Do we really need school? Lessons from the Khan Academy

I have had some educational doubts lately. They all started on my way home from school listening to a podcast episode of ‘The Educators’. In the episode, it interviewed Salman Kahn, the creator of the highly successful, not-for-profit organisation: ‘The Khan Academy’. To give you any sort of understanding of my angst, I ought to explain who he is, what he does and his criticisms of education and schooling.

Salman Kahn and The Khan Academy

The Khan Academy creates videos explaining mathematical concepts (and many other topics in recent years) in an informal, conversational style. A quick check of Youtube reveals their popularity: millions of people use their videos to help them learn, revise and improve their knowledge and understanding of a whole range of subjects. It’s not just high school pupils who use these videos all over the world: Richard Branson and Bill Gates are among some of the fans of the Khan Academy, since many of their videos also explain financial concepts and investment strategies. Even I have used many of the excellent instructional videos when struggling to pass my Mathematics GCSE all those years ago (not to mention when trying to pass my numeracy skills test to get on to the Teach First programme!). I found them really helpful when refreshing a lot of the maths I had forgotten. The videos definitely explained many of the concepts I was struggling with clearly and effectively.

In the podcast episode from ‘The Educators’, Salman Kahn, says a lot of interesting things about the not-for-profit organization and it is well worth a listen. But what really struck me (and what the focus of this post is about) was his criticism of traditional schooling.

His criticisms were as follows:

Traditional schooling insists that you follow a logical structure of curriculum learning. You must turn up to and learn from lessons that follow a systematic progression model as part of courses that get sequentially harder throughout your school career. For example, at the end of primary school you should be able to apply all of the standard written methods to calculations involving all of the four operations and begin to understand basic algebraic concepts. In Key Stage 3, this knowledge will then be built upon, so teachers will assume you have already mastered this and move on to more challenging mathematical knowledge and skills. Some teachers may ‘recap’ prior learning but they will never do this in any depth, since they have so much of the course to teach. If they were to spend too much time recapping, then they wouldn’t be able to teach the course in full.

Common summative assessment systems reinforce the problem mentioned above: we assess pupils based on the courses being taught in that particular year group or key stage. In English and Reading, by the end of Key Stage 2, you are expected to be able to fluently decode words and infer meaning from challenging texts. In Key Stage 3, this knowledge is assumed and as a pupil, you are assessed on your ability to interpret the text, which is assessed through essay writing. This presents enormous problems for pupils who leave our care in the primary school who struggle to fluently decode texts, let alone write in response to them! All secondary school subjects become a real challenge if you are a weak reader leaving primary school but secondary school teachers (understandably) have very little time to do anything about it.

These problems work exactly the same way for more able pupils. At the end of Year 5, pupils are expected to be able to use standard written methods for numbers up to five digits. But what about the pupils who are able to do this and much more in maths before they even start the year? What about the pupils who are reading Tolkein and discussing his use of language to describe Sauron with detailed references to the text? We are told to not move them on, but to take their learning ‘deeper’ – to help them ‘master’ the year objectives. I’m personally struggling to see how pupils like this won’t be bored by Christmas of the speed of learning the government curriculum has laid out before them.

In sum, the criticism that Salman Kahn makes of the education system is that the fixed, systematically sequenced curriculum that moves in very particular steps and the means by which it is assessed, raises issues for teachers and students, not giving them the best education that they could be getting.

He then proposes that we should allow learners to move at their own speed, particularly in mathematics, since some concepts take a long time to practice and master – something current dominant educational systems struggle to cater for without pupils falling massively behind. The Khan Academy in many ways solves this problem: pupils can log on or simply watch on Youtube any video about any topic they’re struggling with and practice the skill until they’ve mastered it. When they’ve done this, they can simply move on to the next concept, practice it, master it, then repeat this cycle again and again and again. It is truly personalized and pupil-centered. More recently, the Khan Academy has branched out into providing an online platform full of all their videos so that schools, teachers and pupils can use the Academy as a resource to enrich the classroom learning experience when they are not in lesson time.

This approach has led to many advocating for a ‘flipped learning’ or ‘flipped classroom’ approach that means that pupils learn content at home, or outside the classroom without the teacher, and then practice it in lesson time, putting the onus on the student to motivate themselves and move at their own pace, rather than at the pace of the scheme of work the teacher is using.

Problems…

All of this was very interesting but didn’t cause me to doubt my profession and the system just yet. I couldn’t help but feel uneasy about a few things, at least about the application of Khan’s ideas for primary aged children.

My first concern was that although there is personalization in the way that pupils can access the content, there isn’t personalization in the way that the instruction is delivered. In the primary school, I have the luxury to be able to know that Johnny doesn’t have a firm grasp of the meaning of the word ‘addition’ and I will therefore need to explain what the representation of this word is and also some of the words that mean the same thing, so that he fully understands the concept before we start to actually add numbers together. I also have the luxury to know that Abigail needs to have the opportunity to use concrete resources when adding through ten or borrowing when using a subtraction standard written method. Are my pupils aware enough of their own capabilities in order to understand these things themselves? Are they able to select the right video for them to further develop their skills? No. They are nine years old. They need me to help them at this point in their education. As the main educational expert in their lives, it is my job to make sure every pupil receives instruction that is completely tailored to them.

Salman Kahn, with all due respect, has no idea what Johnny and Abigail in West Yorkshire need for them to make exceptional progress. However, it’s my sole responsibility to get this right for them.

A further problem is this: what if my pupils are watching the videos, practicing the content and learning things wrong? What if I was to embrace the ‘flipped classroom’ idea and my pupils were to turn up to class having practiced for hours and hours at home in a way that isn’t recognized as a standard written method but more worryingly incorrect? This would be catastrophic. Even if there is preset answers involved in the online platform set up so they can get instant feedback on whether they have done things right or not, it would still only tell them whether they are right or wrong, not helping them to weed out their misconceptions.

Educational doubt and what I am going to do about it

After listening to the episode, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, I launched into a lot of educational doubt. With these being some of the questions I asked myself:

What if every single lesson, there are pupils in my class who never fully ‘get it’?

 What if every single lesson, there are pupils who I haven’t quite given enough time to so that they can practice their new learned skill?

Or even more scary a question:

What if there are pupils who are not able to fulfill their potential in my classroom…because of me!?

One of the great things about doubting yourself is that it allows you to reassess what you do, change your practices and make them even better in the future. After much thinking, reading and writing I have realized two things about Salman Kahn’s criticisms of education and schooling and I’m going to do something about it. This is what I’ve realized:

Firstly, I believe Salman Kahn is right about pupils not learning in schools the way they should. It isn’t fair that some pupils don’t learn as well as they could in lesson time. It’s a waste of time and energy for classrooms to be full of higher ability pupils who are bored and lower ability pupils who don’t make the right amount of progress. All pupils should be able to receive an education that makes them curious about the world; that excites them to become something great; that helps them aspire to be the very best version of themselves. It is a travesty if they don’t get this in a school – for where else will they receive this?

Secondly, I believe Salman Kahn is wrong about education and schooling. I believe that all pupils can progress through a systematic, sequential curriculum and no one be left behind; I believe that every single lesson, the same concept can be taught to a span of abilities and everyone can make good or better progress. Furthermore, education and schooling cannot and should not be reduced to just being sat alone, watching a video made my some one in California about a method for solving equations and then practicing them over and over again. Education is a relational, communitarian endeavor, where the teacher, not the video imparting knowledge, leads the learning of their pupils.

As always, the core question and heart of this blog echoes:

How then should we teach?

I believe it starts by rethinking the way we assess our pupils’ learning in lesson time…More on this in my following posts.

To listen to the excellent podcast, see below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04hytg6

Note: this image of Salman Kahn came from the Khan Academy website.

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