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The time has come to stop playing defense and change education

June 9, 2011

Today was a huge day on twitter. Here’s the play by play:

  1. Someone posts this article on Hacker News. If you haven’t heard of it, Hacker News (HN) is one of the most interesting communities for serendipitious discovery and thoughtful discussion, read mostly by very intelligent geeks, nerds and hackers.
  2. As most articles on HN do, this post generated a lot of comments.
  3. This time, Sal Kahn joined in on the comments: here, here, and here.
  4. Then @21stCenturyChem makes this comment And,
  5. Boom, Sal responds, and the discussion takes off, when eventually Frank Noschese weighs in, and Sal responds again, this time a bit on the defensive, concluding with this challenge:

    If you truly believe you have a far better way to teach physics, you really should let the world see how you do it. Make Youtube videos and point us to them. We’re looking for other great teachers that are consistent with our mission and resonate with students.

This also exploded on my small twitterverse, and I’m only sorry on twitter when everything was happening, but here a couple of the key points, from the ever-wise Dan Meyer.

First, let me pause for a moment of awe at the power of the internet. Witness Frank writing a few posts and tweets (ok, a lot of tweets) about Khan Academy, and then a few weeks later, engaging in a dialogue with the founder of Khan Academy himself. Holy cow! I’m still amazed that educators and people I stood in awe of just a few years ago are now people that I consider colleagues (heck, just today, Rhett Allain spoke to the 12th meeting Global Physics Department at my invitation, and we’re hosting the authors of the 3 leading physics textbooks). It’s like the Kevin Bacon game, played with famous teacher superstars in my world like Dan Meyer, and the Bacon number is always less than two. It’s astonishing.

But now on to the substance. Dan’s right—if we’ve got a better way to teach, we need to show this. I think all the blogs I read do this wonderfully, every day, but I don’t think that’s going to be the breakthrough that changes the public perception about education. But the great thing about these blogs is they have an uncanny way of launching everyday teachers above their usual horizons to form connections with other teachers and grab just a tiny bite of attention from the world at large. Witness Shawn Cornally’s (author of ThinkThankThunk) just released TEDx talk (this is a must watch):

Now this is a vision—a change the whole face of education vision that you will never hear coming out of the mouths of people like Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan or Salman Kahn.

Let me sum up Shawn’s idea in a few points:

  • Many kids are trapped in a mind-numbing race with no room for error to accumulate grades as signifiers of quality to earn spots at top colleges that should somehow guarantee them successful lives. Witness the ridiculous sums of money parents in New York City spend on tutoring for specific classes so that students can earn the grades they think are necessary for their child to achieve admission to an elite college.
  • Along the way, students give up their love of learning and creativity.
  • Often, students are punished for doing something truly meaningful.
  • And, most importantly, a great teacher go a long way toward changing this.
  • But if we’re going to create real change for all students, you need to think about structural change:
    • Transforming the schedule to allow for time for students to pursue self-initiated meaningful work.
    • Transforming how we motivate kids: moving away from extrinsic, over-justified rewards like grades, and toward intrinsic rewards that value creativity, guided by meaningful assessment that informs specifically students of what they understand, and gives them a path to improve that understanding.
    • Transforming the goals of students away from GPAs and SAT scores toward meaningful accomplishments that stand on their own—witness Rebecca Black.

(Note to Shawn: if you ever end up running a school, give me a call. I would move to a cornfield in Iowa in a heartbeat to work with you, and you could pay me in bacon).

So what is the solution? What’s the strategy for offense? This is something I want to write about and explore more in the coming days and weeks, but here are a few things I think will be critical ingredients:

  • Teachers must be a part of the solution. Demonizing teachers is a popular pastime for the Waiting for Superman ed-reform crowd, but I know every person can think of one teacher that made a difference in his or her life. Those teachers need to be brought together to share, be a part of the solution, and stand up to the uninformed teacher bashing currently in vogue.
  • We must celebrate the process of learning, and its most critical ingredient—failure. Whatever future system of education we develop, it must teach students that you don’t learn just by absorbing the “right” ideas, you learn by making many mistakes, examining your failures, and moving forward in fit of starts and stops.
  • The product students create must be much more than just a score, a badge, or an admission letter. Students can produce works of intrinsic and obvious value that are vastly more significant than any standardized test score. And if they do so, they will find the current stresses like the college process simply melt away, as they are swamped by colleges trying to recruit them.
  • We must use technology to build connections and share. The sharing I’ve done on this blog has made a bigger difference in my teaching than anything else I’ve ever attempted. Sharing across classrooms, between student, teachers, parents, and the public at large, in your neighborhood, across your town, and across the globe will be the key to helping students unleash their creativity and helping teachers guide them.
  • The solution must focus on stories and data. Nothing is a personally moving as student sharing his or her story of learning, especially when backed up with data that is truly meaningful.

Most importantly, there is nothing in the current education debate—not Race to the Top, Merit Pay, Kahn Academy, or firing substandard teachers—that is going to bring about the vision I’ve outlined above. It’s going to take us working together with students and parents to create an alternative vision.

All of this reaches up to a new level of idealism and fuzzy changetheworldism, even for me. But that’s what happen when I get hopped up on TEDx talks and and caffeine late at night.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2011 6:28 am

    My biggest issue with Khan (Khhaaaaaaaaannnnnnnn!) is that he thinks that teaching _can_ be distilled down to a YouTube video. Teaching telling, no matter how well you tell it (and you can tell it better than the handful of Khan videos that I’ve seen).

  2. June 9, 2011 9:07 am

    I like how you combine the Kevin Bacon game with Erdos number to get a Bacon number. Or have I missed that before. I want to write a paper with Kevin Bacon…

    The only way to achieve your vision all in one go is to start a school, I’m afraid. Having seen a school started, I also know it’s terribly hard to stick to your idealism guns. Yet, having sent my son to a really, really cool middle school, I know it can be done, if you start small.

    In the meantime, we do what Shawn is doing… one small step ahead at a time. Keep making it better for the students.

  3. June 9, 2011 11:15 am

    My problem with this approach is that it maintains a consumer view of education – fostering students rather than learners. We need to shift our view. I talked about this in my TEDxTalk:

    • June 9, 2011 12:27 pm

      I like your talk, especially the apple ad parodies, but I don’t think either I or Shawn is advocating a consumer view of education. I think we both want to empower students to become self-directed learners. However, I tend to stick with the word student, since that is what more people are familiar with.

  4. June 9, 2011 1:09 pm

    I am trying to figure out how to fully demonstrate the effectiveness of Modeling Physics ( in a five or ten minute Youtube video.

    The process of “teaching” someone how to make calculations with Ek = 1/2 m v^2 can be shown in five minutes pretty easily. At the beginning, the student knows nothing about Ek = 1/2 m v^2. At the end, they can calculate kinetic energy, mass, or velocity given the other two values. This can be shown well on a video (look, a happy student who solved an equation!), but they haven’t learned anything about physics!

    Now show a group of students observing a ballistic pendulum. The students watch as the teacher or one of the students in the group plays with the pendulum, changing the things they can change (initial speed, type of projectile, etc.). The students start discussing (maybe spontaneously, maybe in response to a comment or question from the teacher) what’s going on in the system, and they start discussing things they can measure. They design an experiment to test the variables they can identify in the system, including the work done by gravity on the pendulum (and probably mentioning the work energy idea). They take data, they graph it, they analyze the graphs (by hand or computer) and come up with some basic relationships. They report to other groups what they’ve found, they discuss the results, they begin putting the basic models together (E α m, E α v^2), solve for the proportionality constant (k = 1/2), and arrive at a general model, E = 1/2 m v^2. Then we begin some extension activities, possibly new lab work or worksheets or writing or (?) to help them learn to use the math model and give them practice on using their internal conceptual model.

    At the end, we could show that the modeling student can take Ek = 1/2 m v^2 and calculate an Ek for us, just like the student who was “taught” in my second paragraph above. What’s the best way we could demonstrate in the video that the modeling student achieves a deeper conceptual understanding? We could ask some conceptual questions, or have a group discussion, film that — modeling students should be able to articulate their ideas and extend them to new situations better than traditionally instructed students.


    • June 9, 2011 3:48 pm

      Jim and Frank,
      Not to shamelessly rip Dan Meyer off, but I could see something like cutting to a physics problem say—projectile motion—Frank asking whether Kobe jumping a pit of snakes was real or fake, and a student thinking “what equation do I use?” Then something like “Traditional textbook instruction teaches students to learn physics through equations, which often fails them right at the moment they need to solve a problem.” Cut to the modeling cycle students throwing objects in the air, filming it, doing video analysis and then having a discussion where they explain to each other the key ideas of projectile motion with whiteboards. Voiceover: “Modeling instruction teaches students to think in models, using multiple representations to explain the behaviors of objects they see, and make predictions about the future.” Cut back to the student, with the model, writing out the full explanation on the paper with graphs, etc, then showing the final conclusion.

      Does that sound possible?

  5. June 9, 2011 11:25 pm

    I’ve been told that it’s not actually Salman Khan replying in the HN thread.

    • June 10, 2011 9:47 am

      When I go back and read the entire HN thread, and Salman Kahn’s posts in particular, I think it sounds exactly like the persona I’ve seen on all his various appearances in the media. Also, HN has a pretty good reputation for people posting under their real identities. Thirdly, there are verifiable KA employees who also posted in the thread, and since they didn’t out their boss as a fake, I’d inclined to think this was Kahn posting.

  6. June 10, 2011 8:43 am

    Crossposted on my blog

    I want to call our attention to a worrisome trend emerging in the online Education world. Our disagreements are leading toward division and preventing us from making effective change. Revolutions are doomed to fail when fear and strongly worded language is used to incite and stir up the masses.

    We do not need to burn someone else at the stake in order to have reform. Nor do we need an enemy. If you dislike that teaching has a bad rap or that students have poor learning opportunities you simply need to share what you do and let it stand on its own. What I am hearing is a lot of anger and frustration, and rather than tweeting and creating inflammatory posts that divide we should find our common ground and work together towards our common mission.

    Frankly while I respect all sides on this discussion (and would consider many of you friends and colleagues) I feel like there is a lot of undue ire toward the Khan Academy. In my opinion, this will get us nowhere. From everything I have seen Sal is equally committed to helping change education for the better. If you disagree with it then like he said on HA post your own stuff. To be honest, I have exhaustively read and researched all of the interested parties posts about modeling and instruction as well as the books and resources out there (about 6 months of intensive research) and I agree with them, but they are what most great teachers would agree with anyways. Modeling is not this OMG pedagogy, it is taught in many University science education programs. However even the instructors of modeling pedagogy still suggest worksheets with questions that if they came from anyone else would be considered pseudocontext. If we are willing to promote that program even though it is still in need of refinement and growth then we should do the same for Khan Academy while it is in its early development stages. There is still much work to do and we can do more if we do it together.

    We do have our problems. We have a huge population and the “teachers who care and are qualified” to “students” ratio is rather dismaying. There is an exponentially increasing amount of information and we agree there is not enough time to go through it all with students (far less so if you are trying to do any kind of deep and meaningful learning). The idea that we cannot use video technology to support learning flies in the face of everything we have learned about YouTube. Millions go on every day to learn something new and while it may not be deep learning, it was not intended to.

    If we wanted Khan Academy to cover every viewpoint or concept, our world’s surface would be covered by servers maintaining all of the data. The hope is that teachers will use these videos for students to support or review what is in the classroom and students will use it to take control of their learning. Of course there are those teachers who are going to use it as the primary teaching tool but that is not the fault of the Khan Academy any more than it is Facebook’s fault that students get distracted. Tools can be inappropriately used but that does not mean they should be discredited. Some complain that his videos are the same as a lecture and do not change. This is no different than textbooks but textbooks are an incredible reference for students as they are working to understand just not as their primary learning tool. By that standard almost everything on the Internet is static and unfit for reference and instruction but we all know how silly that is. There is no technology that will or should ever replace student – student and student – master interaction.

    There is hope, support, vision, and funding behind the Khan Academy, something that education reformers greatly covet. We can find ways to work with their very open development team: from the lead programmer Ben to Sal himself, to create a resource we can all be proud of. Having series of posts and webinars dedicated to tearing down Khan Academy will only lead to a pile of rubble and no progress. The number of us online and actively thinking about our pedagogy is sadly a small percentage of the teaching population, if we cannot support each other as allies then our mission is doomed. If you are going to propose something else, post concrete and specific things to support teachers. My philosophy is to give teachers something to think about but also something they can use tomorrow. Please try do the same and let me know how we can help because you are not alone to do all of the work.

    Having high minded ideals is one thing but when the students come in the next day, what are we going to do that meets the goals of our collective pedagogy while still (as long as we have to) meeting the State/Federal requirements that keep us employed. Khan Academy is not controlled by government organization so in fact they could be one of our best hopes for learning opportunities outside the classroom and for those who do not have access to the great resources that we all enjoy.

    • June 10, 2011 1:31 pm

      The fundamental problem with the idea of working together with someone like Khan is that he doesn’t have the same goals as I do. It is evident from his videos that they are not meant to teach students, but to program them. And I don’t mean “program” in the sense of brainwashing, but of computer programming.

  7. June 10, 2011 4:07 pm

    R. Wright, can you clarify what you mean? I know many computer programmers (I humbly include myself) who are quite creative and capable of independent thinking.

    If you mean autonomous in the sense that they only follow commands and cannot think in new situations, then I still think that Khan has a place. My FIRST Robotics team’s robot in their rookie year looked far different from the others. Partially because they had not had the experience but also because they lacked the high quality tools necessary to create.

    If we are going to have students make leaps of logic and creative decisions it is going to require experience with doing math (e.g. modeling, labs, experiments, projects) as well as gaining the skills and knowledge to manipulate and “play” with the math. Otherwise they will make errors or incorrect logical leaps.

    It is for the second reason that I think Khan Academy is useful. As a reference and guide to let students review and go at their own pace if they wish. I have seen math and Physics simulators/sandboxes like Phun and Exploriments be really helpful as well for the first. My point is that while the technology is new, the openness and willingness to work with the education community is sincere and we should take advantage of that. Those who do not wish to use the tool, can choose not to just like we do with many other technologies in our classroom.

    • June 10, 2011 10:36 pm

      I know many computer programmers (I humbly include myself) who are quite creative and capable of independent thinking.

      Sorry for the misunderstanding — my comment had nothing to do with actual computer programmers. I meant that Khan’s methods do little more than program students as if they were computers*. I’ve not had the stomach to view many of his videos, but the ones I have sampled make no attempt to teach mathematics; they merely teach procedure. He is constantly teaching “what” and “how,” but never “why.” But if you have examples to the contrary, I’d like to see them.

      * As Sheldon Gordon wrote, it “makes little sense to offer mathematics courses that focus primarily on making students into imperfect organic clones of a $150 graphing calculator with CAS capabilities!”

      • June 12, 2011 8:06 am

        Isn’t the question of “why” addressed by the fact that Khan Academy is a free service and not mandated by the state that one must use it? It seems obvious to me that the main reason one would use KA is to learn about or learn how to do something.

        Use it if you want to and don’t if you don’t. Sal isn’t telling us why math or any of the subjects he teaches are important to learn but I, unlike you apparently, am not expecting him to.

        Learning how to solve differential equations is something that I’m interested in and I trust Sal with teaching me the techniques necessary to do so. What I do with that knowledge is my own business and not something I want Sal, you, or anyone else dictating to me.

        • June 12, 2011 11:18 pm

          At this moment, there are school districts that are now using Khan Academy as part of their official curriculum. And if you watch any of Khan’s appearances at LinkedIn or on Charlie Rose, you’ll see that this is clearly part of his vision. But my main problem isn’t with Khan Academy, it’s with the media and public that have decided that Khan Academy is the future of education and Khan is the messiah of math. I find this disturbing, since I want students to learn math with some level of insight into is purpose and beauty, and not as a procedure to be memorized in order to get 10 questions right to move on to the next video.

  8. June 11, 2011 11:24 pm

    Wow, thank you for the kind words!

    I’m a firm believer in staying as positive as possible, which is why I haven’t really participated in the KA bashing. KA has its place — a small place — for a minority of students. I know I’ll be referring the 10% of my kids that love that kind of remediation to KA next year.

    I really love your outlook here. This amazing blog/twitter community we all have is going to turn education on its ear, if it already hasn’t. Case-in-point, I was a loser, grade-everything, points-for-attendance teacher two years ago. Then I read one sentence written by Dan Meyer, and now I love my job and my students.

    Now, how do we convince teachers who are unconnected to get online and start their own guerrilla professional development?

    • June 12, 2011 11:23 pm

      Thanks for your shout out on your blog and all you do—you’ve been a huge inspriation for me. I do think you ask the right question—how do we get more teachers into the conversation? I think it requires showing them that Twitter and Blogging are time savers, not time sinks.


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