# Open letter to Sal Khan

Dear Mr. Khan,

A year ago, I expressed my concerns on the Washington Post’s blog that your decimal place value videos and exercises failed to incorporate very basic knowledge about how people learn place value.

I wrote that your decimal comparison videos were problematic because they only addressed decimal numbers with the same number of decimal places, and that a very basic, robust finding in rational number learning research is that students do not struggle with these comparisons—because students can treat them like whole numbers and get correct answers. Instead, students struggle with comparisons where the decimals have different numbers of decimal places because here, the whole number place value rules do not apply.

Together with my co-author, I wrote,

A student who thinks that 0.435 > 0.76 is offered nothing in the way of correction on Khan Academy. In fact, one of the top questions on the page for this video (as of July 18, 2012) is “So is .02009 greater than .0207?” This is exactly the sort of question that a competent teacher of arithmetic needs to anticipate and to answer. Khan fails to pose it.

In short, these decimal videos and their accompanying exercises are useless.

You must have read our piece, as it came out at the same time as Karim Kai Ani’s critique of your treatment of slope, which you responded to directly in writing and video.

But you do not seem to have taken the critique seriously. Consider the following video, which you posted yesterday.

Notice how 1000 is the same size as $\frac{1}{1000}$ in that exercise?

Mr. Khan, that matters. It matters very much.

The hard thing about learning decimal place value isn’t learning the names of the places. It is learning the relationships among these places. That $\frac{1}{1000}$ is $\frac{1}{10}$ of $\frac{1}{100}$, for instance, and that 10 $\frac{1}{1000}$ make $\frac{1}{100}$. And that these two relationships are themselves related.

When we fail to emphasize these ideas in instruction, we get the following results. (The following is a short excerpt from a longer video that is part of IMAP at San Diego State University, on a CD-ROM published by Pearson.)

These two girls (earlier in the video) correctly identified that 1.8=1.80 because you can add a zero to 1.8. But then, if it’s “You Cannot Add a Zero Day” they decide that 1.80 is larger because it’s “1 and 80 hundredths” while 1.8 is only “1 and 8 tenths”.

These two students have learned all the rules that you seek to teach them, and they do not understand decimals at all. What we see in these two girls’ thinking is precisely the problem you set out to solve with Khan Academy. But you aren’t solving the problem, Mr. Khan. You are perpetuating it.

The problem is that students learn names for places and rules for operating without thinking about the values and the relationships among these values that our place value system represents.

In the imagery of the exercise in your new video these students would be imagining 80 hundredths boxes for 1.80 and 8 tenths boxes for 1.8. The exercise builds a mental model for students that feeds their misconceptions.

Mr. Khan, you have a team of teacher advisors. If none of them can identify these gaps for you, you need to ask for help from the larger community (and then to reexamine your hiring practices).

You might consider starting with Twitter. Like this:

You have many more followers than I do, so you should be able to generate in a few minutes several dozen times what I got back in a couple of hours. You might get responses such as the following…

Do you see that none of these has to do with the instructional purpose of your video or exercise? None of these has to do with naming the decimal places. They all have to do with understanding the relationships that decimals are intended to notate.

What your work presents as being the whole mathematical story (naming decimal places) is just the tip of the iceberg.

You could hire experts, Mr. Khan—on an ad hoc or long-term basis—to advise you in these matters, if you don’t trust Twitter to provide good guidance.

Or you could educate yourself (as we require of all licensed teachers) on what is known about how people learn mathematics. I’m not talking about reading everybody’s blogs, or years of professional teaching journals. You don’t have time for that.

I’m talking about reading a few reports of robust research. You should start with Children’s Mathematics and Extending Children’s Mathematics. These are highly readable accounts of how children develop early ideas about whole numbers and operations (in the case of the former title), and about fractions and operations (in the case of the latter).

Then you could move to some of the work of the Rational Number Project. Now, they have many, many years of research that is challenging to wrap one’s mind around. Their work is overwhelming. Because we are talking about decimals, I’ll recommend one article in particular: “Models for Initial Decimal Ideas“. (Behind paywall, but someone at Khan Academy is an NCTM member, right? Right? If not, shoot me a note. We’ll get a copy to you.)

If you read that article, you’ll see that you are on to something at about the 10-second mark of your new video.

We could say this is one-hundred and twenty-three thousandths, or we could say it is one tenth, two hundredths and three thousandths.

That right there? Gold.

That’s the important bit. That is where you need to expand your instructional videos and your exercises. Good, long-running research projects will show you how.

I am not for hire, Mr. Khan. I am not lobbying for a job here. I am advocating for you to do what’s right, which is to use your visibility, your reputation and your capital investments to produce and promote informed instruction. As is often noted, you get millions of hits every day on Khan Academy. I want those students to get something better than they’re getting right now.

But I will make the same offer to you that I do to everyone I communicate with on Twitter and on this blog, which is this: Let me know how I can be helpful. You can do that through the About/Contact page on this blog or through Twitter.

Sincerely,

Christopher Danielson

NOTE (1): This letter has been edited a couple of times for clarity since originally being posted.

NOTE (2): We seem to have gotten ourselves stuck in an endless feedback loop. Comments are now closed (as of August 7, 2013). There are a few threads below that are interesting enough to follow up on, and I’ll do so. In the meantime, if you want to continue your conversations elsewhere, you can link back here; pingbacks remain open.

### 44 responses to “Open letter to Sal Khan”

1. Testify brotha!

2. Andy

I could add some thoughts, but why bother–you said it all there. Thank you for providing such great resources for me to dig into, and I’d love to think for KA as well.

3. As the unnamed co-author mentioned above, let me first congratulate you on another excellent piece, and another excellent analysis of KA and its instructional weaknesses (as well as offering some great ideas about how to find ways out of the current trap in which the work appears to continue to ensnare itself).

But I must say that much as I could use the work and much as I would love to get a piece of the Gates money and other billionaire  that Sal Khan has received over the last few years, I could not in good conscience work for him and his academy, were I offered the opportunity to do so.

You’ve helped highlight the reason I feel that way in this piece’s opening. A year has passed since we published a pretty damning critique in WaPo. I agree that it seems unlikely that it wasn’t brought to Mr. Khan’s attention. And yet he’s still out there offering shallow, unthoughtful tripe and calling it teaching. Sure, we know full-well that he has many, many defenders and far more “clients” and followers, but there’s clearly little that can be done for most of those who won’t or can’t dig beneath the veneer of KA’s product and instead choose to swallow this pabulum and think they’re learning “mathematics.”

Much as I might like to see the quality of that product improve, however, I think there’s been ample criticism available such that Sal Khan should by now have made serious changes in what he’s purveying. That he has not tells me what I suspected all along: that quality is not Sal’s strong suit, nor is it something he seems to care about. And thus I would not want to be affiliated in any way with his shoddy products. I don’t owe it to him to do the work he clearly isn’t capable of doing or willing to hire someone else to do for him. I don’t see KA as a true open source situation, but rather a clever promotion of something that rakes in a lot of capital for Sal to dispose of as he sees fit, while giving the illusion to the credulous of some selfless enterprise of do-gooding for the entire world (at least the wired world).

I don’t want to fix KA. I don’t think it is possible to do so given Sal Khan. Sal Khan should not be the voice on his videos. He should not be the person putting together the actual content of his videos. And, I suspect, he should not be making any important decisions about either content or delivery of instruction, from the pedagogical side of the operation. I’m sure he’s a competent business/finance guy, but as long as he is engaged in making these borefests, they will be third-rate at best. And so assuming that his ego tells him that he’s a wonderful teacher and that his voice is sonorous and inspiring, rather than monotone and deathly dull, he’s going to be at the heart of KA’s output. And it will suck.

I think a lot of brilliant folks have given Sal ample opportunity to get his head out of his butt when it comes to the actual content and he’s ignored them. Time to forget about him and move on. I’d rather read a million posts about you and your kids’ mathematical explorations and conversations than watch another 10 seconds of KA video. If I never hear his voice again, I’ll be content. If NO ONE hears his voice again on an “education” video, the world will be a much better place.

• Christopher

Indeed, MPG and I were co-authors on that original piece. Apologies if the lack of mention felt a slight; it wasn’t meant that way.

I understand that my efforts are unlikely to have a direct effect on Khan Academy now or in the future. I get that.

And yet every word in my letter is sincere and heartfelt.

I don’t need to fix KA either. But given that it exists, and that it has such a large presence in today’s education discussions, I feel a responsibility to constructive criticism.

• David

This entire comment is embarrassingly transparent and wreaks of jealousy and animosity.

“If NO ONE hears his voice again on an “education” video, the world will be a much better place.”

Has Sal personally stole your budget for your competing educational material or something? What are you most vindictive about, KA’s budget they’ve been able to attract or their impact they’ve had? I’m picturing this being said in a deep evil voice behind a dark mask from a villain sent to troll the people of Earth.

Seriously what kind of mindset thinks this? How can the world be a much better place from never hearing from a non-profit with the stated mission to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”, who has delivered over 260M lessons and has popularized the concept of free education for everyone?

• Christopher

OK. David and MPG have each had their say. I’m going to go ahead and shut this particular thread down. You two—and any others wishing to weigh in on Michael‘s assessment of Mr. Khan or Khan Academy—can hash out any remaining beefs on each other’s comments in Michael’s house, or over on Hacker News.

4. In all, I still think that globally, KA has helped more people than it has hurt. But, I admit to being mystified by why the content and presentation has not improved much over the years. At the very least, he should take valid and specific criticism (such as offered in this post and others) in stride and take action on it. If that requires a re-do, so be it.

There should be an ongoing project at KA that is focused on nothing else but revisiting, correcting, improving and remaking previously made videos. Systems improve through evaluation and iteration, but that seems to be happening slowly, if at all, at KA.

5. Pingback: Hello? Pedagogy? |e-Literate

6. The thing that gets me about KA — well actually there are two things. One, it would be very easy to make KA significantly better but those steps are simply not being taken or even considered. Just spending an hour doing some scripting before and editing after making a video would make the result much more valuable, but the emphasis continues to be on quantity over quality. Check the KA jobs site (https://www.khanacademy.org/careers) and you will find nine software development/big data type positions for every one open position related to actual education. (And the one “math content creator” position that’s posted now is for writing online exercises using *existing* videos.) The emphasis is clearly on data-gathering and not on actual content, which is a real problem that nobody seems to notice.

The other thing is that a rational conversation about KA seems less possible every day. I’m surprised you haven’t been visited by KA supporters yet telling you that you’re just jealous of KA’s success, that you’re an ivory tower dweller who doesn’t relate to the rest of the world, that if if it’s so easy to make videos then where are YOUR videos, etc. I’ve yet to meet a KA supporter who has ears to hear what you’re trying to say, which is too bad for KA.

7. Amy

Have you checked out MathTV.com? Videos by a math educator.

• I just checked out MathTV.com and watched two videos on subtracting decimals. They both had obvious errors. In one case the decimal point was called a decimal (pretty minor) and in the other the presenter made the same error and mixed up the minuend and the subtrahend in his explanation. They both knew how to get the right answer but were not inspiring teachers.

8. While I think that KA has *seemed* to help more people than hurt who have directly used it, I think its great harm is that it is accepted as a great and wonderful thing. People honestly think that it’s “teaching” and its users are “learning” from it, so they’re recommending it and thinking that a huge gap in education has been addressed. Ol’ Mr. Gates is dumping the millions on it that could have gone somewhere worthwhile.
People who speak out about it are dismissed (because, after all, he has so many hits!!!) … which means quality pedagogy and caring about it is being dismissed; if you’re benefiting from KA, you’re probably getting good pedagogy in your privileged life and think the poor slob who’s watching the videos and not getting it is either dumb or Not Trying Hard Enough. There’s no excuse for not acing algebra — it’s all online for free!

9. (Or… don’t you know, those kids should just rewind and listen again… and do a few hundred more problems! THen they will intuit the answers!! Really!!

10. Kevin Hall

Here is a research article with a taxonomy of decimal miscinceptions. It would be a good place to start:

Click to access IsotaniEtAl-DecMisc-ITS2010.pdf

11. Kevin Hall

Here is a taxonomy of decimal misconceptions:

Click to access IsotaniEtAl-DecMisc-ITS2010.pdf

12. Mike Lawler

I enjoyed this piece, but something about it has been bugging me a little for the last few days. Not sure exactly what it is, so I figured writing about it might help me get my arms around it. As I write this now, I’m sitting at JFK waiting to board a flight to London, so this’ll likely be short. Maybe more to follow.

As background, I’m a math Phd who used to be a professor, but has now moved into industry. Also, my wife and I home school our kids, with the main focus of the work I do with the kids being math. That’s just background.

Probably also relevant is that I have to travel for work reasonably frequently, so I’m always looking for stuff for my boys to do when I’m not there. Khan Academy is one of the resources that I use (and they seem to enjoy it, too).

Now, I’m not jumping up and down screaming from the highest building that it is the greatest thing in the world. I also wouldn’t agree with the characterization that it is useless. For me and what I do with my kids it has been a nice resource, and in my estimation it could be a nice resource for a lot of folks.

Unfortunately my plane is being called, but I do want to write more when I get to London. Before signing off, though, here’s a decimal problem that gave my older son some trouble earlier this year:

You’ll see that he’s still hasn’t mastered decimals, but we are working on it. Maybe that’s part of what caused your article to resonate a little with me – this is one of the topics that we’ll be working through this fall.

Thanks for your article. Hopefully will write more shortly.

13. I look forward to continuing the conversation, Mike.

To be clear, “these videos” refers to the decimal videos, not to the larger Khan oeuvre. While perhaps “useless” is too strong a claim, I stand by the need for a strong claim here. Khan Academy offers nothing beyond place naming in its decimal videos. That is unacceptable for a primary instructional resource, and I cannot imagine how it could be helpful as a supplementary resource for a student struggling with decimal concepts.

Your video is fascinating. I have a ton of questions and wonderings about it, but I will let you finish what you have to say first. Do you make videos of you and your son working math problems frequently?

• Mike Lawler

Not sure if I’m any closer to getting my head around this topic after the flight to London, but here it goes.

Since I’m not following standard courses with my kids, I thought some context about what I’m doing might be helpful in explaining when and why I like to turn to Khan Academy.

We sort of follow the Art of Problem Solving series during the school year – will be in the 2nd half of their Algebra book with my older son this fall and probably starting their Prealgebra book with my younger son. I say “sort of” because we aren’t in any hurry and end up spending lots and lots of time on topics not in the books (I spent all of last week talking about Cantor and infinity with my younger son, for example). We also pull tons problems from old MOEMS and AMC8 tests for some variety (as in the video I linked above).

As we sort of wander down the road of learning math, sometimes we’ll hit a topic and then not come back to it for a while. I find the problem banks on Khan Academy great for these situations where the foundation is there but has gathered a little dust.

I also have found Khan’s problem banks great when I was having trouble communicating certain aspects of a subject. I’ve never taught young kids before and have sometimes had difficulty understanding exactly what my kids weren’t understanding. Khan Academy has (about) 50 different problem topics on fractions, for example. That’s been great for me because I can sit with my kids and see what problems they can do and what problems they are struggling and it really helps me see what they weren’t totally understanding. I remember one set of problems on ordering fractions and decimals, for example, that really helped my older son get over a little block he was having relating decimals and fractions. There is also a set of problems called “fraction cut and copy” where I could almost see the light bulb go off in my son’s head as fractions suddenly made a little more sense.

The videos have been useful to me in a similar way, though I don’t use the videos nearly as much as we use the problem bank. There have been two specific situations (unfortunately I can’t remember either topic) where my own explanations just didn’t seem to be making sense and I pulled Khan’s videos just to have the topic explained in a (presumably) different way by someone else. I don’t know how effective this has been, but you never really know what explanation is going to help someone understand a topic they are struggling with, so it is nice to have this as a back up when I need it.

As for the specific topic at hand, I don’t remember if we watched any of the Khan decimal videos with either of my kids, but we definitely did do the exercise that Khan is working through in the video you linked. Several different times, actually, which is probably why I remember it. I even used it as a jumping off point to talk about different bases, which both kids thought was really fun.

So, all in all, I’m pretty happy with the material I’ve used on Khan and am happy to have it as a resource. I’ve no doubt that there are a variety of things about what they do that could be improved or criticized quite fairly, but if you gave me the choice of having it as a free resource or not having it, I’d definitely take it.

My own videos I do with my kids are not meant to be necessarily high quality and I’m sure are filled with plenty of things that could be done much better than I actually did them. They are no scripts or rehearsals, just me “live” with the kids, and there are plenty of mistakes in them for sure.

I make them for a couple of different reasons. First, they form a nice little record of what I was talking about with the kids on a particular day. As dad, it is quite fun to go back to the videos from a year or two ago just to see how far they’ve come.

Second, I wanted to make something for kids to be able to see other kids doing math and having fun doing math. We do lots of odd little topics that maybe parents of elementary school kids wouldn’t know about. A couple of examples of this are:

Paper Folding:

The Collatz Conjecture

Why a negative times a negative is a positive – we made this in response to a question that Dan Meyer asked on twitter (and, I guess, is more in the spirit of the Khan videos now than I think about it):

Mostly it is just me having fun with the kids doing math and math-related stuff. I like math a lot and it is fun to be able to share that with the kids.

Anyway, sorry for rambling – just sitting in a hotel room in London after thinking about this topic on the flight over.

14. Ben Alpert

Hi, Ben from Khan Academy here.

Most of our math content creation work these days is driven by our push to cover the new Common Core math standards, which have recently been adopted by 45 states. We’re following these standards not only because of their recent popularity but because they are among the best standards we’ve seen, primarily because of their focus on conceptual understanding. In the last few months, we’ve hired many experienced content creators to work with us on covering all of the the Common Core standards accurately. So far, they’ve created thousands of new handwritten questions that focus more on conceptual understanding to complement the machine-generated exercises we already have.

All of these questions are going into new exercises, and we’re also updating existing exercises when it makes sense. Our new exercises are much more interesting than many of our old ones; here’s one example of an exercise by one of our content creators who joined us full-time this week:

(With each new exercise, we’re also making complementary videos that explain the exact concepts the exercise covers, so our videos are also aligned to the Common Core standards and progressions (albeit indirectly). The specific exercise you mention, “Understanding decimals place value”, is one from November 2011, and a video was made for it this week because of a site-wide push to create complementary video content for our exercises whenever it’s missing, but we are likely to improve the exercise in the coming months.)

Most of our content creators have direct teaching experience, and we also have multiple people review each new exercise before it’s posted, to make sure that it’s correct and that it tries to teach students well. In addition to the teachers’ own experience, the Common Core progression documents (written by the authors of the standards) have been invaluable. Here’s the progression document for the number system for grades K–5:

Click to access ccss_progression_nbt_2011_04_073_corrected2.pdf

You can see that on pages 8 and 12 they specifically discuss area models for understanding place value, which we absolutely agree with. We already show place values with area for integers, and we’re adding it to our decimals content too.

In fact, as I was looking through our content while writing this response, I found a new exercise, “Comparing decimals 1”, which was written just 10 days ago (and hasn’t yet been added to the main site):

With questions like 0.3 __ 0.03 and 0.02 __ 0.1, I think you’ll find that the exercise touches on exactly the misconceptions that you’ve seen. In addition, the hints use area models to explain the comparison, just as you suggest in your post. In the next few days, you can expect to see this exercise live on the site with an accompanying video.

Hopefully this serves as evidence that we’re continually improving our content. Thanks for the post – we’re always interested in finding ways to make this process better.

15. Hmmm.

Let’s put it a little shorter, for a way to make the Khan Academy better:

edit the videos to make them better.

Fix things like ‘two plus itself times one’ (a.k.a. 2 + 2) is what two times one means.

Fix things like saying an average “sort of represents” a group of numbers.

Fix the extremely wrong-headed idea that doing a whole bunch of problems is how we learn concepts. It’s not. There’s all kinds of proof of that. Start with http://www.learner.org/resources/series26.html .

(Not expecting a KA answer; just wanting other folks to be aware that the issues with KA are real and deep.)

16. I mean this in the best way possible, but I think you guys are just focusing on the wrong stuff in your criticisms of the KA. You focus on the videos. What is great is the structure of KA, how engaging that structure is, even with all that poor video content on the website. Active learning at your own pace and information on demand beats out passive, forcefed info every time #JamesGee, even if the quality of the info on demand is poor. To be honest, I thought your critique of slope on the Washington Post was obsession over a trivial language detail, as if only saying the definition to kids with the right choice of words would suddenly lead to leaps in understanding. Learning is an active process, and what kids do is vastly more important in creating conceptual understanding than what kids hear. I wrote a response to the WaPo slope debate on my company’s blog a while back:

To come clean, my back ground is as a scientist and I now work in digital science education so I’m not totally up to date on math education research. I may be off base, but I am very interested in hearing your comments on my critique of your critique.

17. John

What? Huh? This stuff was covered by the time I reached 3rd grade. One must assume a certain level of familiarity with human knowledge.

18. Doug

Mr. Danielson, is there anywhere I can go to see all of your classroom lectures online?

• Michael Paul Goldenberg

Oh, Doug. . . what a roguish question. But let’s not forget that Mr. Khan has zero classroom lectures. Apples and oranges, sir.

19. No, Doug, there is not. Of course there is not such a place. You can see something like that on Sophia, but not all of them. Not even close.

And while we’re comparing, there is also no place where Sal Khan’s students can ask him a question directly.

So can we please put to rest the idea that Sal Khan is giving away things for free in a spirit that is different from classroom teachers? Sal earns a salary, for what he is presently doing, does he not? So do classroom teachers.

Can we please put to rest the idea that Sal gets to be the martyr who gives it all away and teachers are the greedy ones who take three months off every summer?

Because you know what I do for free? Write this blog. I reach out to teachers and try to build community around understanding the very, very hard work of teaching mathematics. For this, I do not earn a salary. I would get paid exactly as much for not doing this as I do for doing it.

But it’s important work that I find satisfying, and I assume Mr. Khan would say the same about his own work.

Mr. Khan chose a field in more demand—quick access to surface-level knowledge—so he (like McDonald’s) serves millions a day. There is a much smaller market for intelligent, self-critical reflection so I serve a few hundred on a typical day.

But just like you can’t access my lectures on the web (although a few clicks will get you to some pretty detailed descriptions), you also can’t learn anything about lesson planning, or about children’s mathematical development, from Mr. Khan.

If you think I have it wrong about learning decimals, by all means let me know.

If you think all kids can understand the decimal place value system from a lecture that tells them the names of the decimal places, bring on some evidence. Let’s talk about that.

But Sal Khan as a more charitable figure than the nation’s public school teachers? Please.

• Michael Paul Goldenberg

Right, CD.

I figured that “Doug” knew all that when he posted his inquiry, but that such knowledge didn’t prevent him from asking it anyway. I tried to summarize it all with my “apples and oranges” comment, since it’s 100% obvious that what we do and what Mr. Khan does are not comparable in crucial ways.

That said, I’ll take the Pepsi challenge with KA on actual lesson content any day of the week, as I imagine would most math teachers who actually write their own lessons rather than follow a textbook verbatim. The difference is that I’d be a harsher critic of my own work than Sal Khan could be. I want to get better. As for critiquing his own work, I don’t believe he’s quite ready to do that. Maybe in another 20 years. . . ?

20. I have decided to do a “broken record” approach — excuse me, can you address the very bad videos that are the foundation of his site?
Improve what you will, if your foundation is full of flaws, which we’ve outlined at length though by no means completely, it should be fixed. It hasn’t been. Could you explain why not?

21. anaredmond

I am not opposed to Khan Academy. I haven’t used it with my kids though. I prefer the question/answer based approach of teaching – making them think. If they ask me a question, I just ask them what they think the answer should be. That’s not exactly doable with videos and multiple choice questions. I build learning apps and we are trying a more discovery based approach. It seems to be working better. Its not perfect, and definitely does not replace the teacher. It makes the teacher more important for the conversation that the lesson triggers.

I teach programming at a university. I’ve found that students that have worked before (professionals) have a very different style of learning than those that have only been in classrooms (students). Professionals want to do, try, think, fail and learn. Students (never worked before in the field) just want to be told what to do. They are far more resistant to thinking.

Perhaps our education system is geared more towards being told what to do than towards thinking and discovering. I believe Khan academy is just a reflection of that. Why do we think it Khan Academy should be any different from what is generally accepted way of teaching in schools (current company excluded)?

I think this may be the catch22 situation. A large scale better learning system (or teaching materials) won’t be built till teaching styles improve across the board. Teaching styles may not improve across the board till a better large scale learning system (or teaching materials) is built. Having taught and built lessons, I know either is not easy, and will take time. I can only request that influencers such as yourself focus your critiques and kudos on both sides of the equation – teachers and content developers.

• Michael Paul Goldenberg

@Anaredmond wrote in part: “Perhaps our education system is geared more towards being told what to do than towards thinking and discovering. I believe Khan academy is just a reflection of that. Why do we think it Khan Academy should be any different from what is generally accepted way of teaching in schools (current company excluded)?”

First because Khan is touted as doing revolutionary work and has been called “the best teacher I’ve ever seen” by the very influential billionaire Bill Gates. He’s been praised as if he had some genius-inspired insight by the WALL STREET JOURNAL and funded by several billionaires who, one might incorrectly assume, know top-quality when the see it.

That wouldn’t be a TOTAL farce were it not for the fact that many of the praise-givers are financially invested in the destruction of public schools, the proliferation of for-profit charter schools, the spread of vouchers, and other anti-democratic, elitist strategies to make themselves richer while undermining democracy and hurting those least-well-positioned to get high quality education. I’m not going to recapitulate the arguments about the overall educational deform movement here, but I would say that Sal Khan is part of the problem, not part of the solution, if for no other reason than he holds up some shoddy product and tells everyone that it’s the solution to all its woes, and look here, rich people: it’s free so you don’t have to spend money on education OR on fixing economic inequity and its myriad ills. Gee, why wouldn’t a philanthropist be impressed? All that futile effort to fix poverty can be scrapped (not that there’s much of that going on in this country, really): give Sal what he asks for and all will be well.

And he’s doing it with bad product. Now, were he REALLY a revolutionary teacher, his lecture content would be radically different from business as usual in brick-and-mortar classrooms. That it isn’t, not even close, should be so very, very damning. But many True Believers fail to see just how utterly naked this emperor really is.

You further wrote: “I can only request that influencers such as yourself focus your critiques and kudos on both sides of the equation – teachers and content developers.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that my work is primarily focused on improving math teaching in the field (that is, in real classrooms in high-needs schools). Pointing out that Sal Khan is offering shoddy product and allowing it to be mistaken for gold is a sideline, one no one asks me to do or pays me for doing. So either I’m really guilty of all the outlandish attacks that are leveled at me and every other person who even questions what Khan is doing, or I actually have something to say worth hearing.

I’m hardly alone in this, and Chris is certainly one of the most articulate and insightful critics who mostly works on improving teachers AND content development (I get little work in the latter area). But I could name many more and you could readily find them if you care to look. I’ve yet to bump into a critic of Khan who strikes me as worried about preserving his/her job or is otherwise jealous of Khan’s work or the praise heaped upon him. Most of us are merely stunned that such low-quality work is looked at so favorably, regardless of ample evidence of shoddy product and shoddy thinking.

But in the history of “invention,” there are other cases where second-rate or worse products have dominated a market for reasons that have almost nothing to do with quality: VHS tape, the QWERTY keyboard, Windoze and its predecessors, are all obvious cases in point. People can game the system so that the best ideas don’t always win, to the disadvantage of the public. The free-market ideal is a ruse that never actually exists or, I suspect, can exist. Sal is just another clever huckster who knows how to play the game thanks to his background on Wall Street.

• MPG, you say “And he’s doing it with bad product. Now, were he REALLY a revolutionary teacher, his lecture content would be radically different from business as usual in brick-and-mortar classrooms. That it isn’t, not even close, should be so very, very damning. But many True Believers fail to see just how utterly naked this emperor really is.”

Since you didn’t respond to my earlier comment, I will reiterate here: business as usual in a classroom is using a lecture as your prime teaching tool. To me, YOU are the problem with educational reform, because you look to the quality of a lecture as the gold standard of a good product. A revolutionary educational product is one that doesn’t rely on lecture, say like inquiry learning, project-based learning, or one might even offer flipped classrooms (now who introduced that idea…)

I won’t argue for a second that KA’s content isn’t occassionally shoddy. It is. But the approach to education, offering a gamelike skill tree of knowledge that allows goal setting, ignoring grades and using a competency-based evaluation protocol, feature learning by doing activities with direct instruction offered as reference rather than required material- this is revolutionary. If you can’t see that, you are blinding your vision. Isn’t it remarkable that such shoddy video content still produces such engaged learners? Perhaps the direct instruction mode of learning isn’t all that useful to learner engagement after all, in contrast to the assumptions of business as usual?

• Michael Paul Goldenberg

Kevin, have you bothered to actually think about what I am saying? I don’t advocate using a lot of lecture: far from it, though it does have its place, as any good teacher knows. The problem we’ve had in math education in this country is that most math teachers are pedagogically conservative and want to hold onto their sage on the stage role because that’s the only thing they know.

Chris and I and those who are out there doing far better things than I (not saying better than Chris), are way past lecture-driven instruction, and for you to suggest otherwise is, well, ludicrous.

On the same day you write that, Chris is asked if all his classroom lectures are available somewhere on-line for viewing. As if that was what his teaching consisted of. And I know bloody well that it doesn’t.

My work for the past 21 years has been focused on finding ways to change the balance in K-12 (and college) math classrooms so that lecture is only one aspect, and not even one that is used daily. I really don’t know where you get your idea that I’m a lecture-uber-alles guy, but it’s dead wrong. And it’s hard to take you seriously if that’s the best you’ve got to knock me down with. Why not next accuse me of being an Ohio State fan?

22. anaredmond

I am sorry if I sounded like I was questioning your motivations. I am a parent, teacher (university instructor) as well as a developer (programmer). I find myself on all sides of the debate sometimes. I am worried about Khan Academy becoming the standard – both as a parent and a developer.

I never took what Bill Gates said seriously. For me, KA is a lot of average content. Perhaps the same as an average teacher. If there are bad teachers in school, it can help to alleviate the problem. It’s a baseline, not top-of-the-line. I doubt it was ever meant to be anything else. Videos and multiple-choice questions can’t do much better. Which is why I am not opposed to it being used as needed.

As a developer, I want to build better content to help improve education for my kids. I am trying. I believe in better content built using better technology. But, it takes much longer than sitting in front of a camera for 5 minutes. A 5 minute game play segment for us is days or weeks of work in graphics, sound, code – more depending on the complexity. As a developer, sometimes I have to just try ideas out – even if they don’t seem right at first – even if people will complain. I have to keep releasing apps, getting feedback and improving upon it slowly. Some work out, some don’t.

But, I am almost scared to ask teachers to provide feedback. I don’t know if KA is listening or cared. But, the anger against developers scared me. There is a lot of teachers on hackeducation and a lot of anger. I was only trying to say that I hope you don’t lump all of us developers into the same bucket as KA. In return, I shouldn’t lump you into the same bucket as all other teachers aka hackeduacation.

23. Michael Paul Goldenberg

Oh, and one more thing, Kevin: no matter how you dress up the rest of what KA does with fancy language, it doesn’t make it great stuff. Bells and whistles to dazzle and entice gamers, replacing grades (which are anathema to me, so once again, you have NO idea who I am, what I do, or what I advocate in education) with badges is, well, cute, but they’re still the same cheesy extrinsic reward system I revile.

But even if all that stuff were fabulous, how does it make up for mathematical errors from the teacher? And if the most publicly accessible aspect of KA is Sal Khan boring us to tears AND misinforming us in highly traditional chalk talks (but on a digital stick!) how else do expect knowledgable critics to respond? Pretend that the glitz makes the dumb go away? Shockingly, it doesn’t.

If you have more to say to me, out of respect for Chris, why not write me directly: mikegold@umich.edu. You can continue to share your utterly inaccurate assumptions about my teaching and believes, and I can continue to try to disabuse you of your deeply erroneous assumptions. But we’ll do it without wasting people’s time here who might be onto something interesting.

• Listen, I’m not trying to engage in pointless bashing, I’m trying to engage in productive conversation with both yourself and Chris. Why have I said these things? I’m speaking from my impressions from your Washington Post article, one of your most public appearances. No, I did not spend an hour becoming familiar with your approach and teaching techniques before writing a comment to your comment on a blog. Because no one has time for that. Just like you don’t have time to read the pages of blog posting I’ve written on how badges and gamification can foster intrinsic motivation if used correctly, and so you erroneously represent my comments as supporting a “cheesy extrinsic reward system.”

I’m not responding to your entire worldview, I’m responding to your comments here and now, which I find objectionable.

Here’s my issue: you both spend a WaPo article debating how Khan teaches concepts in a video. Here Chris writes basically saying Khan’s videos need to be improved- that’s the last two paragraphs of this blog post. If you don’t think lectures should be the center of education, then come out and say it. Criticize Khan for focusing so much on lecture, not for having bad lectures! But engaging in an argument about the content of a lecture like you do here, just reaffirms the notion that the lecture is important. This is the point that bothers me- I think comments like this do more harm than good to education reform because of their implicit messaging.

There’s clearly a lot we agree on. I’m not saying lecture should completely go away, I agree with you that they have a place, that place should just not be a centerpiece. I also think Khan’s digital blackboard is a meager improvement over a chalk one, and technological glitz is no replacement for good pedagogy. What I take object to is the way in which you have critiqued the Khan Academy. Perhaps in some far corner in the internet it is clear that you don’t value lecture, but in the highly public WaPo article you released, I’m not sure that is clear, and I just want to point that out, for the sake of reforming education.

• Michael Paul Goldenberg

You’re insisting on keeping this here, though I did ask you out of respect to Chris to write to me personally.

That said, I’m not exactly a difficult person to track down on the Internet. And I have a math ed blog that probably 10 or 15 minutes perusal thereof would make clear a good deal of what I do and don’t support about math education. You really came on like gangbusters, not based on evidence, but on lack of any to the contrary, to (predictably) paint me as another defender of the status quo.

This is just another example of why it’s gotten impossible to discuss education reform in this country. The language has been so deeply corrupted that no one knows what anyone else is talking about. Some of us older folks get just a bit worn out having to redefine the terms and review all the history for people who just won’t do any homework and who seem to believe that the world began just at the point when they came into it.

Since I often deal with people even older than I am (63 two weeks ago), I make it a point to read as much of the background to these debates as I can before jumping in.

So having spent the last 21+ years fighting with the true traditionalists, the ones who believe that direct instruction is the answer to everything, having to explain or, worse, PROVE to you that I’m so far from that viewpoint that it’s ludicrous to associate me with it is, oh, a bit annoying.

Top that with the fact that Sal Khan and his backers claim that HE is the true innovator (even though, from what I can see, he has borrowed all his “innovative” ideas, and doesn’t execute them particularly well) and that ANY critic of him MUST be part of the, ahem, status quo, has become sickening. And I’m not playing that game any more. The next person who accuses me without evidence of being a traditionalist is going to wish s/he hadn’t.

Finally, I think Chris and I were VERY clear about our aim in the WaPo piece. You choose to take it as everything we’ve got to say AND as everything we value. I say you’re a poor, careless, and somewhat biased reader who jumps to conclusions.

There are radical educators out there, and there have been for at least a century, probably more. I doubt very much that you or other Sal Khan fans have heard of any of them, know anything of the critical history of American education, or have adequate context within which to frame the conversation. Sal is such a typical fraud in that regard, but given an ignorant and passive media that no longer has reporters with the background, guts, or chops to really look at what he’s doing critically, they prefer to give him a free ride on the strength of who is backing him. “Hey, the Microsoft billionaire says he’s the real deal. That’s good enough for me.” Sickening, sloppy, irresponsible. And another death blow to democracy in this country.

The cult of personality that has sprung up around Sal Khan is, on my view, vile. One is not allow to criticize him in any way without facing a predictable litany of complaints and false accusations. If I were saying that L. Ron Hubbard wore women’s underwear, the reactions wouldn’t be much worse. Which, of course, makes me even more determined to continue to point out just how weak Sal’s understanding of teaching mathematics is.

So yes, Chris and I took one example that we believe is truly emblematic of Sal’s “work ethic” when it comes to teaching math. If he can’t manage to think about what should go into a simple video lecture regarding problems, the order in which they’re presented to students, etc., what would make any reasonable person believe that he can do better in any other medium or approach? Why will his, ahem, inverted classroom have anything less objectionable?

Surely you know that it’s impossible to get a second chance at making a first impression. But with Sal Khan, he keeps making the same mistakes and reinforcing the initial negative impression, almost in defiance of his critics (“Lesson plan? I don’t need no STEENKING lesson plan”). I’m all for teachers who can improvise, but that’s only if they do it well. And Sal doesn’t. You can see, hear, and feel the wheels NOT turning in his head when he fumfers his way through an ill-thought out presentation of something as basic as decimal operations. Whatever comes into his head goes straight out of his mouth, and to him, it’s obviously all GOLD! Except that it’s not.

Please note that we have Khan’s own words to support our claims about how cavalier his approach is to those little talks. You think, however, that in other modalities of instruction, he’s a deep analytic thinker who brings enormous pedagogical content knowledge into play? Please, show me some tiny bit of proof. Really. I really do yearn to be dazzled, even for a moment, by something he says or has put together to make math concepts clearer, to make them come alive. But then, math CONCEPTS don’t really seem to be on his radar screen.

Do I make myself clear?

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