What Khan and Khan’t

About 10 days ago Mathalicious published an interesting post that asked readers to take a critical look at Khan Academy. This is not the first pundit publication that asks those who have consumed the Khan kool-aid to step back and look at the larger picture.

One aspect of this post that I really enjoyed was the reference to some of the collective knowledge that we have accumulated over the years on exactly these issues. For example, the writer cited the work of:

researcher S.H. Erlwanger [that] studied the effectiveness of the Individually Prescribed Instruction, a step-by-step curriculum in which students “proceed through sequences of objectives that are arranged in hierarchical order” (i.e. first this, then this). According to his description,

Because a large segment of the material in IPI is presented in programmed form, the questions often require filling in blanks or selecting a correct answer. Therefore, this mode of instruction places and emphasis on answers rather than on the mathematical processes involved.

In other words, students who used IPI may have identified that 1 + 1 = 2 on a multiple choice test, even without understanding the concept of addition.

This provides a nice foundation upon which to make the claim that Khan khan’t be pronounced the fix all in our current math crisis. There is one small flaw in this claim, however, and that is the distinction between what IPI referred to as ‘Instruction’ and what appears in Khan Academy as ‘Practice’. The argument that student’s khan’t learn through procedure alone is heavily support by research in the field (Arcavi 1994, Kooji 2002, Mayer 2010,).

Khan Academy’s video tutorials, as I have mentioned in previous posts, do not serve as instruction. In the context I am testing this, an urban high school, the students have indicated that they need a teacher or a peer to explain the problem and procedure to them in order for them to be able to ‘Practice’ independently.

Khan Academy khan provide practice. The question remains whether students get more practice on Khan Academy than they would in a paper and pencil environment? Practice is an important part of becoming proficient. Indeed the process of learning to play an instrument, Judo, writing an essay, reading, playing scrabble, all require practice. I can safely say that there is little objection to the motto “practice makes perfect.”

The Mathalicious author proceeded with the claim that the mere presence of Khan Academy was making it impossible for other options to be funded, developed, and consequently used. Because of Khan, we khan’t get anything else. I don’t want to stick my foot in my mouth but this seems like a stretch. I know Khan has received a lot of funding, and probably will continue to get funding, but in all fairness much of the work Sal Khan did on the videos and his ideas occurred prior to significant funding. As is usually the case with entrepreneurial work, a project may or may not get to the point where it can pick up funding and in the meantime one just figures it out.

While we are sitting around waiting for computer programmers to create the next thing that is going to convince us that it is going to fix all our problems in math education, let us save our pennies so we can purchase this future panacea. This is something we khan do. Our students khan access free software on the terribly slow computer at the local library. Our students khan be assigned to complete a module for homework rather than a page in the textbook. We khan assign specific tutorials and modules to struggling students and those students who advance quickly. We khan even completely individualized our classroom so that students are working to their own pace. We khan do all these things because Khan Academy is  cost-effective, requires limited tech support, and utilizes common technology.

Let us address one of the other thoughts that has been raised in response to this article. I have a personal commitment to better understanding why America, one of the most advanced countries on the globe by some measures, performs in a less than advanced fashion on mathematics assessments. There are other curriculum that seem to provide better foundations for mathematical constructs so that their students can progress in ways that further reenforce a deep understanding of math concepts. Curriculum such as the Dutch Realistic Mathematic Education (RME) and the consequent Mathematics in Context (MiC) are specifically designed to develop algebraic understanding using applied problem solving strategies and approaches. The results of these experiments have been positive. Why then are we not integrating and capitalizing on all that the world knows about how to best teach mathematics?
I regret to state the obvious but it is not because Khan Academy has taken all the funding for other viable options. My best guess, and I am by no means an expert in the matter, is that curriculum and resource producing companies and school districts are in business. Not always the business of teaching and learning, but business none the less.
What Khan Academy khan provide is an alternative to the costly partnership, which in the long run will dissolve the rigid alliance that currently dictates what we khan and khan’t do.

Thank You Karim and Mathalicious for instigating a thoughtful and exciting conversation. I have really appreciated the food for the brain.

I want to leave you with these questions, I can’t take credit for them, but I do feel inspired to engage in further conversations that seek to address them.

3 emergent questions:

1. What are we trying to achieve in these environments? How do we measure that success?

2. What tools seem to be working? Which ones may seem glamorous but aren’t effective?

3. What kind of support do teachers and students need–not just professional development, but functionality built into the tools themselves–to create a promising flipped or blended program?

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One thought on “What Khan and Khan’t

  1. Karim says:

    A couple thoughts:

    First, this is a beautiful website. Seriously. Lovely stuff.

    Second, you’re right: Khan Academy offers students a great opportunity to *practice* their skills. This is necessary, and can help them develop their mathematical muscle memory, as it were.

    However, my concern was that this isn’t how many schools & districts are using KA. Instead, many are confusing Khan’s practice with core instruction, and using Khan Academy videos as students’ first touch-point to topics like, say, linear equations. (And to some extent, Khan Academy fuels this narrative.) If this is how we intend to use Khan Academy, then we’re going to run head-first into the inevitable problems that accompany ineffective pedagogy…a topic, incidentally, that few people seem to be addressing.

    Third, in terms of the funding landscape, I can tell you first-hand that Khan Academy definitely *has* changed the narrative around what should and should not get funding. The simple fact is that many of the people controlling the purse strings, from venture capitalists to foundations, have absolutely no experience in education other than having been students themselves or having children in school now. As a result, they look at Khan Academy, analyze the usage statistics, and assume that it has “solved” the problem of math education. (A would-be funder asked me once, “Why does curriculum even matter?” This is an absurd question to anyone in education, but it highlights a very real dynamic in the funding landscape.)

    Fourth, Khan Academy — or rather, the attention surrounding it — has created a very strange sense of [false] equivalency. There are many experienced teachers who share my concerns about Khan’s pedagogical effectiveness. However, because of the platform Khan Academy has been given, his voice is now considered equivalent to a teacher’s, even one who’s spent his/her career studying how students learn. This would not happen in any other profession, and — at least from my perspective — represents the most dangerous thing of all about our response to Khan Academy: it simply highlights how little we respect what teachers do, and what it means to teach.

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