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.”

BBC Dimensions: exploring the human scale of events and places in history

Dimensions is an experimental project from the BBC that allows you to compare the scale of different types of events with something that we can all recognise. There are two parts of the project “How many really?” and “How big really?

“How many really?” is all about the numbers of people that were involved in a whole range of different events throughout history. The tool allows you to either add in your own numbers, for example 30, the number of children in your class, connect with Facebook or Twitter and compare your networks or even the number of people who can board a double decker bus or a Boeing 747.

You are then shown a visual comparison with the number of people involved in the event that you have chosen. The events fall into the following categories:

  • Battles
  • Civilisations
  • Current Affairs
  • Disasters
  • Diseases
  • Entertainment
  • Modern Society
  • Religion
  • Slavery
  • War

“How big really?” is all about getting a better understanding for the scale of different historical events and locations compared to our own map location.

We want to bring home the human scale of events and places in history. The D-Day landing beaches measured from London to Norfolk in the UK. How far would the Titanic stretch down your street?

Dimensions simply juxtaposes the size of historical events with your home and neighbourhood, overlaying important places, events and things on a satellite view of where you live. Certain “Dimensions” can be transformed into short walks, so you can get a physical appreciation of the distances involved.

The tool provides a range of example categories to explore including:

  • The War on Terror
  • Space
  • Depths
  • Ancient Worlds
  • Environmental Disasters
  • Festivals and Spectacles
  • WW2 – Battle of Britain
  • The Industrial Age
  • Cities in History

From the Ancient Worlds category you can place all sorts of significant monuments, like the Colosseum, on top of your own location. It gives you a true understanding of the scale of these structures. This would be great for classes to begin to really appreciate these huge monuments. What would be even better would be seeing a 3D model – as in Google Earth or Maps – on your location and then being able to pan and zoom around it.

The Dimensions tools would be interesting to use within a history class but also within maths to help children and classes get a better appreciation of different sizes. It will eventually be integrated into the online history resources at the BBC depending on user feedback.

TEDx Talk: What we learned from 5 million books

I discovered the Google Ngram Viewer from this TED Talk by Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel who are both fellows at Harvard University and Visiting Faculty at Google. They created the tool to analyse the millions of books being digitised by Google to allow them to search for cultural trends.

Using the Ngram Viewer would certainly be an interesting data handling lesson for children!


The snow in the UK has really kicked in this week and many, many schools are closed – I thought we could take the opportunity to create some learning resources related to the conditions.

I discovered this list of snow depths but then thought perhaps we could simply crowd-source some accurate data from colleagues across the UK adding their own personal measurements. Collaborating on a map would also provide us the location too.

Here is the map so far – use the link below the map to add your own measurements.

View #UKSnowDepth in a larger map

I expect there are a great many different ways we could use this data (and this snowy experience) when we get back to classes. Here are a few thoughts of mine:

  • Create simple graphs and chart to represent the data. Answer questions to interpret the information.
  • Develop your own map for the snow depth on your school site, taking measurements in different locations. Explore the conditions that might have brought about the highest depth.
  • Gather information from other countries in Europe that have been effected.
  • Make comparisons to countries that have a constant or more regular snowfall.
  • Cross reference the snow depths to the temperatures – repeat for other countries.
  • Design a snow depth instrument.
  • Learn about the depth of snow during expeditions to Everest or the Poles.
  • Read historic accounts of expeditions and references to snow depth.
  • Learn about different types of snow and how it changes under different temperatures and conditions.
  • Explore freezing and melting.
  • Look at insulation and conduct an investigation about keeping something cold or hot.

What ideas do you have for back-to-school-after-the-snow days – leave a comment with your thoughts.

Posting from Create-a-Graph to a Posterous Blog (and Blogger too)

One of the nice features of the Create-a-Graph site from the NCES is the ability to email the completed chart. In the past I have used this when working with Google Apps for Edu – the children handed their work in to me by sending it to my school email. We had my inbox open on the board so the children could see their submissions.

We have been using Posterous as our class blog platform since September. It is a fantastic site for school or class blogging due to it’s simplicity. I made the link with Create-a-Graph because Posterous is built around being able to email content to a specific address which will then post to the blog.

In a nutshell I have worked out a way for my children to post their charts and graphs from Create-a-Graph directly to the class blog.

Here is how to do it.

**Requirements - the following instructions are only for a Posterous blog, but the idea will work if you have a Blogger site. You can find the email you need in your Blogger “Settings” under “Email & Mobile”. If you have a post via email option for your blogging platform in theory this should also work**


1. Send a graph from Create-a-Graph to your own email. Now locate the sender’s email address – it should be something like

2. By default a Posterous blog only allows agreed contributors to post – you need to make a contributor to your blog, basically saying content from that source is OK.

3. Go to the Settings of your Posterous account and click on Contributors, add a new contributor and paste the email address we have for Create-a-Graph:

4. Now you are ready to post from Create-a-Graph (worth testing this before the kids get a go) – the email you need is the one for contributors as the additional email you have added is not recognised as the primary one for the site. The email address you will need will be at the bottom of the Contributors page (see screenshot above)

5. Add this email into the Create-a-Graph “email this graph” box (leave it as html) and hit send.

6. Your graph should be posted – the nice thing about Posterous is that it will automatically resize the image to suit your blog, which saves a lot of fiddling around with multiple posts. Here is an example blog post we did this week from someone in my class, we were looking at the climate of Australia.

That is pretty much the top and bottom of it – for Blogger just use your unique email address in step 5. Over the period of time we have done this I have a few tips to share:

  • Expect to have multiple posts, children click send numerous times as they are unsure it has been done – it takes a bit of tidying up. (I also take a few moments to add the children’s names as tags to the posts so that I am collating work on the class blog)
  • Ask the children to add their name to the Graph Title in Create-a-Graph – this is under Data. The graph title will appear as the blog post title and will now include the child’s name for you to see who owns it easily.

  • If you display the blog refreshing on the board you can check work quickly and children can have the reassurance their work has been submitted.
  • Once submitted the children can still edit their graphs – if you see something you need them to change, delete the post and ask them to correct it and resend.

I hope you find that an interesting tip to perhaps try – good luck with it and let me know how you get on.