Khan Academy: “Teacher-Proof” Curriculum?

I follow Dan Meyer’s blog quite closely, and find the discussions over there really stretch my thinking sometimes about how we teach math, and the best ways to engage students in thinking.

Dan Meyer on the Khan Academy

I first encountered Salman Khan on his TED video, perhaps like lot of others. (Incidentally, that’s also how I first heard of Dan Meyer, watching his TED talk.) I found Sal Khan’s methods surprising and challenging, and incidentally, his business practices pretty remarkable also. If you look at his site, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer volume of material he has there, with a huge list of videos, all free for watching.

Recently Dan has posted a couple of articles about the Khan Academy:

Dan points out several really important points about the Khan academy’s approach, including an apparent shift in emphasis from supporting the work of teachers via flipped lessons to supplying an entire curriculum for students. Crucially, Dan comments that students actually find watching the Khan videos quite boring, which surely is a critical flaw in the program.

“Flipped Classes” – a Solution to Bad Teaching?

To summarise, in case you haven’t been keeping up with this debate, the idea put forward by Khan at the TED conference which has captured the attention of many educators, is “flipped classes”. In this model, instead of the teacher teaching in class and then assigning practice work for homework, students watch the teaching at home via Khan’s videos online, then in class the teacher gets to follow up the video presentation, offer one-on-one tutoring help, and generally support and troubleshoot students’ learning, freed from having to spend hours planning and teaching didactic lessons.

What’s the philosophical idea behind Khan’s approach? Note the low-tech quality of the videos: it can’t be able visual engagement, hooking students with exciting music, animations or the like. No, what Khan is attempting, without really admitting it, is to produce a set of perfect teaching videos. If you like (and I doubt you do), a teacher-proof syllabus. How does that strike you? I find it insulting: why does Mr Khan feel that a disembodied voice track and a screen showing the teacher’s written notes for a math process is better than what real teachers do in a real, physical classroom, with students who are present in the same space?

The only way to accept KA as a replacement for what teachers in general do in classrooms is if you subscribe to the idea that most teachers suck at teaching math. If that premise is accepted, then the idea that a single source of “expert instruction”, delivered uniformly to all students, could supply all the teaching might look pretty attractive.

However, critics point out, often with some heat and passion, that there are several problems with this scenario:

  • lecturing to students is not the best pedagogical approach to teaching
  • video recordings lock every student into a single lesson for each topic
  • there is no opportunity for students to ask questions of the video teacher, to have something explained again, other than replaying that part of the video

What do you think?

10 Replies to “Khan Academy: “Teacher-Proof” Curriculum?”

  1. Dan, I think you missed the point do to your implied assumptions. In the KA world, there is nothing to prevent students from choosing among a number of teachers who are producing teaching videos or even multimedia material for a particular subject. In that case, they might go to one location for followup discussion or teaching with a professor and a completely different location for a another class. That way students gravitate towards the best teachers of the material.

    Note that just having a snazzy video will not necessarily translate into the highest quantity of the students taking a professor’s class. It will be more dependent on how entertaining and absorbing the class is to the student. Ultimately, that is what matters.

    1. John, I have no problem with videos per se, or multimedia. I use videos in my classes to help students connect with the material I’m teaching that day.

      The problem, as I see it, with KA is the idea that the class teacher needs *replacing* with some sort of “expert teacher” video, so the teacher’s role is relegated to that of tutor or follow-up coach. Excellent teachers do that anyway, but they don’t give up on teaching in the first place.

      I’m not sure, but was your comment aimed at Dan Meyer?

  2. I just left a lengthy comment at Dan’s post on Khan Academy (Vi vs Sal), and just to quote one part of my comment about who’d find KA useful… “an incompetent and lazy teacher who thinks Khan is god.”

    Those of us who work hard every day to make mathematics relevant and engaging to young students would never prescribe to KA. But the kids themselves speak volumes about KA, they find the videos boring. Parents tell me that after a short while on KA, their kids can’t stand watching any more.

    KA is for those who don’t have anything better, so it’s better than nothing.
    Thanks, Peter!

    1. Fawn, teachers like you and me, who are trying to make their students’ math experiences meaningful, will never agree with the idea that a video could replace them.

      I haven’t tried using KA with my own students, so have no first-hand experience of students’ reactions. The way Khan tells it, his videos are extremely popular; perhaps that’s among students with teachers who don’t have what it takes to truly engage learners.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Fawn.

  3. I have a couple of critiques of the Khan Academy:
    –He is trying to make it a one-man show. One person can’t be the best teacher in all subjects.
    –Teaching involves mentoring. Students need to learn how to think, and interaction with a real teacher who can model thinking skills.

    I have no problem with video lectures being one resource, but not the whole show. My fear is that administrators will rely on canned teaching and the quality of the human interaction that is good teaching will erode.

    1. I’m with you, David. I agree that videos can be a great resource (I recommend it to my preservice student teachers all the time), but I worry that some will think that teachers could be replaced by a videoed lesson program.

      Thanks for the comment – it’s great to have your voice add to the conversation.

  4. I feel you’ve missed the point entirely. The idea isn’t to make maths lessons teacher proof.

    Do you really feel that the best use of time for your 30 students is to sit through the same lecture? And for you to repeat that same lecture for 40 years? Giving 1200 students in basis the same lecture? You might make some small changes, but basically it’ll be the same lecture. Well, that’s what Khan’s academy is doing as well. Giving that same lecture. Which is great, because it means you can spend that time more productively. The concept isn’t to give the perfect lecture (although that in itself would be a plus) it’s for the students to get content that fits their level constantly. And for the teachers to have time to help the students in a focused way.

    Now looking back at my math classes (and there were many, many of them) generally the teacher would spend 15 minutes talking about something new and then spend another 20 minutes talking about the homework questions (which you had to listen to, regardless if you got the questions right or not) and then there was another 10 minutes to work. Since I wasn’t someone to put my hand up to ask questions (way to shy) I think I got about 30 minutes of math teacher contact in my 6 years through a Dutch high school equivalent. Of which at least 15 minutes was complaining why I didn’t get a better score.

    Maybe you’re a magical teacher that does his lectures perfectly and spends it attention perfectly across the class, but I’m guessing that per student you’re only spending a very small amount of time in personal contact. Why wouldn’t you want to get rid of the mechanical in front of the class lectures that you could tape one year and effectively play back every year to spend more time where it actually matters? ie. At the point a student gets stuck.

    1. Thanks for the comment Sonja, and sorry for the delay in responding.

      Your response seems to assume that teaching, even the very best teaching, is comprised primarily of lectures. Perhaps we could debate the meaning of the word “lecture”, but even in my university teaching I tried to engage students in a dynamic, interactive teaching style that is more than a lecture. More importantly, the sort of teaching that good to excellent teachers use cannot be captured in a video, no matter how good the delivery.

      No, I’m no magical teacher. But I do believe in engaging students in thinking and “owning the learning” by constructing their own unique understanding of each concept and topic. While it looks to be a useful supplement to this sort of teaching, KA simply cannot replace a good teacher.

      Finally, I believe that the underlying motivation for a lot of technological “solutions” we hear so much about nowadays is precisely to replace the teacher. Those promoting these resources would never admit it of course, but deep down they seem to believe that we need to put “perfect” teaching in front of students, which means the existing teacher needs to take a back seat.

  5. First of all, MANY teacher should be replaced by KA, KA provides an antidote for those kids suffered lot from inconpetant teachers and disruptive class environment.

    Second, good teachers know how to intergrate KA in the teaching process, they would delegated the task of general introduction of the subject to KA, therefore free themselves to more specific instruction and one to one human buddling with the students. All the students would enjoy much longer dedicated time from the teacher, and all the time would be focused specifically on the spots which would benefit the students most, whether they’re subject related or motivation related. Actually, those teachers who engeged KA would have tens of time dedicated to each specific students. So much for the human interaction!

    Admitted, scholastic materials wouldn’t be as fun or entertainning as cartoon, because the requirement for the concentration and dedication from the students, You just CANNOT learn the material as easily as grasping the what about of a cartoon. The problem is not specifically for KA, but for anyone who try to teach serious materials. I can argue that no matter how high quality of the teaching, the result still rest on the motivation and focus from the students. any normally, you just cannot boost the motivation by a broadcast way, and one on one motivation boost wouldn’t be feasible if the teacher were also burdened with the mission of imtroduction of the whole subject.

    1. Joseph, thanks for the comment.

      We could agree, perhaps, that incompetent teachers should be replaced. That is an easy proposition, though identifying those teachers who are truly incompetent would be a difficult task.

      But here we’re not really talking about people who shouldn’t be teaching at all. Instead, the question as I see it is:

      Would it be preferable to replace the “teaching” part of math lessons with a video from KA?

      The rest of the discussion is really about what we could do with the extra time, how we structure the lesson and followup homework, and so on.

      So, I think it is reasonable to ask “Is Sal Kahn a good teacher?” or even “Is he an excellent teacher?”. But even that isn’t enough. We need to ask “Is a video of Sal Kahn teaching more beneficial for students’ learning than a face-to-face lesson with their teacher?”.

      When put in those terms, my immediate answer is along these lines: No, Mr Kahn is not an excellent or even a good teacher. He doesn’t try to engage students in understanding why the symbols used in math should be manipulated in certain ways, he just tells students (in a way that is easy to repeat over and over if you don’t get it the first time) how to manipulate the symbols, and so “get the answer correct”. To me, this isn’t good pedagogical practice. In fact, it reverses progress made towards better understanding of the underlying math for the goal of automatic, if unthinking, responses to “standard” problem types.

      What I would use KA or other similar resources for is to supplement face-to-face teaching. As an optional extra resource for kids to refer to, either in class or at home I think they would be very useful.

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