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.

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.

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?

Teaching a Great Math Lesson Part 1: Capture Students’ Attention!

Great Math Lesson Series:

Phase I Phase II Phase III Phase IV Phase V
Introduce Stimulus Whole-class Activity Problem Solving Synthesis & Reinforcement Revision & Recap

This is the first of a five-part series on how to teach a great mathematics lesson, using a simple, purposeful template that can be adapted for any math topic and any age level.

First Phase: Introduce a Stimulus

Lots of math lessons fall down in the first ten seconds: “Who can tell me what ‘ratios’ are?” Seriously, which kid or teenager is going to want to answer such a question? Later in the lesson, there will be time for lots of questions. But ask such a question in the first few seconds? Never.

You know what they say about first impressions? You don’t get a second chance to make one. Well, it’s the same with teaching. I remember starting a lesson when I was a student teacher, saying “I’m now going to teach you about ‘protecting the environment’”, or some such thing. The children were polite enough not to groan out loud, but I could see the reactions immediately on their faces: Who wants to learn about THAT?

Measurement lesson

So, what should a teacher do?

Start with something interesting, exciting, unusual, unexpected, surprising, creative or enticing – which is connected with today’s math topic. Such as:

  • Fractions – dress as a chef, bring in a chocolate cake, cut it into halves, then quarters, then eighths, and so on
  • Subtraction – sing “Ten Green Bottles” while animating green bottles on a PowerPoint slide
  • Percents – bring out a 25% off sale flyer for a department store, tell the children you’re going to buy a new outfit, but you’re not sure if you have enough money.
  • Linear equations – dress as a plumber, carry a plunger or wrench. Tell students you have a tank to fill with water. It already holds 50 liters (/litres), and water is being added from a tap at 3.6 L per minute. How can we tell how much water there will be in the tank after an hour? How long will it take to reach 250 L? Could we graph the amount of water in the tank over time?

The actual idea isn’t that important; the main thing is to grab students’ interest, connect it with the math topic, and then while they’re paying attention, start teaching. It will require some time and effort put into preparation, but the payoff should be students who look forward to their next math lesson!

Next phase: #2 Whole Class Teaching

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