Thursday, February 23, 2012

Khan, you bloodsucker! KHAAAAAN! (More musings on the Khan Academy)

Why do many well-meaning (and some not-so-well-meaning) people think that the Khan Academy is THE panacea for various woes, perceived and real, in US mathematics education? Perhaps no one has expressed love for Sal Khan and his on-line videos than a recent anonymous commentator on my last blog piece (way back in November 2011): "Wont' Get Khanned Again: How Can Education Help Democracy Trump Capitalism?"

This anonymous poster wrote:
I am a student studying in grade 11 and all I am concerned with is what you have said about Sal Khan. I have a great amount of respect for him since he is the reason my maths mark went from a 55 to a 78 and my chemistry mark went from a 66 to an 83. All this happened over the coarse of 2 months! I understand that teachers work hard to teach the kids but at the same time, not all kids pick up everything the teachers say. And in most subjects if you miss one small bit of information, you will be lost for the whole topic. Now I know that extra help is provided my almost every single teacher but nowadays almost every kid is involved in extra curricular activities. So, when I would get home I would not understand a single thing and therefore not do my homework and get bad grades, but ever since I have discovered KhanAcademy, I would come home from practice and watch Sal Khan's videos. I learned so much, I caught up on what I missed in class and started doing better and better. Since its so easy to rewind, fast forward, and pause a video, I would learn the topic in no time! so for every teacher out there thats hating on Sal Khan, you should all be thankful that he provides kids with tuition that you just cant. I love the methods he uses to teach and hopefully he will keep this going till he has almost every single topic covered there is. May Allah(swt) Bless him. Keep it up Sal Khan!
Well, I couldn't let that go unanswered, even though I would have preferred to have someone to reply to directly (I have a long, uncomfortable relationship with anonymous and pseudonymous posts and posters on the Internet. It would take a longer explanation than I'm willing to give at this point, but suffice it to say that I have come to the conclusion that if you have something to say you're not willing to put your own name on, something's probably rotten in Denmark, or from wherever it is you're posting. Short of adding a pseudonym for satirical purposes (while still making clear enough that you're the author), there aren't a lot of circumstances in which posting without honest attribution strikes me as justified). But I digress.

Here is my response to the worshipful but thus far unnamed fan of Khan:

As a rule, I try to keep Allah, Buddha, Jehovah, Jesus, Zeus, Odin, Jupiter, Krishna, and other members of various pantheons out of the conversation: there's barely enough room here for the humans without getting gods into these narrow spaces.

But all that aside, here's my very serious, very direct view about what you had to say:

You may have legitimate complaints about math classes, assuming that you don't merely take issue with getting poor grades or judge the quality of either content, teaching, or much else in the classroom or on a free video strictly on whether you're doing well or poorly in a course. Because if the latter is the case, you and I aren't going to have much useful to say to one another.

Another point you touch upon is that if students "miss one small bit of information" then they are lost for the whole topic. I would suggest that what you're dealing with there is, on the one hand, a legitimate complaint about the model for delivery of content to which you and most students are subjected, but that on the other hand, if you were really being taught mathematics (rather than "schoolmath"), you might be making connections on your own sufficiently that missing one little bit wouldn't be quite so fatal. You might actually be able to think about the missing little piece and figure it out. Not always, perhaps, but not never.

But all of this is somewhat moot because, I fear, you've swallowed, through no wrong-doing on your part, a rather gigantic myth. You think your teachers are teaching actual mathematics. And that Sal Khan, his academy, and his videos, are making up for either less wonderful instruction in real mathematics or missing bits of instruction in same.

The fact is, you're not being taught math, and Sal Khan doesn't offer math, either. There is little or no mathematical thought going on in your math classroom. It's not inconceivable to me that if behind a screen, a computationally-able human being and a computer were each producing answers to the exercises you're being asked to deal with, and the only thing you saw was a printout of their respective answers, you'd be unable to tell which was the human and which the computer.

On the other hand, if real mathematical thinking and problem-solving were involved, the computer wouldn't be able to produce answers - at least not if what were input consisted of the same exact words that the human read off the page and then grappled with. Because computers don't think. Neither do they do mathematics. What they can do is crunch numbers, compute, and then do things that are impressive with the results (like graph, manipulate the results in a host of other ways, and give you a printout or screen filled with output.

The blessed Sal Khan doesn't really address mathematics, either. What he and his videos offer you are mini-lessons on how to be a slow, less-reliable computer than the sort they've been selling on the cheap for quite some time. If that's your goal (being a cheap, slow, not always accurate machine), then Sal is no doubt someone you should adore, though frankly I think there are much better on-line resources out there that do pretty much the same thing.

I have no gripe with Khan or 1,000 other people providing such services, whether free or for $$ (if they can find people willing to pay them). I occasionally tutor mathematics, and generally expect to be paid for my time and expertise. But then, I offer something that Sal doesn't: I help students make SENSE of mathematics, to THINK about what they're doing, where it comes from, where it might be heading, how it connects to other things they know or would like to know, and why any of it is worth knowing. So I can honestly claim to be offering tutoring services in mathematics. I don't believe that Khan can. He should be honest and state that he's offering little video treatments of topics in school math, the mastery of which will raise your grades and make you more like a slow, unreliable, more limited version of a TI-83+ or maybe, on a good day, a TI-89. But you won't know mathematics or be able to solve mathematical problems (as opposed to computational exercises and empty symbolic manipulations) any more than can those hand-held devices.

I can't comment on Khan and chemistry. First, I've never watched any of his chemistry videos. They might be superb. But second, I'm utterly clueless about chemistry for the most part and wouldn't presume to judge the content of his videos (though I might well be in a position to weigh in on his pedagogy).

As for 'hating on' Sal Khan, I do in fact have objections to a lot about him, what he has to say, and how he operates. But that's besides the point and not in any way a shot at how wonderful you feel when you improve your grades in schoolmathematics. I just wish he would engage in a bit of 'truth in advertising' as to what he's really offering, and that Bill Gates would stop using his bully pulpit and gazillions of dollars to try to convince everyone that the Khan Academy is the real McCoy of mathematics education. Because it might be many things, but it most assuredly is NOT the real McCoy. It's pablum, meant to appeal to people who are being misled by their mathematics teachers, their textbooks, etc., as to what mathematics really is and what it means to be doing it. If Khan were charging you, you might well have grounds to file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Agency (assuming that the lunatics in Congress don't do away with that in short order).
Sue Van Hattum kindly wrote in reply to the above: "Michael, I love your reply. I think this is the first time I've seen the Turing test applied to math ed. :^)

I've no idea if I've broken new ground, but regardless, it seems like a line of thought worthy of pursuit. If what your math teachers are offering you in K-12 (or if you're a K-12 mathematics teacher who offers that which) won't pass the Turing test, maybe they (or you) should be replaced by computers. Oh, wait: that's exactly what I suspect Bill Gates and the educational deformers would adore. Then they wouldn't have to bother paying even the generally low salaries most charter schools offer (apologies in advance to the good charter schools with fair pay and contract policies) and could hire a few folks with a combination of skills in computer technology and guarding prisons and save a packet.

One last thing: I found a very provocative take on Khan Academy that explores some of the reasons I find Mr., Khan and his work so vapid and disturbing. Please take the time to check out Frank Noschese's "You Khan't Ignore How Students Learn."  And the rest of his blog looks very much worth exploring for reflections on teaching.