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Posted at 11:20 AM ET, 07/23/2012

Khan Academy: The hype and the reality

This was written by Karim Kai Ani, a former middle school teacher and math coach, and the founder of Mathalicious, which is rewriting the middle school math curriculum around real-world topics.

You can find a response to this post from Sal Khan by clicking here .

By Karim Kai Ani

In a new profile in Time magazine, Sal Khan, founder of the popular Khan Academy, explains how he prepares for each of his video lessons. He doesn’t use a script. In fact, he admits, “I don’t know what I’m going to say half the time.”

During a recent address to Washington D.C.-area educators, Secretary
(BLOOMBERG )
of Education Arne Duncan highlighted the importance of teacher education and professional development, and urged that we as a country provide teachers with more time to collaborate and plan lessons for their students. He then turned and praised Khan as a leading innovator transforming education for millions of students around the country.

The highest ranking official in American education says that effective teaching requires training and planning, and then holds up as his archetype someone who openly admits to showing up to class every day unprepared. If a teacher said that, they’d be fired. And yet in the past year Sal Khan has been hailed as the “world’s teacher;” the “Messiah of Math;” and the savior for everything that ails public education.

The narrative surrounding Khan Academy has, it seems, gotten a bit out of hand.

It’s not Sal’s fault. He didn’t set out to become one of the biggest celebrities in education but simply to help his cousins with their math homework. But Ann Doerr, wife of venture capitalist John Doerr, picked up on it. Then Bill Gates. Then the San Jose Mercury, 60 Minutes, the New York Times ... and all of a sudden Khan Academy, a collection of low-res videos offering step-by-step instructions for how to solve math problems, was being hailed as the Next Big Thing in education.

And big it is: Khan Academy boasts almost 3,300 videos that have been viewed over 160 million times. That’s a heroic achievement.

But there’s a problem: the videos aren’t very good.

VIDEO CODE: http://www.khanacademy.org/math/algebra/linear-equations-and-inequalitie/v/algebra--slope

Take Khan’s explanation of slope, which he defines as “rise over run.” An effective math teacher will point out that “rise over run” isn’t the definition of slope at all but merely a way to calculate it. In fact, slope is a rate that describes how two variables change in relation to one another: how a car’s distance changes over time (miles per additional hour); how the price of an iPod changes as you buy more memory (dollars per additional gigabyte).

To the lay person this may seem like a trivial distinction, but slope is one of the most fundamental concepts in secondary math. If students don’t understand slope at the conceptual level, they won’t understand functions. If they don’t understand functions, they won’t understand Algebra. And if they don’t understand Algebra, they can’t understand Calculus. It’s that simple.

Or rather, it’s not. Because effective teaching is incredibly complex. It requires planning. It requires reflection. And it certainly requires more than just “two minutes of research on Google,” which is how Khan describes his own pre-lesson routine.

As a result, experienced educators have begun to push back against what they see as fundamental problems with Khan’s approach to teaching. In June, two professors from Grand Valley State University created their own video in which they pointed out errors in Khan’s lesson on negative numbers: not things they disagreed with, but things he got plain wrong. To his credit, Khan did replace the video. However, instead of using this as an opportunity to engage educators and improve his teaching, he dismissed the criticism.

“It’s kind of weird,” Khan explained, “when people are nitpicking about multiplying negative numbers.”

When asked why so many teachers have such adverse reactions to Khan Academy, Khan suggests it’s because they’re jealous. “It’d piss me off, too, if I had been teaching for 30 years and suddenly this ex-hedge-fund guy is hailed as the world’s teacher.”

Of course, teachers aren’t “pissed off” because Sal Khan is the world’s teacher. They’re concerned that he’s a bad teacher who people think is great; that the guy who’s delivered over 170 million lessons to students around the world openly brags about being unprepared and considers the precise explanation of mathematical concepts to be mere “nitpicking.” Experienced educators are concerned that when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it’s a crisis; but that when it happens on YouTube, it’s a “revolution.”

Because the truth is that there’s nothing revolutionary about Khan Academy at all. In fact, Khan’s style of instruction is identical to what students have seen for generations: a do this then do this approach to teaching that presents mathematics as a meaningless series of steps. Khan himself says that “math is not just random things to memorize and regurgitate,” yet that’s exactly how his videos present it.

Sal Khan has done something remarkable in creating such a vast and varied library, and he deserves to be recognized. His commitment to making the site free is a rare and selfless act, and he deserves to be praised. Sal Khan is a good guy with a good mission. What he’s not, though, is a good teacher.

Unfortunately, the media hype surrounding Khan Academy has created a level of expectation far beyond what it – indeed, what any person or website – could ever reasonably deliver. Reporters have confused journalism with sycophantism, and the entire narrative has become a head-scratching example of the suspension of common sense.

The real problem with Khan Academy is not the low-quality videos or the absence of any pedagogical intentionality. It’s just one resource among many, after all. Rather, the danger is that we believe the promise of silver bullets – of simple solutions to complex problems – and in so doing become deaf to what really needs to be done.

As Arne Duncan said, we need to invest in professional development, and provide teachers with the support and resources they need to be successful. We need to give them time to collaborate, and create relevant content that engages students and develops not just rote skills but also conceptual understanding. We have to help new teachers figure out classroom management – to reach the student who shows up late to class every day and never brings a pencil – and free up veteran teachers to mentor younger colleagues.

I recently attended the inaugural #TwitterMathCamp, a collection of teachers who traveled from around the country (plus two Canucks!)…during their vacation…and paid out of pocket…to discuss how best to introduce proportions and whether slope always requires units.

We need to stop focusing on the teachers who are doing it wrong and instead recognize the ones who are doing it right: the Frank Noscheses and the Kate Nowaks; the Sadie Estrellas and the Sam Shaws; the ones who spend their time trying to become better to make someone else’s kids smarter.


We have to recognize the good, and then cultivate it.

Before we can do that, though, we have to agree on what “good” is. I don’t know what I’m going to say half the time isn’t good enough, and we have to stop pretending that it is.

We face very real challenges in K-12 education today, and they will not be solved with just a Wacom tablet and a YouTube account. Instead, they’ll be solved by teachers who understand their content; who understand how children learn; who walk into the classroom every day and think, “I know exactly what I’m going to say, because that’s what teaching means.

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You can find a response to this post from Sal Khan by clicking here .

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