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It’s Not Khan’s Fault

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent critique of Khan Academy by one of the people who inspired the #mtt2k* mini meme now getting its 15 minutes on YouTube.

If you're not a math ed geek, you probably haven't seen the video of two math professors watching one of the Khan videos and offering their comments a la the wonderful 90's cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 (look it up, kiddies). Although there are a few snarky remarks about the style, most of their criticism is directed to the pedagogy and mathematics. Dan Meyer has more details.

Anyway, the Chron article hits exactly my greatest problem with Khan Academy: not the quality of the videos, but the over-the-top reaction they get from some high profile education “experts”.

But let’s also be honest about what Khan Academy is not. Khan Academy is not a substitute for an actual course of study in mathematics. It is not a substitute for a live teacher. And it is not a coherent curriculum of study that engages students at all the cognitive levels at which they need to be engaged. It’s OK that it’s not these things. We don’t walk into a Mexican restaurant and fault it for not serving spaghetti. I don’t fault Khan Academy for not being a complete educational resource, because it wasn’t designed for that purpose. Again, Khan Academy is a great resource for the niche in which it was designed to work. But when you try to extend it out of that niche – as Bill Gates and others would very much like to do – all kinds of things go wrong.

One of those things going wrong is the reinforcement of the idea that learning math is all about mastering the process. That if a student just repeats a set of algorithms enough times, we can declared that they have “learned math”. Or whatever subject you like to substitute for “math”.

However, I think the best summary of this kind of video, lecture/tutorial, self-instruction approach to education is this:

Khan Academy is great for learning about lots of different subjects. But it’s not really adequate for learning those subjects on a level that really makes a difference in the world.

For that “makes a difference” kind of learning, students (of all ages) still need direct relationships with teachers, and others who don't necessarily carry that title, as well as an understanding of how to actually use the information.

* mtt2k = mystery teacher theater 2000


  1. Dean Shareski (@shareski)

    Khan Academy is to math instruction as wikipedia is to knowledge. A good place to begin initial understandings. Nothing more but nothing less either. It’s useful for that and I think that’s what Khan, for the most part is advocating.

    • Scott Thomas

      Dean, I’m sorry to say, I couldn’t disagree with you more. A good place to start for math (or science) is the recognition the world is full of patterns, and you can describe those patterns with math. Just being told how to do an algorithm is not math, it’s calculation. Calculation <<<< mathematics. I agree that KA does a great job of giving tutorials on algorithms. From the videos I've seen, it does a terrible job of creating the ability of it's students to learn how to look at the world and ask questions about the patterns within it. To me a good starting point is that recognition, knowing that there are patterns out there and they can be described by mathematical functions. Learning how to use and/or manipulate those functions is a distant second.

      As to your second point, I'm honestly not sure what Sal is advocating. He always talks about KA being a means to free up the teacher in the classroom, but yet any piece on schools using it, show students working individually at computers. If we are freeing up the monotony of practicing the mechanics of math, great, we can spend more time doing the more important aspect of what math and science education should be. Unfortunately I've not seen it used in practice as Sal keeps touting.

  2. eddi

    I’d agree with your title if Khan did anything to tell those “Bill Gates and others” that they are trying to use his service for something it isn’t designed for. But he doesn’t. So he is at fault: misrepresentation, taking all the money and kudos without pushing back.

  3. Rick Frank

    It would have been funnier if the two math professors were actually funny. But they weren’t, and maybe they can teach math but they should leave the “satire” to the actual class clowns (like John Stewart – wonder what his grade in math was, oh never mind)….
    The problem is, they picked on Mr. Khan, who, I think does a good if imperfect job on his videos. Why didn’t they run a clip of Bill Gates praising Khan Academy, and do their hokey mystery theatre / 7 grade you’ve got boogers criticism? Because they don’t have the balls to do it, I guess. Or the brains. That’s what you would like them to do, I imagine, since your real criticism is with the “over-the-top reaction they get from some high profile education “experts”. So blame them.
    I’ve heard so much talk talk talk about algorithms vs understanding, blah blah blah. You need both, you dorks. (That’s my 7th grade humor, aka satire, sorry if I offend). If you can’t remember that 6 * 7 = 42 then you’re forever going to be do 6 + 6 + 6 + uh did I just lose count? I learned in high school how to do square roots by hand – do I remember that algorithm? well, no, not 35 years later but if I had to do them every day without a calculator, I probably would, and that would be useful. But since I also at the same time got an understanding of what they are, and know some perfect squares, I can estimate and refine. But I do remember my times tables and a few trig identities, and maybe even the quadratic formula if I had to. But I digress. You can go to the even more extreme http://www.computerbasedmath.org and have students only use calculators and no algorithms. The question becomes one of balance and degree. Khan Academy, like the Math Tutor DVD guy, like Gil Strang, like Herb Gross, etc. present information, and people can use it how they like. If it helps them, great. The bean counters and anti-teachers union politicians can use this as an excuse to save money on teacher pay, etc. – that’s the mistake, and I agree with you there. But let’s put the blame where it belongs, not on whether Sal Khan forgets a minus sign or explains something in a less than ideal manner.

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