Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter - and the Khan Academy

It’s Easter. I’m sitting with my coffee with an Easter egg, enjoying the delicious blending of coffee and chocolate while reading, with considerable pleasure it has to be said, some fascinating traffic on the blogs around the world – many of them debating the merits or otherwise of the Khan Academy and the recent speech at TED by the Academy’s founder Salman Khan. Then suddenly it occurs to me that Easter and the Khan Academy have much in common.

It is worth remembering that, even before the secular exploitation of Easter, this time of year was a major feast day in the Christian calendar, more important than Christmas. What is sometimes overlooked is the simple but established fact that much of the Christian symbolism used at this time in the Easter story predates the Christian faith. Dating the timing of the celebration via the vernal equinox was already established before Christianity subsumed the date, the notion of a god returning from the dead after three days in the tomb was established, even the use of the egg and the rabbit (albeit in the form of a hare) predates the Christian tradition. (For more on this visit.)

Without wishing to alienate any Christian readers, something that is a huge component of Western life such as Easter has been absorbed into the psyche of our culture to the extent that we no longer question its origins. This is the link to the Khan Academy and our views on education. Some of the internet traffic in support of the Academy is suggesting that it can revolutionize education. (For those who may be unfamiliar with the Khan Academy it is, in essence, a large collection of screen-capture style videos providing primarily math and science instruction. They were originally developed by a financial bureaucrat to assist his cousins learn mathematical concepts but, almost accidentally, became very popular on youtube -despite their amateur nature. The site has grown beyond its lowly origins and is now sponsored by Bill Gates. The site can be visited here. ) It is somewhat perplexing that one of the most discussed educational sites on the internet is one created by a financial analyst, not an educator, and sponsored by a businessman – again, not an educator.

I have blogged previously about the amateur nature of the Khan Academy videos – particularly those created early on. However, with the surge in popularity and the praise it is now receiving on blogs around the globe it occurs to me that educators are accepting a model of teaching devised in an earlier age without question. The model of “chalk and talk” delivery is no longer a preferred model of teaching for good reasons. Yet here is the Khan Academy, providing nothing more than the modern day version of this technique, being hailed as some sort of modern messiah of education. “Chalk and talk” via video is still “chalk and talk”.

There is merit in the Khan Academy. However, it lacks some essential elements for me to see it as anything other than another teaching tool – albeit a potentially powerful one.
1. Where is the motivation of the student taken into account?
2. Is the Kahn Academy anything more than an electronic version of a text book?
3. The approach taken by the Kahn Academy is useful as tutorials for specific skills. This is what it is designed to do and so it may seem odd to criticise it for this feature. However, every educator will stress the importance of students being able to synthesise their knowledge, of being able to see the whole rather than simply the part. The Kahn Academy seems an unlikely vehicle to advance this. It does not currently require students to “join the dots” and make connections between subject matter in the manner that one hopes effective teachers would do.
4. The Kahn Academy seems to be reflecting “old world” attitudes with “new world” technology – but the underlying assumption is the age old one of the empty vessel being filled by the wisdom of the virtual teacher. It is a reflection of the attitude that education is nothing more than the transmission of skills – which should not be confused with understanding or insight – and certainly not wisdom. Students all over the world have voted with their feet given this attitude – the “failure” to graduate rate in the USA is consistently reported to hover around 30% of High School students. Surely this is, at least partly, a reaction to the lack of engagement of students? True, some students may respond well to a video format such as that offered by the Khan Academy. But the real problem is not just the format of lessons – it is the content of the curriculum itself. The Kahn Academy is not progressing this – it is simply repackaging the existing – and failing – curriculum.
So, the Kahn Academy does have merit – but it is not the savior of schooling. When attempting to reform education we need to examine our starting points – the assumptions originally used to establish our model of schooling may no longer be current. For example, how could the existence of the internet change the educational paradigm if we were not constrained by our current mindset of what constitutes “schooling”? How could the prospect of 1:1 child to computer ratio impact on classroom practice? Indeed, what does a classroom look like if it is designed around the presence of mobile computing devices with ubiquitous access to the internet?
These and other questions should be addressed if we are to maximize the opportunities that digital technology offers and turn schooling into education – which no doubt will include the use of sites such as the Khan Academy.

Eater egg graphic via

Monday, April 18, 2011

"Well, Duh!" - Alfie Kohn

“Well, Duh!”
Prolific writer and vocal advocate for educational reform Alfie Kohn has just published a new collection of essays under the banner of “Feel – Bad Education”.   His introduction ,  Well, Duh!: Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring” sets the tone for the text.   In the introduction Alfie lists some commonly agreed beliefs about education  such as “Much of the material that students are required to memorize is soon forgotten.”   He then challenges teachers – if we hold these beliefs, why is it that our core understandings of educational realities are not in evidence in our schools?

Why indeed.

Rather than summarise the section here I have prepared a brief slide show that can be accessed here.

There are real challenges for educators in these assumptions.  If we accept them as valid, and I believe that almost all teachers will, the next question we should ask ourselves is why our schools don’t actually reflect them strongly.   Then comes the real challenge – to implement educational processes that demonstrate our beliefs in reality, not just rhetoric.

(NB: The show does not auto-start and will commence with a black screen – click the start arrow to begin, thereafter it is automatic and lasts about one minute.  It was designed to share with pre-service teachers in a lecture situation and I wanted to keep control of the starting time. Also,  there is no audio – the program used to create the slide show does allow for audio to be embedded in each slide – but not the creation of a continuous backing track.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Learning the game - James Paul Gee

James Gee is a professor of literacy at Arizona State University - from his job description you would expect him to be a fan of dusty texts and heavy leather bound tomes.  You’d be wrong.  Gee has some really interesting things to say about the relevance of video games to education - all the more interesting as Gee is a few generations away from the tee-shirt wearing pierced-eyebrow type who you would normally associate with this view point.

In this short video Gee makes some interesting observations - some new, some not so new, but all worth thinking about.  Gee reminds us that testing drives teaching and that we won’t get genuine reform of teaching until we have genuine reform of our testing - not new but none-the-less worthy.  Gee also says that traditional education systems now have rival - 24/7 teaching delivered on line and tailored to your learning style and lifestyle.   Although in its embryonic stages Gee says that the new form of education is outperforming traditional schools.

This is where Gee’s video gets really interesting – he draws a parallel between education and video games.  Video games are challenging and require sustained effort and concentration to master. But children will play them for hours. They will even pay significant amounts of money for the privilege of doing so.   One of the characteristics of effective games is that they build in feedback at regular intervals DURING the game. In order to master the game players have to absorb the feedback and apply it.  That is the only way that they can be effective.  Players also EXPECT to get the feedback through the process – a game that doesn’t in effect teach you how to play it would not last long in the market place.  Gee states that it would not make sense to test players at the end of the game to see if they had learnt the required skills – they simply cannot finish the game unless they have learnt them.  Finishing the game is itself evidence that the skills have been acquired. Yet in schools we test at the end of units of work – often too late to provide useful performance feedback to students.  Gee’s point is that if our feedback followed the model offered by video games then school reform might be one step closer.
Rather than summarise the video further I’d simply recommend that you watch it. Gee is a softly spoken character – this video is well worth viewing more than once as he delivers great insight in such a gentle manner that the significance of what he has said can slip past.
Perhaps the old adage is right – “It’s not winning or losing that matters – it’s how you play the game”.

Original prompt for this blog =
Video - details contained on video

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Flipping", video and the KhanAcademy.

It is often said that the school room is the one place in our society that seems immune to change.  In many schools educational practices are still fairly consistent with those of many many decades ago - “school” has remained fairly constant for generations.  The growth of the Internet and the technology of video promises to change that.

Salman Khan, the almost accidental founder of the KhanAcademy, gave a speech at TED recently - “Let’s use video to reinvent education”.   In it he describes the developmental pathway of the site.  The fact that it began as his own attempts to tutor his cousins remotely via video link explains the production values and style of the videos.  

At this point I have to state my personal bias - I’m not a huge fan of the site. Whilst I rate its intent highly I have issues with production values.  You only have to watch a few videos, particularly the early ones, to see that production values were low and the pedagogy dated - despite the ultra-modern “screen capture” style presentations.  In a sense this is to be expected for Khan is not a teacher - and it shows.  (He worked at a hedge fund prior to the growth of the KhanAcademy.) However, whilst this may be true - it offers a comprehensive collection of “no frills” explanations of mathematical procedures via web-based video free of charge.   The site now is a registered “not for profit” organisation and receives support from Bill Gates’ charity. This is allowing the KhanAcademy to become more professional and it is now offering some enhanced services to educators and families such as charting student progress.

Khan makes some interesting points in his speech, not the least of which is his notion that video can be used very effectively to enhance what teachers do in school.  If a student is away at the start of a unit and misses some crucial explanation by the teacher how do they catch up? What about students who may have attended the lesson - but failed to understand it?   Does the teacher make the rest of the class sit through it while they explain it again? Do they expect the absent student  to miss out and catch up as best they can?  This issue is avoided if the teacher uses video.

A teacher can either  video the actual lesson they present or prepare a video based lecture; for example, create a narrated powerpoint to introduce a topic or as a lesson.  Students can then view the lesson when they are able or the child can review it as often as needed until “the penny drops”  - either in class or at home.  Thus no child needs to miss the lesson or not understand something heard only once.  Surely this is an aim worth pursuing.

Associated with this is the notion of “flipping”.  Instead of the teacher introducing the topic in class time and then having some time practising examples and then students completing homework to consolidate skills ,“flipping” swaps the process around.  In the “flipped” classroom the teacher prepares a video lesson and students then watch it for homework BEFORE coming to class.  This frees up class time for discussion of the concept and generally working with the concept.  Students who need more time can revisit the video, those who don’t can get straight down to work.  The claim is that this results in much more productive class time - and should, in theory, allow for class time to devoted to higher level exploration of the topic.     It is too early for reliable data to establish if this approach does actually result in higher student achievement and understanding - but there is every reason to believe that it could.  Surely this is an aim worth investigating.

The case for  video lessons would appear to be strong - maybe we should press the “play” button and see if the reality can match the rhetoric.