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It Kahn Be Done Better

It seems everyone is wild about Khan Academy, offering it up as an example of how to revolutionize education, especially Bill Gates who has contributed a small part of his money to the project.

However, a post that recently popped up in my Delicious network (thanks, Scott), discusses two issues about Salman Khan and his video collection that also bother me.

But what I found was that Khan was just an OK teacher. His examples are not well planned. His pacing is inconsistent. I’d say that at least half the math teachers in this country could do at least as good a job as Khan does. What is ironic about Bill Gates admiration of Khan is that Gates is investing so much energy right now into identifying what makes a great teacher to create better teacher evaluations. Yet the person he considers the best teacher is merely adequate.

Which, of course, also points up the fallacy of allowing someone with a high profile, lots of money, and little understanding of the teaching process to drive education reform.

So, what about that part saying that many teachers could to do a better job than Khan? Maybe instead of funding a collection of canned lessons from one person, this might be the better way for Bill to spend his money.

What we need is a platform where teachers can upload their videos and the ones that are the best can be featured and those teachers can achieve some Khan-like fame. Instead Khan has a monopoly as the one man show.

I’d go even farther and open the platform to students. There are also many kids who could create better instructional materials than Khan, and they often come with better insight than most adults about what it takes to explain complicated topics to their peers.

However, there is one more major reason why the Khan Academy is bad for instruction, especially math, the topic around which his fame was built.

Rote tutorials like this reinforce the concept that math is all about mastering the process, about learning to take select the correct algorithm, plug in a few numbers, and crank through a solution, the one and only correct answer.

Math in the real world is far more interesting, interconnecting not only with science but the social sciences, business, and many other disciplines. We do our students a great disservice by making them think the largely boring work we do in school is “real” math.


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  1. Cora J

    I agree with your assessment of how Khan is revered by Gates; however I look at the Khan site differently. My very diverse and challenged students need multiple forms of representation of a concept, Khan is just one tool in the box to help bring students what they need. The wonderful thing about it is, at the very least, is that Khan can be an example of what the students themselves can produce. Imagine your students creating such works or even tutoring younger grades in such a way. Yes, I do not think any one digital tool by itself is the be all and end all of teaching but I will take as many of these as I can get my hands on to fully outfit my toolbox in an effort to reach my students. While your criticism is valid there are other considerations here.

  2. I think much of the backlash against Kahn is because others, like Gates have assigned more value to his work that was ever intended. I still think Kahn as an example of sharing and explaining is a powerful one but many are making it out to be more than it is and should be.
    Kahn is not so much a teacher as an explainer. That’s different. I’ve talked to a few teachers who use his work judiciously. They find some of his explanations effective, others lack the depth and rigor required in certain mathematical operations. That’s fine, the quest to find a single source of expertise is ludicrous anyway.
    I say let’s continue to applaud the efforts of Kahn and others who are trying to explain things. We need them, lots of them. But at the same time we need teachers who do more than just explain things. We need teachers who understand each child and connects them to the resources and people and ideas that will lead them to further and deeper learning.

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