Thoughtful comment on the Post piece

The most interesting comment on that recent Washington Post piece was pretty critical and rather thoughtful. As such, I wanted to give it a bit of space and to respond. Some important ideas are raised.

I can understand the threat that Sal Khan poses to ‘traditional ‘teaching and all the research that has come along to support it. I am a college student and can say with no reservation that I have been able to get more calculus and statistics done with Khan’s videos than with no less than 4 different professors of mathematics, that is, math PhD’s teaching. Your critic fails to acknowledge one simply truth, we don’t like to be embarassed. So when we have a hard time understanding material we pretend to comprehend so as to not look dumb. It is something many students do. Some of Khan’s stated goals are to help people learn at their own pace and in whatever environment they deem comfortable.

Two important issues are raised here. The first is about the overall quality of college mathematics instruction. The second is a related issue about the culture of college mathematics classrooms. You’ll get no argument from me on either point.

College math instruction. I am quite critical of this and will not defend it. Of course there are some amazing people doing amazing work. But on average, we tend to adhere to a paradigm where telling=teaching. A concern that was not the focus of our Washington Post piece is that Khan perpetuates this, rather than revolutionizing instruction. I have that concern and have probably addressed it in passing in other posts on this blog.

But I don’t think it’s a very good defense of Khan Academy that it does a bad thing better. Telling does not equal teaching. It’s a component but needs to happen when students are ready to hear it. Telling requires judgment, just as all good teaching techniques do. It can’t be the primary mode of delivery if we hope to reach all students. And on that point it doesn’t matter whether the delivery is automated via KA or live via face-to-face instruction.

Culture of college math classrooms. The commenter writes, So when we have a hard time understanding material we pretend to comprehend so as to not look dumb. I know this phenomenon well, both as a teacher and as a student. It is toxic. It is totally toxic for teaching and learning, and it needs to change.

Let me repeat that. It needs to change! We cannot continue allowing student questions to go unasked in math classrooms. We should be ashamed of ourselves that students characterize having the same thing repeated many times as an improvement.

I work very, very hard in my teaching to break this culture. It is deeply engrained, so it is a lot of work. I hope that I send my students on to the next course with changed habits in this regard, but I understand the powerful nature of the culture described here.

Lesson plan help teachers and professors to structure, but they sometimes also hurt the student. The problem with lesson plans is that the person who creates it thinks it’s as good as it needs to be or as it can be. Therefore, when a student has difficulty with the material and the way it is presented, then it must be the student’s fault.

This is a problem with a script, not with a lesson plan. See my writing on Five Practices for more information about what I mean by a lesson plan and how it differs from a script.

For instance, you use the example of Khan’s video on decimals, “The first of the decimal comparison videos we discuss has no exercises. The second has exercises that ask students to locate numbers on a number line, but these numbers all have one decimal place and are to be placed on a number line that is already subdivided into tenths. In short, the exercises offer no intellectual rigor and do not address our central concern.” My question is, what makes you think that more examples mean an easier learning experience? Perhaps the word easy makes you cringe at the idea that learning can be easy and even fun. The videos are supplements to the overwhelming rigor some students experience while in the classroom. So when they seek help with Khan’s videos the simplicity allows the student to come up with some questions that may make themselves into the classroom. You should be thanking him for preparing your students for class. A mathematician should understand the idea of simplicity.

I like the critique here. It really cuts to the heart of the matter.

I am not calling for more examples. Indeed, if you were to spend time in my classroom, you might be surprised at the small number of examples that are offered there. Instead, I am calling for intelligent choices of examples. And I am building the argument that choosing examples intelligently, rather than haphazardly, requires a particular kind of knowledge. When I work with future and practicing teachers, I encourage them to consider their examples carefully. It is a skill to be learned and it’s an important one.

I would be delighted to discuss any of the examples you may find on my blog-either the ones I refer to having used in class or those I use to illustrate points to readers. I choose them carefully but do not contend that they are all perfectly chosen. I would hope to learn something from good questions about them.

I have no problem with easy, nor with fun. I get that it is nice sometimes to just be successful at something basic before (or while) digging into the hard stuff. My critique of the decimal comparisons was not that they are too easy. It was that the fundamental idea in this domain is not addressed. Khan does not teach the important stuff here-the stuff that students will struggle with.

Khan’s videos provide the platform for the student to create their lesson plan. That might not be what a PCK qualified professor wants to hear but it is the fact. It is the fact in my experience while pursuing a degree in Economics and the experience of many of my fellow students. I thought these videos were my little secret, but it turned out to be half the classes’ little secret. In statistics and probability, microeconomics, business calculus, and it will be for intro to econometrics next semester. There are some brilliant professors in the department, (according to their resumes). Some have been teaching for decades others have just started. Nearly all of them fail in two distinct ways, one by thinking that just breaking down the material will help most people understand; and two, by having only one way of delivering the information. To teach well you must be as creative as you are capable in understanding your subject.

I agree on this point for sure.

I guess it feels strange for me that my critique of Khan’s videos is seen as a defense of traditional college mathematics instruction. It just isn’t so.

As long as college courses are structured in a way that allows Khan videos to be useful for passing the courses, I say more power to you to students who use them to do this. Whatever resources help students meet their goals, I welcome.

At the same time, however, Khan’s rhetoric of a free world-class education for all means his work needs to be held to a different standard. Flipping the class isn’t free; it requires a teacher at a school. Those both cost money. So Khan must imagine KA as a primary resource in this world-class education. The videos do not meet this standard.

In all the pushback I have seen, no one has stood up for the quality of those decimal videos, nor for Khan’s knowledge of how people learn mathematics. And no one has pointed to research demonstrating that this knowledge doesn’t matter. Those are the central points of our post. Any extensions of those arguments others would attribute to me are likely unwarranted.

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7 responses to “Thoughtful comment on the Post piece

  1. I also think another problem is the pre-professional programs and some of the professors in those classes. I am a pre-medicine student and I have an organic chemistry professor is nothing short of a jerk. I think this is mainly because over half of his students couldn’t care less about organic chemistry, its just an obstacle. I would love to get in his head and find out why he takes his frustration out on students instead of the admissions of medical schools. My motivation to do well in his course is to prove him wrong, which I feel is the exact WRONG way to learn.

    This also goes for many math classes and other courses I’ve taken, too. Many professors invest much of their time into their craft only to have students who genuinely don’t care about the time they put into their profession.

    I can see how that is frustrating for someone who has invested so much into their livelihood. But I don’t understand the backlash and borderline blatant insulting of students when they are trying and have a hard time grasping concepts.

    I know of a professor that will make students stand up at the beginning of class and answer any question he may have over the material. He tries his best to embarrass them when they are incorrect.

    I have had great professors for classes I wouldn’t have thought twice about afterwards if it weren’t for their passion, excitement, and creativity in teaching the course (e.g. statistics, philosophy).

    I guess my point is, your response doesn’t truly address these problems at all. I see your comments of trying to break this, but how could other professors make an effort to change these habits?

    Even in office hour appointments with some of my professors, they are more concerned with getting me out of there ASAP than making sure I understand the concepts. My Math and Science center volunteer tutor challenges me and has grown me more in my studies than 90% of my professors.

    I pay a lot of money to go to college and EARN my education. I am a non-traditional student so I don’t have a problem shouldering up to rude professors, but I’ve seen students embarrassed and frustrated nearly to tears.

    I applaud your efforts to be a great professor and to improve the “YouTube” revolution of learning; I very much understand that. I question everything and investigate if it is worth it or not and have found some of the organic lectures by Khan to be very incomplete and shallow. But, I can’t stress enough how much professors need to realize why kids are turning away from their lecture notes and textbooks to YouTube. Trust me, its not because its “easier”.

  2. Yeah, Josh, college instruction is a tough nut to crack. I am sympathetic to each of the issues you raise. At research institutions, there is little to no incentive for good teaching; tenure and evaluation are purely based on research, grants and publication. That incentive system has to change before we’re likely to see much progress. At community colleges and smaller four-year institutions, there are real opportunities for improving instruction.

    Check back with me in five years. I’ll let you know what contributions I’ve been able to make.

  3. @dynamo22Josh: You wrote “over half of his students couldn’t care less about organic chemistry, its just an obstacle” and “students who genuinely don’t care about the time they put into their profession,” then later, “…blatant insulting of students when they are trying and have a hard time grasping concepts.” All this makes me think of the question of what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do students not care about the course before it even begins or do they not care because the professor has made it painful to learn? Is teaching and learning a two-way commodity? I think so, but the students are paying the tuition, and it’s too bad that many do not have the luxury to shop around for the best professors from one institution.

    Christopher, there are a lot of good comments for your Washington Post piece, and I’m glad you offer very thoughtful extensions of them here. Without trying to beat the KA subject beyond recognition, I do believe there are bad apples in every profession, so while KA is far from an ideal substitution, it IS a viable one for someone who’s sitting in a classroom not being able to grasp the material and concurrently being humiliated by the teacher. You can pause and replay Khan and Khan doesn’t give you the look of why-on-earth-are-you-so-dense-child. That is worth something.

    YOU, Christopher, is whom I want to learn from, I’d be front-and-center in your classroom. Thanks for another great post.

  4. Kahn’s videos are imperfect, though as he’s gotten funding and attention, their quality improves. He’s not a dunce, recognizes the value of professional input, and hires it.

    Math experts criticize his pedagogy, but they’re confused.

    #1 Students want short videos that explain what they struggle with in school. It doesn’t matter if critics think this is terrible. It’s not their problem. Students are just as smart as most teachers. Students don’t waste time doing excess work they don’t get credit for. They used to reread the textbook. Its more effective to review Khan. Sure, something could be better than Khan. When it comes along, students will use it. Here’s the shocker: the only criticism that matters is from students. Sorry, but if Khan provides free lessons, and students use them, math specialists can carp, but the important audience doesn’t care.

    #2 The genuine issue according to this post is that telling isn’t good teaching, so online videos are doomed from the start. #1 suggests this is an idealist criticism, since students would not use Khan videos if classroom teachers were all that was needed. Yes, an ideal teacher can achieve great things with math students, perhaps eliminating the need for Khan videos. But is Khan’s availability a threat against better teaching? Too many math experts claim it is, without evidence. Would not students appreciate great teaching that relieves them from having to go online to get extra help? What Khan does is reveal the lack of ideal teaching.

    #3 Instead of blaming the messenger, or the message, look at the medium. Young people live online. You can’t change that. They multitask, they dive into games that demand repetitive behavior, they absorb things in small chunks. Khan stumbled upon this — he’s a highly educated guy who, instinctively, probably doesn’t want his kids to spend too much time online. But turns out these short videos are what a new generation likes. Go figure. It’s frustrating to those who’ve developed a more project and proof pedagogy, informed by Asian and European best practices. But there’s no golden cup, and sometimes you’ve got to change.

  5. I don’t think enough has been made of the general tone that Khan uses. He is obviously having fun at what he does. He emphasizes intuitive understanding and not rote memorization (see the Volume by Revolution videos), and the fact that he is thinking of examples off-the-cuff allows him to not sound rote, because he too, is considering the possibilities. Let’s face it, a lot of math teachers can make things boring (“do this, then do that, watch out for this, etc…”) Of course, every video he makes is not for every student. Of course, he shouldn’t be the only resource out there, and he isn’t

    I know part of this is that I have enjoyed math all my life, but I’ve read enough comments below his videos to know that many other people (a significant number not having always appreciated math) feel the same way.

  6. Just one thing. There is a shortage of proper education all across the globe. Khan’s Academy falls short in some respects, as you pointed out.

    Personally, I’ve had an education in an educational system that is considered a very good one, especially in terms of mathematics. It was very hard on me, and I failed pretty badly. Spent my adolescence with very low self-esteem, and due to my personal interest in computer programming and inability to keep a job in the then-worrisome economic climate, I started a programming course. I was almost denied due to my lack of math proficiency all those years back in school.

    Turned out I was enormously talented on the subject, graduated the course in less than a quarter of the time frame and have gone on to be quite successful as a technical enterprise consultant. I have taught many bachelors, masters, and even some PhD’s programming logic and have been continuously learning in my spare time.

    I’ve come to realize over time that everything I seemed unable to learn back then I am perfectly able to learn on the internet. I am not good at rote memorization, and I never will be, and it was this simple fact, along with the lack of interest, cynicism, or in other cases simple incompetence of my teachers, that prevented me from understanding and mastering the material. Many intelligent people who are not so different from myself have seen their lives destroyed, or at least made significantly more difficult, because of their diversion from the questionable norm of rote memorization.

    I thus applaud the availability of learning resources on the internet, equally flawed though they might be, and can only hope that instead of criticizing Salman Khan for what he lacks, I should hope the “powers that be” will work toward the improvement of said course material, or to provide an equally free (!!!) and open (!!!) alternative in which the best pedagogical practices are followed. Both these methods are far simpler than any endeavor to make teachers, professors and teaching institutions alike actually good at their jobs.

    Granted, communication through a YouTube video will never be as good as face-to-face communication, but the success of these videos signifies that there is definitely merit in this evolution. My personal opinion, as long as learning is not approached, as is software development ideally, as a cooperative game with a high degree of personal safety, osmotic communication, reflective improvement, short term goals, automation of time sinks, and easy access to expert advice, YouTube videos will still be better.

    Instigating a different approach to learning throughout the globe will take decades at the very least. To provide a learning platform as does Salman Khan, but one that follows the pedagogical standards you so adamantly defend, could be a way to make sure that so many intelligent and interested people do not end up in the margin as the world waits for your notion of learning to become commonplace.

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