Khan Critics Miss the Point

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Khan Critics Miss the Point

Valerie Strauss in the The Answer Sheet on has been running an intensive point-counterpoint about the quality, and even the validity of Khan Academy.  Experts in both math and teaching find KA lacking on a number of fronts: accuracy, effectiveness, method, and basic pedagogy. I am not going to reprise the argument here; they are experts in their respective fields, and for the most part they are right.  What Khan has developed as of today is flawed.

But they utterly miss the point.

Let’s use a short parable:

“Boy, it sure is chilly here on these North Carolina sand dunes in December.  Wish those crazy Wright brothers could have brought their new flying contraption out here in the summer.  We sat and watched them all day.  They did get off the ground but only flew a couple of hundred feet.  We are pretty sure that they chose the wrong material for the wings.  Not sure they really understand the best way to take off and land; it looks too dangerous for most people to try.  I think their glide ratios are wrong.”  

Of course I could go on with the parable for a long time, but you get the point.  The Wright brothers made a fundamental breakthrough in solving a critical element of human flight: simultaneous three-point control of a heavy craft in the air.  Their first flights were a bit of a joke for anyone with either the foresight or hindsight of what aeronautics could become.  10 million changes have been made to flying machines since then.  10 million more will be made in the future.  That is the nature of innovation.  It starts with a breakthrough, and then everyone gets to make it better.

The importance of Khan Academy has nothing to do with the specific accuracy of their videos, how they are communicated to students, or how they are or are not more effective at teaching the specifics of a concept than a teacher-in-the-flesh.  The breakthrough of KA is the re-design of the teacher-student-information foundation of learning.  The breakthrough is a re-definition of educational time and space. By freeing teachers-in-the-flesh and students from the inefficient, time-swallowing, passion-killing cycle of lecture and drill in the classroom, those precious minutes and hours are freed up for what learning should have been all along: engagement, exploration, questioning, discourse.

For those who criticize Khan for inaccuracies and other deficiencies: get to work on making it better!  Compete!  Create a better flying machine.  Khan has been around a few years; they and we have the whole future to improve on the breakthrough concept, to (in the language of our parable) fly farther, land better, make it less dangerous, and tweak the glide ratio. But planes still use a three-axis control system, and my bet is that learners deep into the future are going to be using some version of the individualized construct of learning time/space that Khan is pioneering today.

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By | 2012-07-26T16:11:02+00:00 July 26th, 2012|Innovation in Education|11 Comments

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  1. jcwags July 27, 2012 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    Backpack TV video response to Mystery Teacher Theater 2000 and in defense of Sal Khan and Khan Academy.

  2. Andrew Lammers July 27, 2012 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    7th and 8th grade students at Carolina Day School are using Khan Academy for math review instead of working through a traditional summer math packet. Teachers are monitoring students’ activity and progress; students have instruction available when they hit a mental roadblock. If some of the lectures are not perfect we will live with it! This innovation helps our students move forward in their leaning. Great metaphor choice, btw.

    • glichtman July 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Andrew. FYI I am in contact with John Douglas who is talking to your Head of School about my possible visit to CDS when I am in town in late October. Hope that works out!

  3. James July 31, 2012 at 6:15 am - Reply

    I get what your after here, but I disagree. Khan hasn’t really pioneered anything educational. It’s still the same old lecture format, just dolled up with technology. Khan has put lipstick on a pig. To carry your metaphor forward, he hasn’t made any fundamental breakthrough with flight, he’s learned how to fly by remote control. KA is a resource for students who struggle with procedural algorithms. It will not, as some would have us believe, stand alone as an educational delivery system. We do need some widespread, fundamental breakthroughs in mathematics teaching, no doubt about it. But they won’t come from Sal Khan. Look to the current rock stars of pedagogy: Dan Meyer, Frank Noschese, Kate Nowak, Sam Shah, Shawn Cornally. Give them the dollars and column-inches that Khan has gotten and watch what happens.

    • glichtman July 31, 2012 at 2:36 pm - Reply

      Thanks, James for this comment, and I don’t think we really disagree. First, remote control is not a small evolution in flying. Second, the main impact is to free teachers to work one-on-one with students to do what teachers do best. Third, KA is not and will not be unique; all those other great teachers you mention should also receive attention and resources; innovation is never a zero sum process. Bottom line: help those folks to get resources and publicity and we all win! Khan got his resources by putting out a product for which there has been fabulous demand, and I know many students who benefit from it; the same formula will work for others. My point: KA is not the answer, but it is a piece of the path of the answer.

  4. SueJ August 4, 2012 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Could you elucidate about just what’s revolutionary?

    I didn’t think so.

    I question how Khan got the resources. My less cynical theory: I think it was with the kind of hype and claims (that it’s “more than a solution,” etc) that people who actually know enough to know better wouldn’t make.
    As long as folks like you just jump along and agree it will be much harder for real progress to happen.

    I work, every day, with students for whom math is a barrier to their success. There is a real, deep and genuine need for math instructional materials that doesn’t perpetuate the deeply held idea that math is a whole mess of procedures to memorize. KA (despite his frequent lip service otherwise) strongly, consistently reinforces that — and doesn’t even teach the procedures well. Yes, people who need a little review but the “freedom to do 1:1” has always been there and now that “freedom” includes having to correct the habits of thinking and misinformation found in so many of the videos. HOw much of that treasured “1:1” is … correcting the procedures, applied incorrectly because of misconceptions

    Every. SIngle. Time. I ask a Khan-defender to give me examples of how it’s so revolutionary or even how may movies they’ve seen, there’s a sudden silence.

    • glichtman August 4, 2012 at 2:53 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Sue. The strength of Khan and other similar offerings is that it provides a resource that works for some students which increases the total net resources available for instruction. Does it work for every student? No. Are the videos perfect? No. It is another arrow in the quiver which, if applied correctly, can free some teaching time. That is a step in the right direction, which can be improved over time.

  5. SueJ August 4, 2012 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    1. Khan Academy is not being promoted as “another arrow in the quiver.” How is one more arrow in the quiver like the Wright Brothers’ first flight? Look at the hype — and I include your hype. You say he’s redefined things — can you tell me how?

    We’ve had instructional videos on the Internet for years now — just w/o the hype. Try or for starters.

    2. Sal Khan states that be believes the best way to understand math is to first do a whole lot of problems. It so happens that that’s not true.

    That gets that night’s worksheet done, and yes, students will “intuit” an understanding. HOwever, it is *usually* wrong — unless your surroundings are pretty academically privileged. Misconceptions trump even good teaching. He not only doesn’t deal with normal misconceptions (except tos ay “don’t to that!!!!” which is one of the least effective approaches if the student is never told why). See

    3. For the **millions** of dollars put into it (and SK could pay somebody to put together a non-profit and get those grants), the movies should not tell students that two plus two is the same as two times one — and just leave that out there as “well, they’re not *perfect.*” He shouldn’t be telling students that he *knows* he’s confusing them. He shouldn’t be stressing “When we say four sixes, it means four times six” — and then later use that to mean six times six times six times six. He shouldn’t call a multiplication problem a sum. The Wright Brothers worked hard to improve their plane so it would fly. Sal Khan’s corrected a single video.

    A better metaphor would be comparing somebody grabbing an idea, doing a cheaper and far inferior version of it and marketing it out the wazoo — except it’s no metaphor; it’s what literally is happening.

    And then, when people suggest that this could be a grand opportunity to use the attention on math videos to explore what makes a good math instruction video — we’re missing the amazingness of it all.

    … while my students go listen to the video and come back and say “I just didn’t get it. Everybody says it’s great. I just can’t do math.”

    I feel like SK has made a huge donation of junk food to the food pantry and then is lecturing on the importance of good nutrition. Tes, some folks are saying “wow! This is great!”

    Can you tell me why you think it will really help them understand math, as opposed finding a quick fix for their current homework assignment and then taking a test and having no idea which of the 3000 procedures to use and assuming it’s because *they* don’t have a good math brain?

    I didn’t think so.

  6. SueJ August 4, 2012 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    …and why can’t critiques be ‘another arrow in the quiver” of discussion? It’s *so* much easier to say *oh, you’re missing the point!” than to address the issues.

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