Khan Academy – A Response to Educational Technology Guy

The post below is a response to a blog entry from Educational Technology Guy, titled “Khan Academy – not good pedagogy and not #edreform”

I had originally intended to respond to the article in the comments on the above site, but my response turned into a passionate 1500+ word essay, so it appears here instead. Please do read David’s post first to get the full context.

I must make clear from the outset, this is not a personal attack on either  the site owner and I agree with much of what he has to say, in fact David’s site at looks like a great resource for teachers and students alike and you should all go and take a look around it.

It’s also not an attack on the educational system or those that work within it.

Khan Academy – not good pedagogy and not #edreform?

First of all I have to correct the primary premise, that Khan Academy is just lecture videos.

For some time this was correct, but in the area of mathematics it is no longer the case and this is significant. Khan Academy is a developing site, still in relatively early stages of development and it is important to keep this in mind.

I’ll be the first to admit that Khan Academy isn’t the be-all and end-all of education and that some of the hype is excessive, but it is, for many students, a significant tool to enhance their education and is something radical and different from anything else I, or my children have been exposed to.

Our current education system works through a curriculum aiming to teach the students all they need to know. The reality is that they don’t learn all they need to know within the allotted time. Students take tests to evaluate their knowledge and they may get 50%, 70% or 90+% correct, but this demonstrates clearly there are still gaps in knowledge or application.

We then move them on to the next part of the curriculum, leaving those students with these gaps in their abilities. We don’t do this in other areas of life, we don’t become a 50% bike rider, we either learn to ride or not, but you never hear someone say they’re a 50% bike rider.

For this reason education systems across the world fail their students by design and I’m not aware of anywhere this isn’t the case.

In many areas of education we are leaving students without the competence they need owing to the pressures on curriculum and school timetables. Students are repeatedly moved on to new subjects before they have chance to master the previous ones.

This is where Khan Academy excels. As a student one can watch the lectures, poor pedagogy or not, repeatedly, in your own time, at your own pace, with no embarrassment at having to repeatedly ask questions. You can then practice those concepts until they become second nature.

My own son is inherently shy and frequently embarrassed to ask in class about things he doesn’t understand. Whilst you can, quite legitimately, argue this is a failing in the teaching environment or student-teacher relationship, it is a fact for many.

It’s this lack of pragmatism that annoys me amongst the teaching profession; imperfect or not, if a solution works, if it offers some benefit to certain students and allows them to become better AND it does it at zero cost it HAS to be a benefit, I don’t see how anyone can argue otherwise.

Some may argue it’s taking resources that could be better applied within the existing education system, but I would argue that the existing system’s repeated failure for some students is evidence that trying something different is worth a go. I would also argue that the amazing granularity of statistics available from Khan Academy can be used to provide clear evidence-led education, whether the results are positive or negative. Data with this level of granularity is frequently not available within conventional education.

There is no perfect system of education, if there were we would all be using it, the practical reality is that education needs tailoring to individual students, something I believe we both agree on, but the reality of the school environment, timetable and simple number of hours in a day is that there are limits to how much this can be done.

I’d like to see evidence to support the argument that lectures are poor pedagogy, maybe, within the time limits mentioned above that is the case, but I have a proposition that maybe the ability to repeatedly view lectures, rewind over sections and ‘interact’ with the lecture(r) in a way one can never do in a school environment could be what turns them from poor pedagogy to good?

To briefly go back to my earlier contention, that Khan Academy is not just lecture videos, we need to look at the maths practice section of the site. This is the part that is genius in my view, it adds game mechanics, rewards, social interaction and personal coaching to the learning process in a way that, in my experience, younger students like.

It presents an interconnected web of maths subject areas, with logical links between subjects, as an interactive map. It encourages self-learning as the route through the subjects on offer is logical and suggestions are made for students to follow. It offers encouragement to master subjects and rewards for doing so. This exactly meets David’s proposition that “Learning needs to be interactive and student centered”, in my view.

It offers data on student performance that gives great insight into their progress and their weaknesses and allows focus to be placed in areas where it’s needed.

I encourage anyone with young children to register on the site, set themselves up as a coach to their own children and look at the data you can analyse. Without the pressure of peering over their shoulders you can see what exercises they have done, the exact questions they answered, whether they answered the question right or wrong, whether they got it right after several attempts (with all answers along the way visible), how long they took to answer the question and more. You can see the focal split between subject areas to analyse whether students are focussing on a subject or jumping around.

What I do know is I have two sons, one 8yrs old, one 12 yrs old. The 8yr old I consider to be bright and self motivated, the 12yr old is often poorly motivated, wanting to do the bare minimum he can get away with.

Both have been doing Khan Academy maths for a while now and I see that the 8 yr old is learning maths concepts beyond the curriculum he is learning at school. I see he enjoys it too, he likes the challenge and reward mechanisms and this encourages him to self-learn in a remarkable way. I also see the results of the practical tests he does, I can see the speed with which questions are answered improving as more examples are completed, I see the errors early on in the practice sessions and then the strings of correctly answered questions later in the practice session. He doesn’t do this in isolation though, I provide hands on help when he needs it, to further support the online material.

For the 12yr old Khan Academy has been a revelation. He is inherently capable of doing the maths, but often throws up barriers to his progress. At school that may be his reticence to ask questions, at home it’s the tantrums and arguments that come from me trying to help him.

To take a case in point, he missed some school work on Pythagoras due to a school trip. The lecture videos on Khan Academy gave him the understanding of the theorem he needed, but in addition also taught him how to simplify radicals, something that he hasn’t yet done at school (as a side note the method shown was a way neither I, nor a PhD colleague at work had ever been shown at school, but it made it really easy. The method of explanation seems common amongst American lecturers, having watched other lecture videos, so that may be something specific to the UK).

When it came to doing the test he’d been set by school he found it easy, as the answers were all required to 1 decimal place (and therefore worked out with a calculator without the radical answers), so he got 100% and felt really positive about the subject.

It leaves me feeling that even ‘average’ students can grasp multiple mathematical concepts in parallel when given the right tools with which to learn and this must mean that our students aren’t learning as much as they could within the time available.

I’m not sure how the maths practice methods can be transposed to other subject areas, maths inherently has correct answers, in multiple forms that are easy for a computer to understand, subjects that require written answers may present problems here, so I’ll be interested to see how the site develops with time.

I do though believe it is an important tool for any educator and even more importantly an amazing tool for parents who want to refresh knowledge and help their children, or just challenge themselves to learn subjects they struggled with at school.

When I did A-level maths, I couldn’t see the relevance of complex numbers. Square roots of negative numbers seemed irrelevant and as a consequence of my own disinterest I struggled with the concept and never learnt the subject properly. I then went into electronic engineering. Complex numbers are used regularly in this field and with the renewed interest and relevance I grasped the subject relatively easily.

The education system lets students down because for some students the relevance of what they are being asked to learn to the real world they inhabit, or will inhabit, cannot be demonstrated. Career teachers cannot provide this information as they have no experience in the real world of work or of any practical application, in many cases. Many older teachers’ knowledge of the technological advances of our world is limited, which creates a disconnect to the technologically savvy student of today.

I suspect David is in a good position to judge this, having come from a practical engineering background I expect that he uses this practical knowledge regularly within his teaching, but this is less common that it should be. David’s suggestion that “homework” is assigned to students to addresses their interests and needs supports this and I applaud it, but however desirable this is I suggest that many teachers do not, and maybe cannot, do this, for curriculum, time or practical knowledge reasons.

I do wholeheartedly agree with David’s goals of project based learning, especially in relation to real world problems. Dan Meyer did an awesome presentation at TED about this and how current maths teaching does not give our students the skills they need. I recommend anyone with even the slightest interest in maths teaching watches it, it’s an eye-opening and inspirational 10 mins (Dan Meyer: Math class needs a makeover).

Maybe the flipped classroom idea does have issues, my experience is that watching the video in isolation, without practical application fairly soon afterwards as reinforcement is unlikely to be effective, but the videos are often no longer than the time my 12yr old takes to do his homework (due to the lack of mastery obtained in-class) so I’m not convinced it’s any more time-consuming. If it allows more practical hands on in the class and allows the benefits of more able students, who’ve clearly mastered a concept, helping their peers, freeing time for teachers to concentrate in areas that really need their expertise, that can only be a good thing, for both their education and their inter-personal relationships.

With Khan Academy anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to a PC and an internet connection, can access the awesome pool of knowledge on Khan Academy and learn something new, in a way that suits their lifestyle and at a time and place of their choosing, for free.

If that isn’t close to revolutionary I don’t know what is.

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