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.