About Julian

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I teach math to kids. They teach me a lot of things, too. I think it's an even swap.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Poor Sal Kahn

Anyone who has been at all connected to math education - whether as a student, a parent, or an educator – is aware of Sal Khan and the influence his Kahn Academy videos and exercises have had on the progression of online education and independent learning.  The work he has done is incredible, and people have noticed.  The Gates Foundation, Google, O'Sullivan Foundation and others have donated millions to his company to further develop the idea of online education and self-help instruction.

So, why would the title of this entry imply that things are going poorly for Mr. Kahn?  Well, they’re not, but education in general appears to be at a crossroads, with differing opinions on which road should be taken, and Kahn has – wittingly or not – put himself right at the center of the crossroads.  Or is it the center of the crosshairs?

Kahn believes that his website provides a good supplement to the critical work that teachers do on a daily basis, and use of his materials can free up teachers to do more personalized, targeted instruction with smaller groups who require more intervention.  Others believe that Kahn’s materials can be used to replace teachers, reduce staffing and cut costs. One rather controversial report that took this position was released by the Pacific Research Institute and argued that is precisely what Kahn Academy should be used for, and governments should reduce the red tape and bureaucracy, including the influence of teachers unions, that is limiting large-scale changes like this.

While Kahn has earlier presented some similar arguments about the videos providing primary instruction, he no longer feels that reducing the interactions with teachers would be beneficial for students.  He envisions Kahn Academy dovetailing with a flipped classroom in which meaningful interactions with teachers fill the day while lectures can be done at home with the aid of his videos.  However, PRI is looking to trim government – read, teachers – and is essentially using his words and his tools to further their agenda of busting unions, shrinking government, and privatizing schools.

And on the other branch of the crossroads are teachers who criticize Kahn’s pedagogy.  A viralvideo put out by Dave Coffey and John Golden critiques several of Kahn’s methodologies.  Sal Kahn is a very smart person who creates mostly very clear videos on an incredibly wide variety of topics.  But he is not a teacher – he even felt his short stint as a teacher was disastrous, and teachers are attacking him, perhaps out of fear for their futures, but also because he does make several pedagogical mistakes and mathematical miscues.  The Coffey/Golden video led to a lot of back and forth on the internet, including much from the author of one of my favorite blogs – Dan Meyer.  

I think we need to find ways to embrace technology, but as soon as the technology is used to eliminate teachers instead of supporting teachers, education is doomed.