aid and asks some hard questions about Khan Academy. Important discussion.

11 Replies to “Wrath At Khan? What Should Teachers Expect From Khan Academy?”

  1. Meh. I don’t actually have any experience with Kahn Academy, but I know enough ed psych to know that the kind of “conceptual understanding” Ani is describing usually presupposes the sort of practice-for-automaticity that is described pejoratively as “rote”. I’m usually suspicious of complaints about lack of “deep” or “conceptual” understanding for this reason; if your complaint depends on drawing a bright line between shallow/procedural knowledge and deep/conceptual knowledge, then it’s probably misguided. They’re actually intimately linked forms of knowledge.

  2. Very important article, Andrew, thank you. I don’t always agree with you but you find some gems and bring them to light. I teach a lot of artistic GT kids with high verbal ability and are no slouches at math. But in physics, when I push their conceptual understanding with inquiry and open questions, they balk and really just want the algorithm for problem-solving. I explain (patiently at first) that those skills won’t get them by in college science or beyond–they ‘solve’ creative, artistic inquiry-based problems all the time and don’t get the transference or maybe my colleagues don’t get it and teach to the answer and give the students what they want (or have come to expect what is important, i.e., take a test, succeed in life). My junior and senior high school students have already been Kahn-ed by the time they are ready for college.

  3. I agree with Karim’s critique. I’ve looked at some of the videos and they are stunningly mediocre. Yes, @Paul, both procedural and conceptual knowledge are important. My problem with Khan academy is that the underlying videos just aren’t all that good, whether your goal to teach procedures or develop conceptual understanding. That said, Khan’s broader notion of the “flipped classroom” is very interesting and has potential. It’s clear, though, that the design and actual execution of the videos is really going to limit the power of Khan Academy. I also agree that a large amount of the hype is due to silicon valley’s faith in technology and the fact that many folks in the valley were successful learning math regardless of the type of pedagogy employed. So, they have little sense of what constitutes effective or ineffective pedagogy.

  4. The problem with many of these critiques is that they focus on an entirely fixable problem – the quality of the videos. At it’s core, when used in the appropriate place in a child’s education, there’s power in the idea of Khan, now there just needs to be some improvement.

    The education world, thus far, is cutting a course either entirely against Khan or totally with him, without realizing that he’s done what few others have had the gumption to do – offer something like this entirely for free. The middle path is the preferable way to go in my book, appreciate Khan for what it is and put pressure on it to improve in the parts it needs to. Videos can be made better over time, but it’s not likely that something like this is going to come around very often.

  5. @pgteacher – Yes, videos can definitely be improved. What I find interesting is that so many people don’t think they need to be fixed–that they are really good already. And the fact that, at least according to the blog post, all of the employees are computer scientists and not a single person has any background or expertise in K12 teaching. Now some people will make a facile point like, “Well, given how poorly American kids test on math, maybe it’s good thing educators aren’t involved.” But that’s simply anti-intellectual and ignorant of the fact that there is important knowledge base and expertise behind the design of effective lessons.

    Yes, they’ve created an interesting platform, with some snazzy “game dynamics” and assessment tools. And they are offering a free resource. But the hype it’s received is so disproportionate to the impact it is likely to have on the path it is currently on. I’m someone who loves technology and think the field needs to use more of it. And back in the day (mid 1990s) I spent a summer working for an educational software company. I saw then (and continue to see) how many tech folks really arrogantly try to solve educational problems without really understanding them (or getting the right people on their teams).

  6. My biggest argument against Khan Academy is its assumption that their site will transform even the most reluctant learner into an education junkie. I teach resource room math, and a good majority of my students lack self motivation. So if I cannot get them to do their work while standing over them, working out examples together and gently guiding their learning, how will they succeed alone in front of a computer. It just does not make sense to me.

    On the other hand, it is wonderful to have a resource to help teach difficult concept to the group as a whole. I find that when I am struggling with the presentation of a concept, I will turn to computerized lessons for perhaps a clearer explanation. However, as I mentioned before, these seem to work best for my class when presented whole group.

  7. Maybe the important lesson here is that teachers need to be smart consumers. Just jumping on to the Khan site and pulling up a video 5 minutes before class starts is a recipe for disaster. How about instead we find videos of concepts we are teaching, show them to students and then work with students to critique those lessons. Does the video fit with our understanding? Do we disagree or agree with the math? How could we make it better?
    The bottom line is that Khan Academy is here and for many it is becoming the go to site. If students are going use it for help we need to help them to become informed about the product. This is great opportunity to build digital literacy as well as math skills.

  8. Totally agree with Bruno’s comment. The refusal of math reformers to believe that procedural fluency and understanding are intertwined continues to inform their debate. The fact is, when asked to show how the reform math approach actually prepares students for college level math courses and for a STEM track, you don’t get a lot of details. Students need skills, and the students coming from K-8 into high school frequently lack basic skills. Reformers blame this lack on “traditional” math teaching and that these kids have been fed “rote memorization”. Talk to parents whose kids are at schools that use Investigations in Number, Data and Space, or Everyday Math, or Connected Math Program, and see what they think of “deep conceptual understanding.”

    The standard sales pitch for the reform math approach can be seen from this blurb, taken from a Pearson brochure on Investigations in Number, Data and Space: “Administrators describe the curriculum, published by Pearson Education, as providing rich, problem-based, student-centered lessons that foster inquiry and develop critical thinking skills. They believe the result of developing those skills will be increasing student achievement.”

  9. From Mathalicious:

    “Instead, Khan Academy may be one of the most dangerous phenomena in education today. Not because of the site itself, but because of what it — or more appropriately, our obsession with it — says about how we as a nation view education, and what we’ve come to expect.”

    This dislike of Khan Academy is based on pedagogical and philosophical reasons which is summed up with:

    “When you ask students why they dislike math so much, they typically say, “I don’t know what it means or when I’ll ever use it.” This is understandable. As so many of us know from our own school days, math is too often presented as a bunch of random steps for students to memorize and then regurgitate on a test.”

    It’s apparently not the format or the quality of the videos that is being questioned, but the basic pedagogical approach; bottom up, skill-based, versus the the Mathalicious top-down, real world approach.

    To label the Khan Academy’s more traditional approach to math as “dangerous” is an unfounded, self-serving opinion. What is really dangerous is having K-12 educators foist these top-down opinions on millions of school kids without giving parents a choice. What is dangerous is that programs like Investigations and Everyday Math do not ensure basic skill mastery at any one point in time and “trust the spiral”. As Bruno and Barry and I say; there is linkage between mastery of skills and understanding. Curricula like Everyday Math just assume that if kids are somehow engaged, and if you keep circling through the material, mastery will happen. It doesn’t, as so many parents have found out first hand.

    The Khan Academy style of teaching is nothing new. You see it every day in high school and in college. Sometimes it can be good and sometimes it can be bad, but that depends a lot on the teacher and the textbook. What is new is that anyone can view the videos for free. Perhaps kids don’t have to rely on mathy parents or tutors. Perhaps there is a way for kids to acutally learn skills. They sure-as-heck won’t master them in student-centered groups in school taking way too much time covering very little material.

    The only time a top-down, real-world approach has any chance of working is when you increase the expectations for homework. However much engagement you create in a classroom will not automatically translate understanding into skills. Mastery and understanding are critically tied together. A top-down approach might be good for motivation, but a proper, abstract understanding of math can only be obtained from working up from basic skills. Pie-chart concepts of fractions will never translate into the ability to manipulate rational expressions. Most top-down, real-world approaches I’ve seen are what I call anti-math. Math is really about having skills turn most problems into exercises.

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