Khan’s kindness

Say what you will about Sal Khan (and I have certainly said a lot), but he communicates a tremendous amount of patience with his students.

I watched his video on “Basic Addition” the other day.

He begins with the assumption that the viewer has absolutely no equipment for finding the sum 1+1.

This bears repeating. He assumes absolutely no knowledge of the meaning of the addition symbol in the expression 1+1. None.

As he does so, Khan is patient, supportive and encouraging. He does not condescend and he even apologizes for the word basic in the title of the video-worrying that his viewer may be put off by the term.

When I think of the culture of many math classrooms, in which students don’t ask questions out of fear of looking stupid, or in which instructors use words such as trivial and obvious without apology or concern for the effect these words can have on learners, I get a glimpse of what people find so appealing about Khan’s videos.

Khan gives permission to not know. He reassures the viewer that it’s OK to still be figuring things out. And of course he is happy to repeat what he just said as many times as the viewer likes. Just stop and rewind. The calm, patient demeanor never changes.

The field could learn from Khan’s kindness.



10 responses to “Khan’s kindness

  1. I caught myself using the T word (trivial) last year and had to check myself and apologize. The word has a very specific within higher mathematics and I hadn’t explained to my kids what I meant until I offended each and every one of them.

    It was in reference to an IB internal assessment that asked students to plot nth roots of imaginary numbers with modulus 1 and compare the distances between them. Using DeMoivre’s theorem many got the very mathematically trivial result that consecutive roots were separated by the same distance.

    Of course, when I told them that was a trivial result they heard, “Your result is dumb and you’re a real idiot for coming up with that.”

    I think some may have forgiven me after I apologized and explained. It was a good lesson for me and I hope to avoid it in the future!

  2. I think you might be a bit too kind here yourself. True, he doesn’t assume the reader knows 1+1=2, but the question is: would someone who doesn’t know that 1+1=2 be able to follow the video with the number lines? I think if the audience is for someone who does not know 1+1=2, it would have to be a much more colorful and fun lesson, like what you might see on Team Umizoomi. I seriously doubt anyone ever learned 1+1 or how to add anything, really, from this video.

    • I think we can separate the argument “Is this a good learning experience for the student?” from the argument “Khan is very patient with his students, and we should do well to all be so patient.” I think we could agree that the answer to the first question is probably no, and that we agree that patience is a virtue to which we should all aspire.

      I’ve been in classrooms where the teacher is not patient, and where making mistakes feels awful. They exist. The message that these classrooms need to change is important.

      Of course, I do not think this platform Khan has built is the right platform, and I think it misses a lot about what makes people learn, but he does make his students feel better about learning, which as Christopher points out, is part of the reason he is so popular with his students.

  3. No matter how this video may or may not be used to teach the basics of math, the point on how we introduce, talk about, and work with students on math is made clearly. Patience for the students and showing a genuine interest in their learning, so much that they recognize it and can gain confidence. Students need to feel comfortable making mistakes the first times they try something. Thanks.

  4. lesliedhastings

    Reblogged this on Leslie Hastings.

  5. I fully agree with the point that we can all learn from an example of kindness.
    On the other hand, I believe it’s his next addition video where he says that gosh, he knows, I”m probably saying that I don’t know how to do what he’s asking me to do — but not only does he ask me to do it anyway, but he says we have this ones and tens place, and there will be this thing called carrying… rather than explain that, he simply tells me that he *knows* he is confusing me b ut … that’s so it will all get better later.
    At no point do I discover how it will become less confusing, since he never does connect the numbers he scribbles to the real world except to write down 11 circles for the number 11 (with no explanation as to place value). So, I’m not expected to know what 1 + 1 is… but I”m supposed to intuit place value so as to understand that a one next to a one is o o o o o o o o o o o circles.

    • … he comes *very* close to saying (and for all I know, he may do so) “this is easy.”
      Telling a student that something in math is easy can sound like communicating kindness. On the other hand, if you happen to know that it doesn’t happen to be easy for you, then… the kind words are saying “this is easy for most people. What does that make you?”

  6. David is spot on here. I had no intention of praising the content of the lesson. I wanted to point to one laudable aspect of Khan’s teaching practice.

    I am reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann right now. He observes that we tend to view ideas we support as being without cost and those we oppose as being without merit. I wanted to take the opportunity to practice my critical thinking skills.

    So to be clear, this lesson stinks. The idea that a student who doesn’t know 1+1=2 is going to benefit mathematically from Khan’s instruction about 1+1 seems sort of absurd. Indeed, he adheres to a “symbols first, application second” approach that we know to be unhelpful in developing basic mathematical relationships.

    So…completely ineffective instruction. But a lovely attitude towards the imagined learner. That second bit is a model to emulate.

  7. “An approach that we know to be unhelpful …” — foolish arrogance. Pedagogy isn’t a science of certainty. Individuals vary, not within some limited range, but widely and uniquely. Every generation changes, unexpectedly. If pedagogical researchers approach learning with expectations of certain outcomes, they perform dismal research.

  8. Foolish and arrogant are things I actually get called relatively rarely. But I can take it.

    It is absolutely the case that pedagogy isn’t a science of certainty. Agreed. And it is quite probably the case that there is some student somewhere who will learn deeply by being shown the symbols for addition before being told that this has anything to do with the student’s existing knowledge about accumulating objects in the world.

    But there is quite a bit of research (start with Cognitively Guided Instruction at the University of Wisconsin) demonstrating that building on children’s knowledge is more effective than telling them stuff up front. That there is never a burden of proof that Mr. Khan’s telling has a lasting positive effect on students is maddening to me. If his materials were being used only as supplemental resources, I would have no issue. But the responsibility of someone designing primary instructional resources for large numbers of children is much, much greater and deserves to be spoken publicly and repeatedly.

    If the state of Idaho is going to pilot Khan Academy as a primary instructional resource, then Mr. Khan has a responsibility to do better.

    I do not understand how this can be construed as a controversial claim.

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