Can Salman Khan Teach Math?

In the past few weeks I’ve been reading what others have been saying about Khan Academy and decided to watch some of the videos. Since I had forgotten about limits in calculus, I watched a video about that. I promptly fell asleep. His voice is pleasant enough, but I’m a visual person I need more stimulation than having a lesson scratched out on a blackboard. But I didn’t give up.  I tried a video where I knew the subject well. On Monday we ran a blog post on the Pythagorean Theorem so I decided to see what Khan had done on this subject. Here is Khan’s version where he proves the theorem.  And here is the Elevated Math version. (We just put this up on YouTube.) Khan’s proof takes around eight minutes while Elevated Math’s takes only a minute. You be the judge which is better. The big difference, besides the proof itself, is in production value.  Along with the one minute explanation Elevated Math has another 19 minutes of  instruction on right triangles, animated graphics, problem-solving, practice and immediate feedback.  The Khan video is free while the Elevated Math lesson costs less than the price of a Starbucks cup of coffee.

What I find interesting is Khan’s “flipped” classroom idea where he proposes that lectures are used as homework and the classroom is used for problem solving. When I think of the millions of kids who have not understood classroom instruction and then were sent home to solve homework problems that they could not figure out…. Oh, the suffering! Fortunately, when I was in school I had a father who was an analytical engineer, who knew the math, and who could help me when I got stuck. And I remember feeling sorry for my peers who did not have someone like him to help them. Why are we torturing our kids who we profess to love and why are we destroying their confidence?  I suppose it’s better to bore them for 45 minutes at home with a Khan lecture than torture them for two hours on homework they don’t understand.

However, my educator-colleague  says she can think of at least 10 reasons why the “flipped” classroom will not work for the majority of middle and high school students.  Number one reason: a student must be self-motivated and an independent learner to learn in this proposed setting.   The Khan Academy thinks this is the way all students should learn? Really? she asks.

I found a lot of criticism of Khan Academy. Here are a few excerpts:

“The Khan Academy is focused on mathematics as an activity where you learn how to do computational mathematics. In my opinion, this is a dead-end in mathematics instruction. If you consider computational mathematics to be similar to learning grammar in English, and the vocabulary of mathematics to be similar to learning spelling, where in mathematics class do you learn the equivalent of writing? Your answer is, you don’t. In the vast majority of mathematics classes, virtually no synthesis, or higher order thinking skills are required. It is almost all drill & kill. You memorize a procedure for solving a problem, and that’s it, you are done … Where is the actual application of real math to solving messy problems?” David Wees

“Education will only truly be transformed when we stop trying to jam content into our kids’ heads and start allowing them to explore and learn in contexts that feed their desire to keep learning. To that end, I don’t think Khan Academy does or can change much at all.”  Will Richardson

“Khan’s method is not teaching, Khan’s method is showing you the answers, or rather, the one answer, and the one way to achieve it. You will not be required to think, you will not be asked to reflect, you will receive lecture, and you will be assimilated.” Ben Rimes

But I think there are some good things to say about the Khan videos. For one, they are free. Two, the scope of his lessons is extensive. And three, my hat is off to a man who has taken the time to create so many videos that could possibly help a struggling kid and allay the frustration when he or she doesn’t understand a math concept.

So to answer the question in the title of this blog: Yes, Salman Khan can teach math to the extent that he shows one way to achieve an answer. Khan Academy could definitely be a tool in a teacher’s arsenal. But if it’s the only tool, that is a problem.

10 thoughts on “Can Salman Khan Teach Math?”

  1. I both have to agree and disagree on the subject. I was only introduced to Khan Academy this past semester, but I did find it to be a valuable asset to my learning experience. Half of it, though, could possibly be because visual and auditory tools are exponentially more helpful than just reading a textbook. In my previous math class, if I struggled with a chapter, I would usually throw my book down in exasperation and look online for extra help. I found a couple websites that had outlines of the chapter, but if the class book didn’t help me, how would a more condensed version of it be any better? The online Khan Academy video did it for me though. Usually if a student is struggling with a concept from the book, its the teacher’s responsibility to explain and correct, which Khan tries to act as. For me at least, it was like sitting through the class lecture again, except this time I could rewind. I do agree that without the students being able to do some of the problems independently, they cannot learn as well; there has to be some effort by the students. If the student isn’t even interested in learning from the videos, chances are they’re sitting in front of the screen, daydreaming about video games and such while mathematical melodies waltz past their brain.

  2. I just watched the two videos. I liked the Khan one way more.
    – it showed a rigorous proof, not just a one-case demonstration
    – it combined the visual representation with algebra, making algebra more tangible
    – many times he changed what he was writing to make it better, that is very realistic of really using math

    The Elevated Math video did have a nice animation, but it was not a convincing proof.
    It only showed that the areas matched up in one case, then asserted that they always
    do while the shape of the triangle changes. This should lead any student to ask if this
    really is so. Why should the student believe it?

    As for the need for student to be self-motivated when using the Khan Academy, that is
    probably true, I don’t know how they translate into a classroom setting. I’d be wary of
    any approach that is claimed top work for *all* students…

  3. Harold, I totally understand what you are saying. And for many students seeing a more rigorous proof is important. This was the case with me when I was a kid (read my post on dyscalculia: I had problems understanding why a negative number times a negative number equals a positive number.

    You have to remember that the audience for this topic is usually 11, 12, 13-year olds and most of them don’t have the patience to watch an eight minute proof. That’s why we decided to keep the one in the Elevated Math lesson simple and visual.

  4. I’ve been unimpressed by the little I’ve viewed from Khan Academy and I agree with the first comment quoted in this blog regarding the obvious focus on calculation, a failed strategy that has plagued mathematics education in the US for decade upon decade. If you want calculations done quickly and accurately, don’t use a human; if you want actual mathematics, don’t use a calculating machine (at least not unless you’re actually doing most of the thinking yourself first, during, and afterwards).

    As to the “Whose Videos Are “Better”? debate that seems to arise when one person criticizes Khan and then offers up some other videos as an alternative, I don’t have any videos to throw into the mix, but I’d recommend that interested readers check out James Tanton’s videos via his site or directly by searching on YouTube. I think you’ll find them worthwhile.

  5. I must thank you for the initiatives you cash in on on paper this informative article. I hope exactly the same best work from you in the foreseeable future also. Actually your imaginative creating capabilities provides motivated me personally to start out my own Website.

  6. I have looked at both videos, and my conclusion is that neither is better. They are different. ElevatedMath has high quality graphics and an engaging style for students in their early teens. At $2 per lesson, the cost is reasonable. I think the typical middle school student would benefit more from the Elevated Math lesson.

    On the other hand, Salman Khan does a great job on the Pythagareum theorum proof. The graphics were not particularly pretty and his voice is as you described it. I hate to admit this, but in 12 years of math teaching, I have never seen this proof, and I loved it. It will be a tool that I will use in the future.

    What I think would be really cool is to see the proof that Khan did using the engaging graphics and style of ElevatedMath. Of course, only the more inquisitive students may be interested if we are talking middle school.

    As a parent and teacher, I could see using both tools. So many of the debates in education stem from a mindset that it is “either/or” when the better option is “both/and.” I think this is the case here. Different concepts, different styles, different presentations combine to more fully meet the needs of a variety of learners.

    1. Maryscott Glasgow

      Thank for your comment, Joe. We do think that both have something to offer, and we do not think that one approach or one program can be the sole solution for all. Your last statement, “I think this is the case here. Different concepts, different styles, different presentations combine to more fully meet the needs of a variety of learners.,” is right on target. We appreciate your support! : )

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