Tag Archives: Khan Academy



Valerie Strauss wrote a piece yesterday about our friend and inspiration, Salman Khan. I believe she was very fair to Khan. Her basic thesis comes down to:

Clearly Khan has become the vessel for many reformers’ hopes and dreams about how to educate the masses. How Khan sees himself and his academy… is a more complicated matter.

She cites some of Khan’s biggest supporters, including Bill Gates. There is a tendency among Khan’s supporters to call his Academy “revolutionary”. This type of rhetoric should sound familiar to teachers who are used to having this idea or that idea pushed as the silver bullet that will fix our education woes.

Yet, while Khan’s supporters are signing his praises, Khan himself seems much more modest. He claims that he is not doing anything revolutionary. While his supporters talk him up, Khan has a tendency to talk himself down, or at least to try to provide a more realistic assessment of what his Academy is about.

Even though Valerie Strauss doesn’t come right out and say it, she alludes to the idea that this is one big work (if I may borrow an insider’s term from wrestling) on the part of Khan. The very last sentence of her article says:

And he is a really excellent marketer.

So maybe he is playing the role of the humble, altruistic educator while his financial backers like Bill Gates talk up the flipped classroom as a “revolutionary” development in education. After all, if he displayed the same type of vim and vigor of many of his acolytes, he would turn many people off, especially educators.

There is a part of me that really wants to believe that Khan is the altruistic man he portrays himself to be. On the other hand, Khan is an extremely shrewd, extremely intelligent man. He certainly knows what Bill Gates is saying about him. He certainly knows that some school districts are using his flipped classroom idea as their primary mode of educating students. Yet, he has never directly spoken against these supposed misrepresentations and misappropriations of his idea. That in and of itself tells me that Khan’s persona is a work.

This reminds of the same type of problem John Dewey faced when he was considered the patron saint of modern American schooling. He created what seemed to be revolutionary ideas of “progressive” education. His experiments at the Chicago Lab School aimed at blurring the lines between education and life. In Dewey’s mind, education was synonymous with life. Like Khan, Dewey’s work was financed by some of the wealthiest interests in the nation. Like Khan, many people around the nation misappropriated his ideas. Like Khan, Dewey said nothing against those who were misappropriating his ideas, at least not until very late in the game. When he finally did, his denouncements were tepid. It did not matter at that point anyway since Pandora’s box was already open.

With the benefit of almost a century of hindsight, it is safe to say that Dewey did not really mind so much the misappropriation of his ideas. His ideas are still twisted around today by people who continue to misunderstand him. His acolytes seemed to believe that Dewey had called for a vacuous, fuzzy-headed and saccharine pedagogy. Educators in his day as well as ours interpreted his ideas to mean that content was nothing and process was everything. The misrepresentation of his ideas led to a progressive dumbing down of American schooling.

Dewey was not a stupid man, much like Khan is not a stupid man. They both knew/know full well what types of things people were/are doing while flying their banners. Part of it is probably due to vanity that most if not all of us have. Who would not like to see people inspired by ideas that we birthed? Who could say with any certainty that they would act any differently if they were in Dewey’s or Khan’s shoes?

I have read all of Dewey’s books as well as several books about Dewey. I have sat through hundreds of hours of Khan’s videos, read numerous articles about him and participated in all types of discussions with people about flipped classrooms. There is one major similarity that I see in both of their efforts.

Dewey was very abstract when outlining his educational program. Despite the fact that he had laid down certain parameters of what he believed proper pedagogy to be, these parameters could be interpreted in wildly different ways depending on who was looking at it. Khan also has his parameters. In many ways his parameters are much more concrete, mostly because he is not the philosopher that Dewey was. Yet, the fanfare that even he himself creates around his ideas is essentially telling people to take his videos, take his ideas and use them, use them, use them. His goal, as he has stated in no uncertain terms, is for people around the world to have access to education through his Khan Academy.

Both Dewey and Khan presented their ideas with a wink. The wink tells people: here are my ideas but feel free to bastardize them in any way you see fit. The only thing that matters is that the idea spreads. The wink is unspoken. It comes across through the implications of the words they use, as well as the words they do not use.

Both Dewey and Khan are marketers. Both Dewey and Khan are widely respected to the point of worship. Both Dewey and Khan are bankrolled by the wealthiest interests in the nation.

Both Dewey and Khan play the Shill Game.


That's right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

That’s right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

As a glutton for punishment, I sat down to watch a brief Khan Academy video about the end of the Civil War. It is six minutes long and entitled “Appomattox Court House and Lincoln’s Assassination.” The video exemplifies many of the major problems with Khan Academy videos that have been echoed by teachers in other fields.

To be fair, Khan and his team seem to be more knowledgeable of, and focused on, math and science. From what I understand, history is one of the more undeveloped parts of the Khan Academy repertoire. Therefore, I will be criticizing Khan in one of his most vulnerable areas.

As a history teacher, I would certainly not encourage my students to use this video as a primer or a refresher on the end of the Civil War. The one thing that jumped out at me about it was how it seemed like a spoken textbook. It is probably not a stretch to think that Khan, who narrates the video, read a few paragraphs from a textbook about the end of the Civil War and summarized it in spoken word. I threw out the textbook years ago for some of the very same deficiencies found in this video.

Appomattox Court House, as you may remember from high school, was the place where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. This is mentioned in the video. The only problem is, Khan assumes that the watcher knows who these men are. He has pictures of them and writes their names next to each of the pictures. What side they represented or what their roles were he never says. Perhaps his previous videos on the war go into a little more depth about these men. It still doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have taken an extra 30 seconds to clarify who they were in this video, especially if he meant it to be something of a primer or review.

One of the major weaknesses of the piece is how he characterizes the events of April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. He says that even though Lee surrendered, it wasn’t the “official” end of the war. There were other Confederate armies in other parts of the country that fought on beyond this date. Khan correctly points out that this was due to the slow communication technology of the era. However, it was pretty clear to anyone alive back then that the surrender of Lee meant the surrender of the south. Lee led the main Confederate Army whose role it was to protect the Confederate capital of Richmond by that point in the war. His capitulation to Grant was rightly seen as the end, as “official” an end as anyone was going to get.

It is a shame how mechanical, how stale, how dry the whole surrender was presented. He basically says that Lee (whoever that guy was) surrendered to Grant (whoever that guy was) in the city of Appomattox Court House. To his credit, he explains that Appomattox Court House was an actual town and not a building. What he did not explain was that towns back then with “Court House” in their names usually signified that they were the seat of county government. A minor detail but one he could have taken 10 seconds to explain so things could make just a little more sense.

What’s missing from his Appomattox story? First, the fact that Lee’s men were starving and deserting by that point. Grant had been burning down large swaths of the Shenandoah Valley, a major food source for Lee’s army. Desertions in the Confederate Army were a relative rarity, since Johnny Reb tended to be a motivated soldier with a fervent belief in the cause. There is no explanation of why Lee felt the need to surrender. Second, he doesn’t describe the respect both men had for each other. This is more than just a minor detail. Grant had one eye on the future. He knew he needed to treat Lee with mercy since, once again, they would be countrymen. The last thing Grant wanted to do was treat Lee’s army like a conquered people and engender more animus between North and South that might sabotage any effort to Reconstruct the Union. Indeed, the term “Appomattox Peace” has come to characterize any charitable treatment of a defeated army. Khan mentions none of this. Less importantly, there were the stylistic differences between the two men. Lee, the southern gentlemen in his finely pressed and cleaned uniform, laying his sword at the feet of the dirty and disheveled Grant, the man who was once kicked out of the army for drunkenness. If one did not know any better, it would look like Lee was the victor. Also, in one of the most memorable scenes of the war, the victorious Union soldiers raised their guns in salute of the Confederate boys who were laying down their arms. It was a show of respect between newly reunited countrymen and proof that, contrary to what Khan states, this was in fact the end of the war. These details that Khan left out are the stuff of history. These are the things that make history come alive for students. The lack of these details turns the telling of history into a rote series of events with no wider significance. Khan’s video is just as bad as a textbook in this way.

Probably the biggest deficiency in the video is his retelling of the Lincoln assassination. He claims that the war was not over the day Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater, despite the fact that Lee had surrendered 5 days before. If Khan bothered to do serious research, he might have learned that the sheer fact that Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater was proof that the war was pretty much over in his mind. For the previous 4 years, Lincoln had spent all of his waking hours at the War Department or the Oval Office keeping meticulous track of the goings-on at the battlefield. He had neglected himself in the process and certainly had no time for frivolities like plays. Because of his dedication to saving the Union, he and Mary Todd had drifted apart. Going to Ford’s Theater shows that Lincoln believed he finally had some breathing room. It was also a way to spend an evening with the wife he had neglected for 4 years.

Khan then introduces John Wilkes Booth. He correctly points out that Booth was an actor sympathetic to the south who had conspired with some buddies to pretty much decapitate the federal government. On the evening Lincoln was killed, there were plans to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. What he did not mention, and what he probably does not even know, is that Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln. The kidnapping plot was the result of one of the lesser-known stories of the Civil War.

Booth had a brother in the Confederate Army who was being held as a prisoner of war in Elmira prison in upstate New York. The reason why his brother and so many soldiers of both sides were languishing in POW camps had to do with Lincoln’s changing views on the status of black people. It was customary in warfare at the time to swap POWs. You release my men, I release yours. However, the south had refused to release black prisoners they had captured from the Union Army. The Confederates considered these men contraband, or captured property, and intended to use them as slaves. Lincoln refused to agree to any POW exchanges unless the south released blacks and whites equally. The south did not budge on this, neither did Lincoln, and POWs on both sides stacked up as the war went on. Lincoln took much heat for this decision from northerners who had relatives in the south’s POW camps. At the Georgia prison in Andersonville, northern POWs were suffering from malnutrition and neglect. Many people blamed Lincoln for consigning these men to horrible fates just so he could “coddle the black man”. It was one of Lincoln’s most controversial, if not courageous, decisions as president.

Therefore, Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln so he could exchange him for Confederate POWs, including his brother. However, as the war got progressively hopeless for the south, Booth and his cabal went for a full-fledged assassination conspiracy to throw the north into disarray. Perhaps this was the thing that could turn the war around for the south. Khan doesn’t mention this. He turns one of the most fascinating stories in American history into a dry, semi-factual rundown.

Booth was one of the nation’s most famous actors who had played Ford Theater many times in his life. He had pretty much unlimited access to come and go as he pleased. After all, who would tell Tom Cruise today that he could not walk into a movie theater when he felt like it? The name of the play that Lincoln was scheduled to see was Our American Cousin, a comedy with which Booth was very familiar. His plan was to pull the trigger at a point in the play where the crowd would be laughing, a line where one of the characters calls another character a “sockdologizing old mantrap”. Khan correctly mentions that Lincoln’s security detail, stationed at the feet of the steps to his balcony, had disappeared. No president had ever been assassinated before, so the lax presidential security during the 1860s was understandable. Booth made his way up the stairs, waited for the line and pulled the trigger to his derringer. Mary Todd screamed. Lincoln’s guest, Major Henry Rathbone (Lincoln originally invited General Grant), wrestled with Booth, only to be stabbed in the arm. Booth jumped off the balcony onto the stage, breaking his ankle when his boot got caught on the American flag draped over the presidential balcony. He yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus. The South is Avenged!” before hobbling off the stage and making his way outside to his horse, where he immediately pistol whipped the poor peanut vendor who was good enough to be holding it for him. Booth was on the run for two weeks before being shot up in a blaze of glory out in the Maryland woods. Khan doesn’t mention any of these details, details that bring life to the story. He does mention that people thought it might have been part of the play, which accounted for why nobody rushed to tackle Booth. Lincoln was brought to a house across the street where he died the next morning.

Khan sort of glosses over the rest of the story. He says the other conspirators were not as successful in killing their targets as was Booth. What he does not mention was that the guy slated to kill Johnson got drunk and chickened out instead. He does mention that Seward got stabbed in the face but never explains why. Seward had been in a carriage accident and was bedridden in a body cast. Lewis Powell, one of Booth’s co-conspirators, knocked on Seward’s door telling the butler the doctor sent him to drop off some medicine that he needed to show Seward how to administer. The butler let him. Powell then walked up the stairs where he encountered Seward’s son, who was suspicious of the stranger. He was going to tell Powell to take a hike when Seward’s daughter popped her head out of the bedroom saying “Papa will see you now.” This gave away the room in which Seward was staying. He struggled past Seward’s son, ran into the room, jumped on top of Seward in the bed and began stabbing at him. Seward’s cast deflected most of the blows. Powell could only stab Seward in the face, which was the only uncovered part of Seward’s body. Powell was then subdued.

The only real story Khan tells is the one of the man whose house was used as the spot for Lee’s surrender. This man had lived near Bull Run Creek and the first battle of the war was fought on his property. In order to avoid future battles, he moved further into Virginia to Appomattox, where the last battle would also be fought on his property. It is a nice story but it is found in every single history textbook as one of those cute little side columns they put in order to make an otherwise stale retelling of history somewhat interesting. Khan does the same exact thing in this video, which leads me to think he actually did just read out of a textbook.

These are the things that Khan left out. One can argue that mentioning these things would have made the video longer and less accessible. I argue the video is inaccessible as it is now. Not only is it a sterile retelling of incomplete facts that he fails to connect to each other, it is boring as all bloody hell. It is the type of “teaching” a novice does when they are one chapter ahead of the class in the textbook. It is the type of “teaching” to be expected from someone with no knowledge of the subject.

Why not get an historian to tell the story? Why not do more research to make the story alive? Barring these things, why do the video at all? It teaches very little and in the most boring imaginable way. If you wanted to turn someone off to history or have a student write off history as nothing more than disconnected and useless facts or dates, this is the video I would use.

I know Khan fans will chime in with their defenses. You can save your apologies. Neither me nor any other real history teacher needs any help from Khan and his band of non-educators. I never asked for his videos or tools and I see absolutely no value in them. On top of it, I see it as insulting that Khan believes it is sufficient to read a few paragraphs out of a textbook, gather some pictures and draw some dates and names on a screen and pass it off as a history lesson.

You want history? Read a book. You want to teach history? Know your subject. Anything else is merely shortchanging the people you claim to want to help.

New Policy for the Khan Academy

Every time I am on a long hiatus from this blog, I come back to find a ton of comments under my past posts about the Khan Academy. (See: The Khan Academy and the Snake Oil of Education Deform, Finally, More Criticism About the Khan Academy, Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy, Khan Academy: If You Don’t Like It, You Don’t Get It and, my personal favorite, 60 Minutes Worships Salman Khan and So Do You.)

The vast majority of comments all have the same tone and tenor. For a while I have believed that something was rotten in Denmark. Take a look at some of the typical comments below and maybe you will see what I see. (Feel free to skim or completely ignore the comments quoted below. In fact, I encourage you to do so because they are mostly redundant wastes of time. Yes, redundant wastes of time.):

I would just like you to address what I’m going to say here to help you understand my belief on online learning in general I have read little of what you’ve had to say sense most of it’s nonsense and has no arguments backing it up. I would like to give a real world example of the benefits of Khan Academy. I have a good friend who struggled in Algebra II and after going in depth and learning online from Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, he ended up passing the class with an A-. So many teachers in the status quo are just trying to pass kids and not further their knowledge, they want the load of kids off their hands. I would say that about 70% of my own teachers are like this within my own school.

I, myself, have had the benefit of learning more about biology. I got a more in depth understanding of it, and learned the complete concept of meiosis in under an hour where in a class room I got lectured for 4 straight days of hour and a half periods and I still couldn’t grasp that during my Freshman Year of high school. Why should one have to send their kid off to a university (and pay 100,000 dollars when it’s all said and done) when knowledge can be spread so beneficially over the internet?


I am a public school teacher. Not in math, but in music, though I often end up in the topic of math and also teach it on the side and there are many similar situations.
I spend class time engaging my students in authentic experiences, but sometimes I know that not all of my students have the basics that are required for the activity and I struggle with the decision of whether to spend time drilling (wasting the time of students who already get it) or just move on (causing some students to fake it or fail). If I want all of my students to be able to identify piano keys by note name, or identify pitches on a staff, or tap out various rhythms of increasing difficulty, I have to put making actual music on hold while chucking in with each student. Some of these things I could do with worksheets, but I would not have the results of that assessment quickly enough to plan the rest of out class time based on it. I also hate the idea that I might “grade” those papers and hand them back to students, than decide whether to teach the lesson to everyone again and test again, or just move on. i wish I had some method of helping each student achieve mastery of these basic skills so we could all use them together in class. If I were a math teacher I would be very excited about Khan’s practice tools for this reason- a unit does not end with each student being judged. it ends when you actually have learned it (and then you continue to review it later.)

I am very wary of people who would say who is and is not an educator. Being a school teacher does not mean that you can or should control information- quite to opposite. Students should know that you are just one source, the textbook is just one source, their parents, television, youtube, just other sources, and they need their critical thinking skills to put it all together themselves and make their own decisions about it. You do not teach critical thinking by telling students that you are right.

If you say Khan is not an “educator” then no doubt you do not consider your students, their parents, or any other members of your community capable of being educators, or you think they at least don’t deserve the title just because they haven’t taken the certification test.


I am in total support of Khan Academy…

I know you will not like my viewpoint but here it goes,,,,

1. The school classroom model was originally designed by the Prussian military intended to create an obedient society by providing a platform for authority and for its children to recognize and submit to this authority. The rationale for this control model (classroom) was to mobilize its young citizens in times of war. The classroom model was eventually adopted by the west including North America. Today we have the industrial military complex to address national security yet this classroom or should I say military model still persists.

The mindset to control students is evidence by the grading system, devised and adopted in the 17th century and still used in 2012. And this is the crux of my argument. It is my opinion school marks are draconian, pschologically damaging, and counter productive for both the A student as well as for the C student. I will not even speak of the poor F student. Furthermore, school marks are often misused by the authority figures (teachers) and given for behavioral modification. Children who follow instruction, are non disruptive, and are obedient are often awarded with a good mark and children who are less inclined to follow or independently minded with less favorable marks. May I mention Enstein here?

It is in my opinion the grading system has created a society full of followers, who upon graduation from college, are all on the search for employment. There is only a recent awakening due to the sluggish economy that perhaps entrepreneurialship needs to be moved to the forefront in the classroom. How though is the teacher going to control independent thinkers, potential leaders using a militaristic method such as a grade marking system to produce our leaders for tomorrow? The output of graduates today struggling to find a job in a shrinking job market is just not working. You may argue that it is not educator’s job to provide employment, and while that was true decades past, today our society is counting on higher education to provide innovation for future employment.

It is my opinion Khan Academy has the potential to replace the marking grade system with its innovative approach usung statistical data to both validate student progress as well as identify challenges requiring additional time for mastery without placing a grade “label” on the student ‘s head. A label that can last a life time sometimes in a very, very negative way. So unjust. Furthermore, both Harvard and MIT, will be releasing in the fall of 2012, EdX, a free online access to their courses offered to the world. If you view the announcement, May 2, 2012 online, you will hear the rationale for this approach, namely they wish to use the statistical data gained by the servers offering the online course material to a worldwide audience whereby they may data collect from these students to better learn and understand the learning processes, something, Khan Academy has been doing since 2004!

2. My biggest excitement with Khan Academy is its revolutionary scalability. Instead of the teacher having to repeat his/her lectures over and over again, a one-time video can now be created in a more intimate, less talked-down approach and shared with the World. Imagine the scalability to view and witness to lectures being delivered by the very best teachers the world has to offer.

In closing, the true reason you have created this website is that you are scared for your job and I empathize. May I say in closing, your profession is not alone in this disruption due to technology. Perhaps the definition of employment needs to be addressed but that is a different topic for another time.

Thanks for allowing me my viewpoint on your website.

Khan Academy is here to stay !!

You get the idea. First, there are the testimonials. The “Khan Academy worked for me” type comments that remind me of an infomertial at 3 in the morning. Then there are “you’re just worried about your job” comments that are so laughable as to not warrant a response. And then there are the “public schools are failing” and the “wave of the future is having your eyes glued to a computer screen” comments from those that want to seem as if they are cutting edge and hip. They are all taken from the same playbook it seems. If I did not know any better, I would venture a guess that Khan or Gates offered people a free sandwich for spamming blogs, a la StudentsFirst. Alas, there is no evidence for this, so I assume that they have been truly brainwashed through the normal means of propaganda.

Now, when I come across a blog article from a blog I have never seen before, I do a little background check. I read the “About” section, I read some other articles and I come back to the article that drew me there in the first place so I can get a better idea of where the author is coming from. This is not because I run a blog myself, since I did this before I had a blog, but because I do not want to contribute points that have been addressed before. Because I am a new commenter on a website, I usually want to contribute something, you know, new. It is the courteous and thoughtful thing to do.

The Khan Academy sycophants, for the most part, not only refuse to read around this site to see what it is about, but they do not even address the points I make in the articles to which they respond. They literally talk at you, over you, through you. They do not engage you in discussion.

Instead, they repeat the same arguments and traverse the same ground over and over again. There is a word for that on the internet. It is called spam.

Therefore, from now on, before you step up to defend the Khan Academy, take stock of what I said above. Khan spammers will go in the spam filter where they belong. It is not worth my time, nor the time of the readers, to have to hear the same arguments again and again.

On the bright side, many recent and thoughtful comments were left under the Khan Academy articles listed above by one Michael Paul Goldenberg. Sorry it took so long for me to approve the comments. Here is an example (as opposed to the comments above, they are worth the read):

You can’t appease the fanatic defenders of Sal Khan and KA. It’s impossible. They refuse to accept any questioning of his work, his work ethic, his knowledge, his goals, his character, or his knowledge of mathematics (let alone other subjects). No one has proper standing to critique Sal Khan. NO ONE. If you teach, you’re jealous, weak, afraid, threatened, lazy, stupid, conservative (hah!!!), REACTIONARY (hahahahahaha!!!), racist (yes, I’ve seen that one, defender of the status quo, ad nauseam. If you’re a potential “competitor,” then obviously you’re trying to crush your “opponent.” If you’re a professor, well, see “teacher”; and worse, because professors are all commies, and some are fat (see the commentary on the MTT2K first video), well, we needn’t take their criticism seriously. And if you’re none of those (I’m an independent educational consultant who coaches high school math teachers on a per diem basis in Detroit. I have no long-term contracts, no union, and no one yet has suggested that using KA would make my work obsolete, nor do I have the slightest fear of him or his work. Were what he was doing of real quality, i would be recommending him unhesitatingly. I do recommend the free videos of others. Why not Sal’s? I think my many criticisms of him and his work make that crystal clear.

Here’s my strongest reason for critiquing Khan’s work: I care deeply about kids, about math, about democracy, and I think KA undermines kids’ thinking, disrespects mathematics, and ultimately will be seen to be anti-democratic and pro-elitist and plutocracy. Let’s see where this all is next month, next year, next decade. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to stay silent because a bunch of Khan-trolls need to make up a bunch of lies and insults to justify their bad taste and willingness to call McDonald’s hamburgers a healthy, nutritious, delicious meal.

Check out his other comments on the Khan Academy articles as well.

Happy reading Khan lackeys. Look forward to trashing your mindless drivel in the future.

Corporate School Reform, The Final Frontier

I remember my 3rd grade teacher, Ms. 011101101110.

It was announced earlier this week that Philadelphia’s school system is being scrapped. 64 schools will be closed by 2017. To replace them, the restructuring plan calls for building more privately-run charter and cyber-charter schools. The central office of Philly’s school system will be drastically downsized as well. The system will be highly decentralized, giving way to a hodgepodge of “achievement networks”.

This was all brought about by steep state budget cuts that put Philadelphia’s school system in the red some $218 million. In New Orleans, it took the moral indifference of Mother Nature in the form of Hurricane Katrina to privatize the school system. In Philadelphia, it took the moral indifference of lawmakers.

You would think that the implosion of a major urban school system would warrant some sort of national media coverage. Yet, there has been widespread national silence on the issue. I am especially surprised by the silence of President Obama and Uncle Arne Duncan. Their silence, I gather, is tantamount to tacit approval.

Yesterday, Michigan’s House of Representatives approved a bill lifting the cap on online charter schools in the state. Yet, the performance of cyber-schooling in Michigan, not to mention around the country, is abysmal. It is telling that Michigan’s legislature is ramming this law through now, before the end-of-school-year data becomes available that will surely damn the entire idea of online learning.

Here in our beloved New York City, Mayor Bloomberg’s puppet Panel of Educational Policy met last night to discuss the 24 schools it intends to close at the end of this school year. 146 people signed up to speak, most of them teachers, parents and students from the affected schools who pointed out the injustice of these closures.

These school closures and the promise of future budget cuts in NYC promise to increase the number of online classes students take in the future. The public school classroom is under assault all across the country.

This is one of the more dangerous fronts of the education reform movement. While high-stakes testing has been the most visible part of the assault on public schools, online learning promises to be the much more insidious threat in the long run. It is the fastest growing part of the education sector.

That is because online learning is cheap. No buildings, chairs or chalk are needed. Teachers can teach “classes” of 1,000 students. Someone familiar with the online learning wave taking hold in the Midwest explains the scam:

“I’m all for efficiencies in the education system, but if the cyber charter schools can figure how to educate a child for $6,500 in Wisconsin and they’re still receiving $10,000 per student, I want that $3,500 to go back into the student’s education, not the pockets of some corporate shareholders or executives. This is a funding model that is cheating students.”

Online schooling is the ultimate goal of every corporate reformer. Vouchers and brick and mortar charter schools are halfway stages towards the complete computerization of public education. It is the cheapest education to provide and leaves the most possible room for private profit.

This is where Salman Khan’s Khan Academy comes in. The corporate reformers will probably not be able to pull off the complete computerization of public schooling. Too many parents will demand actual teachers, not to mention an actual building to which to send their children while they go to work. Khan’s “flipped classroom” provides this option. Despite his and his sycophantic followers’ claims that they do not aim to replace blood and bone teachers, the flipped classroom model takes delivery of content out of their hands. Videos provide the content and teachers provide guidance on the enrichment activities that follow the videos. Of course, the activities are all designed by Khan’s team of non-educators. The teacher’s role is merely to follow the script and help students through the pre-packaged curriculum. It is the ultimate deskilling of the teaching profession.

This is where the current era of teacher bashing is tending. By breaking teachers down in the public’s eyes, they are preparing the public to accept the idea that pre-fab videos will do just as well or better at actual teaching. Computerized learning has the added benefit of being on the “right” side of history. This is the wave of the future, after all, it is best just to shut up and embrace it.

Those who have never actually taught will never see the craft involved in teaching. Rather than beat a dead horse, please read my post entitled 60 Minutes Worships Salman Khan and So Do You. Of course, if you are already brainwashed by Khan’s smile, the unquestioning adulation he receives in the media and his association with Bill Gates, then there is really nothing I can say to convince you otherwise. After all, I am a teacher and my opinions on teaching cannot be trusted. I am out to protect my job, since no human being can ever possibly be motivated by any purpose other than self-interest. I cannot possibly be motivated by a desire to defend a craft that is as old as humanity itself, or by the knowledge that online learning will exacerbate the educational caste system in this country. After all, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee send their children to flipped classrooms, not elite private schools with small class sizes and veteran teachers, right?

Let us hope the backlash against this educational barbarism is at hand. The National Opt-Out movement is a great start. We need to opt our children out of online learning as well.

60 Minutes Worships Salman Khan And So Do You

"I'm just a humble guy."

“60 Minutes” ran a fluff piece last night about the Khan Academy. It is a perfect example of the type of uncritical coverage he gets from major media. The only criticisms were reiterated by Khan himself, which he merely dismissed out of hand.

Problem #1: The Flipped Classroom

Khan took offense to the idea that he wants to replace teachers with computer programs. Instead, he says he wants to see students learning content at home on the Khan Academy website, then have students come into school the next day to work on Khan’s problems. The teacher will be there to be a coach or a facilitator.

The biggest problem with this is that it is, in fact, a recipe to replace teachers. He is calling for taking the presentation of content out of the hands of teachers and into his own hands. He is also calling for taking the structuring of assessment activities out of teachers’ hands and into his own. This brings up major questions about knowledge: how children encounter knowledge and what knowledge shall be required.

In history, what if a teacher wants their students to approach an historical topic in a critical way? What if they want their students to examine the many viewpoints of people living during an historical era, as well as different viewpoints of historians about that era? In Khan’s “flipped classroom” model, students would encounter the content first through one of his videos. Only afterwards might there be opportunity for the classroom teacher to get students to study critically the topics already taught by the Khan Academy.

This is all wrong. Any teacher knows that the first impression a student gets about a topic is the one that sticks the most. It is one of the reasons why so many students enter high school thinking that Christopher Columbus discovered America. What if Khan’s videos approach history from a myopic viewpoint, presented from a very narrow perspective? (which seems to be the case, from the history videos I have seen.) The teacher now has to compensate for this and get their students to rethink the information on the video. It makes the teacher’s job that more difficult. I am sure the same thing applies to one degree or another for math, science, literature and every other subject.

The same thing applies to assessment exercises. Assessments solidify knowledge in students’ minds. His flipped classroom model calls for teachers to guide students through exercises of his design and project-based activities of his suggesting. The teacher becomes nothing more than an implementer, someone following a script. It really does not matter what the teacher wants, or knows from years of experience what is best for the development of critical thinking.

The flipped classroom may not call for the wholesale replacement of teachers, but it certainly does call for the wholesale deskilling of teachers. What is much worse, it puts Khan Academy itself as the first disseminator of scholastic knowledge.

Problem #2: The Cultural Divide  

Khan says he wants more human interaction, but looking at the children in that classroom with their heads in their computers gives the lie to that idea. They had their heads in their computers the night before they came to school and had their heads in computers once they came to class. If there is more human interaction in the classroom presented in this video than the classrooms I see on a daily basis, it certainly was not evident.

The people featured in this video seem to paint teaching in brick and mortar classrooms as nothing more than lecturing and reading from a textbook. I certainly do not use a textbook, nor do I lecture, so I take offense to the broad brush with which they paint all teachers. In the presentation of their content, teachers adjust to their classes. Even if the teacher is nothing more than a lecturer (which is very rare), that lecture is given by someone who knows their population, knows the needs of their students and knows how to adjust their words, actions and activities to the students that sit before them.

I teach English Language Learners every year, as well as students with learning disabilities. There is no way I can present material in the same way to these students as I do to mainstream students. Even within these categories, there are students with differing levels of motivation and skills. By the middle of the school year, I find that my teaching style, my demeanor, my notes, the material, the questions I ask differ from class to class. There is an unconscious adjustment that takes place in the style of an experienced teacher where they sense just how to tweak things in order to have the greatest possible impact.

Khan offers nothing of the sort. As I have stated before, he offers nothing but a pause button. All a student can do with a Khan video is watch the same content delivered in the same way over and over again. A very thoughtful analysis of Khan’s videos by Mr. Foteah concludes that Khan uses words that are way out of the league of many English Language Learners, not to mention of mainstream students. Khan, the Ivy League graduate, uses a certain manner of speaking that is alien to inner city youth and immigrant students. No amount of pausing and rewinding will overcome this. Khan cannot make the types of mid-lesson and mid-semester adjustments that a veteran teacher can make.

There is no doubt that Khan’s videos have helped many students. Videos have helped me understand certain topics better, usually Youtube lectures by college professors or policy wonks. But I am a motivated student, I have some background in the topics I want to learn about and I have a sense of the areas in which I need help. Khan’s videos do little for the unmotivated student, the one that teachers encounter on a daily basis. The bells and whistles that Khan adds to his lectures, like the drawing program and the gamey assessment activities, will do nothing for the student who has to walk through gang territory every day or who comes from a home where they are malnourished.

Problem #3: Khan’s Team and Supporters

Khan is not an educator, nor are the people on his team. Perhaps the most insulting thing about the 60 Minutes piece, as well as the people who tend to totally embrace Khan, is how dismissive they are of what teachers do on a daily basis. Sanjay Gupta, the person who did the 60 minutes story, is a medical doctor. He keeps contrasting Khan to a school room of lectures and textbooks, a school room that is largely non-existent after decades of education reform and flavors of the month. It is scary to think that people with so little awareness of what actually takes place in schools think they have found the next great educational paradigm shift. They do not even know the existing paradigm.

One of Khan’s supporters on the video even said that change does not usually come from the institutions that run public schools. Perhaps they have not been paying attention to what has been happening in New York, D.C. and Chicago over the past ten years. There has been nothing but change, usually brought about by people who are not educators themselves. This change has taken place with the cooperation of the unions, including our own beloved UFT here in NYC. To say that the system does not embrace change does not even pass the giggle test.

Khan is part and parcel of this wider movement we call education reform. They work from this Shock Doctrine-esque idea that schools are in a “crisis” or are “failing”, so they must undergo major changes. It was not at all clear that schools were in any crisis at all before the reformers took the reins of the school system. The things they have used to justify this “crisis”, namely test scores, have not improved since the reforms have been implemented. The “crisis” in education is a perception built by a constant barrage of news stories about school shootings, teacher misconduct and peeling paint on the walls. These things have not, nor have ever been, presented in proper proportion to the system as a whole. Even if schools are in a crisis, does this mean that schools themselves need a paradigm shift? What has always been overlooked, indeed never touched, is the impact of poverty, family dysfunction and street crime on the school system. These are structural problems with society, not failures of school systems. The more we blame schools for these issues, and the more we think “changing” schools will solve these issues, the more we remove ourselves from any structural solutions to poverty, inequality and broken communities. Education reform in general is one large mass distraction from the broken socioeconomic system under which we all live.

Bill Gates is Khan’s biggest supporter. He says his children use Khan’s videos, yet they do not attend flipped classrooms. Just like every other reformer, they send their own children to elite private schools with small class sizes, veteran teachers and traditional methods. Just like every other reformer, this type of education is somehow not appropriate for everyone else’s children. What Khan’s movement represents is the deskilling of the teaching profession, something the reformers have been aiming at for decades.

The last line of defense for the Khan supporter, as well as the supporter for of many other ed reforms, is that the Khan Academy is just “one more tool” in the teacher’s arsenal. This gets tiring after a while. Teach for America was just one tool to overcome a teacher shortage, now they are pushing out veteran teachers in an age when no shortage exists. Fuzzy Math was one more tool, yet it was foisted on school districts nationwide as the standard curriculum. Young adult literature was one more tool to get students interested in reading, now it is one of the fastest growing literary (I hate using that word) industries around. Now Khan is one more tool. It cannot represent one more tool as well as a paradigm shift in education.

There are so many tools around that teachers do not know which one to use next. Most of these tools are things educators have never asked for, never sought out and never had input into creating. Teachers have been asking for smaller class sizes for years, yet it has never come to pass. We have been calling for the amelioration of childhood poverty for years, yet it continues to get worse. We have called to retain our job protections so that we can speak up for our students, yet they continue to be eroded away. Why not give teachers the tools they have been asking for over the past decades, instead of foisting tools from an ivory tower that were never asked for?

It is because these things were never meant to be tools. They all seek to undermine teaching as a craft, to get as big a slice as the education pie as possible and to hand off the public institution of education off to private corporations.

If you are for the corporatizing of public education, then say so. It never happens like that. Just like Salman Khan, they will sit there with a big grin and act like they have a genuine concern for other peoples’ children. It is the grin of the con artist.

Khan Academy: If You Don’t Like It, You Don’t Get It


This comment was left by someone in response to my post Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy. I was saving it because I think it’s a good discussion piece:

Peter Berger

You say “What innovation does Sal Khan offer in American education besides a pause button?” and, disturbingly, you say that as if it’s a small thing. This shows that you’re missing the point. A pause button is a huge leap in pedagogy. A pause button is world-changing.

First, a pause button is an enabler. It gives the student a degree of agency that they simply don’t have in a brick and mortar classroom. Yes, a student CAN interrupt a class and say “Excuse me, Mr. Smith, but I still don’t understand why x raised a negative exponent is the same as 1/x to some positive exponent.” He can do that once a class. Or twice a class. But at some point – and students learn this very quickly – their doing this interrupts the class, interrupts the lesson, and interferes with the other students. The teacher who, quite understandable, has to strike a balance, has to decide between this one student and the rest of the class.

I want a teacher who I can pause. Just for me. I want a teacher who I can rewind. Just for me. I want a teacher who I can ask to repeat a lesson SIXTY TIMES without feeling embarrassed or stupid. THAT is what Khan Academy is offering students. And THAT is all because of the pause button. The pause button is gigantic, humongous, and hugely important, and if you don’t see that it’s because you’re looking in the wrong direction.

The second thing is that the pause button is a user interface enhancement that makes the lesson itself more enjoyable. This leads directly to people wanting to take the lessons, instead of viewing them as annoying. Ask yourself how many times you would use your DVD player, after perhaps bring it once, if it had no pause button. The answer is self-evident: zero.

Lastly, you’re completely ignoring the exercise components of Khan Academy, so that you can focus on the videos. In my experience, young students find the following attributes of the exercise components extremely beguiling: immediate feedback as to whether they are right or wrong, non-judgmental feedback (as in, they don’t feel embarrassed to make mistakes, but rather are motivated to figure out how to do it better), and completely unbounded amounts of practice. KA is always willing to throw more problems at you, for as long as you want to do them.

Does all of this mean that we should throw away brick and mortar schools, or throw away teachers? Of course not. As someone interested in pedagogy, what I want is to improve all schools, and all teachers. You say it’s “difficult to find people willing to say one negative thing about Khan”. To the contrary, the internet is full of articles from defensive teachers who feel threatened by the publicity KA has received. Your criticisms are par for the course. Unfortunately, I think you will find that it is impossible to construct an accurate criticism of a topic until you understand it. You may understand pedagogy, but you clearly don’t understand what it is that KA has brought to the table. Instead of lashing out defensively, perhaps you ought to try harder to understand what it is that KA is doing right, rather than just assuming that it must be doing everything wrong.

Perhaps — just perhaps — you’d learn something. It’s never too late to learn.

I am not going to speak on the tone in which Mr. Berger writes. Instead, I’d rather let you draw your own conclusions about that.

The fact that people believe a pause button is an educational innovation says a lot about how they see teaching. Sure, you can pause and rewind a video however many times you want. What do you get? The same thing over and over, repeated in the same way.

I know that when students ask me to clarify something, I present the information in a different way than I did originally. That is part of thinking on your feet as a teacher. Every question and comment that a student shares is indirectly a commentary on the lesson. It shows me which information or skills are getting across and which are not, which then informs the manner in which I deliver the rest of the lesson.

There is a reflexive loop between teacher and student, each one guiding the other on what they require. There is no such thing in the Khan Academy. It is a process that requires two human beings.

I can understand students being afraid to ask questions. Teachers have to make students comfortable with asking questions. There are days when my lessons consist of nothing but students asking questions totally unsolicited by me. Through these questions, we are able to cover the content.

Guess what? A kid cannot ask the Khan Academy any questions.

And for students who really need the extra time, to the point where they need to ask a question sixty times in a row, maybe a video would be handy if the information was low-level. But if a student has to ask sixty different questions sixty different times, then they’re going to need individualized attention. I don’t know many teachers who wouldn’t be willing to provide this type of attention during an off-period or after school. I don’t know many schools that do not have tutoring programs for these types of students. In the most severe cases, I don’t know of any school besides charters that do not have special needs programs.

One thing is for certain: for students with these types of issues, the Khan Academy is pretty far down on the list of tools they might require.

I’ve never spoken on Khan Academy’s activities because I believe them to be so self-evidently flawed that I didn’t think I needed to waste the typing finger energy on them. First, they tell the student whether they are right or wrong. This might come as a surprise, but most answers students give in a real classroom are neither right nor wrong. If you as a teacher are giving assignments that elicit thought and provoke discussion, you are encouraging children to construct their own version of truth. On the other hand, if all you’re worried about is if children follow a predetermined script, then you are shutting the thought process down. This is one of the reasons why the Khan Academy has been criticized by its few detractors as promoting nothing more than simplistic, procedural factoids.

“If you know this, you can go on to this.” That is why there is such an obsession with getting kids to earn virtual badges. It reflects the obsession education reformers have with rote, the type of thing that lends itself nicely to bubble-in exams.

Learning is not about levels and factoids. It is a process that integrates factual and conceptual information and entails emotional and moral growth. Again, a good teacher knows how to integrate these things into a lesson. This type of learning is non-existent in Khan Academy world.

And when people claim that the Khan Academy does not aim to replace real teachers, they are ignoring the hype around Khan and falling in love with Salman’s assurances. The fact of the matter is Khan, as well as a slew of online learning programs, have already begun the process. Students who need credits are taking more and more online classes. Universities are offering more and more online degrees. Obama’s proposed plan to reform public universities called for slashing budgets for professors and offering more online courses.

Khan may not say he wants to replace teachers. The President, Bill Gates and those with power have clearly stated otherwise.

It is only in education where the opinions of professionals count for nothing. When someone comes with a billion dollar program to save schools, like the Khan Academy, and it rightly gets ravaged by teachers, the knee-jerk response is “you’re just afraid of losing your job.” This has become a justification to ignore the concerns of educators and go ahead with schemes conceived in the minds of businessmen, politicians and computer programmers.

Believe it or not, educators are motivated by more than self-interest. The Khan Academy deserves criticism because it is nothing new. It brings no new methods to the pedagogical table. Their videos consist of lectures, diagrams and activities that have the feel of games. While the people who push Khan’s videos usually come from outside of the education world, educators who have been teaching children for years recognize Khan for what it is: lectures on tape with a bunch of bells and whistles. None of those lectures or bells does anything any differently from a real teacher. In many cases, it does it worse than an average teacher.

So when educators ravage Khan, it comes from a place not just of self-interest, but the interests of our children. We don’t want our kids to be sat in front of a screen and told it is education. While Bill Gates and all the other reformers continue to send their children to elite private schools with old teachers and small classes, everyone else’s children gets Khan’s videos. Instead of an education that nourishes all parts of the mind and spirit, Khan offers low level knowledge.

And the final reason why educators might dislike Khan is that the people who push it show such disdain for educators and what they do. Khan himself does not have one educator on his team, preferring to use people from the computer programming world instead. The people who support Khan, like the post above shows, thinks teaching children is about drilling facts into heads. It is like they imagine Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller every time they think of teachers.

Just because someone is not impressed with the Khan Academy does not mean they do not understand it. The emperor simply has no clothes.

Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy

Click to play your quality education.


Let me just lay it on the line for all of the proponents of the Khan Academy.

First, I believe Salman Khan is a good man. He believes in what he does and certainly has a grand vision. Moreover, anybody who can attain several degrees from MIT and build a non-profit empire is nobody’s fool. There is a reason why so many people admire him.

And this is precisely the reason why his academy needs its critics. The fact that it is so difficult to find people willing to say one negative thing about Khan makes criticism that much more urgent. The popularity of an idea or a person to me is a tremendous argument against it. I do not fall in line so easily.

But that is just the start.

People have taken issue with the sarcastic tone in my previous posts (here and here) about the Khan Academy. What they do not seem to grasp is that my sarcasm is a reaction to the insufferable arrogance of many of Khan’s proponents. There is a tremendous haughtiness in claiming that something is the “future”.  Not only is it impossible to foresee all of the variables that might shape the future, it is an abdication of your individual responsibility in making conscious choices about the future. Just because something looks like it might bring a paradigm shift does not mean it has to be unquestionably embraced. I am still of the quaint school of thought that the future is what we make of it.

As an educator, I am used to people swooping in with their magic bullets, making all types of wild claims about this or that being the savior of education in America. All of them, every single one, now lie on the trash heap where they belong. I am not saying this will necessarily be Khan’s fate, only that I have good reason to be skeptical.

The arrogance goes even further than that.

The assumption that many of Khan’s supporters make is that brick and mortar schools are failing. Having spent 25 of my 33 years on this planet in brick and mortar classrooms, I beg to differ. Schools are an outgrowth of society. Children in the inner cities who drop out of school do so because of conditions in that society, not because their schools have failed them. There are children who are born to parents in gangs. There are neighborhoods where the only strong male role models are drug dealers and criminals. There are households where the television is on 24 hours a day. In short, there are children, millions of them, who are born into a world where there are no expectations for them outside of the streets, jail and an early grave. If schools are failing, it is because society is failing. If there is an academic “achievement gap”, it is because children are born into a world where a socioeconomic achievement gap is already well entrenched.

This is not excuse-making or scapegoating. This is reality. The actual scapegoaters are the people who blame schools for this inequality. Doing so allows them to continue to put their fingers in their ears so they can go on pretending poverty and horrid inequalities are not real problems in need of solutions, let alone discussion.

And because most of the critics of brick and mortar classrooms are so far removed from those classrooms, they can approach the issue in no other way than to look at standardized test scores. Never mind the fact that the research on the efficacy of judging children and schools by test scores is murky at best. Never mind the fact that countries with the best school systems, like Finland, eschew testing. Never mind that Finland gives their teachers autonomy over the profession so that outsiders cannot just waltz in and offer their half-digested opinions on what teachers should be doing. None of this matters to Khan Academy advocates, because their advocacy is based on supreme arrogance.

Somehow, the Khan supporters who have made their way to this website have accused me of misunderstanding Khan’s vision. Yet, they leave it at that and do not show me where the misunderstanding lies. Again, after years of seeing magic bullets in education, I can spot when the emperor has no clothes.

To assume that Khan is doing anything new outside of making videos is just nonsense. It is just plain insulting to have people assume that Khan does things that teachers in brick and mortar classrooms are not doing. You do not think teachers are building lessons inductively? You do not think teachers are bending over backwards to use technology in their lessons? You do not think teachers provide a wide range of activities, differentiated (as the current jargon goes), for varied learning levels and styles? You do not think teachers monitor what their students do, without the need for fancy graphs to show them which of their students did what in how much time? You do not think teachers give out awards, accolades, praise and encouragement, just like Khan awards badges to students for being experts? I shudder to think what you actually think teachers are actually doing.

Yes, I realize that Sal Khan’s ideal classroom is one where students build robots and solve problems for most of the day. How much robot building do you think will go on in classrooms in Harlem, whether that classroom has a flesh-and-blood teacher or one made of pixels? Are you willing to provide the resources (through your taxes) to shower schools with the materials needed for students to engage in such activities? Do you think Sal Khan is the first person with the bright idea of project-based, hands-on learning?  The arrogance is astounding.

I have an arrogant question of my own: what innovation does Sal Khan offer in American education besides a pause button?

But the saving grace of the Khan acolyte is the idea that Khan’s is a worldwide vision. We can put a few Khan videos in our pockets, go to Africa and bring education to the kids over there. I have no doubt that Khan and his supporters are genuine in this belief. I also have no doubt this represents more of the same arrogance.

Sure, we could send an army of educational missionaries to the underdeveloped world. It would be an efficient way to educate masses of people on the cheap. What the heck, right? This is the educational wave of the future.

Instead of asking if we could, maybe we should first ask if we should. Does this really represent the best that we can do at the moment for the schooling of children worldwide, including our own children? After generations of sucking the third world dry of its resources, dropping bombs on their homes and meddling in their politics, are we really so easily duped as to think Khan videos can even begin to uplift the education of their children? It is typical, well-fed western arrogance. It is the same belief that leads us to think that designer jeans, rock music and movies make people in other countries better off. These are signs of what we think “civilization” is. The Khan Academy is the Levi’s of schools.

The greatest gift we can give to the children of the entire world is the gift of providing a quality education to our children first. The greatest way we can be a beacon of hope to everyone else is if the children of America’s inner cities are provided with the same education currently reserved for the children of America’s elite. It is amazing how Bill Gates can tout the Khan Academy as the panacea for everyone else’s children. While the Bloombergs, Broads and Obamas of the world send their children to brick and mortar schools with small class sizes and all the enrichment activities one could ask for, everyone else’s children are given the url to the Khan Academy.

It is the absolute pinnacle of arrogance to assume we can uplift the people of other countries without uplifting our own. We have not learned what a true investment in America’s education would mean, yet we think we can bring that lesson to every corner of the earth. We have a duty to the rest of the world to be honest with ourselves first. Until that time, we are merely being disingenuous.

Educating is about providing role models. America has a duty to be a role model to the rest of the world. While Khan and his admirers are genuine in their vision, it is not a vision that will make us the role models that our children, and the children of the world, need us to be.

Finally, More Criticism of the Khan Academy


My last criticism of Salman Khan’s Khan Academy was met with much criticism of its own. Many people are firmly convinced that Khan’s videos are the future of education. The comments section was just a small taste of how fervently people have embraced Salman Khan. Since then, cogent criticisms of the Khan Academy have been tough to come by.

That is why I appreciate the detailed essay posted on the Mathalicious website about the Khan Academy’s videos. Whenever someone writes one bad word about the genial Salman Khan, you can be sure a line of psychophants will line up to educate that person about how they are just too dumb to realize that Sal represents the future of schooling.

Read the post and then the comments and you will see this scenario play out like clockwork. This is just more evidence that we need more criticisms of the Khan Academy on the internet.

The Khan Academy and the Snake Oil of Education Deform


——- Original Post———

The Huffington Post ran their Best in TED Talks for 2011. Coming in at number two is Salman Khan, whose online Khan Academy they tout as educational manna from heaven. His videos have made him the favorite “educator” of Bill Gates. Khan is a bright young man, an ivy-league graduate and perhaps the single best representation of what is wrong with the education deform movement.

Khan has a great backstory. He started out by tutoring a relative online. His lessons were very clear, helped along by a computer drawing program that helped the student visualize math concepts. Khan realized that, if he could do this with math, he could do this with any subject. The idea for the Khan Academy was born. Since then, he has used his own resources and time to make thousands of videos on a wide range of subjects.

First, who has the time and the resources to make thousands of educational videos? That’s right, an ivy-league grad who comes from money who does not have to worry about things like holding down a job. But, he is an educational innovator, right? What educator has ever used visuals and pacing when teaching new concepts? How about, MOST EDUCATORS? The first thing that came to mind when looking at Khan’s videos was, “hey, that is what I do.” All of my lessons start out basic and work up the ladder of complexity. I am helped along by visuals that I have either photocopied for my students or drawn on the board. (Yes, there is plenty to draw when teaching history.)

But, in the eyes of the general public, public school teachers who do this every day are lazy union bums who are afraid of the Khan Academy’s awesome, cutting-edge pedagogy. The way I see it, there are only two differences between Khan and most teachers I know: 1) we are not wealthy and so Americans do not automatically worship everything we say and 2) we teach in the flesh and not on a screen. We do not have the time to make thousands of videos because we are too busy dealing with real life children with real life learning and behavior issues.

“Oh, but the student can go at their own pace with Khan Academy videos.” Yeah, that is a great argument. Apparently, the pause button on youtube will be the savior of the education system. A kid can stop a lesson whenever their cell phone rings or whenever they want to do some facebooking. There will be no teacher or parent there requiring their kids have even a modicum of an attention span. I wonder if this is the type of education Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg or Arne Duncan would want their own kids to have. I forgot, the “Academies” they send their children to have real teachers with small class sizes. The rest of us get “virtual” academies like Khan’s. It is perfect training for all of the virtual jobs, homes and relationships our kids will have when they are grown.

The last refuge of the Khan cheerleader is “this is not the solution to our education problem, it is just one more tool educators can use.” I would believe that if Khan was not co-opted by the Gates Foundation. I would believe that if Khan had locked himself up in a dingy basement somewhere making these videos, then networked with educators across the country and said “here, you can use this for your students, it is a learning aide”. He would be a true philanthropist and educator in that case. Instead, he has allowed himself to become a deformer shill and believes in his own propaganda that his videos represent a paradigm shift in education.

No, Salman Khan represents what is wrong with the deform movement. He assumes that he is the first to use what amounts to a very basic teaching technique. The assumption is that teachers in public schools have not discovered this inspired, cutting edge pedagogical method of drawing pictures and building towards complexity. He has the one method that unlocks learning in any subject with any child and he is going to show all of us idiots how it is done. Because he is wealthy and educated we buy into the propaganda about him, while he has bought into it himself.

My response to Sal Khan and his adorers is this: nice videos. You have a knack for teaching. The only difference between me and you is that you are on a screen and I am in flesh. Kids can press pause on you and come back to you later. I, on the other hand, have to help my students resist their desire to press pause on me when they tire of my lesson. That is because my class has no pause button. If they press pause in my class, that means they have tuned me out and become alienated from me, the subject, the school and the learning process in general. No, I cannot afford to have my students press pause, Mr. Khan. I have to teach my kids to not press pause. I have to teach this because they live in a world where pausing and restarting is the way to handle problems. Not incidentally, pausing and restarting are two functions you can find on a Microsoft Xbox or PC. I suppose this is why you are Bill Gates’ favorite educator. You see, he wants a generation of people who internalize pausing and restarting. Just because Bill Gates and half the nation celebrates your genius does not mean you have found the keys to teaching. You’re a smart man, Mr. Khan, but I have been doing what you do for over a decade now, only better and in the flesh. While you have been celebrated, I have been vilified. Even this criticism will be interpreted by your supporters as another lazy teacher scared of losing his tenure and his job. Believe that prejudice if you want. I am more concerned with the fact that my students will grow up without attention spans or imaginations or the ability for critical thinking because we are obsessed with the ideas of well-spoken wealthy people who believe kids can be educated on computers and be taught that filling in bubbles on a test is “learning”.  I am concerned with creating a future of automatons instead of citizens. Worst of all, I am worried that they will grow up to be the type of automatons that drool over the hare-brained, ill-conceived words of wealthy people that think they occupy a higher moral plane because they have won in business. I want the next generation to be citizens with the ability to question power and wealth. This is what you fear, which explains why you hate teachers like me.