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”.

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 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.

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…