Misunderstanding Sal Khan, and Missing the Point

I’m starting to get a bit tired of the criticism being leveled at Sal Khan.

After plenty of attention from old media about the launch of Khan Academy, Khan’s a coveted speaker. He’s been making the rounds at conferences, trying to explain to educators why his strategies for flipping the classroom can be effective, and judging from the backchannel chatter on Twitter and subsequent posts in the education blogosphere, he’s not getting his point across as well as I’m sure he hopes.

For those who will no doubt inquire, here’s full disclosure: I do not work or advocate for Khan Academy or Sal Khan. I don’t work in a school using his products. I have watched some of his videos, heard him speak, read his written pieces, and downloaded his TED talk, but I do not know him personally.

However, I think I understand Khan’s point. My problem with the critics is that they apparently don’t.

What Khan is not saying is that Khan Academy or “flipping” class using KA videos is the panacea for ALL that ails education. He doesn’t claim that lecture is the best teaching strategy, or that he is a better lecturer than the teachers at your school. Further he doesn’t claim that his YouTube videos should replace teachers. He certainly does not claim that “the future of education lies in a disembodied voice that lectures [at] squinting students on a blinking screen.

If you’re tweeting or blogging refutations to these imagined arguments, you’re engaged in classic Straw Man argumentation.

When I play back Khan’s presentations, what I hear is advocacy for greater connection between teacher and student. If you’re listening, you’ll hear him say teachers are too important to be disconnected from students, at the front of the classroom, lecturing. He criticizes the traditional classroom model where a lecture is given, then students leave to attempt solutions to difficult textbook problems, on their own, without much teacher support. To be fair, there’s still loads of this kind of teaching happening in our schools, and it’s this pedagogy at which Khan’s reform efforts are aimed.

by removing the one size fits all lecture from the classroom and letting students have a self-paced lecture at home, these teachers changed a fundamentally dehumanizing experience. In a traditional model, most of the teacher’s time is spent giving lectures and grading and whatnot. Maybe five percent of their time is actually sitting next to students and actually working with them. Now 100 percent of their time is… you’re humanizing the classroom (TED talk)

Khan does not want to replace teachers. He consistently claims his work should free up teachers to actually deepen connections between teachers and students – he argues that teachers are more important than the videos or the technology. He doesn’t claim he’s a better lecturer than other teachers, rather, he insists the pedagogy of lecture ‘in-the-room’ is the problem. Face-time with students should be focused on discussion, problem-solving, critical thinking exercises, not lectures. This is the beauty and genius of the flipped classroom strategy that KA follows. In the end, it’s not about the quality of the lecturer, it’s about the student’s ability to stop, start, rewind, and review “how-to” lectures that makes it powerful (not to mention the greater possibility for dynamic visuals that digital video holds over classroom lecture).

Khan began by making “how to” YouTube videos on how to work through textbook math problems. If you want proof that “how-to” videos are effective, search YouTube and look at the number of views (try this one). Or go into a commercial training program and check out video instruction. Or ask yourself how many times you’ve watched a video tutorial for a new product or service. Yes, this is classic lecture stuff, but made more effective with great visuals and by your ability go back and forth and to return to the video as needed. This way of learning “how to” works.

More disclosure: I think education, and math ed specifically, as “how-to” is wrong-headed, a complete misunderstanding of education’s purpose, and a bastardization of mathematics. My position on this is well-known and articulated here (“Math is Dead. Long Live Mathematics!“). We need more teaching that puts students in positions to articulate problems, plan how to solve them, and apply the solutions to the real-world. Teachers can then mentor “how to” on a one-on-one basis as necessary, or help students find the tool (calculator? computer application/spreadsheet?) that will do this for them.

However, I realize that many teachers are stuck with national/state math curricula that have a 19th century understanding of math. If you’re teaching math as “how to”, you’re much better off using class time for one-on-one tutoring through difficult problems instead of lectures that are more effective online. For this, the flipped classroom works.

I am a History and Social Sciences teacher that advocates and uses PBL. I won’t give an in-class lecture this year, and few online lectures. I have no plans to use KA videos because I think the “give info / memorize info / give info back” model of education doesn’t produce the kinds of learning that matters. But if you’re engaged in that kind of thing, flipping your classroom may be the best way to improve your students’ success with the material.

So stop with the luddite-esque hysteria over Khan Academy – it is neither accurate or necessary. And if you’re reacting out of defensiveness for your job, ask your students if they think you could be replaced by a computer. My guess is that you’ll feel validated, or you’ll find direction for professional growth.

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  1. Anthony McGrann    

    Thanks for this great post. I’m on the PNAIS conference planning committee and SL Khan was selected for all the reasons you mentioned. I never believe in criticizing something until you’ve tried it and last year I tried it with my second grade class. Results were mixed, but I really embrace the concept of flipping the classroom in order to make it more human. I hope Sal was able to let teachers see things differently. Unfortunately, I think the keynote focused too much on Khan Academy itself rather than the things you mentioned here. Still, I love that he took a risk and tried something new and that many are trying new things too. I also think some of the negative tweeting weren’t from teachers who feel threatened, but rather many who we’re hoping to get more out of the keynote. By the way, good luck with edcampPDX. Wish I could make it. If you’re up for NAIS, stick around one day for edcampIS, which I’m co-organizing. Looking forward to hearing about yours.

    1. Mike Gwaltney - Post Author    

      Thanks for reading and for your comment, Anthony. I’ll try to make edcampIS – keep me in the loop on that would you? email or message me on Twitter, I’d love to attend. Best,

  2. Michael Soskil    

    In your “full disclosure” at the bottom of your post I think you articulated the perfect argument against Khan, even if you didn’t mean to. Flipping one’s classroom can be incredibly effective at teaching “how-to” and the “What, Where, and When.” It does nothing for real conceptual thinking or the “Why and How.” As someone involved in teaching using PBL, I’m sure you see this first hand. There’s nothing wrong with Khan posting vids on-line. That’s great. There is a problem with teachers assigning students to watch them. Schools shouldn’t work that way. Students should be seeking out the information they need to solve problems. If the information they seek is contained in Khan’s videos is what they need, then that’s great.

    Just because some are stuck with a 19th century mentality of education doesn’t mean that we should be looking for a better way to teach in that model, or that we should be celebrating advances in 19th century teaching. To reference Other People’s Money, Let’s stop asking our teachers to make an even better buggy whip. Eventually, even the best buggy whip company goes out of business.

    1. Mike Gwaltney - Post Author    

      Michael – you are I are in agreement, I think. What I know is that many colleagues teach under constraints that won’t let them go more inquiry-based / PBL, and I know they’ve had success with using video lectures (most make their own, not use Khan’s) followed by discussion in class the next day. … You’ve stolen my metaphor with the buggy whip – that’s one I use all the time. Thanks for reading and for your comment. Cheers.

  3. Maria Droujkova (@MariaDroujkova)    

    Thank you for writing this, Mike. We recently had a discussion about Khan Academy at one of email groups. I’d be interested in your take on this – copied from the discussion:

    Here are two aspects of Khan Academy that I find impressive. I think these aspects move the field of mathematics education forward. Khan did not invent any of these practices, but he demonstrated a clear, worked-out example. So did Art of Problem Solving (Alcumus), with some differences, and several others.

    1. The gamified expert system
    – Highly modular media
    – Rich media
    – Meta-data on all modules of media
    – Non-sequential network of progress (expert system) by meta-data
    – Time, task and communication management system over the expert system (gamification)

    Khan Academy has enough content units to define all these aspects by example, in ways accessible enough for complete noobs. Ever tried to convince your curriculum development clients that branching modular curriculum isn’t that hard to build and people will not find it too difficult to navigate? Then you will appreciate being able to point to Khan Academy.

    2. Integrating OERs (open educational resources) with monetary economics in education
    – Clear time and task management system for hundreds (now probably thousands) of volunteers
    – 100% Creative Commons content (open and free)
    – Multiple languages and reach across country borders
    – Project going from author-financing to grant-financing, with plans for long-term sustainability

    Khan Academy is a working model for a large, completely open, completely Creative Commons, sustainable community.

  4. Jordan    

    Mike, I TOTALLY agree with your points here. The quote that best summarizes what you discuss above and what I see as the essence of Sal Khan’s work came from him in this pithy quote from last week’s PNAIS conference: “use technology to humanize the classroom.” Yes!

  5. Shad Moarif    

    Sal Khan is doing what I was doing 28 years ago. Now I wish I had done what he did: clone myself. Not now but 28 years ago. Unfortunately the technology wasn’t there to allow that. It would take a 20 Volume encyclopedia to put everything down in print.

    In a Text Book Publishing course I took at Harvard for my grad study, I was astonished to learn that the amount of knowledge that young learners can officially carry in their heads is a function of the load they can carry on their shoulders via their backpack. Which explained their decision on restricting the number of pages in a text book. Math ideas, say on Fractions, had to be explained in 2 pages, not more.

    We see the results of such limitations today.

    I am doing what Sal Khan did. The technology is too tempting to resist cloning oneself as a practitioner. And the good thing is the diversity of technology allows you to clone yourself according to what suits your style as much as fits the needs of the learners. So that’s what I am doing. I am doing it all visually, through animation, by distilling mathematical concepts visually down to its essentials so that they lend themselves to numerical reasoning.

    It is NOT “chalk and talk”. But it’s far from anything like a constructivist approach. I have my reasons. And beliefs.

    Recently I started uploading my work on YouTube (around 3 weeks ago). May I share the links with you folks? Here they are:

    1.Algebraic Equations Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhrQSOOz1O0
    Algebraic Equations Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4k6IZjsTit4
    Algebraic Equations Part 3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vBqBX9jkps
    2.On Understanding “Difference”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuHPGenGV_Y
    3.Factors and Factoring Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrTa07zl9pg
    Factors and Factoring Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XphYUyzmG_4
    Factors and factoring Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqV2HYZX8X8
    4.The Inventing of Some Mathematical Signs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ctd7txNu9P8
    5.Division as Equal Sharing Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hATKLy0Kxg
    The Dividing Room Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnlaQDmzQ-8
    Division as Equal Grouping: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVHSIKkkP6Y
    6. Fractions as Parts and Wholes Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MS2IW8mOPe8
    Fractions as Halves and Wholes Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=go4BZlYciac
    Comparing Fractions Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaT0sBM5vOI
    Improper Fractions to Mixed Numbers Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf2IiP-bsGU
    Changing Mixed Numbers to Improper Fractions Part 5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtRe51gyb_g
    Review Exercises Part 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpvOOjMK8j0

    Would like to get some feedback re: comparison with Khan’s work. Thanks.

  6. Matt Amaral    

    I might give you the point that in the subject of Math, some teachers could benefit from a series of videos they could play at the front of the room while they are working the rows and helping students. Yet, in the end you are missing my point. Even this “flipped” classroom, as you call it, won’t work with the kind of teacher who isn’t good at lecturing, and teaching in general. Look, unless you’re talking about paying teachers more and making sure we have highly intelligent, energetic leaders in the room, nothing will improve.

    Let me give you an example. There is a program called AVID that is nation-wide that focuses on peer studying and support. It has its own curriculum and protocols. When a great teacher is in the room, AVID works, when it is a bad teacher, AVID doesn’t work. KA is the same. The problem in education is not direct instruction, and our inability to reach our students on their desks. Lecturing is teaching, and if you take our voice from the subject matter, we are not teachers anymore, we are Techs. None of this matters, don’t you see? There is this idea that we can fix education BY TAKING THE TEACHER OUT OF THE EQUATION AT EVERY STEP. What we need is for ALL teachers to be highly qualified, and the only way to get that is to increase pay.

    I concede at many points in my piece that Khan is great for what he is. But the problem with education is not In-the-Room Lecture. That is direct instruction, and it works. It IS teaching (as long as you do everything else along with it, scaffolding, individual instruction, group work, etc.). Direct instruction is the least of our worries. Anyways, taking questions during lecture is the best way to address problem issues to the entire class. If one student has a question, chances are 40% of the room has the same question. In one fell swoop you’ve answered it for everyone, instead of walking around the room answering the same question at 20 different desks. In the end, most of us need help lecturing like we need help driving to work in the morning.

    And I’m sorry, but when Sal Khan says he dreams of a future free of bored students being lectured at, and how he hated how teachers weren’t able to show the beauty of what they teach, if that doesn’t piss you off, I don’t know what will. And when he sees the future of education as “Lecture Libraries,” instead of classrooms with teachers in it, if that doesn’t sound like he’s talking of a panacea, I don’t know what does.

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