(2011-11-21) Wired Khan Academy And Critics

Clive Thompson/Wired Mag has Khan Academy profile. I'm reminded a lot of Disrupting Class.

For years, teachers like Thordarson have complained about the frustrations of teaching to the “middle” of the class.

He also discovered that the state of math education in the country was pretty awful. He began tutoring several other cousins (word had gotten around the family: free lessons!), and he was disturbed to find that their grasp of the basics was shaky. Even on simple division questions, they answered tentatively and slowly. Khan wanted to get the kids to the point where they could confidently bark back these answers—they had to have this kind of automatic mental processing before they could handle more-advanced material. I agree, despite my skepticism of boring stuff, that if you can't easily do the Basic Arithmetic, you'll never be in Flow State for trickier stuff. This is one good purpose for computer-based drilling - not to learn the basics, but to drill for speed.

“Math is the killer,” Bill Gates told me recently. His foundation had researched UnEmployment and found math to be a significant stumbling block. “If you ask people, ‘Hey, there are these open nursing jobs, why don’t you go and get one?’ math is often the reason they give for not applying,” Gates says. “‘Why didn’t you pass the police exam?’ Math.” I wish they'd be clear about how much math is needed for these job exams. I bet it's not even full High School level.

Khan’s site is unique in that it’s ruthlessly practical: It’s aimed at helping people master the basics, the humble bread-and-butter equations they encounter in elementary and high school. Traditionally, these kinds of videos can be dry and difficult to slog through. But Khan manages to pull off his lessons with a casual air that keeps the viewer engaged. He says his relaxed approach isn’t faked—it’s a result of the way he prepares. He never writes a script. He simply researches a topic until he feels he can explain it off the cuff to “a motivated 7-year-old.” (Preparation can take anywhere from 10 minutes with a familiar subject like Algebra to nearly a week in the case of organic chemistry.) Khan also never edits. Either he nails the lecture in a single take or he redoes the entire thing until it satisfies him... After you’ve listened to a lot of Khan’s stuff, instructional videos by for-profit educational firms begin to sound gratingly phony. At his desk, he pulls up a YouTube video about how the sodium-potassium pump in a cell membrane works. As the video plays, a singsongy female voice-over fills his office with the cloying, condescending tone of a teacher who’s convinced her students are idiots. “I mean, I can’t pay attention for one minute to that,” he says... Several students I spoke to also pointed out that Khan is particularly good at explaining all the hidden, small steps in math problems—steps that teachers often gloss over. He has an uncanny ability to inhabit the mind of someone who doesn’t already understand something. “He explains things step by step, rather than assuming you already know how to get from A to B,” Brannan says.

In the fall of 2010, flush with the infusion of money from Google and Gates, Khan hired a programmer, BenKamens, and a designer, Jason Rosoff, and tasked them with, among other things, building the dashboard. These sorts of performance-measuring apps have become increasingly common in the business world, so the duo didn’t think teachers would be terribly impressed by their software. Wrong: They were astounded. “We’d go collect some data and make a chart, and the teachers were blown away—every time,” Kamens says. “This isn’t taxing the edge of technology. But they were completely shocked, as if this had never existed before.” (Disruption for Wireless Generation?) Clearly, even after working with the system for almost five months, it still has the ability to surprise her. A look at the data shows that the students seem to advance in spurts: A kid will grind away at a subject, seemingly stuck, until suddenly something clicks and he vaults forward, sometimes going on a tear and mastering several new subjects in a day or two... Cadwell needs all the help she can get: She teaches remedial math to the school’s struggling students, some of whom come from immigrant families with parents who don’t speak English and can’t easily help with homework. When her seventh-grade class arrived last fall, some barely had third-grade math skills. But by being able to target her students for special help exactly when they needed it, Cadwell saw stunning results.

Khan’s critics are mostly “ConstructionIst-s.”... Gates and Khan claim they’re trying to shake up the classroom, but Khan’s critics say he’s not being radical enough... (Khan) takes a dim view of the constructionist idea that students won’t really understand math unless they discover each principle on their own. “IsaacNewton would not have invented Calculus had he not had Text-Book-s on Algebra.” Bill Gates is even more scathing: “It’s bullshit,” he says. “If you can’t do multiplication, then tell me, what is your contribution to society going to be?” Hmm, that counter seems a bit random.

Even if Khan is truly liberating students to advance at their own pace, it’s not clear that the schools will be able to cope. The very concept of grade levels implies groups of students moving along together at an even pace. So what happens when, using Khan Academy, you wind up with a kid in fifth grade who has mastered high school trigonometry and physics—but is still functioning like a regular 10-year-old when it comes to writing, history, and social studies? Khan’s programmer, BenKamens, has heard from teachers who’ve seen Khan Academy presentations and loved the idea but wondered whether they could modify it “to stop students from becoming this advanced.”... Khan doesn’t seem to care whether he changes the school system. Indeed, he’s leery of working too closely with school districts, because it would require him to adhere to their rules and expectations.

In essence, Khan doesn’t want to change the way institutions teach; he wants to change how people learn, whether they’re in a private school or a public school—or for that matter, whether they’re a student or an adult trying to self-educate in their kitchen in Ohio.

For his part, Khan says he’s now considering starting his own Private School, as a way to see just how much you could wrap learning around Khan Academy.

Here's a blog post covering the Constructivist critique, with links to other posts.


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