If Sal Khan says he’s teaching, are students learning? [Achievement vs. Learning]

Hey John, Your last post on here where you discuss the intricacies of teaching and learning as a balance makes great sense. These days, the buzz around edu-techers centers around three topics: MOOCs (massive open online classroom), flipped classrooms, and Khan Academy. I’ll try to kill all three birds with one stone (hoping it boomerangs […]

Hey John,

Your last post on here where you discuss the intricacies of teaching and learning as a balance makes great sense. These days, the buzz around edu-techers centers around three topics: MOOCs (massive open online classroom), flipped classrooms, and Khan Academy. I’ll try to kill all three birds with one stone (hoping it boomerangs at some juncture) because, while some of us would rather not think about it, the online movement is most certainly here to stay. How schools, districts, and our country choose to use online learning matters lots here.

For instance, at the Celebration for Teaching and Learning 2012, I got a chance to hear him speak. I came in trying to have a measure of objectivity, just taking in the show I knew I would witness. Sure enough, he had a few jokes, a few highlights, and some success stories. That’s good, fantastic. Upon reflection, I realized that any instructional coach who came with their administrator or superior would immediately get asked the question, “So how do we bring that to our school?”

The coach or math teacher would roll their eyes hard and say, “Let me give it a look.”(Full disclosure: I did.)

Alas, Khan’s style of teaching math reminds you of your cousin who tried to give you a bunch of shortcuts and neat tricks to help you pass the next test. In the words of Ilana Horn:

Although learning and achievement are related, they are not the same. Learning happens when students deepen and extend their knowledge of mathematical ideas. Achievement reflects how they are progressing in school. Most educators recognize the imperfect correlation: some students progress without understand, whereas other students understand without progressing.

– excerpt from her book ​Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics​, NCTM 2012

Khan Academy often feels less like learning and more like achievement. What’s more, he gave us a snippet of a classroom where kids used the videos to learn math, then took online quizzes sponsored by Khan to decide whether the student gets to watch the next video. The teacher tracks their individual project and all they have to worry about on paper is whether the technology works and if they get Khan’s jokes. Originally, I understood Khan’s vision for these videos to serve for tutoring purposes and for refreshers for different subjects, and these videos work well for that purpose.

Yet, at some point, it went from a well-meaning and chummy vision for helping on the side to having Sal Khan become the center of learning. My question is simple: if indeed his system of teaching students math is revolutionary, then what is the ultimate difference between what he perceives as teacher-directed learning and Khan-directed learning? I have yet to get a clear answer on that. Can’t a teacher just get neon chalk, turn off the lights, and make jokes too? Can’t the teacher stop, take questions, and go back and do the lesson all over again just like Khan proposes for his videos?

Will a million Khan videos with a million YouTube videos solve 100% of students’ understandings of math? Doubt it.

Thus, the feedback from connected teachers from across the world has been astounding (including the aforementioned video / article). Let me overstate the obvious: if learning and teaching are interrelated, then the quality of teaching ought to reflect the quality of learning. Whether you’re in a classroom of 5000 people, 30, 12, or 1, the person teaching ought to understand their subject enough to anticipate questions, not simply breeze over.

The trend of gamifying our culture has had some benefits in other areas. Weight Watchers uses a points system to discourage customers from eating fatty foods. Nike+ has developed a specialized program (with shoes!) that help you compete against others through exercise. Klout uses equations to help rank people and brands through social media. Games often find themselves in the tools we as teachers use to encourage kids to learn skills.

But there’s a huge difference between what those examples and Khan has evolved into; all those examples only supplement their ultimate purposes. Khan Academy’s mission now includes replacing and/or undermining the expert in the classroom.

Worst of all, Larry Ferlazzo recently mentioned on his Twitter that they’re expanding into computer science, quizzical since some of us have a hard time decoding what he does for middle school math.

*image courtesy of http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/11/monkeys-typewriters-and-evolution.html

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