Yes We Khan

Obama "Yes We Can" PosterSo let’s just assume for a moment, if you will allow me that liberty, that you supported the Obama candidacy in 2008. Then you’ll remember the sense of excitement and the feeling of optimism that culminated with the election night victory of the first non-white president of the United States.

Over the last year, I feel like there has been a similar fervor for the Khan Academy among educational entrepreneurs and policy makers. Everyone is heralding this bold, new, and free online solution to math education. Every conceivable topic is explained clearly with worked out examples, and students can access the lessons when they are ready for them. The ultimate differentiated instruction curriculum has arrived!

At one conference, I heard online educators point to Khan Academy as a model for how to deliver “interactive” mathematics content. Watching videos is interactive? My heart sinks at the prospect of math education reduced to students watching videos individually at their own pace, working on problem sets, and only using teachers as tutors for their problem sets. How incredibly boring! That reality is as bleak and uninspiring as the national political landscape that emerged after 2008.

I read a thorough critique of the Khan Academy in a recent post by Frank Noschese on his blog Action-Reaction, in which he makes the case that a video lecture—just like a traditional lecture—does not provide the interactive engagement central to research-based teaching. In the comments, which I encourage you to read, he points out that there is nothing wrong with the free video archive itself, but rather the widespread national attention that has propelled the Khan Academy to “the future of learning.”

Not only has the decade-long trend toward standardized testing and privatized education fundamentally devalued the importance of teachers as the facilitators of learning, but the atomized lesson structure central to the Khan Academy (or any other video archive) is fundamentally at odds with the Standards for Mathematical Practice. There is no making sense, no persistence, no reasoning, no constructing arguments, no modeling. It’s a vacuous exercise in memorizing procedures that is just as useless as it’s always been, despite the modern, 21st-century veneer.

On a brighter note, we had another pair of vibrant Ignite events at the CMC conferences in Palm Springs and Asilomar at the end of last year. I’m still trying to find the time to edit the rest of the talks, but you can go to the Key Curriculum Press YouTube Channel to see Ruth Cossey, Kyndall Brown, Ivan Cheng, and others presenting their fast-paced and creative talks. So here’s to using videos to educate the teachers and policy makers of the world instead of their students, starting with our own Elizabeth DeCarli (first-round draft pick from Stanford University) who brought down the house as she reflected on lessons she learned about free online math resources on the internet.

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6 Responses to Yes We Khan

  1. avatar Elizabeth says:

    I’ve just stumbled across the news that Vi Hart, the maker of the coolest math videos ever, is going to be working for Khan Academy.
    My mind is boggled.

    • avatar Heather says:

      My mind is boggled too, Elizabeth! Vi Hart is so amazing. Hope Khan doesn’t squash her.

      Great article, Andres. I agree.

  2. avatar Bon Crowder says:

    Great video, thanks!

    Although Khan Academy is almost always looked down upon by mathematicians, it has indeed brought a lot of attention to math learning.

    With me, the jury’s out. Sometimes math for gaming and fun is nice. And sometimes it works for kids. But that doesn’t mean it teaches good mathematical though.

    But then again, letting kids read Goosebumps isn’t teaching good literature. But it helps a lot in building vocabulary.

    • Bon, I am with you – jury still out on Khan. I am like most mathematicians, looking down on it, as I am a firm believer in the power of inquiry, hands-on learning, and collaboration among students and teachers. But…I have also read some interesting approaches to using Khan, where in the classroom, there are inquiry-based projects, hands-on learning, and the Khan videos are more of a support, not the ‘teaching’. In that case, especially in this day of standardized, algorithm based testing, I can see the benefit of Khan. I think it depends on how it is integrated. If it simply replaces a teacher, replaces stand-and deliver lectures, then it is a disservice to our students and teachers.

  3. avatar Suzanne says:

    Math isn’t my field, educational technology/education is. Thank you for this post. I’m glad Andres pointed out the discursive context of Khan conversations. Such observations are needed.

  4. Pingback: Young Rewired State at Learning Without Frontiers conference | Sine of the Times

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