There has been a great deal written about Khan Academy just recently and the concept of personalised instruction and how this is somehow revolutionary or some sort of game changer. But why is it engaging at all? Where does this type of instruction lead us?
In my opinion the instructional maths videos posted on the Khan Academy are “resources” and the structure surrounding it suggests some sort of recipe for how to best use it. We might call this the “pedagogy” as this term refers to strategies or styles of instruction – and the full-fat version of Khan Academy use has it’s own style, heavily tilted towards personalised instruction and feedback.
Looking at the videos as stand alone resources or items that could be used to support teaching and learning in the classroom – how do you rate them? In my opinion they are not particularly engaging – just a close up version of what you see on a board. In my teaching of maths at primary level I wouldn’t use them directly to support my teaching – I might at a push use them as additional materials for children to access – but I may as well do it myself. So if the videos don’t have anything engaging in them, it must be somewhere else, right?
The Khan Academy is a dressed up YouTube channel and purportedly the statistical tracking and indication of “progress” is what is driving any sense of engagement. So are students engaged in the maths or the pointification? Well if the instructional clips aren’t edge of the seat stuff it must be the notional suggestion of a game that drives clicks and engagement.
My son is just learning to read and he is also learning some spellings, he is 5 years old. He gets about 6 spellings to learn at a time – I have always found spelling strategies and policies that are “learn this word” to be utterly pointless and frustrating. This is similar to learning basic maths too – if George sounds out a word whilst he is reading or trying to write and is using that word in context, he is making a much deeper connection with that concept than if he attempts to learn it on it’s own.
Another off shoot of this list / drill approach is that parents cling on to the score, the outcome, the stats (that are everywhere in the Khan Academy) and as a result begin to build this mentality about what achievement is in school. It is a grade – a score out of 10. No context. We have a cultural fascination with grades and I don’t think Khan Academy does anything but strengthen this fervent point of view.
Seth Godin suggests that it is long overdue to actually create something with these tools – “Knowing about a tool is one thing. Having the guts to use it in a way that brings art to the world is another. Perhaps we need to spend less time learning new tools and more time using them.”
During the last 7 months I have been exploring design thinking as a style of instruction and as a structure to plan curricula that is meaningful and relevant to children. We have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of schools and teachers at all age levels in rethinking their approach to the curriculum. As Ewan puts it:
“it’s not about instruction-giving, the very basis of traditional teaching or “instruction”. It’s about providing structures within which people can operate, structures that use different constraints, not fewer constraints, to achieve more choice and therefore breadth of learning, collaboration and depth of learning.”
This approach has a huge emphasis on the role of the student in their curriculum, they play a vital role in what gets planned and how this plays out in their experience of school. Dan Meyer, a former maths teacher, touches on this approach to curriculum content in his TEDxNYED talk.
What Salman Khan is missing is the connection with the real life around us, that which Dan explores, the context that we need to fully engage in difficult conceptual knowledge. A child using Khan Academy will be able to get a personalised set of exercises, tailored just for them, but not the meaningful choice driven application of those ideas.
Dan Meyer explains that providing students with a real life example of a mathematical challenge levels the playing field for all students as it is more about intuitive problem discovery than spoon feeding text book style. Gever Tulley, the creator of the Tinkering School, explains this succinctly by suggesting that:
“The opportunities for engaged learning are inversely proportional to the knowability of the outcome.”
When we know the outcome of our work, if we have too rigid an outcome in our mind for the topic we are working on, our students are likely to be less engaged. (From the video above you can see Dan restructuring a problem with this in mind.)
To me this refers to the “guess the answer in the teacher’s head” syndrome, which when expanded can (sadly) apply to the whole curriculum topic for weeks an weeks of school. We are all making a musical instrument as that is what we have always done.
I don’t see how Khan Academy can have a place in a creative curriculum model, at least not the model of instruction used, the resources themselves may have some value. But it all seems to be propping up a model that should be vanishing from our schools, not resurfacing.
Resources such as these will just make teachers think that they are taking innovative approaches to their teaching and learning. It will stall the changes that are needed in many schools across the world to make maths and other curriculum subjects more meaningful and engaging – we need more “problem finders“, critical thinkers and indeed children developing the capacity to become “patient problem solvers”. We don’t need games and points to bring rote, de-contextualised, meaningless styles of learning back from the abyss where they should rest – we should be kicking them back over the edge!
Dave Gibbs, a teacher and consultant from the UK summed this up really well: “To me it (Khan Academy) seems like a new way of teaching the old way. Not fit for today’s learners, or indeed teachers.”