More thoughts on educational videos

There’s a lot of disagreement surrounding Khan’s teaching style because there is a fundamental disagreement about the goals of education. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I’ll start by providing some vocabulary. A problem is solved mechanistically and has a right answer. A puzzle requires creativity, consideration of nuance, and the ability to work in multiple ways simultaneously. Puzzles have multiple routes to a single solution. Sometimes the difference between a problem and a puzzle is the person (or machine) solving it. By contrast, a wicked problem has no solution, nor a clear set of rules, nor a finite number of solutions.

Just about any of the “big” issues of our time are wicked problems: war, poverty, climate change, population growth, and yes, education. I’m inclined to say that the ultimate goal of education is to teach students how to tackle wicked problems, to the extent that such skills can be taught. You might think that this means encouraging creativity trumps everything, and you’d be half wrong.

In STEM fields, levels of wicked and not wicked problems mingle in a tangled hierarchy. Let’s say an engineer is hired to build a bridge. Actually, he’s really hired to provide transit for cars across a body of water safely, quickly, and cheaply. He could build a bridge, or a tunnel, or a ferry. But once he settles on a bridge, he needs to decide whether to use a suspension bridge or a truss bridge or any number of other types. But drill down enough and he’s using CAD software to pick out the optimal steel alloy and run finite element analysis, both returning definitive results on the lowest level. Once he’s got the bridge built, the city council cuts the ribbon and it’s a solution equivalent to any other, a definitive result on the highest level. Unless you consider that engineer was in it make money, which he could have done in hundreds of other fields – but maybe money is only a means to provide food and happiness for his family….are we confused yet?

STEM fields are an even mixture of the technical and the creative, the mechanically simple and the staggeringly complex. They are equally important, because without either one, nothing would ever get done. I’ve seen some very creative wrong answers and very unenlightening right answers. Being wrong is a bad end state. It’s fine if it becomes a jumping-off point for better ideas, but I want the engineer to realize he’s wrong before he builds a bad bridge.

I go through all of this complexity to make a simple point. Yes, YouTube videos will never teach someone how to solve a wicked problem. No, that does not make them useless.

Khan understands that if we’re going to educate the masses, especially in the third world, the old model of teaching in person just isn’t scalable. But for someone so smart, I don’t see how he could be so stupid as to disregard a second advantage of video: it’s recorded. Khan does his videos off the cuff, when he could easily plan ahead, write a script, and use PowerPoint so he did’t have to draw everything. If he didn’t get it right, try again. And again. Picking a solution that plays to your strengths, and using an iterative design process, are both fundamental engineering skills, but they’re not mechanistic, so maybe Khan never really understood them. It’s got to be this way, he thinks. It doesn’t. For example, Khan introduces velocity in his first lecture on vectors, but I chose to exclude it in favor of extending the same concept of distance and displacement (scalars and vectors) into two dimensions, rather than introduce a completely new operation, the time derivative.

The lecture is not going away. (Sorry Fnoschese.) There is simply not time to reinvent everything in ever discovered and call it education. With thousands of years of knowledge behind us there has got to be some “take my word for it”. I know from experience that one does not know something until one can put it into practice, e.g. work a problem on it. (Khan would say i.e..) I don’t want to go into the flipped classroom idea in too much depth, but just because we put the lecture online doesn’t mean we can’t have exploratory activities. Do a lab with carts or hovercrafts on Monday, watch the teacher’s recorded lecture on Newton’s first law that night, work problems in groups with teacher oversight on Tuesday, and watch someone else’s review video that night before doing more detailed, conceptual homework. Wednesday the process repeats with a new concept.

Khan finds an old use for a new technology. It’s upsetting because his videos are part and parcel the same as what many classrooms are like. Any school administrator who thinks real teachers can be replaced with Khan don’t understand the value of teachers (or work with very bad teachers). It’s like the early days of televised news, where the anchors just read radio scripts into the camera. Anyone who says a video can’t be exciting needs to go to the movies. You study rockets, explosions, stars, cars, cannon balls, lightning, thunder, steam engines, motors, and nuclear reactors and you can’t make it exciting? Make a montage. With dramatic music. Before you know it, you’ll get students very interested indeed.

In that regard, I think there’s a niche for exciting, well produced, clear and concise videos that reinforce existing concepts. It can be “I have three classes, soccer practice, and dinner before I do my homework, so I forget how to do it” or “the test is tomorrow and I forgot how to do this! Oh right I remember now”. The point being that videos can help remind and tweak existing ideas much easier than creating them from scratch. That won’t solve or teach solving of wicked problems, but it’s something.

I envision a line of videos, which may or may not be made by me, which aim to be what a traditional lecture cannot be (for good reasons): energetic, visual, short, funny, and inherently supplementary. Khan tries to send a tree over the internet. A better strategy is to let the student make it grow given a seed (the basic idea) and water (excitement and confidence to learn a specific idea). That’s the most easily transmissible of the intangible goals of education. Can a video or even a video series instill a love of learning beyond the topic is covers? Can a video drive a lifelong quest for knowledge? Can a video make someone think, not compute but think in new ways? I don’t know. But I might try.


One response to this post.

  1. This last, is a good question to consider. This past year I was hired to try and do that by publishing house. The year before, they hired a professor to make answer videos to accompany questions on the website that accompanies the textbooks sold by this company. Frankly, the result wasn’t very useful and they knew it, so they went looking for something else. In the particular text I was hired for, the author included one problem in each chapter that asked the student to pull together several concepts from earlier chapters to answer the question. Impressive creativity (from a first year college student) was required to answer the questions – a few of them made me ponder long and hard. On average, the video answers ran around 30 minutes – and I broke them into 5-7 minute “chapters” to provide the answers. I tried to talk the learner through my thinking as I solved the problem, emphasizing the way one part of the question pushed me towards using a related concept on another part of the question. In strategy, I was trying to help the learner see the way the useful concepts are related in an experienced user – not because that will work for a relative novice but as an exercise in freeing one’s mind when solving problems.

    In my final analysis, I am doubtful how much utility the “one-way+ method of video has for teaching problem solving skills in complex situations. I much prefer to get feedback in real-time and use my knowledge of the learner to coach her to the next step. I’m not giving up though, and I encourage you to give it some effort as well. I am fairly unfamiliar with the “problem solving” research literature, perhaps there is much already known about using new methods for this. I hope your post can generate some discussion.


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