Prompted by a video of math teachers watching Khan Academy, another math teacher and a media theorist have put up a small prize for similar critiques of the Khan’s educational videos. The first such video appeared hours later, by physics teacher Joseph Kremer. Watching it, I realized Khan’s approach is more flawed than can be fixed by an updated video.
What Khan doesn’t realize – or if he does, it’s not clear in the video – is that there are many building blocks to what he’s doing that he just expects the viewer to have. It was the small things that tripped up the impersonated student. Yes, the Khan Academy has an elaborate prerequisite system, but since most users are teens frustrated on homework problems googling for help, who find the videos on YouTube and not on Khan’s website, there’s no guarantees about who’s watched the “required” videos. This is why the continuity in the classroom is so important.
There’s a moment where Khan is equivocating about time vs. change in time. Kremer makes jabs at this, and his feigned confusion is justified. The idea of change was a fundamental idea in physics that Khan has neglected to give its own video. I wonder if Khan is aware of the importance of the distinction between a quantity and change in the quantity, because if he was, I doubt he’d be so flippant about it. As I stewed about the poor quality of Khan’s video, I realized that I could present this idea very well – but I’d need a classroom to do it.
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.
For those who don’t know, the Khan Academy is a non-profit organization that has published on youTube more than 2,000 short videos explaining everything from single digit addition to linear algebra to the French revolution. Founder Salman Khan has a background in math and comp sci from MIT and business from Harvard. Bill Gates and Google have sponsored him, and he’s given a TED talk. He’s 34 years old.
Sounds pretty neat right? Here’s one of his videos:
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