Tag Archives: Flipped Classroom Criticisms


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.


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.