Khan Academy Is Not The Progressive Model You Are Looking For

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.”

Tom Barrett

Tom is a writer, speaker and consultant. He has been sharing his thoughts on teaching, learning, curiosity and creativity on this blog for over 10 years. Drinking coffee and writing would be his idea of a perfect day.

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62 Comments on "Khan Academy Is Not The Progressive Model You Are Looking For"

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Christine
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Christine
9 months 11 days ago
I think the thing that is being overlooked here is that Khan Academy is revolutionary because it gifts education to people who could not otherwise afford it. I have never been privileged enough to go to a school where I could rewind my teacher and listen again and again until I understood. When you live in the hood, no one will jeer at you for having a smart phone, but you will get into it with someone if caught carrying a book to study for a GED. The “what you too good to sell drugs now” conversation is a real… Read more »
Nick
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9 months 15 days ago

Students like Kahn Academy because Sal is a better teacher than most teachers in the world. He makes subjects easy by starting with an analogy/goal and the simplest examples possible.
Background: I’m an engineer and I’ve been using Khan Academy since it came out.

Ludvik Herrera
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1 year 6 months ago
Very late to this discussion. I must say that Khan Academy is a resource which teachers can use to empower their classes. When Khan created these classes, it was to teach at a distance. KA is not redesigning the way we teach, it provides the same topics covered by educational institutions the same way teachers should–You present the topic, give examples and show how it applies to real scenarios. The thing is that Khan’s videos explain in a very eloquent manner the topic at hand. At least the videos he is doing instruction. Locally, many teachers started creating their own… Read more »
John
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John
1 year 7 months ago

Go drink your haterade hater.

Frustrated
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Frustrated
1 year 7 months ago
I am frustrated by the Dan Meyers barrage I’m getting as a teacher. His approach requires a great amount of social interaction on the part of students as well as a base level of creativity that many of my inner-city special needs students do not have. My students are not particularly intellectually challenged, they are what you might consider normal kids out of the context of a mathematics classroom. Unfortunately, I’ve tried several of Dan’s lessons, only to watch one student after another give up when the higher order thinking was required for the next step. Mathematics is more than… Read more »
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1 year 7 months ago

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Lakeisha
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1 year 8 months ago

This is the perfect site for everyone who wants to find out about this topic.
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Gerald Yu
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Gerald Yu
2 years 1 month ago

Every student is unique. There is no one approach that will suit every student. Khan Academy is wonderful. This is a sour grapes article.

Beth
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Beth
2 years 7 months ago

This is very interesting. Thank you for the post. Please amend the erroneous apostrophe in its in the first paragraph. It’s = it is.
Thank you.

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[…] until I read Tom Barratt’s post this morning that I realised why – “Khan Academy Is Not The Progressive Model You Are Looking For”. With everyone talking it up and extolling the amazing virtues of using YouTube in this way I […]

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pjb
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3 years 5 months ago

Silver bullets don’t exist – we’d like them to but they don’t. Point is it provides a learning resource, freely available at any time, to anybody, that wasn’t there before. Learners will determine how they use it – as practice, as an alternative explanation, as a way of solving a problem, or just curiosity. Teachers will adopt a similarly flexible approach – if they’re smart about it.

Naini Singh
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Naini Singh
3 years 5 months ago
I don’t think I agree with you. In order to be creative, you need to first have a good grasp of content/. Everything can be criticized I think the videos are there as another resource…when a child is stuck and wants to grasp a concept by himself, feels helpless in class, and is not fortunate to have a Dan Myers like teacher, then he goes home and plays the videos, pauses them and plays them again.. It gives him/her time, the instructions can be repeated as many times as required. The videos are conversational in nature and not robotic…mistakes are… Read more »
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[…] Academy have been praised for engaging students through gamification. Critics, though, say that students simply respond to recorded lectures and exercises rather than create and self-discover. While it effectively teaching procedures, it fails to teach […]

Akif Khan
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Akif Khan
3 years 9 months ago
KA academy is real game changer! Very important aspect of learning we forget is to whom it directed to. For today’s kid it is normal to spend time on computers which people of my age (pre internet) can think of. My mother knows table of 2.5 and and answer 2.5X20 in second and she is not genius but in her times it was mandatory to learn tables by heart and she has much practical uses. Belonging to Pakistan KA holds great potential because we in subcontinent (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh has huge population to educate. Even if Govt provides all… Read more »
Jennifer Johnson
Guest
3 years 10 months ago
I’m aware this blog post is a year old, but I think it misses the mark. Salman Khan himself has stated that using this kind of media as a learning tool is NOT to replace a teacher’s role, but rather to *liberate* teachers to do exactly the kind of teaching you find important. The reality is that teachers spend an enormous amount of time providing the core instruction and assigning and grading homework and exams – all while trying to balance a spectrum of skill levels spread across 20-30 different students. With math, technology can cover it – liberating the… Read more »
I <3 Khan Academy
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I <3 Khan Academy
3 years 10 months ago

Say what you want – I am an MIT graduate and Khan Academy got me through differential algebra and calculus. That guy is a godsend.

Gplourde
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Gplourde
4 years 4 months ago

Have you actually WATCHED the Khan videos?  In the first 8 Micro Economics videos he uses both real life examples AND opportunity for student practice and teacher interaction is provided. 

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mmcclel01
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mmcclel01
4 years 5 months ago
A couple of thoughts.. First off, KA is great for anyone in the world to improve in their free time. Second think of KA as a distribution service, whatever your method of educating the student on the subject you can input it into their system. They provide demographics to educators, problems for practice, and a catalog of lessons. Those lessons can change, and adapt to more modern methods of teaching as they’re proven. One could take the same system KA is using and apply Dan Meyer’s methods of teaching for the lessons by including a discovery phase. It may not include the… Read more »
Indraneel
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4 years 5 months ago
You completely missed the point. You may want to watch this video to understand Khan’s objectives. http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/tag/blended-learning/ He is indeed teaching the old way in a new setting – the online videos. But that is so that students can watch them at their own pace and understand better. More importantly, teachers get more class time, where they can focus on discussions and projects – for example some real life math, which you talk about. Khan Academy video lectures were never meant to be a standalone version of education. It is one component, where students can learn basic skills and understanding,… Read more »
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4 years 6 months ago

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ComputerGeek
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ComputerGeek
4 years 6 months ago
Tom, as someone who taught Programming to college students, and is a math minor, I take exception with with the attitude that we need to be more “progressive” in our teaching.  My biggest problems were students who did not read the material, were lost during the presentation (which was posted before the lecture) and failed the exams (which were open book, open notes, but done in front of the computer…  As in they had to make the program work), and were somehow upset with me. What was missing was the repetitive basic steps.  I have tutored at least 50 students… Read more »
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4 years 6 months ago

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Tom Barrett
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4 years 7 months ago
I have been motivating children in my schools through the use of games based learning for years – you only have to look at the number of GBL posts on here that I have penned in the past: http://edte.ch/blog/category/gamesbasedlearning/ and I have even explored what we can learn from them for assessment: http://edte.ch/blog/2011/08/08/what-can-we-learn-about-assessment-from-video-games/ So, yes I can see how it might motivate kids, but it is not motivation I am interested in this post it is the suggestion (or perception) that Khan Academy is some sort of new model of instruction or pedagogy. Which it is not. I read this… Read more »
John Corley
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John Corley
4 years 7 months ago

yeah, whoever wrote this article missed the point.  Khan didn’t develop the idea of exploratory videos.  He also is developing physical schools.  And how about the fact that he totally understands the connection to a video game console based format.  (X-Box Live achievements?)  I’m sorry you can’t see why that might motivate kids.

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Steve Smith
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4 years 8 months ago
Two other points to keep in mind: 1. Science is often the most academically challenging topic for middle school teachers and they can often use help in explaining complex topics. Kahn is deeply knowledgeable.  To that end I also found this site / idea: ScienceFromScientists.org 2. Kahn isn’t afraid of explaining things in a relaxed way – conversational – that is engaging.  Reminiscent of Richard Feynman in explaining physics. I think if someone else tried to do what Kahn is doing it wouldn’t be the same – so in that respect I think the article is spot on that there… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
4 years 8 months ago
I think this misses the point.  The Khan Academy concept and the flipped classroom, if used well, can actually increase meaningful teacher/student interaction and can make it more possible to move students toward genuine creative problem solving.  It should not be seen as a stand alone magic bullet.  Beaver Country Day School (grades 6-12 in Boston) is working with IDEO to find ways to take advantage of Design Thinking, and in the process we are clear that Design Thinking is not a stand alone either.  In fact I can see many ways that Khan Academy and Design Thinking can support… Read more »
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Leon Cych
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4 years 9 months ago
The way I’d use the Khan videos would be as a starting point – the students could use it to remodel the concepts in their own contexts. This is, essentially, about making media and media literacy not teaching/ learning/flipping those concepts. Khan is 101 in those terms. The whole social context around how you make media and how one learns through making media is important here. Because cameras and screencasts are becoming ubiquitous and highly distributed doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to replace teaching and learning by dint of “tutorials” ; like any other resource it is how they… Read more »
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theo kuechel
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theo kuechel
4 years 9 months ago
Tom, I agree completely that, Khan Academy, (KA) should not be seen as a definitive pedagogical model for progressive education, and also agree that current obsession with scores restricts creativity and innovation, and didactic lessons or lectures are a very inefficient way of enabling learning. But  I would argue it is more significant than a resource per se. Both Jose and Frank have touched on a couple of important points; KA is both a starting point and a work in progress, its value extends beyond the sum of its parts. Therefore we have to be careful and not throw the… Read more »
Frank Crawford
Guest
4 years 9 months ago
I think the discussion here shows a number of things: the variety of opinion around in education; how people view the idea of ‘pedagogy’; and, for the conversation, the lack of research around to throw light on resources such as KA. So, firstly, variety of opinion is good, providing we listen to others’ views and try to delve into what’s behind those views. There are strong views anti KA, but we all know KA won’t replace the teaching/learning relationship – but it can help if we find creative ways of including such resources. Secondly, let’s pause to think what the… Read more »
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[…] of Reddit, Batman!) There’s been pushback to the idea of Sal Khan as math savior, with some educators questioning the Khan Academy approach to lecturing and learning. How can this really be the promise […]

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[…] of Reddit, Batman!) There’s been pushback to the idea of Sal Khan as math savior, with some educators questioning the Khan Academy approach to lecturing and learning. How can this really be the promise […]

Jim Noble
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Jim Noble
4 years 9 months ago
I do enjoy this debate and every time I read more about it I move on a little. In general I agree about KA and love Dan Meyer’s enthusiasm for real world connections, but don’t see it as quite that simple. For me it is more about engagement and there are so many ways to be engaged. Many involve obvious real world connections and many do not. There are lots of views out there at the moment, lots of TED speakers (Salman Khan, Dan Meyer, Conrad Wolfram, John Bennet and more) and they are not all coming from quite the… Read more »
Lachoneus
Guest
4 years 9 months ago
Nice website. You should consider including high-speed test prep if you haven’t already–particularly for SAT, ACT, and GRE. I’m glad to see these types of tools popping up to accelerate spelling, etc. I agree & disagree with your perspective. I agree that it is very hard to absorb. However, I’m convinced that as much as I would like the average person to learn math at a greater depth, what truly matters is whether the truly motivated in a particular subject have access to the resources they need to either #1. self teach or #2. supplement with additional interaction. As with… Read more »
Lachoneus
Guest
4 years 9 months ago
Education has been prevented from fully enjoying the digital wave (arguably for a variety of economic restrictions ranging from market structure to unions to tenure to management to their public nature–but I digress). There are many opportunities to make it easier to motivate and iterate repetitive tasks with students so that they have the core capacities required to think beyond the basics. Just as a painter needs to learn how to hold a brush and paint strokes in particular patterns to create shapes and execute works of beauty and imagination, extensive repetition (both within and without real context) plays a… Read more »
Devin Schoening
Guest
4 years 9 months ago
I couldn’t agree more Frank. The idea that KA should/wil/may  become the base of instruction for student learning is ludicrous. But, the idea that this could be a tool – a supplement or complement, as you put it – to help students along path of learning, is a useful idea. Some folks tend to jump on any new idea (and I agree with Tom that I am not sure how “new” or innovative this idea is) and proclaim it the next transformative movement in education. I am not willing to call KA that transformative movement, but I am also not… Read more »
Joebloggs
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Joebloggs
4 years 9 months ago

Great if you’ve got a population of motivated students and an army of brilliant teachers. Realistically, this kind of thinking is exactly why many kids are leaving school with a poor level of education. This wonderful idea of a ‘more meaningful and engaging’ education is not half as realistic as an individually catered, fast track, data rich eduction via KA. It is such a great tool, and so easy to integrate into classrooms.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous
4 years 9 months ago

Khan Academy will evolve. They are very open to new types of material such as game modules and simulations. KA’s goal is to be a platform where teachers can upload their own material. There will of cource also be a library of videoes that teachers and students can choose from. Instead of focusing on the limitations of present KA, wouldn’t it be more interesting to write a post where you share realistic thoughts on how KA can get better?

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[…] 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. Khan Academy Is Not The Progressive Model You Are Looking For | edte.ch […]

John E.
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

I’d agree that we need to truly evaluate the Khan Academy.  For me, the excitement about Khan Academy reflects that for a certain highly motivated math student, it offers free lectures.  The problem sets and concept math are also intriguing.  But for most students, it is brutally hard to absorb. It is pure problem-solving, not connected with real problems and not reflected of where we are headed with the Common Core. Khan has made instructional videos into a freely available commodity and while this is great, it is not educationally revolutionary.

John, Mayor of VocabSpellingCity.com

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