Tag Archives: Technology

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.

What We Were Never Told about Teaching Kids for the 21st Century

Is this teaching for the 21st century? Is this teaching at all?

The first principal I worked under was genuinely a good man. He understood that the attention spans of kids at our school were damaged by years of watching television. In his mind, the only way to reach our children was to use technology in the service of education. You want to teach gravity? Show a clip of Wiley Coyote falling from a cliff. Since then, I have encountered many dedicated teachers who buy into similar ideas. When the vampire romance series “Twilight” was becoming popular with teenagers, I had expressed concern that the poor writing and shallow emotions would give them a false sense of literature. One of my colleagues, a very good English teacher, responded that he was happy they were reading anything at all. Educators young and old, myself included, recognize the impacts our ubiquitous pop culture has on kids. Yet, for some reason, I have never been as permissive when it comes to using it in the service of education. I decided to reflect upon why I am such a fuddy-duddy.

Some of it stems from what inspired me to become a teacher in the first place. I was inspired by Henry Adams’ famous sentiment about teachers affecting eternity. History’s greatest teachers like Buddha, Socrates or Jesus are long dead, yet their teachings continue to inspire. While I entertain no illusions about even having a thimble’s-worth of their influence, their simplicity has always been my ideal. These guys had no smart boards and had never sat through a lecture on differentiation, yet they were the most successful teachers of all time. Now, it might be pointed out that a sage with a motivated audience is much different than a public school teacher with a room of mostly unwilling teenagers. However, I do not take this to mean that our children do not respond to humanity and simplicity. Occupy Wall Street resonates with young people because it asks humane questions about an inhumane system. It forces us to confront the language of modernity (free markets, corporate influence, electoral politics, national security, etc.) with the language of simple humanity. On a grander scale, the religious revival that has taken place around the world (the Evangelicals in America’s Sunbelt, the Islamic resurgence in the Middle East, etc.) symbolizes humanity reaching for humanity amidst the encroachments of modernity. I see my role as a history teacher as a mission to connect children to a sense of humanity. Not only is it a time-tested pedagogy, it is an essential value children will need in order to navigate the modern world.

It is this mission that causes me to shy away from showing Looney Tunes or assigning bad books to my kids. While I acknowledge that modern culture is to the brain what sugar is to the teeth (namely, a corrosive force), I do not see how more corrosion is educationally sound. To me, a short attention span is a problem that needs to be solved, not a framework that needs to be reinforced. A nation of people with short attention spans is a nation ripe for propaganda. Corporate advertisers and political demagogues rely on short attention spans to hawk their wares, weather it is an essentially unnecessary consumer product or a destructive public policy. Aspiring to communicate knowledge to our children in the same ways that corporatists communicate their agendas only trivialize the learning process. It puts essential knowledge on the same frivolous plane as advertising, entertainment and mainstream news coverage. Teachers who want to go with the flow of modernity communicate to children that the wider world can only be accessed through sound bites, images and base emotions. We become marketers instead of teachers. The worth of an idea is measured in the impact it can make in less than 60 seconds. As a teacher, I see my role as one that should be as far removed from the methods of modernity as possible. If children get hours of mind-destroying imagery from popular culture, than I must demand of them that they pay attention for the 45 consecutive minutes they are in my classroom. I demand that those 45 minutes are treated as whole cloth and not something that can be broken into smaller chunks of images and activities.

My hope is that treating those 45 minutes like whole cloth demonstrates for students that knowledge itself is part of the whole cloth of humanity. That humanity is reinforced by the fact that no computer or television stands before them. One can learn from a teacher or a peer in a deep and lasting way. It is this experience, now more than ever, that is vital for our students to have. We have become too enthralled with the idea of pushing our children towards computers or smart boards in the name of preparing them for a modern world. Nobody seems to think that the modern world needs people with the ability to learn from human interaction or the desire to dive to the depths of new ideas. There is just the blind acceptance that schools need to pump out kids prepared to live in an increasingly complex society. There is no mention of how humanity has been reaching for something fuller, more familiar and simple than what modernity can offer us. The standardized testing forced onto the schools by both Bush and Obama is the centralized push to make schools places where children are severed from their own humanity. Standardized exams chop knowledge up into consumable sound bites. They will require computers to administer them. The reformers want to continue the degradation of the American attention span. It has been their stock-in-trade for decades. They are the same people responsible for the brain-rotting mass culture in which our children are ensconced, like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. Every time a teacher stresses knowledge and humanity over modernity, they resist the reformers and their desire for a nation of vegetables.