A spectre is haunting American education – the spectre of the Khan Academy.
Or so some would have you think.
The Khan Academy, essentially a collection of videos paired with exercises developed by a former investment banker named Sal Khan has created a firestorm in education the likes of which have not been seen in years. He’s been hailed as a savior and damned as a heretic by those inside and outside of the field. Most notable, perhaps, has been Frank Noschese’s apparent decimation of his methods in favor of an inquiry-based physics curriculum.
When I read all of this, all of the vitriol surrounding a site that was originally built for a man’s niece, I often recall the words of a mentor, speaking of the way education works. “There are no big winds in education,” he said. “What we need instead is a fleet of small ships, tacking nimbly with the wind.” My biggest issue with the attacks against Khan is that it sets up a straw man, making Khan into the presumed answer to all of our problems, and then attacks it from that direction. Khan himself – along with Bill Gates, his most famous supporter – does little to help this problem, as he does not provide the other essential half of he equation. However, looking past these straw man arguments you begin to see a bit of light, and begin to understand that although Khan is not an answer, it can be a valuable piece to the puzzle of increased student achievement.
In my short experience as an educator, I’ve come across two primary benefits to Khan, one dealing with remediation in a traditional classroom, and the other in a classroom that uses Khan Academy as a centerpiece to providing a blended instructional model. Admittedly, these examples favor math heavily, but science also fits nicely into the model, as do many other subjects with slight modifications to the example. Let’s jump in.
Remediation is perhaps the easier to swallow example. In my last two years as a math teacher in a traditionally struggling school, I have come across students whose math abilities lie all along the spectrum of achievement. I have had students that are still struggling with fluency in adding two digit numbers sitting next to students who can solve multi-step equations in their head, and I doubt my experience is too different from many of yours. What am I to do with the student that struggles with such fundamental concepts in a 7th grade classroom? Am I to focus my limited attention on that student at the expense of others? Without having to provide an answer to those difficult questions, I find an answer in the Khan Academy’s exercise and tracking portal. Instead of sacrificing my limited time to remediate with those students, I can pair in situ remediation with a remediation plan centered around the Khan Academy for those students that they can complete at home. The exercises and videos can be completed entirely on their own or with moderate – and manageable – help from the teacher with the goal of eventually catching the student up to the median achievement of the rest of the class. Granted, this strategy does require some student buy-in, but even if this catches one student up, I’m going to consider it a worthwhile endeavor.
Inside a KA-centric classroom, we are presented with a similar situation. Students all enter at different achievement levels, so why not meet them where they are instead of where the curriculum says they should be? Differentiation is where the KA truly shines. That student still struggling with addition? Let them work on addition, and with the privacy allowed by Khan, let them work on it without fear of shame. The student blowing past multi-step equations? Let them continue on with the subject, and hope that they reach the highest heights of mathematical achievement. The part that’s not being entered into the mainstream conversation right now is that this is not a Vulcan school environment, where each student is perpetually on their own, but an environment where students split their time between KA work and problem-based learning explorations as a group, more along the lines of a Dan Meyer problem that requires them to strengthen their mathematical problem-solving muscles.
All of this said, I must confess, as with the vast majority of educational manifestos, I can support this line of thought only through supposition without any real hard evidence. There is some data to suggest that this strategy may support increased student achievement, but my strongest apprehension with the blended classroom is its cost relative to how the money could be spent elsewhere. All the same, that does not remove the strength of Khan as a supporting tool to the mathematics (or other subject) classroom as a remediation or acceleration tool for students more than one standard deviation outside the norm, and from what I can tell, the hate thrown its way is seriously dampening the conversation directed towards that.
Although I will not have a KA-centered classroom this year, I will be leading one, and hope to report on its progress over the course of the year, along with the struggles of implementing it. Please let me know your thoughts below and keep the conversation going, just be ready with more than just the same lines of argument on either side that have either blindly supported or attacked what I see as not a silver bullet, but a weapon nonetheless in the fight against educational inequity.