Critics hit the math of Khan

Khan Academy’s free math videos teach procedures rather than concepts, according to critics, reports the San Jose Mercury News. A “Mystery Teacher Theatre 2000” video by two Michigan professors, David Coffey and John Golden, pokes fun at a Khan lesson on how to multiply and divide negative number. (Sal Khan responded by posting a revised lesson.) Dan Meyer, a Stanford University doctoral candidate in education, who blogs at dy/dan and Justin Reich, who blogs at EdTech Researcher, are offering $750 in prizes for the best online critique of Khan Academy videos. The deadline is Wednesday.

Some teachers are using Khan videos to “flip” their teaching. Instead of listening to a teacher’s explanation in class and doing problems as homework, students watch video explanations at home and work through problems in class with the teacher there to help.

But, Coffey said, that model sticks with the old-fashioned I-talk-you-listen mode of teaching.

. . . Math teacher Hye Lee Han, in San Jose’s Evergreen School District, this summer had her class of struggling students preparing for eighth-grade algebra skip the videos and just tackle the Khan questions. She was using Khan Academy for the first time, to supplement her lessons.

“I love it,” she said about Khan. What she really likes is the color-coded, real-time spreadsheet showing each student’s progress, including the number of attempts at solving each problem. “I can keep track of them, who’s mastered it, who’s struggling,” she said.

Khan’s virtual rewards are popular with students.

An SRI study of Khan Academy’s effectiveness in the classroom will be released this fall.

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  1. Is this going to be a replay of the attacks on phonics where its alleged that the end result is kids who can read but can’t understand what they read?

    I supposed it’s arguable whether that’s a better outcome then kids who can understand what they read but can’t read although the evidence suggests the former is a better result then the latter.

  2. The most important sentence in this post is in parentheses: “Sal Khan responded by posting a revised lesson.” Tell an ed-school graduate–just a graduate, not a professor–that the entire methodology they’ve been taught is wrong, and there is no revision, ever. Mr. Khan wants people to learn, not for Mr. Kahn to be absolutely correct all the time.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      The most important sentence in this post is in parentheses: ‘Sal Khan responded by posting a revised lesson.’


      One of the huge advantages to recorded and computer based learning is that the current approach is fixed, can be critiqued and can be improved. One teacher in a classroom, not so much.

      There are *dis*-advantages to the recorded/computer approach, too, but it is very nice to see Kahn leveraging the advantages …

    • Obi-Wandreas says:

      He only posted a revised version of this video because massive attention was called to it. I tried to watch a few videos, and simply couldn’t get through the first minute because of how badly they were done and presented. He admittedly does not prepare anything before making a video, and it shows. They are, from what I have seen, a rambling idiotic mess at some times, and downright wrong at others. Is he going to go through and revise them all, or do we have to wait for an MST3K style take down of each one first?

      The idea is a good one. The execution, however, leaves something to be desired.

  3. I am not about to criticize anyone who blows escape routes through the walls of the US K-12 State-monopoly school system or who makes education available free to children in poor countries. Khan’s attempt is noble. If we are lucky others will imitate and modify the Khan model and the trickle of escapees that the Khan Academy enables will turn into a flood that wipes the current structure from the map. I expect to see it in the next 15 years.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      ” I expect to see it in the next 15 years.”

      From your keyboard to God’s ears.

    • One thing that could accelerate it is the insistence on heterogeneous grouping, including mainstreaming/full inclusion, and the associated removal of gifted/honors classes – particularly in ES. Combined with the government-promoted socioeconomic integration programs (which began in some areas, like MoCo, MD over 20 yrs ago), the result is that able and motivated kids are not getting challenging academics and they are also forced to share classrooms with more kids whose behavior and attitudes are problems. Not all SES integration kids fall into this pattern,of course, but significant numbers do – we’ve seen it in action.It doesn’t take many disruptive and or disinterested kids to spoil opportunities for their whole class. Both factors are likely to erode support for public education among middle and upper-middle class families – particularly those who have worked to afford housing in areas with good schools (now less so) but can’t afford private school.

      • This is exactly what happened to my son in what is considered to be a good school. Now we have to work together to undo the damage that was done during school. Online is a real option seriously being considered here.

  4. So much wrongness and predictable tedium.

    Tell an ed-school graduate–just a graduate, not a professor–that the entire methodology they’ve been taught is wrong, and there is no revision, ever. Mr. Khan wants people to learn, not for Mr. Kahn to be absolutely correct all the time.

    Um. What? I have no love for ed schools, but you’re woefully ignorant of ed school if you think that they aren’t required to “reflect” on their lesson, ask others for feedback, and fix. Ed school graduates–otherwise known as teachers, which Khan is not, actually–do, in fact want their students to learn.

    And if you told Khan that his entire methodology was wrong, that the whole process of putting lessons on youtube and “flipping” classes was foolish and ill-advised, you think he’d say “Oh, good to know!” Of course not.

    So if you were capable of comparing like to like, which clearly you are not, your entire analogy wouldn’t hold. Teachers do correct mistakes if they discover them, and Khan would not change his entire methodology just because someone didn’t like it.

    I am not about to criticize anyone who blows escape routes through the walls of the US K-12 State-monopoly school system or who makes education available free to children in poor countries.

    What on earth are you talking about? He’s blown nothing through anything, and there’s nothing he did, including videos, that weren’t available before he did them. All he got was publicity, because he was rich when he did it. And any teacher who has ever posted a video on youtube has “made education available to children in poor countries”. Of course, what idiot deludes himself that there are tons of children here or in poor countries just dying for a chance to view a math videol.

    And oooooh, look, here’s Mom with a call for tracking, because she hasn’t made that post a couple jillion times before. And completely off-topic, too!

    • The ed schools I went to remind me greatly of the catholic church (or any other vast religion) where it’s ok to squabble about the flowers on the altar or the charisma (or lack thereof) of a particular priest, but you certainly can’t question the existence of god, saints, angels, etc.

      We wrote reflections all the time in ed school. It was a form of confession. But nowhere during the three years that I wasted was there any questioning of the ideas that the ed school elite hold dear. I don’t think it would be possible to openly say that you support ability grouping, standardized testing in any form, an end to social promotion, or less “technology” in the classroom by having the kids put the calculators aside for a while without screwing your chances for a decent letter of recommendation from the so-called professors (usually just teachers moonlighting). Just like catholic school you were aware that it just wouldn’t do much good to declare yourself an atheist because such ideas just weren’t kosher.

      We’d have “discussions” in ed school that would go something like this: “South Korea does better in math than we do. Discuss.” You’d think that the next logical question would be “What do the S Koreans do that we don’t”. Nope. Not once would anyone (including the faculty. especially the faculty) suggest that maybe US methods were inferior. Nope. It was always “funding”. We just don’t have the funding to train all teacher in our brilliant methods. Poor districts especially.

      Also, look at all the blog posts by teachers and ed school faculty who excuse our mediocre PISA and TIMSS performances by crying poverty. Not once have I seen anything that casts blame on teaching methods or curriculum. (Except in forums like this one, but this isn’t the edu-mainstream)

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I like your analogy of ed schools and the Roman Catholic church. Though they are different in lots of ways, they both try to create a community of faith. They both see themselves as having a mission to make change in a world in need of fixing–though the one uses terms like “morals” and the other uses terms like “social justice.” Because they are a force for good in the world, they tend to see people who disagree as not just wrong but evil (though, again, different, more secular words, are probably used–but the emotion is the same).

    • Your lack of love for ed schools would be more convincing if you could point to an example or two of the progress in that area of scholarship resulting from all that vigorous reflection. Tell me, how has all the feedback from the results of whole language informed reflection on the subject of reading instruction?

      Oh, and as long as you’re concerned with comparing like to like, Sal Khan’s efforts are for nothing if he doesn’t convince parents their kids are learning and convince kids their time is well-spent on his site. If parents think is a waste of time their kids aren’t likely to use it and if the kids fight back against using the facility of parents are less likely to force the issue.

      Contrast that state of affairs with the public education system in which parental concerns are immaterial and whether kids learn hardly matters at all.

      You are right however in asserting that Sal Khan didn’t blow an escape route through the walls of the US K-12 State-monopoly school system.

      That feat was accomplished by the US K-12 State-monopoly school system by exhausting the patience of the electorate with endless failure matched only by endlessly blaming everything in sight to avoid any responsibility for the job the US K-12 State-monopoly school system is supposed to be doing.

  5. Sorry, I am not an educator, just someone who used Khan academy a few months ago to brush up on some linear algebra stuff I needed for a class. I spent about three hours watching various videos and was able to learn the math I needed. Did I learn “procedures” rather than “concepts”? I have no idea. I just know I learned what I needed – for free – and moved on.

    I suspect we’re just seeing the beginning of what will become open warfare. Khan and his ilk threaten a lot of livelihoods and, eventually, I suspect real money will be brought in for an all-out attack. Expect lawsuits, name calling, personal attacks and allegations of scandal in his personal life. He’ll get the full Socrates treatment before it’s all over. I wish them all luck, but it’s going to be hard.

    • I don’t know about the open warfare…but I do think that what you describe is the perfect use for Khan and other online videos. If you need linear algebra stuff for a class, then presumably that class isn’t teaching that stuff, because they expect you already know it, and you forgot it, or some similar sequence of events. That’s a perfect time for an online video, even an imperfect or downright lousy one, because you know the specific information you need and you can get it easily (for free). Similar to the “poor countries” argument and people in rural areas, etc. It would even, I think, help out in the case of kids isolated in parts of rich countries where there’s no highly advanced math teacher for miles away. But again — specific need, reasonable level of motivation.

      That’s really, really different from kids embarking on linear algebra (or 5th grade math) for the first time, with no real clue of what that course entails or what parts will be hard for them, and very possibly no real desire or motivation to learn that. If you’re “brushing up” on linear algebra, something many people don’t know at all, then you already know the concepts as well as the procedures – you just forgot some. If you’re learning it for the first time, it DOES matter how it’s taught (and no matter how much you believe in procedural fluency, I don’t know anyone who thinks kids should NOT learn why they find like denominators before adding, just that they should also then be able to perform those problems easily).

      • I would agree with you completely, if not for one thing: I came away thinking, “I’ve never seen this stuff presented so plainly and clearly in my life.” I urge you and others to pick a math subject that represents the limit of your current knowledge and watch the video after that. There’s a reason that Khan got popular on the internet and it has nothing to do with the politics of education policy. Anyone who can explain eigenvectors is a talented educator, no matter what their background.

        • Fair enough — I will definitely try that. In the past I had only spent time looking at his videos that might be useful for my students (i.e. things I don’t need any help in whatsoever). It would be interesting to see how it works for me when it’s something that is more of a challenge for me. (Though I have to admit, it won’t be eigenvectors!)

  6. EI, a long and pointless post, since I wasn’t arguing otherwise. I actually did support tracking, got in trouble, and was nearly kicked out. As a result,when you google my school name, “ed school” , “academic freedom” and “controversy”, my name usually pops up. So unlike you, I actually did challenge “the church” and then, when they tried to hurt me, fought back. So go find Grandma and teach her eggsucking.

    I explicitly said what the issue was, and you have now missed it twice. So focus hard.

    Accuracy of lesson: Ed school grad cares, and fixes. Khan cares and fixes.

    Entire philosophy of approach: Ed school treats as the sun in the sky. Khan treats as the sun in the sky.

    You just want to blather on about the evil of ed schools, fine. But you just look like an idiot when you celebrate Khan fixing a glitch on a video and act as if this is the same thing as Khan redoing his entire flipping methodology.

    Same response to Allen. How can both of you be so dense in the same way?

    Khan and his ilk threaten a lot of livelihoods

    hahahahah! Yes, the world is FULL of needy people dying to learn algebra 2! We aren’t spending a fortune forcing them to be there, or anything!

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Khan and his ilk threaten a lot of livelihoods

      hahahahah! Yes, the world is FULL of needy people dying to learn algebra 2!

      Cal, you are absolutely right that the world isn’t full of such people. However, the world is full of schools requiring people to take courses in algebra 2 and a lot of other things that Khan has videos about–or that there could be videos about.

      Many people in the ed business fear that videos like Khan’s will be used instead of teachers rather than in addition to teachers. In that case, livelihoods will be threatened.

      • Stacy in NJ says:


        It’s not about the math; it’s about delivery and accessibility, and timing is everything.

  7. I’m perfectly OK with procedures. I got all the way through College Algebra/Trig by learning procedures, which were usually taught in such a way as to illustrate the concept too. And then I scored 740 on the Math SAT. Without having an ounce of interest in or talent for Math.

  8. You appear to think you have a point. On this, as on all other issues in this thread, you are wrong.

  9. (Cal): “Accuracy of lesson: Ed school grad cares, and fixes.
    No. Remember “Look, say” and it’s child “Whole Language”? The Ed schools promoted this for years with wretched results. The EdDs surrendered only to an argument from authority; people with superior credentials (e.g., PhD in Linguistics, PhD in Psychology) with superior institutional affiliations (MIT, Harvard) went public with criticism of the Whole Language fraud.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      The Ed school grad cares, and the Ed school grad fixes, to the extent he or she can.

      However, they are constrained by

      1) school and district policy, materials, etc.;

      2) the “menu” of changes they can think of.

      Lots of classroom teachers taught Whole Language because they were told to and because they didn’t know how to do any differently.

      • Correct.

        And Khan fixes what he fixes. However, he is constrained by

        1) the fact that all of his lessons are in video and

        2) the fact that he can’t anticipate everyone’s problems.

        He doesn’t know how to do it differently. It’s kind of baked in.

        Get it now? There’s nothing magical about him fixing his video, and nothing that distinguishes his willngness to fix a small bug from a teacher, or an ed school.

  10. Khan was of great benefit in our urban middle school. Kids hated watching the videos so much that they found a (re)newed appreciation of their live, actual, teachers.

    • palisadesk says:

      LOL — I found the same thing! Suddenly I became intensely interesting by comparison;-)

  11. Khan corrected a single video after that parody video was made.

    His videos are ***full*** of fundamental errors. In his basic multiplication, he states that two times one is “two plus itself, one time.”
    That’s right. He says that two plus two is two.
    That’s just one example of many.
    Then there are the pedagogical issues. One “big idea” about addition is that you have to add like to like. Fractions need common denominators, 3x + 2x is 5x but 3x + 2y is just… 3x + 2y… but he introduces addition by adding lemons to limes, and then — without explanation — giving “five fruit’ as the answer.
    Then there’s his complete and total emphasis on procedure, which students think is helpful… and it is, for passing tomorrow’s quiz, but it also leads to so many, many folks out there believing that math is a mess of weird procedures. He makes the odd claim that that’s *not* what he’s about – but then he also says that he learned by just repeating procedures. I do suspect that’s what he thinks “understanding” is — knowing all those procedures. That’s sad, but also explains why he thinks 83 x 4 is a sum…