Khan and beyond

Innovations like Sal Khan’s videos work wonders for delivering academic content efficiently and equitably.  But what happens once we’ve won our game of academic content delivery?  As a civilization, we can’t survive on algebra and five-paragraph essays alone…

The other night I was awake for a long time trying to figure out why I don’t love Khan Academy.

I should, shouldn’t I?  Here are just a few reasons:

• Thanks to Sal’s videos, kids who want or need information and can’t get it any other way can, from anywhere, as long as they have internet access and a streaming device.

According to Sal, the videos are having the surprising effect (as far as video goes) of humanizing classrooms.  Videos are assigned for homework, and then students do their practicing in the classroom where teachers can help and clarify, rather than sitting passively in class and then struggling with homework problems without benefit of human support.

• It’s free.

• Kids (and adults) can use it in private, so they can watch an explanation again and again if they need to without feeling self-conscious about it.

• You get to go at your own pace, which means lots more kids (assuming they’re compelled to do so) can master the material even if they don’t get it the first time.

And frankly, given what I’ve seen in many schools, it would be more effective, efficient, and humane to hand a child a checklist of video lessons and set them loose on it than to subject them to the steady demoralizing boredom and/or confusion that many of them endure in their current school situations. It’s not my first choice of learning models, but for many children it would be a dramatic improvement.

This system Sal Khan has created is a huge step forward in the delivery of academic content – the likes of algebra, chemistry, art history.  The playing field is considerably more level than it was when it comes to this content.  As long as you have access to the Web, and as long as you can learn by listening to an explanation and watching a series of illustrations and other displays, you can have this body of knowledge.  This is a very big deal.

What’s my problem, then? Do I object to the content?  No.  I don’t have anything against academic content, and I certainly don’t have anything against its equitable delivery and availability.  In fact, I quite enjoy doing things like calculating the lengths of hypotenuses and conjugating verbs.  Do I think academic content isn’t important anymore, and we might as well just train young people for the work force and let the rest fade into history?  No, though I do think a little more attention to what kids will actually need to make it in the world would be a good idea.

What I’m worried about is how confined our educational reform efforts are to the delivery of academic content.  Why do we want kids to know algebra and chemistry and art history?  I don’t think it’s because we’ve decided that these are the most important things to know, the most useful or edifying bodies of knowledge.  I think it’s because if you know these things, then you’re educated, and if you’re educated, we imagine, you’ll be successful.  No matter that most careers don’t require much in the way of algebra, or chemistry, or art history.  This mismatch between the education we offer young people and the actual work they’ll be expected to perform is in fact a very serious matter.  We know, when it comes down to it, that it’s not algebra and chemistry that prepares you to be a good project manager or a good graphic designer.  We insist on it anyway because we’re used to the way things are.  We’re used to the algebra and the chemistry as access to jobs.  We’re used to having academic prowess as a sorting mechanism, a signal to potential employers that those with these courses on their transcripts, with the degrees comprised of these disciplines, are the ones who have risen to the top.

And we know that employers are using it as such.  The employers who use this strategy to choose candidates (as most are) are not suffering from delusions that college has prepared their new hires for the jobs they will do.  They’re simply trusting academic education as a sorting mechanism.  It’s very very costly on a large scale  – there are people much better suited to various professions who are screened out by academic failure while those who are ill-suited are chosen based on their academic success.  But because we have no other model, no model in which we might more closely match training and capacity to vocation, we keep on trusting the one we have.  In our eagerness to give every child a chance, to make every child successful, to compete in the global economy by honing and rehoning the delivery of academic content, we also hone an academic tunnel vision that doesn’t, ultimately, serve our children, or the economy, in the way we’re trusting it to.

In our exclusive emphasis on academic content we prevent young people from investigating myriad other areas of learning and development that might actually be of greater value to them (and I mean in the workplace; in a market economy, not just in the realm of personal fulfillment and enjoyment). We’re not confronting the fact that once we’ve overcome the challenge of academic content delivery, we’ll still have to figure out how to put people to work, how to deal with the fact that we need cognitive diversity, diversity of preference, in order to get done what there is to do (not to mention in order to improve conditions, to innovate, to advance).  And we’ll notice then that we’ve sacrificed people’s best learning years for a body of knowledge that for some will be quite useful, for others only narrowly so, and still others nearly not at all.

It’s not that I don’t want everyone to be able to learn algebra if they need or want to.  I very much do.  I just don’t want us to be so obsessed with it that we judge our success and effectiveness according to algebra learned, thus sending the message that other capacities (ability to grow food, prowess in mechanical design, repair, invention, skill in nurturing and guiding young people to name a few) are less valuable and less worth pursuing.  Academic tunnel vision sets the bar very low for humanity, and it’s short-sighted.  What do we plan to do once we’ve won the game of delivery, and everyone has the education we’ve said we want them to have?  We don’t have enough jobs to go around as it is, and only a fraction of young people currently succeed at learning the academic content we mandate. That isn’t at all to say that everyone shouldn’t have equal access to content, but soon we will have still greater numbers asking “Where’s the job you said I could have if I stayed in school, did my homework, learned this list of stuff, and got good grades?”

Sal’s closing the gap of accessibility; leveling the playing field by leaps and bounds.  But there’s much much more to do in the way of actualizing human potential, more we’ll need to learn, to pass along, to nurture and cultivate, in order to live fully, to face what’s coming, to thrive. There’s more possible for us, realms we haven’t imagined and won’t as long as we’re stuck in this tunnel.  I think we’d be wise to start now in building aspirations that transcend a series of academic lessons.


5 Responses

  1. is an interesting concept,tho there’s not a lot of content yet. As homeschoolers, even though our son is only 9, I’m hopeful we’ll see more useful and interesting things on sites like this.

  2. Thanks for the reminder. I find I need it from time to time to remember what is really important, instead of maintaining the status quo.

  3. In the state where we live, we homeschoolers have to fill out logs that show we are educating our children in five subjects 175 days a year. We’re half way through our second year of doing this and though no one will ever look at my excel table, I get a kind of perverse joy out of trying to fit what my son does on any given day into the five subjects (it increases to 7 subjects in “6th grade”).

    A tiny portion of his day may fit into those categories and there’s so much that slops over the edges that I consider central — meandering conversations about feelings, walking circles around the yard noticing random things, long spells of intense focus on building every kind of contraption out of anything not nailed down, watching the dogs romp and communicate with each other, and a huge amount of what I call world-building (imagining alternate civilizations in great detail). Inside these activities are the experiences that matter most to me — empathy, acceptance, self-direction. Those three things may or may not wind up inside the academic tunnel but they are rarely at the center of it, or even at the center of a discussion about it.

    As a society we’re still haggling over when long division must be learned, when foreign languages and musical instruments must be introduced, and indeed whether there is time for music or foreign language at all after pre-algebra and algebra have been completed and the periodic table of elements memorized. I wonder if we need to return to the question of what kinds of experiences kids might need to have in order to be good world citizens and community members since we know so little about what they will need to get jobs when the time comes.

  4. I become frustrated when I hear or read people say things like, “why do we teach algebra when you never use it”. First of all, that is not true. You use algebra everyday…you just probably don’t realize it. When you are watching the news and they show a chart comparing the amount of rainfall we have had this year, if you understand what the chart says, you are using algebra. If you are at work and trying to decide where to have lunch and you realize you only have $30 in your pocket and you have to get gas on the way home. You quickly calculate in your head how much gas cost multiplied by how many gallons you will need, subtract that from your $30 and you know whether you will eat lunch at Chili’s or McDonald’s dollar menu. That’s algebra.

    But more importantly, we learn algebra as a way of learning logical thinking and problem solving. The skills you use to solve for X are the same skills you use to determine the best way to grow food. The skills you use to solve for X are the same skills you use to design and build a powerful machine. The skills you use to solve for X are the same skills you use to repair, invent, and guide young people.

    You can’t teach someone how to solve every problem they will encounter in their life, that is why you teach problem solving skills…and algebra is the best teacher. There are logical steps you follow in solving for X, just like their are logical steps you follow in growing food.

    An education should be about teaching students basic knowledge on how the world works and problem solving skills. The education they receive in school should be enough to allow a student to get a job where they can learn a vocational skill or trade. The problem is, our schools are not doing this. You can’t get a job if you don’t know algebra. The reason employers want you to know algebra is because they want an employee with basic problem solving skills.

    And if we train or educate kids in a vocational trade, with getting a job as the end goal, what happens when what we train them in becomes obsolete. If we trained someone 20 years ago on repairing VHS machines, they would be out of a job today. This is why the education students receive should be skills that are transferable into any job.

    But they have to have a basic education for that to be possible. And that starts with learning algebra.

  5. So many ideas beautifully distilled here—a wonderful read for those of us thinking carefully about raisin’ up our children, watching attentively to
    see ‘who’ our kids really and actually are—as opposed to following the many prescribed (and enforced) notions of who kids are and what they ‘should’ be or ‘have’ to be learning/doing.

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