The Khan Academy Controversy

The Khan Academy is arguably one of those products that can revolutionize education.  And in fact, this is being argued quite extensively lately. All this controversy has got me thinking about a simple question: is the Khan academy a revolutionary take on education?  To answer this, I’m first going to summarize some of the controversy that has invaded the blogosphere, then I’ll offer some of my thoughts, and finally I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Khan Academy controversy

Here’s some of the history behind the Khan Academy, as I understand it.  In 2004, Sal Khan began sending tutorial videos to his cousin to help with her studies.  The Khan Academy itself was founded in 2006, and Sal Khan began working on the videos full-time in 2009.  Sal Khan gave a much publicized TED talk about the Khan Academy and “flipped classrooms” in 2011.  The Khan Academy was pilot tested in the Los Altos school district for the first time in the 2010-2011 school year.

Now to recap some of the more interesting critiques of the Khan Academy. An intriguing starting point is the Washington Post debate from two months ago between Karim Kai Ani, the founder of Mathalicious, and Sal Khan about the meaning of slope.  It’s starts with a critique from Kai Ani, followed by a response post from Khan.

To grossly summarize this debate, the argument was that Sal Khan’s definition of slope (“rise over run”) was too simplistic and in part because of the simplicity did not teach anything more than a series of rules needed to calculate slope.  In other words it did not teach the “concept” of slope.  Karim Kai Ani offered several definitions of slope that were better, including “a rate that describes how two variables change in relation to one another” and this jargon-filled gem, “how the dependent variable changes when the independent variable increases by one.”  It’s hard for me to see how a definition that students aren’t able to understand on its own due to obscure terminology could possibly promote the concept of anything, but I’ll defer my opinion on this to the next section.

There are definitely plenty of other critiques of the Khan Academy, and you don’t need to go far to find them (or far into the comments of any article on the Khan Academy). I’ll just post some of the ones I found most interesting here. This Wired Article gives a balanced presentation of the Khan Academy, highlighting both its strengths and weaknesses.  Here’s an interesting blog post on why students may actually be worse off when using the Khan Academy as opposed to traditional teaching.  And here’s a recent followup to the Washington Post stream featuring another critique from other math educators on the treatment of decimals and equal signs in the Khan Academy. And then there was the MTT2K challenge this summer to point out outright flaws in the Khan Academy videos, and instances in which procedure was emphasized over concept (something Khan claims to be against but critics argue he does repeatedly in his videos).

Also interesting is this blog from the Los Altos school district.  I suppose many may take this as a criticism of the Khan Academy since they describe the hallmark videos as unengaging to some extent, but it also reaffirms the many aspects of the Khan Academy package that do work very well in their classrooms.

Is the Khan Academy Revolutionary?

Before offering my thoughts, I want to start with an interesting assertion from Karim Kai Ani, “If students don’t understand slope at the conceptual level, they won’t understand functions…” as well as a whole slew of other topics in math.  Clearly understanding the “concept of slope” or any topic in math is something everyone agrees is important, the difference in opinion concerns technique. The Washington Post argument basically centered around whose definition of slope, Khan’s or Kai Ani’s, better promoted the concept of slope. Which raises the question to me if any definition on its own can truly teach the concept of anything.  To which the answer seems a resounding no.

If we agree that we really want students to learn concepts of things like slope rather than regurgitate a series of facts, then we need to ask the question how are concepts taught?  My answer to this is simple: through experience, through engagement with the concept itself in interactive play. This is how I see concepts being taught in Iridescent’s hands-on programs, and also how I see concepts being taught in video games.  The point is, why are we arguing about how to present the definition of slope, when it is what students do with that definition that is more important anyways?  What do kids do in a math classroom, and how does this doing effect learning of concepts?

I’d go further and argue that perhaps there is no right way to teach the concept of slope in a video/lecture. We are obsessed with finding the perfect lecture, when really the “perfect lecture” involves not lecturing. Sure, lectures are useful and I’m not saying we should do away with them completely, but they are just one component of a student’s learning (and probably a much less influential component than we think). Arguing about whether Khan’s videos are better than the lecture of an experienced teacher just detracts from the real issue to me- what happens outside the lecture? Changing the place of the lecture in the curriculum and the activities that surround the lecture is what makes something revolutionary in my mind, rather than coming up with a revolutionary new lecture. Most certainly Khan’s videos are not the best lectures, but perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Khan Academy is the de-emphasis of the lecture in his academy. The fact that his academy is so successful with such poor lectures says something

Let’s turn to another criticism: the Khan Academy offers video lectures that promote rote learning. Which creates a conundrum, when compared to Khan’s many statements that he is against rote learning. Interestingly, he also has steered clear from embracing a Constructivist philosophy to learning, which his website in part implements (in my opinion).  So how do we resolve this Khan Academy conundrum, in which rote learning is supposedly not a focus, but the main centerpiece of the website is rote learning videos? Perhaps by noting that the website values a fair bit of learning outside the confine of the videos, in interactive activities and that the videos are offered as a reference source rather than a step-by-step tutorial. If the lecture isn’t the end-all-be-all focus of learning anyways, then why not keep the explanation as simple, direct, and informal as possible (“slope is rise over run”), and let the students get to doing?

So to answer my original question, yes, I think the Khan Academy is revolutionary.  I want to end by listing the several revolutionary features I see in the Khan Academy:

Learning is not a one-size-fits-all package but individualized and customized, allowing students to work at their own pace.  Learning is not a linear process, so why force kids to encounter new topics in a linear fashion?  Some kids prefer to repeat earlier skills until they achieve mastery, others like to just achieve competence and quickly proceed to the edge of their limits.

Information is presented on-demand and in the kids’ control, both in the videos and in the activities.  Kids get what they want when they want/need it.  By being able to scroll through a video-lecture, kids can review the parts of a video that confuse them the most, using the content as a reference source rather than a step-by-step instruction manual. This structure is remarkably different from a standard textbook, but is the new standard for information gathering in this digital age (why memorize facts when you can always look them up on Wikipedia?).

– Instant feedback.  Kids immediately know if they get a problem right or wrong, and kids can visually see their progress, strengths and weaknesses in the website’s knowledge tree or data metrics.  Compare this to waiting a week to get a grade on a homework assignment, when your mind has already been directed to your next class topic and homework.

Competence is rewarded through achievements and badges, rather than failure from perfection being noted through grades. Kids gain achievements in skill areas to let them know when they have understood something.  This builds up self-esteem, motivates, and encourages experimentation and failure. The worst that can happen is that you don’t get something you don’t already have, or at least you don’t get it until your second or third try. Grades, on the other hand, let someone know how much they don’t understand something. They let you know how far you are from perfect, rather than how much knowledge you have gained. They stigmatize failure, demotivate learning, and discourage exploration.

What do you think?

Is the Khan Academy revolutionary?  Am I discounting too much how terrible Khan’s videos are?  Does their website make the future of education promising or dismal?  What do you think?

4 replies
  1. Allan M Lees
    Allan M Lees says:

    The traditional school system has been around for over 150 years and it’s not ageing well. The Khan Academy is one of many new experiments in how to help children learn. Most of these experiments will fail, but we should try to see which bits work and increment towards a better approach than we have today. Clearly any system which consistently turns out students who place at the bottom of the OECD tables for math and science isn’t performing adequately. So instead of knocking Khan, let’s learn what we can and experiment until we find an approach that delivers better than today’s results across the spectrum of kids.

  2. AnaR
    AnaR says:

    I am not opposed to Khan Academy. I haven’t used it with my kids though. I prefer the question/answer based approach of teaching – making them think. If they ask me a question, I just ask them what they think the answer should be. That’s not exactly doable with videos and multiple choice questions. I build learning apps and we are trying a more discovery based approach. It seems to be working better. Its not perfect, and definitely does not replace the teacher. It makes the teacher more important for the conversation that the lesson triggers.

    I teach programming at a university. I’ve found that students that have worked before (professionals) have a very different style of learning than those that have only been in classrooms (students). Professionals want to do, try, think, fail and learn. Students (never worked before in the field) just want to be told what to do. They are far more resistant to thinking.

    Perhaps our education system is geared more towards being told what to do than towards thinking and discovering. I believe Khan academy is just a reflection of that. Why do we think it Khan Academy should be any different from what is generally accepted way of teaching in schools?

  3. Kevin Miklasz
    Kevin Miklasz says:


    I agree 100% with you, the question answer based approach is better than a type of “fill in the right answer” kind of approach. We are also making sandbox, exploratory apps that emphasize, rather than de-emphasize, the role of the teacher (which we call the facilitator).

    Professionals definitely come with a different attitude, but I don’t think it’s impossible to give students that attitude. We see that attitude in students with our open-ended activity that encourage failure and redesign. It takes time, but student can think that way, and learn better when they do think that way.

    To me, one of the reasons this works is that we let students “do” things, rather than “listen” to things, which is why I tried to de-emphasize the lecture as the key point of education in my response. I think there is a sense in which the Khan Academy is novel in that it de-emphasizes the lecture and gives kids more “doing time.” But you are right, we could certainly be doing something more interesting with kids than what is featured on the KA, like the activities you mention and our company implements.

  4. otr
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