Misunderstanding Sal Khan, and Missing the Point

I’m starting to get a bit tired of the criticism being leveled at Sal Khan.

After plenty of attention from old media about the launch of Khan Academy, Khan’s a coveted speaker. He’s been making the rounds at conferences, trying to explain to educators why his strategies for flipping the classroom can be effective, and judging from the backchannel chatter on Twitter and subsequent posts in the education blogosphere, he’s not getting his point across as well as I’m sure he hopes.

For those who will no doubt inquire, here’s full disclosure: I do not work or advocate for Khan Academy or Sal Khan. I don’t work in a school using his products. I have watched some of his videos, heard him speak, read his written pieces, and downloaded his TED talk, but I do not know him personally.

However, I think I understand Khan’s point. My problem with the critics is that they apparently don’t.

What Khan is not saying is that Khan Academy or “flipping” class using KA videos is the panacea for ALL that ails education. He doesn’t claim that lecture is the best teaching strategy, or that he is a better lecturer than the teachers at your school. Further he doesn’t claim that his YouTube videos should replace teachers. He certainly does not claim that “the future of education lies in a disembodied voice that lectures [at] squinting students on a blinking screen.

If you’re tweeting or blogging refutations to these imagined arguments, you’re engaged in classic Straw Man argumentation.

When I play back Khan’s presentations, what I hear is advocacy for greater connection between teacher and student. If you’re listening, you’ll hear him say teachers are too important to be disconnected from students, at the front of the classroom, lecturing. He criticizes the traditional classroom model where a lecture is given, then students leave to attempt solutions to difficult textbook problems, on their own, without much teacher support. To be fair, there’s still loads of this kind of teaching happening in our schools, and it’s this pedagogy at which Khan’s reform efforts are aimed.

by removing the one size fits all lecture from the classroom and letting students have a self-paced lecture at home, these teachers changed a fundamentally dehumanizing experience. In a traditional model, most of the teacher’s time is spent giving lectures and grading and whatnot. Maybe five percent of their time is actually sitting next to students and actually working with them. Now 100 percent of their time is… you’re humanizing the classroom (TED talk)

Khan does not want to replace teachers. He consistently claims his work should free up teachers to actually deepen connections between teachers and students – he argues that teachers are more important than the videos or the technology. He doesn’t claim he’s a better lecturer than other teachers, rather, he insists the pedagogy of lecture ‘in-the-room’ is the problem. Face-time with students should be focused on discussion, problem-solving, critical thinking exercises, not lectures. This is the beauty and genius of the flipped classroom strategy that KA follows. In the end, it’s not about the quality of the lecturer, it’s about the student’s ability to stop, start, rewind, and review “how-to” lectures that makes it powerful (not to mention the greater possibility for dynamic visuals that digital video holds over classroom lecture).

Khan began by making “how to” YouTube videos on how to work through textbook math problems. If you want proof that “how-to” videos are effective, search YouTube and look at the number of views (try this one). Or go into a commercial training program and check out video instruction. Or ask yourself how many times you’ve watched a video tutorial for a new product or service. Yes, this is classic lecture stuff, but made more effective with great visuals and by your ability go back and forth and to return to the video as needed. This way of learning “how to” works.

More disclosure: I think education, and math ed specifically, as “how-to” is wrong-headed, a complete misunderstanding of education’s purpose, and a bastardization of mathematics. My position on this is well-known and articulated here (“Math is Dead. Long Live Mathematics!“). We need more teaching that puts students in positions to articulate problems, plan how to solve them, and apply the solutions to the real-world. Teachers can then mentor “how to” on a one-on-one basis as necessary, or help students find the tool (calculator? computer application/spreadsheet?) that will do this for them.

However, I realize that many teachers are stuck with national/state math curricula that have a 19th century understanding of math. If you’re teaching math as “how to”, you’re much better off using class time for one-on-one tutoring through difficult problems instead of lectures that are more effective online. For this, the flipped classroom works.

I am a History and Social Sciences teacher that advocates and uses PBL. I won’t give an in-class lecture this year, and few online lectures. I have no plans to use KA videos because I think the “give info / memorize info / give info back” model of education doesn’t produce the kinds of learning that matters. But if you’re engaged in that kind of thing, flipping your classroom may be the best way to improve your students’ success with the material.

So stop with the luddite-esque hysteria over Khan Academy – it is neither accurate or necessary. And if you’re reacting out of defensiveness for your job, ask your students if they think you could be replaced by a computer. My guess is that you’ll feel validated, or you’ll find direction for professional growth.

One Innovation Enhancing Learning

Karl Fisch keeps an excellent blog and is the co-author of the video “Shift Happens”. He’s experimenting with flipping homework and classwork in his math class, and it’s making a difference already (read Fisch’s early observations here). A couple of my math colleagues are finding this works as well, and their comments are the subject of a future blog post here.

For now, Daniel Pink offers Kudos to Fisch for doing something we all find challenging: innovating. Note that innovation doesn’t mean you’re the first to do something, rather, innovation is about taking an idea and doing it for the first time yourself. Trying something new is a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t, and we need plenty more of it in education.

Fisch also has a day job — at Arapahoe High School, near Denver. This year, in addition to his other duties, he’s begun teaching algebra to 9th and 10th graders. And he’s taken a novel approach: Instead of lecturing during class time and assigning problems as homework, he’s flipped the sequence. He now records lectures on video and puts them on YouTube for the students to watch at home at night. Then spends class time working on problems with students.Read more at www.danpink.com