Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts about kids learning math and science from the Khan Academy. Now I’m sure that to many people, including myself, this brings to mind images of Ricardo Montalban dressed in rags at a starship control panel saying, “From the heart of trigonometry, I stab at thee!” It’s actually something quite different, though. It’s about Salman Khan, an entrepreneur from California who’s going to single-handedly revolutionize our failing education system. Now you may be skeptical. You may point out that at any given time in the past forty years, there have been a dozen revolutions going on in our education system, and yet somehow the results have just gotten worse and worse. You may even think that the surplus of revolutions is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. If so, I say unto you, this time is different. Khan actually has the ability to teach our kids something. Specifically, he can teach them how to distinguish between actual facts and hype.
Just consider these snippets from the article in the Washington Post which I linked to above: “be more creative”, “an optimal experience for students and teachers”, “hailed as revolutionary”, “a useful tool to individualize learning”, “has caught on like wildfire”, “a world-class education for everyone”, “have struck a chord among students and educators”, “world-changing ideas”, “a grass-roots, bottom-up thing”, “taking ownership of our learning”, “it opens doors to new resources and learning techniques”, and the list goes on. All of that is pure hype. Nowhere in the article is there any scrap of solid evidence that the Khan Academy helps kids to learn more.
But obviously we should not be satisfied with just one article explaining the concept of empty corporate hype. Fortunately Khan and his movement are spinning off numerous examples. For example, over here we have a list of the many advantages of the “flipped model”, which is where students watch video lectures at home and do ‘homework’ in class. Among them:
- Establishes dialogue and idea exchange between students, educators, and subject matter experts regardless of locations.
- The content becomes more easily accessed and controlled by the learner.
- Prepares students for a future as global citizens. Allows them to meet students and teachers from around the world to experience their culture, language, ideas, and shared experiences.
- Allows students with multiple learning styles and abilities to learn at their own pace and through traditional models.
Now if that isn’t hogwash, I don’t know what is. A video “establishes dialogue”? You can talk to a video screen all you want, but it won’t hear you. The content is “controlled by the learner”? True enough, and I imagine most learners will start by not watching the video. Watching videos constitutes “experiencing the culture”? I can’t even come up with a witty response to that one. Video lets students “learn at their own pace”? Don’t we want all students learning at a fast pace, regardless of whether or not its their own?
I could bash the concept more broadly, but I’ll focus on the second point. Those wise people who write the Washington Post and other leading venues apparently think that it’s wonderfully new for students to have access to school material at home. In fact, we already have a way for students to access material at home: it’s called a textbook. It’s worked just fine for tens of millions, but the problem is that kids these days don’t read textbooks because they don’t care about the material. If they don’t read textbooks, what makes anyone think that they’ll watch videos. Has it ever occurred to anyone that there’s no way teachers can force the students to watch videos any more than we can force them to read textbooks? Is this not obvious?
So I once again stand atop the train of events and try to make the “experts” stop and think for a minute, presumably to no avail as always. But if we do have to have science fiction villains teaching our children mathematics, then may I suggest: