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.

23 responses to “Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Whether Mr. Khan is sincere in his vision is beside the point. It is also said that Wendy Kopp was/is sincere about her vision of TFA, yet it has evolved into a vehicle for undermining and privatizing the public schools.

    The hype surrounding Khan stems from the same impulse. While his intentions may not have been “born in sin,” the purposes behind their implementation is the same: automation, lowered labor costs, with some gadget-worship and bogus futurism thrown in as a garnish.

    As a classroom teacher, I appreciate your skepticism regarding this and every other Trojan Horse masquerading as a panacea.

    • Definitely. For people like you and me who have been around for a while, we see right through the Khan Academy right away. My last two Khan Academy postings were peppered with strong language, causing sanctimonious responses from its supporters. Now that they do not have the opportunity to hide their shallow ideas behind a cloud of sanctimony, notice how they have not made their appearance in response to this post. It says everything about Khan and his acolytes.

      You are absolutely right. The KA is the morning star of what promises to be a much bigger push to completely deskill the art of teaching.

      • I found your site by looking for critiques of the Khan academy. I am trying to formulate my own opinion about it plus I have my own on-line teaching site which I feel is better than Khan 🙂

        I think that the disconnect between Khan and you (yuze) folks in formal education is that you each have a different outlook as to where real education comes from. I myself am an engineer and I hang out with engineers all the time so I have a good understanding as to the mindset of an engineer. I am going to project that mindset onto Khan and Bill Gates and tell you what I believe they think in their soul and how it differs from your mission as a teacher.

        I believe (and I suspect that Khan believes this as well) that education does not come from the outside but comes from within. Khan and other highly motivated learners never really needed you guys, they were going to educate themselves by whatever means they could, be it good (or bad) teachers, books, articles, doodling on back of notebooks etc…

        I believe (and am projecting this to Khan) that we actually self educate, and that great tools are a great benefit to anyone who wants to educate themselves. Khan offers OK material, but….. he offers so much material (with the pause button) that the person who wants to learn a particular concept …NOW.. will find his site indispensable.

        So Khan delivers pretty good content as a one stop shop for the motivated learner (I am not really addressing the flipped classroom stuff, bit more the independent minded person who goes to his site). He has done a remarkable job.

        Now, your problem is that you are “responsible” for the education of whatever students you are dealt who are in your class. You are graded on how well these students do whether they are motivated learners or not. You feel responsible for their education, because you are graded on it. In my model of the world, real education comes from within and I do not really concern myself with the unmotivated learners, nor does Khan really. Khan provides material for the motivated learner and worries not too much beyond that.

        Your job is to continuously try to transform your students into motivated learners PLUS teach them material once they are motivated learners PLUS cram enough crap into the so-so/unmotivated learners to get them to know something, and hopefully pass their standardized test.

        I think this is part of the disconnect between Khan and teachers within the establishment.

        As a footnote about where education comes from ….

        I have spent a lot of time pondering the world as it was 75 to 100 years ago. This was an era where my grandparents did not complete , or even enter high school. And yet my one grandfather (3rd grade “education”) was a tool and die maker and had a successful custom auto business prior to the depression and also had a few patents. This “uneducated” generation built the empire state building and all the weapons for WWII plus built hundreds of big US corporations. As I ponder this I ask myself how did all these uneducated people do so much? I was in Rome several years ago and I saw the Colosseum. the building skills needed were fantastic. These were not skills that 1 slave driver driving 1000 slaves could manage. I would say at least 10% of that workforce had to REALLY know what they were doing and >50% had to be very good at what they did. Where did the drive to be good at building come from? Certainly not an education system as we know it. I could go on about the great cathedrals in Europe.

        I have also pondered whether 100 years ago society was better off letting the 14 year old boys (with ADHD haha) go out and get involved in society and become useful members ASAP, rather than holding them in their seats for 4 more years teaching them all kinds of bad attitudes …

        I am rambling now so I am done 🙂

  2. It does not matter what we like or don’t like, it’s our children’s likes and dislikes that matter. Parents won’t buy toys, food or clothing without having their kids actually want them in the first place; therefore, it only makes sense that no parent is forcing their child to go to KA, the child is demanding to go there on his own. The popularity depends on the viewers, right? I can show my kids 10 videos and they will gravitate to the one who makes the math problem easy to understand. I’ve returned to college at the age of 38 and I personally like the math lab that comes with my text. However, my children,ages 14,13 and 11 love KA. So it doesn’t matter what I think, they are the ones bringing me As in math and algebra so I won’t complain.

    • when I was referring to toys, food and clothing, I was referring to the flavors, brands, colors….the specifics. Obviously we as parents provide our kids with what they need without their asking for it. However we don’t force our kids to eat food that they hate, we try to find something that they like so they can eat without fuss. My kids love fish, they can’t stand chicken; why would I force them to eat a meat they time and time again tell me they do not like? My daughter loves the color blue; why would I force her to wear yellow? My kids have taste in music, books, magazine and board games, why would I force products on them they clearly do not like. KA is popular for one reason and one reason only and it’s because the student likes it. PERIOD.

      • Whether kids like it or not is besides the point. Children like a nurturing learning experience in which they feel they are making progress. Pixels on the screen are not nurturing, nor are they individualized. All it is is the deskilling of the art of teaching by a bunch of people who are not, and never were, teachers.

    • It doesn’t matter what we “like”, it matters what we think will make our children critical thinkers, lifelong learners and solid citizens. Let’s take your point to its ultimate conclusion and have kids do what they “like” all of the time. There would be no school, no homework, no reading, no projects and, yes, even no Khan Academy. It doesn’t matter what we like, right? It’s all about what the children think is best. You may want to abdicate responsibility for the guidance of children, I refuse to do so.

      But, forget that, do you mean to tell me children “like” the Khan Academy more than a nurturing, dynamic classroom? Sometimes yes, sometimes no I would say, depending on the kid.

      You like Khan’s videos because you are an adult learner with what is most likely a solid academic background and a sense of self-motivation. This sense was already cultivated in you by brick and mortar schools with living breathing teachers. If you were 25 years younger, you would not have the same attitude about KA unless, of course, an actual teacher had prepped you beforehand in how to use Khan’s videos.

      I find your opening statement amazing: “Parents won’t buy toys, food or clothing without having their kids actually want them in the first place.” Are you serious? So a parent would not buy a Sunday church outfit for their kids, even though the kid would be more comfortable in jeans and t-shirt? Parents do not/should not buy their child a musical instrument, an educational toy or a book when their children are young because their children do not usually ask for such things?

      Simply incredible. I hope you were speaking loosely here.

      • Hi, I have a quick question about something you wrote.

        “If you were 25 years younger, you would not have the same attitude about KA unless, of course, an actual teacher had prepped you beforehand in how to use Khan’s videos.”

        The implication here is that students and teachers can be taught “how to use Khan’s videos”. Just for clarification purposes, is that what you intended to say? That there is the potential for these things to be useful?

        Though I agree that we should be very careful not to hero-worship tech whizzes, I can also imagine a world in which carefully prepared teachers can use KA to enhance, rather than replace, a classroom education. I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing kind of thing, and I feel that there is room for nuance in education policy with regards to how to integrate technology.

        And just as a side comment – I also agree it’s not necessarily true that we always do good things for kids because they like it. On the other hand, I think it’s way too early to assume that Khan Academy isn’t an effective teaching tool when used appropriately. These things take time to assess, and the results haven’t quite come in yet on KA.

        Just some food for thought.

      • Thanks for the question. Just to clarify, I never believed, nor have I ever said, that Khan cannot be useful. With the proper preparation, any video (not just Khan’s) can be useful.

        My argument has always been, and continues to be, that the Khan Academy is not a paradigm shift in education. What is more, Khan’s funding, influence and popularity has been blown well out of proportion to the type of real use these videos can have for the classroom.

        In Khan’s case in particular, I have taken great pains to show that Khan’s videos have a very limited use for a very limited group of students. If Khan remained unfunded, un-Gatesified (my own made up word) and just a guy doing videos in his basement, he would be a great man. The fact is that Khan, and the people who back him, see his Academy as more than just a tool.

        Thanks for the question, and for not jumping to ridiculous conclusions about the points I have been trying to make about Khan.

      • Haha yeah I dunno. You seem to sound really angry in most of your posts (justifiably so), which is maybe why people misconstrue your arguments.

      • There is a fine line between anger and passion. Sometimes I might not do the best job of balancing.

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  6. I clearly see no more than emotional reasoning, its evident that you are just protecting your job or what you love, and I dont blame you, we are humans, BUT as that, we can also use reason over emotion. I will bet that the people who are neglecting Khan are mostly classrooms teachers, dont know why (?). Period.

    PS: I dont plan to response anything (but the case is that I really want to, but…) i gotta study… (Sorry for my english, Im a spanish speaker)

  7. 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.

  8. Correcting my typos after posting:

    “The teacher who, quite understandable,” -> “The teacher who, quite understandably,”

    “Ask yourself how many times you would use your DVD player, after perhaps bring it once” -> “Ask yourself how many times you would use your DVD player, after perhaps trying it once”

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  10. Does KA really need critics? What if it is not the dawning of a new era in education? My son is using it and making progress. It is an arrow in his quiver. If someone thinks wrongly that KA is infallible, it seems to be a crime without a victim, right?

    I enjoyed and agreed with much of the post. But I disagree with the premise that this is battle that really needs to be fought with sarcasm or fury.

  11. Call me a convert or a heretic or a blue sky person that has drank that cool aid but KA is amazing. Yes there are other teaching methods that use the same teaching tools but what has been captured is a “great teacher”. Technology allows us to share that gem efficiently and on a wide scale. I have to say I am so tired of how society and education is going. The fair agenda, the self-esteem agenda etc.. I especially enjoy the idea that we can let the children “discover” the laws of physics, motion etc. If you look at many of the greatest discoveries that were ever made it is typically one genius or at best a few really really smart people e.g. Newton, Einstein or Oppenhiemer and his team of 4 (sorry I couldn’t help myself with that reference). I am shocked that my kids spend only 5 productive hours a day in school at best. 3200 videos X @ 10 min / 60 = 533 Hours x 1 hour per day = about 1.4 years; if you did one hour of work everyday (add an additional hour for the homework and it would be only 2 hours per day). I think we definitely have some efficiency problems in the standard model.

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  13. Thank you much for your post. I found it by searching “SK attitude” because I wanted to see if there was anything written about Mr. Khan that might confirm my perception that SK thinks he has stumbled on something brand new and that he has indeed reinvented the wheel when it comes to education.
    My perception of Mr. Khan comes from listening to his book “The One World Schoolhouse” and from being trained in a school of education, graduating in 2005. I found Mr. Khan’s theories on education to be at once idealistic and also arrogant. Idealistic because they are based on the foundation that, as previous posters have shared, all kids are motivated to learn the material. Of course, anyone who has taught in a 7-12 school knows that kids have a variety of concerns- most attributable to safety, security, growth, self-identification, etc. – that often trump their desire to learn the hard sciences and other subjects. In his book Mr. Khan draws from his experience working with summer campers in San Francisco and his niece Nadia. I submit that these experiences drive Mr. Khan’s idealism and corrupt his views on education of the masses. Having worked at summer camps myself I know firsthand how he feels – problem based learning and active learning are freaking awesome! However, having worked in the traditional public school calendar the motivation teachers can expect to extract from students day to day from August to June is grossly different than at a summer camp. Mr. Khan also describes how he and his college roommate missed all of their scheduled classes at MIT to do problems on their own and at their own pace. In addition to sounding too much like Good Will Hunting, I found Mr. Khan’s ideas to be terrible policy. I can only imagine a typical student’s retort to their parent – “Mr. Khan says I don’t have to go to class, he didn’t and look how smart he is, I’ll learn more from doing the problems.” Ha ha ha ha ha. Uh huh.
    His ideas are arrogant b/c they are not new and they are not his. As previous posters have noted hard-working teachers in every state practice all of “his” methods everyday. He assails the traditional model as if it is actually in practice across the land. I know this b/c when I completed my degree in 2005 I used multiple modes of instruction as I was instructed to do. It’s as if Mr. Khan hired a Dr. of Education to tell him about pedagogical models so that he could then use them as his ideas in his book. But wait, there is also you tube which he humbly states was not his idea. Thanks to him for that. That might have been a bit overboard, e.g. Al Gore.
    But, I agree with other posters here that his videos can be very helpful and are indeed a great tool for educators. The problem with KA is that it is being billed as the solution to the problem of public schools. I submit that a video teacher can NEVER be the solution to educating our nation’s children. Keep in mind, state constitutions from Maine to Hawaii require children to be educated. Because of these mandates there will always be an argument about how best to do it. It is unfortunate that we are so confused about how to do it.
    Finally, I disagree with those that say KA is not a full out threat to public schools. Of course, as I said, KA should be used as a tool in public schools, but the reformers, are manipulating his “research” and methods to dismantle public education as we know it. Teachers have to stand up together right now and fight. They must stop whining and complaining and organize. Our kids depend on them.

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