What WAS that? or, What was THAT? [#NCTMDenver]

We watched this video during the closing session in Denver.

I love this video. I find it amusing and clever. The moment where Vi Hart folded the guacamole into the interior of the hexaflexamexagon was marked by an audible gasp of delight in the room.


Somebody needs to explain to me what this is. Is it a lesson? Is it a tasty bite-sized morsel of entertainment? Is it an inspiring call to mathematical action?


Because Vi Hart works for Khan Academy.

Khan Academy is a school (at least metaphorically, but we have reason to believe that Khan and Gates see it more literally than that). So is this an assembly in the auditorium?


It turns out that Hart thinks it’s a lesson. Lessons have objectives. Can you guess hers? She began a sentence this way, “The main educational purpose [of this video] is…”

Watch the video again if you need to. Then you may scroll down for the answer, which will be in the comments.

We also watched Hart’s “i” video.

She said, “Technically, it was a bad video because I lost subscribers [on YouTube]. But numbers don’t matter.”

She cringed at her own words and observed that saying numbers don’t matter in a ballroom full of math teachers is probably a bad idea. I think we all understood that she meant to say that popularity is different from quality, and is a direct indicator of neither quality nor effectiveness. It is in this spirit that her numbers don’t matter quip is strange.

Has anyone from Khan Academy ever given a talk which did not use the number of views, or hits, or followers, or lessons served?

She and her father (George Hart) had already exchanged the number of views of each of their first viral videos. Number of views as a measure was discussed on at least five separate occasions during the hour including the introduction by Outgoing Past President Michael Shaughnessy (whose title I am absolutely not making up, and which is strangely not redundant).

Which brings me back to my original question. What was that? What was that video, exactly? What was that talk? Anyone?


21 responses to “What WAS that? or, What was THAT? [#NCTMDenver]

  1. “The main educational purpose [of the Hexaflexamexagon video] is to show how to fold a 60° angle; to show how to divide a straight line, which is 180°, into equal thirds to get 60°.”

  2. Gee, I’ve watched it a couple of times. I thought it was entertaining. In the greater context of her work, I don’t necessarily worry overly much if some of her lessons are less obviously instructive than they’d need to be to qualify as “lessons” in any traditional sense.

    It’s unfortunate from my viewpoint that she let herself be purchased by Sal’s dough (which no doubt was Gates’ dough). But I’ve made no study of which of her videos are Khan-related and which are just on her channel. I thought this and the rest of the food-related Thanksgiving series of four she did in November were not connected with Khan Academy. Am I wrong?

  3. She calls the mexaflexagon “perfection” and yet it makes a mess.


  4. I have no objection to the video, Michael. I just don’t get what it is. The talk was filmed and I’ll post a link once I see that it’s online. If you watch it, you’ll have to let me know what that was too.

    Don’t forget I wrote, I love this video. I find it amusing and clever. So don’t get me wrong. Just help me figure out what it is. (To be honest, I don’t see hexaflexamexagons as being particularly different from most of what she does, and I do think her work takes on a different meaning in light of her employer.)

  5. I’m sharing her i video with my College Algebra students – I’ll let you know what they think it is . . .

  6. I am curious to see how the responses. I wasn’t there as I left right after your talk to meet my baby niece and then head home to my own California kid-lettes.

    But your thoughts, on ‘number of viewers’, ‘number of hits’, etc. is something I have been thinking about a lot lately in terms of leadership work. I have strongly considered leaving the classroom to take greater ‘leadership’ positions in math ed. (NCTM Denver talked me off that ledge, at least for another year), But I constantly ask myself what leadership really means. Does it matter if I am influencing students locally or nationally? Does it matter if my leadership is school-based, district-based, university-based or regional-based? Is one more important than the other? Anyway, I’ll check back to see where the response thread goes.

  7. Vi Hart’s videos are amazing. She is knowledgeable and artistic, and has developed a unique cadence and pace that makes her work instantly recognizable. That said, they are in no way lessons if learning a skill, concept, or habit is part of your definition of a lesson. I find some to be particularly powerful bookends: at the beginning of a lesson they can create perplexity and interest and at the end of a lesson kids know what she’s talking about. That said, they need to be complemented with giving students time to explore, create conceptions, practice, and refine.

  8. I felt uncomfortable for their session. I really don’t know what that was, but I am going to make interlocking rings next time I have a bagel.

  9. Vi has made videos about how numbers and reach don’t matter, and how lectures don’t matter. My personal theory is that she knows the KA conflicts with her beliefs on education but she needs to pay the bills, or she’s waiting for him to catch up with his potential. It’s deeply disturbing that Sal thinks the idea of video lectures, which he developed for his cousins, can translate with minimal change into an educational revolution, is nuts. Anyone who’s worked on a large project of any kind knows that the result is never exactly the same as the initial idea, and rarely even similar. It just seems to presumptuous: if only we could explain this well enough, they couldn’t help but learn! No. That’s not how the human mind works.

  10. Christopher – I think that “What is this?” is a very useful question. I’m starting to wonder if KA’s work is to become the “Food, Inc.” of the education world:

  11. Whoa – I just blew my own mind. I went back and watched the PBS / POV trailer for Food Inc. and listened to it as if it were an analysis of Khan Academy and the Gates Foundation. And that blew my little monkey mind. Try this for yourself:

  12. What was that talk? An awkward mess, uncomfortable to watch. No more so than when that Khan Academy slide appeared out of nowhere. (Okay, that closing song was probably just as awkward.) What was that? It seemed to serve no purpose other than to give Vi a chance to give a fist-pump and shout “Khan Academy! Woo-hoo! REPRESENT!” Why she is excited about this partnership, what it means for future Vi Hart and/or SK videos, what it means for math education. Nope. Just “REPRESENT!”

    Vi also shared two versions of a phi video that she is working on. She commented that the didn’t like the first one because it seemed too negative. You think that’s why she didn’t show videos beginning with “so you’re me in math class and your teacher’s ranting on and on about…”?

    I’m curious what your readers will think of these two points in her talk. Once the NCTM gives you something to link to, of course.

  13. It appears that she is at her best when left alone to make videos. They are great & they really inspire my students. She should not preform live. BTW that Juggling video was my favorite, I will definitely show it in class if I can find it, but, so far, I cannot find it via google.

  14. >She should not preform live.

    Perhaps the problem wasn’t performing live, but performing at a teachers’ conference? She performed live at a Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival a year or two ago, and was fabulous. She got us singing some nonsense song, and when she played a video of us backwards … we were singing … something entirely different (recognizable to all).

  15. That sounds very cool, Sue. I think your larger point is that it would have been a more satisfying experience to be involved in something, rather than watching a rambling father-daughter lovefest. If there was no point to be delivered, then we ought to have had our minds engaged in questioning or thinking or creating. But we were put in a very passive role (which, of course, is a hallmark of Khan Academy).

    When Vi talked about being mathemagician in residence at Harvard, I wondered how she had not been engaged in a similar capacity at NCTM. Can you imagine how fired up these thousands of math teachers would have been to create something over the three days? How did we not hire her to do this?

  16. I was unable to attend the Hart duo’s session, so I’m definitely going to click “play” on the video when it’s uploaded.
    I have found her videos meeting the need for “engagement” of students…sometimes. Definitely valid to question the influence of her employer on the talk – I found something similar in the Dockterman session that I’m trying to work into a post for my blog. Not to mention the thoughts I had taking a step back to analyze square footage of booths at the expo hall, what that says about “math education”, and where the biggest crowds were. Much food for thought…and blogging.

  17. This is akin to slam poetry set to video as far as I can tell. Not much learning aside from what might come from the raw curiosity of “how’d she do that?”

    • Absent seeing what went on at NCTM with the Harts, I remain puzzled by the negativity. So they showed the KA logo at the end? No one is less of a fan of Sal and his academy than I, but so what? If you were Vi Hart and Sal offered to pay you to be Vi Hart, in exchange for various plugs (that’s my vague sense of her deal, but I realize she also makes some videos with/for Sal), you would no doubt turn him down flat. But frankly, I can’t say I blame Vi for accepting an offer from someone she probably doesn’t view the same way I do.

      That said, I remain certain that her videos generally do a lot of good. I don’t use them to teach kids math, but to get them excited about various mathematical ideas. I also see them as remarkably creative, arty, delightful, fun, etc., and in that regard they suffice in and of themselves to be valuable. If I want more specific “instruction,” I’m likely to look to James Tanton and others who offer less art and more specific content, instruction, etc.

      Could someone (Christopher?) give a description of what was so objectionable at NCTM? The videos themselves are just the same as they were when I watched them before NCTM. Flexagons and their offspring are, last I checked, a legitimate and interesting mathematical topic that Martin Gardner, among others, has written about fairly extensively. Lots of playful things out there about i. I can’t see what’s bad here, probably because I wasn’t in Denver last week. But if we’re going to cut up Vi Hart (and her dad), I’d like to have a much better sense of why she’s being dissected in this way.

  18. Michael, I didn’t knock the videos. I really am struggling to understand what they are. If they are Mathematical Recreations for the masses, then that’s fine. I would count that as a thing. But she suggests that they are more than that. She alludes to them as lessons with educational objectives.

    Watch the hexaflexamexagon video again (which, don’t forget, I said that I enjoyed). Did you get that its main objective—as a lesson—is how to fold a straight line into thirds?

    If children are finding Vi’s videos inspiring in the same way that you and I found Martin Gardiner’s stuff inspiring, then fine.

    But Gardiner didn’t start his columns by alluding to how astonishingly boring his math class was. I do think some of the cutting up of Vi you sense in the comments here stems from this tone she takes in her work. I get that it’s a shtick for building rapport with her viewer (perhaps). We hashed this out in the comments a couple of months back.

    And I truly believe the final word on the matter was had a year ago by one Timon Piccini.

  19. Pingback: [Vi & George Hart] Viral Math Videos: A Hart-to-Hart Conversation | MathRecap

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