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Khan Academy Roundup

January 3, 2012

Earlier in the year I posted about how I was trying to use Khan Academy in my classroom in a nontrivial fashion. You can read about it here. Now that my first semester is over, I’ve had time to see how all this panned out and reflect on it. I was also contacted by an amazing teacher who graduated with me from the U of A who told me that her school was thinking about adopting Khan Academy and she wanted to know my opinion. So, I guess what follows is half reflection, half opinion about Khan Academy and if I would ever use it exclusively in my classroom.

Now that I have some distance from my first semester, I realize that I was drawn to Khan Academy as a solution to two problems. (1) I have a weird schedule which unequally allots 25 extra minutes to certain classes throughout the day – you can read about that here. Essentially, I needed some sort of consistent enrichment activity for 25 minutes every week. (2) My students came to me in need of serious remediation. I’m teaching sophomores and the majority of them needed to be retaught basic algebra and integer arithmetic skills. There were other holes – coordinate plane, exponents, graphing lines, distributive property, etc – and my perception is that they had a bunch of rules and procedures in their heads that a previous teacher had forced them to memorize, but they got these rules all jumbled up or just plain wrong and kept making mistakes as a result. What I needed was a way for them to do lots and lots of practice with lots and lots of guidance until they got those procedures correct. I also needed this practice to be in such a way that students could do a ton of problems over and over again – something that randomized these problems, but also narrowed down the skill set I was looking for (in other words – solve liner equations vs solve linear equations with distributive property vs solve linear equations with variable on both sides of the equal sign vs solve linear equations with fractions). I was also felt like I was in a very peculiar situation since I’m not teaching an algebra class yet so many students desperately needed to be retaught algebra – how do I reteach without explicitly reteaching? Something that engages both the students who need the reteaching, but also the students who managed to master the concepts from last year?

I started using Khan Academy in that extra time and we went through a lot of the remedial topics so we could build up our mathematical understandings. I didn’t touch the videos at all – we only worked through the practice problems with the badges and points and other incentives which are meaningless to me as an adult, but sometimes I forget how attractive these things are to students (related: the enthusiasm a student has when they get a sticker on their paper). My kids were instantly engaged and motivated – they wanted to work through the problems and see how far they could progress – they were on a race against the other classes. My honors kids even wanted to work on problems that they knew they struggled with – “Hey, lets do a fractions one because we’re not good at that”. I was happy because I found an activity that was mathematical and filled up time at the end of a lesson.

Positive Experiences: This quote from David Cox, via twitter, sums up a lot of the positive experiences I had: “Give these kids 5 problems on paper and they socialize. Give them the same problems in an applet and they collaborate”. By giving these drill-and-skill problems in a fun, technological format, their motivation changed completely and we were able to do remedial work without much complaint. I also went through the Geometry strand on the day before Thanksgiving as a review-esque sort of game, which was a great use of that time. As a teacher, I loved that I had a classroom structure I could employ whenever I needed extra time – it was something for me to fall back on (which, as a first-year teacher, is something I desperately needed). I also loved that it was a way for me to do drill & skill without saying ‘here are 20 worksheet problems – work on them right now”.

How I would recommend playing the game as a full-group activity: I had a hard time finding the right classroom structure for my students – a way to hold everyone accountable but also let them collaborate with their peers. By far, the best classroom experience I had was when we used group whiteboards to answer problems. My students sit in groups of 4 – I made one person the scribe: this person was the only person allowed to write, but this person was not allowed to speak and could only write down things that were said out loud by their group members. This made the problems a little bit like a game of charades, marginalized the ‘smartest’ person in the group so they weren’t always doing all the work, and making the groups speak ‘out loud’ made sure no one was just doing the problem silently while the rest of the group watched. As students answered problems, I walked around the room and monitored – if I saw a group break the rules (writing without anyone talking, scribe speaks, etc), then that group was disqualified. I entered the correct answer once I saw that at least 6 of the 8 groups had the correct answer on their whiteboards – if more than 2 groups were disqualified, we had to pick a different question. For harder problems, I would pick one group to explain how they got their answer – for this ‘explain your answer to the class’ dynamic, the rule was that only the scribe could talk. In this way, the scribe is also accountable for knowing how the problem works because if I pick that group to explain, only the scribe can speak to explain their answer – so if they’re not listening, they can’t explain the answer and their group is disqualified. I only got a chance to try out this dynamic twice over the course of the year, but both times it worked out really well.

Edit 1/9: After over-reading a Twitter conversation (get it? like overhearing?), I realized the strategy above is an adaptation of the Sage & Scribe Kagan structure.

What I would probably change for next year (if I do it again next year): The Khan Academy questions and game framework are wonderful and fantastic and a godsend… when they fit perfectly with the skill level of my kids and the goals of my curriculum. And when they don’t, the activity isn’t really worth it. This is what I experienced about halfway through the semester when we had covered arithmetic skills, integer operations, the geometry sections, and solving linear equations. After that… there wasn’t much else in the game that I wanted to cover with my students – I didn’t care about conic sections, decimal division, line-graph intuition, graphing lines in standard form, etc (although these could be important topics if I wasn’t teaching high-school geometry). I also began to experience problems where the Khan exercises didn’t properly narrow down the skills I wanted to assess (ie: please don’t ask my answer to be in standard form when I’ve only taught my students slope-intercept form). Remember, one reason I was drawn to Khan is that it was a fun way to answer a bunch of drill-and-skill problems, and it auto-generated each question – this last bit was really important for me as a new teacher without any stock resources yet. About halfway through the semester, Khan stopped filling this niche as well as it could have. Instead, it was up to me to find more remedial materials for me to use with my students that could auto-generate tons and tons of problems and where I could narrow in on the skills being assessed. I found those resources via the Worksheet Works website (which is awesome at generating practice algebra problems) and free trials of the Kuta problem-generation software. I also developed better classroom structures for answering drill and skill problems (see group whiteboard paragraph above), so it still felt less like ‘Do these worksheets because I said so’. By the end of the year, I was using Khan academy less and less because it stopped addressing the specific holes we had, but I definitely valued the fact that it ‘prepped’ my students for working remedial drill-and-skill problems and they got used to the fun classroom structures that I continued to use.

What I Wish Khan Academy was instead: Skip to the bottom of this post and read this letter from Justin Lanier to Sal Khan: http://ichoosemath.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/a-letter-to-sal-khan/. In particular, I wholeheartedly agree with Justin’s desire for:

  • Teachers could create and share their own instructional videos.
  • Teachers could devise and share their own exercise sets.
  • Teachers could design and share their own customized “knowledge maps”.

What I really want from the Khan Academy is the game-esque framework, the auto-generated problem sets, and the mastery component (keep practicing until you get a certain number correct). I don’t need Khan Academy exclusively for this though – in fact, David Cox created an amazing leveled Geogebra applet that does almost exactly this for Linear Functions: http://www.geogebratube.org/student/m2506.  If I could, I would have an applet like this up my sleeve for just about every key concept I planned to teach in a semester. Maybe that’ll be a summer project of mine, or maybe Khan Academy will let Justin and I create our own problem sets that fit our own students with their own individual needs. In any case, the geogebra applet fills the exact same need that Khan Academy does – and if I were the one to create it, it has the added benefit of fitting exactly within my curriculum and assessing exactly the things I want to assess. If I had several of those applets, automatically generating problems and keeping track of correct answers, I wouldn’t need Khan Academy at all.

Concluding Thoughts: I like to think of the origin of the whole Khan Academy thing – it was Sal Khan tutoring his nephews long-distance. From there, it gained traction because lots of other people used it as their own private tutor too. However, as someone who has worked as a tutor and now works as a teacher, there is a profound difference between tutoring someone and teaching something from scratch. To teach is to give intuition – to give a foundation – to plant an idea and foster its growth. To tutor is to clarify – to help assimilate knowledge, to help with the procedural steps, to model how to solve problems, to answer questions rather than ask them. Teaching is big-picture, overarching, connected – tutoring is detail-oriented, in the moment, specific. Teaching involves a conceptual component built from scratch – tutoring involves clarifying a foundation that has already been established. I think Khan Academy is an excellent tutor – an excellent model of a pre-established intuition, of clarifying those established rules and procedures that so many of my students found jumbled in their heads, of pinpointing specific problems that students should know how to solve. To Sal Khan’s credit, he usually does an excellent job of thinking out loud, making mistakes, and highlighting common mistakes.

But I don’t think I would ever use Khan academy as more than a tutor. And I would certainly feel uncomfortable if my tutor started to usurp my role as teacher unless I knew for sure that my tutor was presenting the material in a way that was aligned and consistent with my curriculum (but I can’t exactly ask Sal Khan if he has my student’s best interests in mind, or if he’s aware that the problems in Unit 2 will scaffold nicely into Unit 3). And I, as the duly-appointed teacher, would definitely feel uncomfortable if the Khan Academy took the role of teacher – if my students went there for the intuition and to me for the clarification – because how do I know how all the Khan academy units tie together? Do they tie together at all? Is Khan Academy even a curriculum? Or is it thousands of individual lessons that are loosely connected? Or, to ask a more pointed question, what’s the difference between the Khan Academy curriculum and a badly written textbook except that one talks at you with videos instead of through a static page? When second semester rolls around, I don’t intend to use Khan Academy like I did this past semester – we’re beyond that. But if I were to continue using Khan academy at all, it would be as a reference when students are confused and as a place to attempt practice problems – much like the way I use my textbook in my class.

So, goal for next year: Try to create a bunch of Geogebra Apps that do the same thing as Khan Academy, but are tailored specifically to my curriculum, and only use Khan Academy as a reference or as a resource for students who need serious remediation (as in: still need to memorize their multiplication tables, of which I have a few students).

PS – if you’re interested in more readings about the whole Khan Academy in the Classroom Discussion, I recommend:

So… once again, thanks for reading another long and epic post. I’ve been avoiding ‘tips to good blogging’ articles because I’m scared by how many rules I probably break…

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5 Comments
  1. Really fantastic thoughts there about the difference between a tutor and a teacher. A lot for me to chew on.

  2. Jonas permalink

    Good post. I am glad to tell you that your requested features are coming. Don’t know when, but they are working on all three 🙂 But it’s a huge task, so I can only hope they have it ready in September.

  3. I think you’re on to something with your tutoring description, but it’s a little off on “to answer questions rather than ask them.” — when I’m tutoring it’s more or less just a stream of directed questions. Is there a term that means “questions but in a more holistic way encompassing new material”? That would cover that teaching is introducing the new ideas while tutoring reinforces the old ones.

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