You Khan’t Ignore How Students Learn

From Harvard EdCast’s “The Celebrity Math Tutor” (transcript below)

Buffy Cushman-Patz: What efforts do you take to ensure that your pedagogy is consistent with what education research shows about how people learn, especially how people learn math and science?

Sal Khan: The reality is…when we’re going through the first pass of the videos there was very little effort; it really was just me doing my best shot and seeing what I would have liked to have and that my cousins and other people on YouTube seem to be benefiting from. Now we are getting pretty deep on our own analytics on our website. In terms of the broader research, I think there are people who come up with rules of thumb based on some study or another, and I’m not saying the study’s not valid, but I’m saying sometimes it’s not necessarily…you can’t come up with these rules the way all teaching has to be done like this. I think, for example, those research – you know there’s this one research study that’s been going around, kind of saying that… it first kind of hints at videos – maybe people can’t learn from videos and that if you do make a video you always have to address the misconceptions first and if you don’t address the misconceptions first, people are always going to conform whatever you say into their preexisting misconceptions. I don’t think that research is wrong; I think that is often the case. I don’t think it has to be religiously applied – that you have to, because in some areas people might not have even thought about something, they might not have misconceptions or maybe you explain once and you reemphasize that this goes against misconception A, B, C, or D. So I don’t think there’s one formula there. And I think frankly, the best way to do it is you put stuff out there and you see how people react to it; and we have exercises on our site too, so we see whether they’re able to see how they react to it anecdotally. You see, the comments they put, they’ll ask questions based on… Every time I put a YouTube video up, I look at the comments — at least the first 20, 30, 40 comments that go up — and I can normally see a theme: that look, a lot of people kind of got the wrong idea here. Or maybe some people did, and then I’ll usually make another video saying “Hey, look after the last video, I read some the comments and a lot of y’all are saying this is not what we’re talking about it’s completely different.” So that means I am attacking the misconceptions. But I think if you had a formula in place, and you do that every time, I think once again the learner will say, “This guy’s not thinking through it and he’s not teaching us his sensibilities, his thought processes. He’s just trying to meet some formula on what apparently is good video practice. “And I’ll go the other way: you can dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s on some research-based idea about how a video should be made, but if your voice is condescending, if you’re not thinking things through, if it’s a scripted lecture, I can guarantee you it’s not going to appeal with students. And I think the other mistake people… I’d like some research to be done with this, and it really goes against the grain against what most people assume is what even video is about is, that all the feedback that we’ve gotten is not seeing the face is, maybe, one of the most compelling things about it is hearing the voice, because the face is hugely distracting. And so long answer to a short question. I think it’s nice to look at some of the research, but I don’t think we would… and I think in general, people would be doing a disservice if they trump what one research study does and there’s a million variables there: who was the instructor, what were they teaching, what was the form factor, how did they use to produce it? You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you just take the apparent conclusions from a research study and try to blanket them onto what is really more of an art. It’s like saying that there’s a research study on what makes a nice painting and always making your painting according to that research study that would obviously be a mistake.

It’s unfortunate that “The Teacher to the World” was only able to mention one study about how students learn. A study which he then dismisses. And since he doesn’t describe any other efforts to be consistent with pedagogy, his real answer to Buffy’s question is: “I don’t.”

Let’s look at Khan’s response in more detail:

“Now we are getting pretty deep on our own analytics on our website.”

I don’t see how statistics about how many times students have watched/rewound each video or how many times students miss a question in the exercises tells us anything about how effective his videos are. I don’t see how he could use that data to refine his future videos in the same way a teacher would reflect and refine lessons from year-to-year.

“…you can’t come up with these rules the way, all teaching has to be done like this.” 

He’s right. There is no one rule, no one formula, for teaching. The Physics Education Research User Guide website contains 51 different research-based teaching methods. The website can filter these methods by type, instructional setting, course level, coverage, topic, instructor effort, etc. And while 51 different methods may seem overwhelming, they all have one important characteristic in common: interactive engagement (IE).

So what is interactive engagement? Hake defines IE as methods “designed at least in part to promote conceptual understanding through interactive engagement of students in heads-on (always) and hands-on (usually) activities which yield immediate feedback through discussion with peers and/or instructors.”

A video lecture is not interactive engagement.

“…maybe you explain once and you reemphasize that this goes against misconception A, B, C, or D.”

Khan (along with most of the general public, in my opinion) has this naive notion that teaching is really just explaining. And that the way to be a better teacher is to improve your explanations. Not so! Teaching is really about creating experiences that allow students to construct meaning.

“And I think frankly, the best way to do it is you put stuff out there and you see how people react to it…”

This is flawed. People’s reactions are not indicators of effectiveness. Pre/post testing is needed to indicate effectiveness. Ah, but perhaps there is a relationship between people’s reaction and effectiveness? The research indicates otherwise. In the very research study that Khan says is valid (and then dismisses), student actually did better after watching the videos they described as confusing, and made no gains after watching the videos they described as easy to understand. Additional research indicates that when an instructor switches over to IE methods, course evaluations from students tend to be more negative than the previous year, despite gains from students going up. (Don’t worry, a few years after the switch to IE, the evaluations go back to pre-IE levels.)

You see, the comments they put, they’ll ask questions based on… Every time I put a YouTube video up, I look at the comments — at least the first 20, 30, 40 comments that go up — and I can normally see a theme: that look, a lot of people kind of got the wrong idea here. Or maybe some people did, and then I’ll usually make another video saying “Hey, look after the last video, I read some the comments and a lot of y’all are saying this is not what we’re talking about it’s completely different.” So that means I am attacking the misconceptions.”

Again, it’s not about crafting better explanations. It’s about helping students wrestle with their conceptions and guiding them.

“But I think if you had a formula in place, and you do that every time, I think once again the learner will say, “This guy’s not thinking through it and he’s not teaching us his sensibilities, his thought processes. He’s just trying to meet some formula on what apparently is good video practice.”

Another naive notion of teaching. The goal is not for the teacher to teach the students his sensibilities and thought processes. The goal is for the teacher to have the students use their sensibilities and thought processes to reason through the concepts. Empower the student to think for themselves, rather than consuming the teacher’s ideas.

“And I’ll go the other way: you can dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s on some research-based idea about how a video should be made, but if your voice is condescending, if you’re not thinking things through, if it’s a scripted lecture, I can guarantee you it’s not going to appeal with students.”

Yet there are plenty of people who prefer to watch Walter Lewin’s highly-scripted performance lectures to Khan’s off-the-cuff style lectures. (Though remember that preference has nothing to do with effectiveness. In fact, Lewin’s showstopping lectures were no more effective than the mundane professors before him.)

“…and I think in general, people would be doing a disservice if they trump what one research study does and there’s a million variables there: who was the instructor, what were they teaching, what was the form factor, how did they use to produce it? You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you just take the apparent conclusions from a research study and try to blanket them onto what is really more of an art. It’s like saying that there’s a research study on what makes a nice painting and always making your painting according to that research study that would obviously be a mistake.”

Here is the most damning piece of evidence, from Hake’s famous six thousand student study:

The six thousand students in Hake’s study were not in a single class. They were in 62 different courses, from high school to university, taught by a variety of instructors with different personalities and expertise. And yet ALL the IE courses made greater gains (the slope of the graph — between 0.34 and 0.69) than the traditionally taught courses (average 0.23). It should also be noted that the green IE courses above were NOT identical and did not follow some magic teaching formula. They only had to conform to the Hake’s broad definition of IE given above. So you see, those “million variables” that Khan mentions don’t matter. METHOD trumps all those other variables.

But surely teacher expertise matters, right?

Yes and no.

NO: As seen in Hake’s study above, when comparing IE teachers to traditional teachers, expertise doesn’t matter because IE always trumps traditional.

NO: Note the small spread of the red-colored traditional classes shown above, which hover around an average gain of 0.23. Traditional methods produce very similar results no matter the level of the course or instructor.

YES: When comparing IE teachers to other IE teachers, expertise does matter. IE gains ranged from 0.34 and 0.69. As instructors get more comfortable using IE methods, gain increases. See, for example, this graph about the effectiveness of modeling instruction:

Expert modelers had higher gains than novice modelers.

But surely there is a place for lectures, right?

Yes, BUT students must be “primed” for the lecture. According to the PER User’s Guide FAQ:

It is possible for students to learn from a lecture if they are prepared to engage with it.  For example, Schwartz et al. found that if students work to solve a problem on their own before hearing a lecture with the correct explanation, they learn more from the lecture.  (For a short summary of this article aimed at physics instructors, see these posts – part 1 and part 2 – on the sciencegeekgirl blog.) Schwartz and Bransford argue that lectures can be effective “when students enter a learning situation with a wealth of background knowledge and a clear sense of the problems for which they seek solutions.”

For more information about  how people learn, I highly recommend two great FREE online books from the National Academies Press:

If you are a physics teacher, be sure to get these discipline specific books about how students learn physics:

And just in case you think I’m an armchair critic with nothing to contribute, I want you to know I’ve opened up my classroom to the whole world on my Noschese 180 blog, where I’ve been sharing a picture and a reflection from each school day. It’s not quite the Noschese Academy, but I hope you find it worth reading and commenting, as we journey through teaching together.

63 responses to “You Khan’t Ignore How Students Learn

  1. I really enjoyed your post here, although I think I just see Khan’s work differently (regardless of what he or others might say about it) – to me, he is a CONTENT DEVELOPER, not a teacher. He’s like a textbook author, and he is developing his textbook that consists of multimedia, some responsive features, based on user feedback, and he is giving it away for free. I have to applaud him for all of those things; I wish all content developers did likewise.
    I have two lives online: I am a teacher of online courses at the University of Oklahoma, and I also develop and share Latin teaching materials online via my blogs (esp. Bestiaria Latina, To me, those two lives both feel completely different, but they both sustain me, and I think they are both valuable contributions to the world of education. My online courses (materials here: have just around 80-90 students per semester – I could never manage more than that because of the high level of interactivity. I love teaching those courses, and I know they are of value to the students – but because I limit my teaching to 40 hours per week (for sanity preservation!), that is really all the students my teaching model can handle at a time. For many of the students, it is the first time they have ever gotten such extensive and supportive feedback on their writing, and the time I spend reading their writing and the time they spend reading each other’s writing is crucial. My Latin content development is completely different – I have around 1800 email subscribers to my blog, and I don’t interact with them person-to-person much at all, but I keep putting the content out there and they keep coming back for more. I spend, I don’t know, maybe 10-15 hours per week on it, depending on how the rest of my life goes – my participation is variable, the audience is variable, but over time, the content accumulates and I am able to publish a book every couple of years based on that work. I am thrilled to be able to share that work with a large albeit impersonal audience online… it is totally different from the close relationship I have with my students, but I value it just as much! I think we need all the help we can get when it comes to teaching AND content, and I just look at Khan Academy as a pretty amazing event in content development; I hope we will see many more such content development efforts take place in the future, by all kinds of contributors. 🙂

    • Laura.
      I agree with your position about Khan the content developer. I also provide video and online content and I’m stunned by his ability to create. Unfortunately, he’s been pushed into a role of “teaching expert” by others with considerable influence – he’s perceived as something far different from what you suggest. The ways his huge amount of highly accessible content are being pushed into public education require a deeper look and Frank Noschese continues to do a great job of asking the challenging questions.

      • Agreed, TrickFletcher! I guess I feel ambivalent about participating in a debate simply because a lot of people are using the slippery ground on which the whole debate stands to also turn this into an attack on online teaching in general, not just about Khan Academy. As someone who loves teaching online and who has been doing that for 10 years, I get so frustrated by the limited knowledge my colleagues have of online teaching and the sweeping generalizations they seem so willing to make about online teaching, using any excuse to do so. I prefer just to call Khan Academy an online content resource and make that my two cents’ worth in that discussion. I also wish there were a Khan-Academy-like body of materials to help my students with the basics of English writing mechanics (punctuation, spelling, sentence structure – I really do mean basic stuff) – man, I would love some help for remedial content like that, even with just bare-minimum interactivity, to help them out with all that. There is lots of static text content online for these topics (like at Purdue OWL), but I think quite a few of my students would prefer audio and/or video content… and I don’t have the time or talent to develop it.

    • Laura,

      When KA was just a YouTube channels with several hundred videos, I didn’t mind. There are plenty of other teacher putting their lessons on the web, too. It wasn’t until there was misguided national attention to propel KA as the “future of learning” that I decided to speak up.

      The point of my post is to critique Khan’s misconceptions about teaching and learning, not about actual videos (though it is hard to separate the two). It’s rather embarrassing that Google, Gates, and O’Sullivan are pumping millions of dollars to someone who doesn’t know anything about how people learn.

      Now if you want to talk about the actual design of videos, there are research-backed approaches to consider. I have not written about the poor design of the videos or the many mistakes in them … that would be for another post. But there are textbooks (Knight’s book linked above is a great example) that uses those research backed approaches to help students try to be more interactive with the text. Knight uses multiple representations, a big-picture framework for organizing concepts, etc. Khan’s videos are more like being tutored by the smart kid in class — he knows the material, but not the best way to teach it.

      • Agreed, Frank – I know just a little about math instruction so I can’t weigh in on Khan v. others, esp. since he’s not active in pedagogical discussions, a problem which you highlight in your post of course. Maria Drujkova is someone I have met up with online, and I love her Natural Math materials for example, and I read Dan Meyer and some other math educators, even if I don’t teach math – their observations and experiences are a good learning resource for me as a teacher of language and writing. With Latin (the field for which I develop online content), there is a fellow named Evan Millner who has something like a Khan Academy of Latin videos at YouTube (a veritable empire of stuff; quite amazing) – but his Latin stuff is very different from my Latin stuff, because we have different goals as teachers, different areas of expertise, different philosophies and experiences. Yet Evan and I cooperate and share stuff all the time because we are both have a “the more content, the better” approach to what we do. I wish the national media were better informed about pedagogy but, hey, I never – NEVER – hear anything useful about schooling in the national media re: Khan Academy or anything else, sad to say. Instead, I look to the blogs of fellow educators and I interact with folks online at Google+ etc. If I were to spend my time trying to correct the hideousness of mass media reporting on education, well, I guess I wouldn’t have time to actually be an educator. A lot of foreign language educators, for example, spend their time getting incensed about Rosetta Stone software (which is a bit like Khan in its superficial pedagogy), but again, I figure I have better things to do than bang my head against the Rosetta Stone wall so to speak. I feel the same way about the media glorification of Khan – but I can definitely understand why you feel differently; if I were a math teacher, I might feel differently also.

      • Great post and I agree completely about the misconception of KA as the future of learning. In my opinion, it’s a supplement that can be great…but it really is over hyped and it’s nice to read a counter-balance to the media coverage.

  2. Frank,
    Excellent post and dead on. You do a great job of making your case and backing it up. It’s really fun to read these kinds of comments from you because the points you raise are very familiar to me after 25 years of teaching – not physics (well, a little) but mostly chemistry. I often make the case that learning science is not the same as learning so many other things. You do a great job of pointing out exactly what kinds of things we need to consider.
    You should take these comments to a professional audience. Your comments deserve publication in a professional magazine or journal – they make a great overview type presentation.

  3. The difference between Khan Academy and Noschese 180. When I read your posts I want to be a teacher more! Khan doesn’t fire me up. Thanks for sharing all that you do!

  4. I agree. Many of us have just made stuff and put it up on the web, for people to use or leave as they wish. Khan has unfortunately been turned into someone he is not. That schools have decided that lecture videos made by essentially an amateur should replace a warm-blooded teacher with hands-on supplies speaks more to their concerns of who gets the money than the brilliance of Khan. When you’re the golden calf, though, it’s pretty hard to turn people away.

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  6. Another excellent analysis – thank you! It strikes me the biggest argument made in favor of KA is that “it works”. “It works” because it helps students pass their tests. So perhaps the heart of the issue is not so much the “what and how” of KA videos, but to consider the “what and how” of our assessment. Once we go beyond inane questions which ask for replication of formulas, go beyond well rehearsed techniques masquerading as problems, and extend the assessments that involve analysis, evaluation and synthesis, the KA-style lecturing stops “working”.

  7. The central requirement for activity-based teaching is that students come prepared. What do you do when that doesn’t happen? In reality a lot of people are teaching science to students who don’t want to learn it. They refuse to do the outside work and don’t come prepared. They won’t engage in discussion and will rush through activities and turn in shoddy work. The PER research is interesting, but it seems to always use the assumption that students attempt to learn the material on their own. I think the big problem is that most teachers don’t have this luxury. If I with this assumption I get no participation because nobody prepares and therefore they have no clue what I’m talking about. If I teach this way then I’ll rapidly be booted from my job for having to fail all the students that don’t come prepared. The sad truth is that a lot p teachers probably don’t have the luxury to fail the students who should fail for not coming prepared. If we did, college would be filled with only the students who should be there, and everyone has a right to a college education now, not just the students who actually want to work for it.

    I see the Khan Academy as another resource for students to get supplemental information. Perhaps they can watch these lectures befOre coming to class as a form of coming with prior knowledge of the material. It’s certainly a better option than reading many of the textbooks out there!

    • Eric,

      Rob (below) beat me to the punch, but students don’t need to come prepared. True, some of the PER research asks students to read a chapter ahead of time, but there are plenty others in which students learn the concepts from exploration in lab and sharing their findings with the class, rather than reading/writing pre-digested concepts from a text/video.

      Time, coverage, course structure, etc are all things to consider for picking a method. As a high school teacher, I meet with my students everyday. There is no distinct time for lab, lesson, practice, etc. Class time is free to follow student exploration and discussion. At college, however, I know many professors are bound by a syllabus they must cover, “lecture” classes 3x week, “recitation” class 2x week, and lab once a week. The vast volume of content and time constraints don’t allow for such a student-centered approach like Rob and I do. So some of the PER methods have students prepare ahead of time. (Doing the best with what they’ve got to work with.)

      So now we must ask ourselves, why stop here? Why not change the mile-wide inch-deep syllabus? Why not change the 200+ student lecture-hall? Why not change the separate lab/recitation/lecture structure?

      • Interesting comment considering that KA is a reaction to a “mile wide, inch deep” curriculum like Every Day Math. Constructivism is a fine approach at certain times and within certain disciplines, but like whole language reading instruction, Every Day Math shows the limits of Constructivism and helps us further define how and when and with whom certain methods should be applied. This idea that every single person needs one method all the time is absolutely absurd. And just as reading instruction for many kids is only made better with direct phonics instruction, math instruction can only be made better with exposure to traditional algorithms.

      • The proper role of “exposure to traditional algorithms” in mathematics education is very similar to the proper role of exposure to well-known paintings in art education. Understanding the workings of and rationale for the algorithms is certainly valuable in learning how mathematics is done, and what mathematics is capable of. However, memorizing standard algorithms is not part of learning mathematics any more than memorizing facts about paintings is part of learning art. Algorithms are a product of mathematics. To create them is to do mathematics; to know them and use them is not.

    • Rick Fletcher @TRFletcher

      Eric, just Eric, said:
      “The central requirement for activity-based teaching is that students come prepared. What do you do when that doesn’t happen? ”

      I see that several experienced teachers responded to your comment and they explain how they handle things – but the common theme is that they say preparation isn’t necessary. I’ll take a differing view – it may not be necessary when using a particular teaching method but it is necessary that students learn to prepare if they are going on to college. I see more and more examples of students entering and wasting their entire first semester of courses (if not the year) because they are not able to properly prepare for the work expected of them. We do expect them to be prepared – among my colleagues who use clickers more than half require a “check-in” question over the assigned reading – and the results during that first semester do not do high school teachers proud. Too many students do not take their responsibilities for outside work seriously.

      I just completed an accreditation review of one of the fastest growing universities of the country – i.e. a successful school. We were reviewing their education college and the single criticism shared by all the reviewers was the lack of a required motivation and discipline course for grades 6-12 teachers. It’s a requirement of the elementary certified teacher candidates but it doesn’t fit the curriculum of those teaching older students. That baffled all of the reviewers but I’ve done enough of these reviews to see that it’s a common situation. As part of the review process we have the chance to talk with tens of newly minted teachers and those doing their practicum. A lack of training in this area is their number one complaint.

      It’s a question too complex to address here but you’ve got to remember it’s part of your job to motivate – and that usually means you need to develop meaningful ways of handling negative behaviors. Part of our problem as modern educators is displayed in that last sentence – of course, what I mean to say is you need to figure out meaningful punishments for a lack of performance – a phrase that will certainly provoke criticism. It’s best to start early and establish rewards rather than punishments but in practice, some form of punishment is required. If your administrator has removed that from your tool box – move to a new location and inform your parents why. Oddly enough, if you need help and if your teacher mentors are not providing that help, seek out a successful sports coach in your district. You need to know you are not serving your college bound students if they do not learn to prepare independently.

  8. Eric, I teach using a model-based approach. My students don’t come prepared at all. They design (sort of) and conduct experiments and then analyze the results in a whiteboarding session. They appreciate the fact that I am not telling them the rules. If you teach physics or chemistry, I would highly recommend attending a modeling workshop.

  9. Your blog has many valid points, but your approach is missing the point. From what I’ve read, Khan Academy is focused mainly on math right now, with lectures in other subjects used only for tutoring purposes. Even in the pilot classes, Khan Academy is only applied to math. The exercises on the website, too, are directed to math. So any appropriate criticism should be directed towards the math videos. After all, it’s clear within minutes that Khan is an amateur in physics (without even a degree in it).

    • Khan’s math videos, from what I’ve seen, are about as good as the average math textbook, which I’d describe as mediocre. The difference is that watching a comfortably narrated video requires less effort than reading and understanding a textbook. This is not a good thing.

      If students are going to be lectured to, whether by a textbook or a video, they must at least be encouraged to engage in the development of the material themselves, not just be drilled on the rote procedures afterwards. A good math textbook will leave some gaps in most derivations and “worked examples,” and also encourage students to explore on their own. A good video should do likewise (some of Dr. James Tanton’s math videos are pretty exemplary there).

  10. And I think frankly, the best way to do it is you put stuff out there and you see how people react to it…

    Judging the effectiveness of instruction by its popularity with students is like judging a medicine by how good it tastes.

  11. I’m not quite sure what your criticism of the Khan Academy is. You seem to be ranting about stuff that Khan himself supports. You favor IE “to promote conceptual understanding through interactive engagement of students in heads-on (always) and hands-on (usually) activities which yield immediate feedback through discussion with peers and/or instructors.”

    Before KA was widely known his first summer camp was all about IE. His whole notion is to get the interactive textbook (videos and exercises) explaining concepts out of the way. So that school time can be about IE.

    The teacher might still lecture a bit but it will be on topics that the students have already read(watched, practiced) a bit about. Which is what learning is all about to be honest, linking what is unknown to things you already know. And then spend the majority of time doing IE tasks. Which doesn’t currently happen in most classrooms.

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  13. Computers and tablets are only assistants and a good teacher’s will always be needed.
    However social networks such as facebook and YouTube as well as great resources including Wikipedia and Wolfram-Alpha are here to stay so that educators must use them in the teaching process.

    Many academics are posting great educational videos and materials online. The only problem is to sort the good ones from the rest and present them in an organized manner.

    This effort is being done by: which presents the best educational videos available on YouTube in an organized, easy to find way to watch and learn.

    They are classified and tagged in a way that enables people to find these materials more easily and efficiently and not waste time browsing through pages of irrelevant search results.

    The website also enhances the experience using other means such as recommending related videos, Wikipedia content and so on. There’s also a Spanish version called

    This is a project that YouTube should embrace itself, with curated content from academics and maybe using a different URL (Youtubersity?) so it won’t be blocked by schools.

  14. Nice critique and very refreshing.

  15. As an up and coming teacher this critique was very educational and has giving me something to look into. “The goal is for the teacher to have the students use their sensibilities and thought processes to reason through the concepts.” I agree this is the main goal of teachers. Thank you for your post.

  16. I like to think about how a student learns as a dynamical system that oscillates around an attractor. As the student interacts with information through lessons, conversations with teachers and peers, homework, etc. the system settles on the attractor. However the system gets to a certain distance away from the attractor and bifurcates. It either falls to rest on the attractor or it spirals out again for another attempt. The spiraling out represents a students stepping close to a deeper understanding of a concept but then loses it. I have seen this behavior repeatedly in my physics classroom. Students get closer and closer to a concept even to the point of understanding, then when I ask them the next day they can’t explain what they could the day before.

    This is what Khan doesn’t understand. A student falls to rest (gains conceptual understanding) through interacting with information not informed on how to be a parrot.

  17. “It’s rather embarrassing that Google, Gates, and O’Sullivan are pumping millions of dollars to someone who doesn’t know anything about how people learn.”

    What an arrogant post! This whole thread smacks of elitism and jealousy. There, I said it!

    It’s fine to critique, but I’m sick of all the teapot tempests in education research.

  18. Ryan McClintock


    This thread responds to a post that makes a valid point: educators must study the complexities and subtleties of learning. I’m sure Sal Khan knows this. Offering explanations and exercises are helpful and can respond to students’ needs, but they’re certainly not innovative … nor should they be viewed as educational silver bullets that will “fix” education. They’re simply tools in a large toolbox.

    I think this post and thread are responding to elitism in education rather than smacking of elitism.

    Shouldn’t Sal Khan understand the nuances of learning? Shouldn’t he be held accountable for his comments? He explains that voice tone and pacing are important to his viewers, why can’t such careful analysis be expanded to how people learn? Maybe he’s worried about getting caught up in the volumes of research and therefore not doing anything to change or impact education. I can understand this … but only to a point. I think Khan comes off as ignorant rather than hyper-focused when he overlooks and dismisses research.

    Derek, you say it’s fine to critique. Okay, fine … then critique. I don’t think tossing out grenades like “elitism” and “jealousy” really work to advance the conversation. Why not offer more and fork this thread a bit?

  19. U finally nailed why video are not interactive materials and therefore cannot be useful tools for inquiry physics learning.

    My sense is in agreement with your analysis. Good job with hake IE research, help me understand more.

  20. In a recent talk in our town, Mr. Khan made it clear that he the goal is for students to be interactively engaged with each other & the teacher (as a guide) during classroom time, doing projects, problems, having debates & discussions.
    He fully promoted the idea of the flipped classroom.
    He said the videos & practice exercises are best used as homework. Class time should be used for processing, clarifying, extending what they learned at home.
    He said some people might be critical of the flipped classroom in public education because “some kids don’t do their homework, so wouldn’t get the teacher’s important direct instruction on the topic”. His response to that issue was that if you’re going to miss something, wouldn’t it be better to miss the stage at which you’re sitting passively listening to someone talk, but then be forced into interactive engagement with your peers and teacher? Thus the students who don’t watch the teacher direct instructional video at home are missing the LESS critical stage of learning. He also pointed out that students who don’t watch the videos at home begin to realize, over time, that they would actually enjoy the activities in class more if they came prepared, so that can become a motivating factor for doing the homework. (Have you ever had a student tell you they enjoyed your lecture more because s/he did the problem set last night??!)
    My sense of him from his talk was that he’s an earnest individual who has a lot of ideas, but is definitely not a politician with well-scripted “sound bites”. I believe if he had given the same answer to Ms. Cushman-Patz that he gave at his Santa Barbara lecture, much of these concerns raised here would have been alleviated.
    Kim Miller
    science teacher
    Santa Barbara, CA

    • Kim,
      OK, fair enough. But if I look at Khan in that light – then I ask you, what makes what he does different than assigning work in a book? One difference I can think of is that “he’s a better explainer.” Even if that is true, it’s still the same idea.
      I really hope you will answer this question – because I am impressed with the interest shown by HS teachers all over about the flipped classroom. I’m probably misunderstanding and I could benefit from your thoughts. I don’t see anything transformational about this – other than a rebirth of expecting students to actually prepare for in-class work.

      • Most criticizers see Khan Academy as just the website as it currently is. That misses the point entirely. Khan Academy is about the majority of CLASS TIME being spent on projects and activities and the website serves as an [in some cases optional] homework/tutoring system. Examples are available at… (WATCH THE VIDEO TOO)

        When people criticize the videos and exercises, calling it a mediocre digital textbook, I’m unfazed. The real Khan Academy philosophy of learning is activities (presumably also self-paced or small groups) IN CLASS. Again, the link above should be helpful.

  21. It’s not a book: it’s online, it’s free, and it encourages modular use far more than a traditional printed-and-bound book does. Being online is then the basis for further enhancements such as interactivity (student to student, student to teacher, via comments, questions, etc.) and analytics (seeing what students actually do, improving the materials based on that data).

  22. I agree that students don’t need to come to class prepared, but it does make the white boarding process faster. I just finished the second unit and started CAPM today. I find a lot of frustration with that. I only see them 5 times (80 minutes and Wednesdays less) every two weeks, if I am really lucky. Physics is required in my school, I think that is good. But I get many students who do not want to be there. I drag them into the process at times. If my goal is teaching them to think, process, and problem solve, then I guess I can’t worry about how far we get.

  23. Thank you for taking the time to create this. We have people at our school who are feeling “swept away” by Khan and they don’t really know why. I guess like myself when I first saw the videos (and was not yet a modeler) they seemed “neato”. Your posts will allow me to have a dialogue with others when this is up for debate, as I am sure it will be. I can see them being used if they are accurate and for that kid who thinks/feels they need the lecture. But when you have primed the pump with modeling activities and discourse, it probably is only a confidence booster. Telling is not teaching – I am so glad I have realized it!

  24. Educators – what if it works? What if it helps some students discover their potential or get excited about a topic? Why the resistence?
    I think it is significant to point out that the Khan Academy is developing in more of the the tech startup model – that is, getting the product in user hands and seeing how it is useful to them and modifying based on those experiences. It is flexible and responsive and easily analyzed. Khan Academy is a tool – among many others – for learning. This is not to suggest that every class in every school should use the method all the time, but what makes teachers immediately think we are trying to replace them? The truth is we do not have enough excellent teachers and some may even want this kind of help. Maybe it isn’t a perfect tool – neither is every teacher’s style perfect for every one of their students. I am, frankly, interested to see research on whether the results are notably different between the Khan model and those that are more research based. You know the old adage after all – “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”
    I will use my experience as a parent with “Every Day Math” to illustrate why I feel that a tool such as Khan Academy can be quite useful and why I am a bit dubious about research supported approaches. In around second grade my son was having trouble with math in school. We knew that he didn’t have trouble with math concepts because my father-in-law would write out pages of problems for him to complete which were more advanced than those being taught in school and which he completed without trouble. We discussed the issue with the teacher and she suggested – “He can’t not understand it – we are teaching each concept in three different ways.” Uh, what? To my thinking – there will generally be a straightforward approach to teaching most subjects that most students will grasp. Why teach the same concept 3 times when most students will understand on round one and should be moving on to the next concept? Well, because that’s what the “Every Day Math” program told them would work – based, presumably, on ample research. A Khan Academy type of program allows students to either move on or get the additional support that they need – and the teacher knows exactly where the problem is and can address it directly.
    Without question Khan Academy and other free “world university” type projects will deliver excellent education to untold numbers of people of all ages around the globe. This is why it is considered so transformative. We should all be excited by and supportive of this prospect. Most students have at best a handful of great teachers – if they are very lucky. If tools like Khan Academy can serve to improve lower performing U.S. schools or serve as a bridge where quality is uneven who can complain? Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  25. I have also always considered Khan to be a content creator. Here is a guy who loves to learn. He gets up in the morning and thinks “what can I learn?” and then gives it away to others.

    He is not the greatest teacher. But, I suspect he is smarter than 99% of the teachers out there and probably overall better than at least 80% of the math teachers in the USA, perhaps not South Korea.

    For those 20% or less who are trained and better teachers than Khan, it is probably frustrating to see this guy get all this attention and divert thought and resources his way.

    But, to look at the big picture, this country is suffering and has suffered for a long time from poor math and science instruction. Even though I went through what was considered to be an excellent school system in the great state of New Jersey, I really disliked most of my math and science teachers. They were old, boring, burned-out, or just plain tenured.

    I would have preferred watching Sal’s videos to my classes where I was distracted by others and bored by the teach. Maybe I wouldn’t have watched them on my own at that age, though I do watch some now and find them clear if not entertaining.

    I think the criticism here is valid. Sal is not the great solution to our woes in math and science. But the criticism seems to be too idealistic. If all our teachers were top 10% teachers who could engage students and do it for thirty years, then Sal would not be relevant.

    Compared to what I’ve experienced in life, and I am a math whiz or was and ruined, Sal’s product has value if his methods do not.

  26. Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

  27. I think the issue here is really one of values and world view.

    From a researcher’s perspective, this blog post and many of the comments are dead on. Khan doesn’t really incorporate the latest research, doesn’t use the best methods, etc.

    However, I think this perspective really misses the point, because Khan is coming at this from an entrepreneurial angle. By this, I don’t mean that his intention was to make a lot of money, but rather, to just solve a problem that people had.

    I think the research perspective also has some serious drawbacks. How many people is Khan Academy reaching that wouldn’t normally be interested in learning or be able to access this kind of material? Is Khan Academy engaging people better than what they have right now (as opposed to the research question of, is he engaging them better than what we researchers know to be state of the art)? Also, is he having positive impact overall?

    I’m writing this comment from an outsider’s perspective, as a PhD in computer science. I’ve seen comments just like this blog post all the time. For example, why are operating systems like Windows structured like XYZ, when we know ABC is better? Why do we use x86 instead of far superior RISC architectures? Why did all of the manufacturers of (successful) video conferencing systems ignore all the past research in the area? Why did the web and the Mozilla browser ignore all of the past work in hypertext? Why didn’t we invent the web?

    The problem is that we as researchers can (a) always find something wrong with anything, (b) want to research things to death, and (c) seriously (and I mean very seriously) undervalue the work it takes to get things out there for people to use, because we’d just rather be doing research.

    So yes, from a research perspective, he’s doing it all wrong, but I think this is absolutely the wrong lens to be using, and the wrong questions to be asking.

    I’d also be willing to bet that investing a dollar in Khan Academy is having more impact on education than investing a dollar into research (which might yield only research papers but no practical impact). And I say this as a researcher who fully understands the need and challenge to get research funding.

  28. +1 for the comment above from Jason Hong.

    People doing education research are (in my opinion) too used to the perspective that “all the research shows” we should teach with X method, while teachers, text book publishers, districts are doing Z. Why, oh why won’t people use the most effective method? (This decade, X = interactive group discovery).

    Actually, “all the research” does not show that method X is the best, especially when it meets the realities of being deployed in a district. For a nice discussion of where math discovery is sucking as determined by our self-imposed measurement tools, check out this discussion from Cliff Mass about Seattle’s math curriculum:

    To me here’s what Khan is doing differently – even compared to other online instruction:
    1. Breaking topics down into smaller pieces than the standard 50 minute lecture – modularizing ideas
    2. Taking himself out of the picture – there is no camera work to distract
    3. Focusing on the algorithms and tools needed to solve problems – yes the pendulum has swung pretty far away from being able to do math quickly and accurately that will allow people to succeed at higher levels.

    Interesting research to me would be “For whom is this instruction effective?”
    You might find that groups like autistic spectrum kids or ESL kids improve markedly.”What can teachers do differently if they use this as a resource?” You might find that they are now have a reference to support their discovery sessions.

    I’m all for critique, but tearing this down an effective resource because the originator hasn’t been properly trained or follow the current ed. research formula seems both short-sighted about the future of education and ignorant of the history of education research.

  29. Like Frank, I am a physics teacher trained in the modeling approach and share his basic critique of Khan’s videos. Like so many physics teachers before me, I began my career with lectures and demonstrations in the traditional vein. My lectures improved dramatically in the first years, they were clear and directly addressed all the misconceptions that stand in the way of real physics understanding, and my students’ performance changed not one whit. When that didn’t work, I looked for what does.

    I think I can safely say that people like me want a successful version of what Khan is trying to produce. We really really do! Life for us and our kids would be so much easier. Missed class? Here’s this super video online that will get you up to speed. Not sure you understood the discussion today? Here’s a great clip to supplement and you can repeat as necessary.

    The truth is, not only is it not useful to use these videos, it can set back my instruction because the kids make their own sense out of any resource like Khan videos or online lectures. That sense-making almost universally fails to align with the common understanding among physicists, which is what we are trying to teach. Physics teachers at the high school and college level have been grappling with finding solutions to this difficulty with sense-making for decades, and we have been making headway, but not with resources like Khan Academy.

    Many of us in the physics teaching community are acutely aware of the challenges involved in building real understanding of physics. Our distress over the Khan videos comes from the fact that we have tried this already and found out by hard experience it simply does not work. I have no malice toward Khan the man, I just don’t have any use for what does not help my kids understand physics, and certainly don’t want to steer them to sources that may negate all our hard work together.

  30. Your post was picked up on reddit’s education subreddit. There’s another discussion going on here:

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  37. Khan’s videos are undeniably useful for the diligent (eager to learn) student, though the article has correctly highlighted certain unavoidable deficiencies within such this ” self teaching” system. I wouldn’t go so far as to poke holes into Sal’s contributions; I would prefer to view his site as a tool used to complement (and to a certain extent reinforce ) concepts imparted within the classroom. Thanks Sal for your site. Peace.

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  45. THe people I’ve talked to who like his videos have been educational insiders… that MIT grad’s niece, say… the person who’s already got a degree…
    Nobody mention the fact that not only are his lectures pretty much 100% procedural (he explains averages as sort of representing a group of numbers), but he sprinkles fundamental mistakes throughout. Did you know 83 x 4 is a sum? And in his multiplication lesson, that two times one is … two plus itself?
    My students deserve better than that, especially the myriad who already fear that they can’t learn it…

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  51. So many ‘teachers’ are scared. And you should be. Khan is brilliant. He is magnanimous. You have been basically useless for about 50 years. Research why most American students are relatively uneducated, unmotivated…bored. Let me suggest you start your research by looking in a mirror.

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