Khan Academy

This article, really irritates me.

It leads with a good point: the problem with math education is that it fails to connect math to the real world, and the author claims that Khan Academy has this same flaw. Fair enough. I agree that the central problem with math education is that students see no reason to learn math. Learning is hard, it requires a certain amount of struggle, and trying to get anyone to learn something they do is unlikely to produce lasting learning. They may memorize some procedures for a test, but they won’t be able to use it in their life or build on it in the future. This has little to do with Khan academy except insofar as Khan academy tends to teach a series of techniques without really motivating them or answering the larger question of relevance. I don’t know that this is necessarily true.

This is where things go down hill.

The next critique is that Khan Academy hired computer scientists instead of teachers. The author thinks teaching should be improved by helping to hone the craft of teaching. But let’s get real, we have been honing the craft of teach for a few hundred years now, how much better is it going to get. Khan Academy is about the medium, not the message. They are not trying to reform the math curriculum, however desirable that would be. They are trying to change the process by which people learn.

Teaching is currently done in a non-scalable way, and software and video is completely scalable. A video, once shot, can be replayed a million times at any speed. A program can be executed almost for free. No one thinks that videos or programs can compete with the best a human being can do, but they don’t need to—most people don’t have Richard Feynman as their high school physics instructor. The point is that despite how inferior video is as a medium it is possible to take the best possible video of instruction that mankind can produce and let the poorest student in the world have access to it (yes, assuming they have a computer…but you get the point).

If someone has an idea about how to re-orient the math curriculum, they can make their own videos and programs and give them to the world. The point about scalability is that only one person needs to do this for everyone to benefit.

And the rest of the article is just the silly teacher’s union stuff about how teachers, unlike every other profession in the world, can’t possibly be evaluated. The fact is, teachers can be evaluated, and good teachers make a bigger difference than anything else in how much students learn. Standardized tests aren’t perfect, but they are the best tool we have for identifying good and bad teachers. I think this paper shows fantastic work to identify the impact of good teachers. The obvious fix, to reward the good teachers and replace the bad ones, isn’t possible in most places because of politics, which makes teaching somewhat unique in that respect.