Would Khan Academy Work for Elementary Math?

Last week I wrote about Khan Academy’s apparent moves to play a more active part in thousands of classrooms, and my concerns that there was a hidden agenda of trying to make the curriculum “teacher-proof”. This new train of thought was triggered by two recent posts by Dan Meyer (I recommend you check him out; his blog is outstanding).

Khan Academy: Only for High School Math?

While the Khan Academy has videos for all levels from kindergarten/preschool up to university level, the discussion I’ve read about his philosophy of teaching, his vision for education, and the uses made of his material by teachers has almost all been in the context of high school math education. And the discussion has been, shall we say, pretty heated. High school math teachers especially, it seems, are critical of Khan’s methods of teaching, possibly the unfair influence applied by the Gates Foundation’s funding of the academy, and the suggestion that the Khan approach could be used to “fix” what ails math education in the developed world of the 21st century.

Elementary school class with teacher outside

So, what I’m wondering is, have elementary teachers of math had the same discussions around the staff lounge, or in their blogs, or has this highly contentious debate passed them by? And what would the discussion look like if we suggested that perhaps the Khan approach could fix the problems in earlier math education, before kids get to high school with a bad attitude and poor understanding of math?

I’d like to propose some basic points about this situation. And remember, Khan is just the most obvious example of an approach that was probably inevitable, given the expansion of the internet, delivering teaching episodes via online videos. So what we’re discussing is not really the Khan Academy per se, but the idea of replacing a teacher with a recorded lesson prepared by an “expert teacher”.

  1. This is not a new idea, that expert teaching could be captured and recorded, and delivered to students in a “perfect” form, bypassing the teacher, who of course is flawed and makes mistakes. Back in the day, lessons were packaged into slide shows or filmstrips, with audio recordings and flash cards. I remember having a set of these things in my classroom, and being amazed that some syllabus publisher thought I needed a script to make sure I taught everything correctly. The “teacher-proof curriculum” has been an attractive idea to governments and various commentators who don’t understand classroom teaching, and think the real problem with education is the teachers.
  2. Let’s admit that Khan’s output is nothing short of astonishing. The guy is clearly a workaholic, and has a vision for helping students with their math, science, and many other subjects which is attractive in many ways. I am sure that lots of teachers could find ways to use Khan videos to help students learn, to support the other activities that go on in the classroom.
  3. Given that students need to understand what they are learning in order to make sense of it and apply it in their “real” lives outside math class, both now and when they are grown, videos are going to be extremely limited in the ways that they can effectively produce that sort of learning.
  4. Yes, Khan’s videos can supply revision of once-learned, now-forgotten material, they can help explain and demonstrate algorithms and processes for approaching set problem types. But they can’t possibly engage a student as a real live teacher can, in conversation about the topic, to connect to students’ learning.

Elementary Math Teaching and “Teacher-Proof” Videos

It’s probably fair to say that many elementary teachers are not as confident with mathematics content as the average high school math teacher. This is understandable, given the wider range of subjects which teachers of younger students have to manage, and the different preparation they had at university. Does this difference mean that the Khan Academy videos are more attractive to elementary or primary teachers (do tell me your thoughts!)? In fact, would heavy adoption of KA materials be a good thing in elementary classes, as a way of “shoring up” the teacher’s lack of confidence and depth in mathematics content?

In a word, in my opinion, NO. Teachers of elementary students have a significantly different role to play in the education of the next generation: not only are they expected to teach the content knowledge and skills of each subject. They also have a responsibility to develop:

  • students’ attitudes to learning
  • their self images
  • their views of life and the parts they will play in it
  • their confidence
  • etc.
  • etc.

In mathematics specifically, elementary teachers ought to be (and many are) inspiring their students to construct a robust, flexible, deep understanding of what mathematics is about, how it makes sense, and how it may be applied in real life. To suggest that the teacher should hand over this job to a “video teacher” is ludicrous.

Your thoughts, as always, are invited – leave a comment below if you’d like to add to the discussion.

Photo References:
  • Elementary Teacher with Students:  © iStockphoto.com/Catherine Yeulet
  • Bored Child with Computer:  © iStockphoto.com/zhang bo

3 Replies to “Would Khan Academy Work for Elementary Math?”

  1. Good discussion, Peter. For an explanation of how, from inside the brain, Khan Academy students might be gaining UNDERSTANDINGS and maybe even creativity for their undeniably repetitious efforts, please see the creativity entry in Wikipedia, section 8.1 on working memory.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Larry. You obviously have specialised knowledge in the field of creativity and brain function which I do not.

      Nevertheless, it would seem to me that creativity, while it can be generated through some sorts of repetitive activity, does not depend on it. In fact, I would expect that other activity types would be more likely to lead to creativity; do you agree? Perhaps children could develop some creativity while using KA materials; but perhaps this happens in spite of KA’s limitations, rather than because of its particular features.

      Have you researched brain function and development in classrooms using other teaching styles, strategies and resources? I would be interested to hear how they compare.

  2. I have seen how children are better with teachers but what if khan put the attitude of a teacher in the videos they make? And pause and help them work it out. If a child’s having trouble there should be a help button that helps them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.