Sipping the Khan Academy Kool Aid

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Screen shot from Khan Academy

In today’s digital age everyone has an app, or website, to suggest whenever any educational conversation comes up. I always knew that we would eventually take advantage of the digital world to help educate our kids, but for the early years, we decided to go the traditional route and use paper, pencil, and a good textbook.

Our kids are still really young, last year was first grade for our son. I sat with our son, and we discussed arithmetic basics as I scribbled drawings and diagrams in the margins of his textbook while he used some basic block manipulatives. The textbook was bright, cheery, and had a good balance of words and numbers. Topics were explained fairly well and our son liked the book as well as the companion workbook.

Flash forward to the start of second grade: Opening the new math textbook set off stress and angst in our son. He pressed his pencil point so hard on the shiny paper that I had to give him a pen after the fifth point had been broken. Our son had a hard time focusing on numbers when cartoons, bold faced typing, and superimposed photos of real kids with quotes coming out of their mouths cluttered the page. I was spending too much time saying, “focus, sit still, stop turning the page” and pretty much sounding like my worst nightmare.

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Image captured from Saxonhomeschool.

Math time was becoming stressful, but we trudged on. I resorted to covering parts of the text while we focused on a particular section. While I was okay with how the text was introducing topics, our son was not. He said the book was boring, confusing, and made things too complicated. We trudged on then one day he said these dreaded words, “I hate this book. Math is boring.”

I froze.

A few days later I looked at our son and he truly looked glazed over and bored as he did his math from his textbook and workbook. Much energy was being spent trying to focus on the numbers amongst the text. I refused to allow our son to begin to hate math in the second grade. This was a road that I did not want to go down.

Second grade math in America now focuses on the introduction of multiplication, division, and fractions as well as applying these topics in work problems. I put the textbook away, got some Montessori materials and decided that we could cover these basic concepts without the aid of the textbook.

The Montessori materials were great for introducing multiplication and division, but they are also sort of limiting. We used all sorts of things for arrays including Lego, but it was clear that we needed something more. Something to aid in going to the next level, providing examples, and another voice in the learning process.

I had heard many friends talk about Khan Academy in the past, and I always half listened. Some friends used it to aid in homework help, others for summer vacation tune ups, and some for the basis of a homeschooling curriculum. Recently, two friends with children the same age as our son told me that they were using it and their kids loved the program. I decided to check it out in earnest.

Image captured from Khan Academy

Khan Academy is a free, online, non-profit learning center with over four thousand videos covering topics ranging from basic multiplication to calculus. They also have a section of videos for science and the humanities. The videos are narrated by the organization’s founder, Salman Khan, while he draws on a Walcom tablet using Smooth Draw.

The history of the site is well documented and quite interesting. Salman Khan began tutoring his middle school aged cousin using Yahoo’s Doodle Notepad, this progressed to making videos for additional cousins, and eventually he uploaded the videos to YouTube. Once on YouTube, he began to get quite a large following. In 2009, he decided to quit his full time job as a hedge fund analyst to focus full time on making free, publicly available, tutorial videos. The project is still a non-profit and now has the backing of big names such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google.

Salman Khan of Khan Academy.
Image captured from Google Images

When I started researching the program, I could not believe how many people either really love or really hate Khan Academy.

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Folks like Bill Gates call Salman Khan, “the world’s teacher” and are very excited by the notion that anyone with internet access can become educated in math, science, history, and much more. Many call his site “revolutionary” and state that it can change education as we know it.

Khan and his Academy also have many, many critics. A lot of his critics say that there is absolutely nothing revolutionary about teaching through lecture, and the reality is that his videos are indeed ten minute lectures. He has been called boring and incompetent.

The internet allows many tools to become available to a wide audience, and it allows for great debate about these tools. The internet debate over Khan Academy is intense and littered with extremism. The extreme views are on both sides. Some feel that Khan Academy is all that is needed for math education and that the site can help reform American education. Others feel that there is nothing revolutionary about the Khan Academy, that it is not a cohesive curriculum and shouldn’t be used in classrooms.

Khan himself has stated that he thinks his Academy can be used as a tool for classrooms and education, not as a replacement for traditional paths. Part of his vision is that students can watch his lecture videos at home, try some problems, and then when class meets, students and teachers can discuss, engage, and try some hands on projects. This takes the lecture out of the equation and sets things up for a discussion among students and teachers. This idea has been coined “flipping the classroom.”

Many love, and many hate, this idea. Critics of Khan have been called bitter and threatened, and his “followers” have been accused of being in a cult.

Well, if Khan Academy is a cult, then I’m sipping the Kool-Aid. Slowly, just a few sips at a time, but nonetheless enjoying the refreshing drink.

The thing about Khan that works for our family happens to be something that many criticize Khan for. The videos are very basic. Black background, no music, no cartoons, and Khan doesn’t appear on screen. While many deem this basic platform as boring, it also leaves little room for distraction. Our son went from fidgeting, flipping pages, and being over stimulated by a busy text, to sitting absolutely still while watching Khan’s videos.

Khan’s voice is soothing and his simple drawings are great visuals for mathematical processes. He draws as he talks and everything that is written is explained in a clear and concise manner. Many parents that I talk to tell me that their child is drawn into the videos and absorb the information quickly since they are so zeroed in. Let’s face it, kids are easily distracted in the classroom and at home. There is something about these videos that draws some kids in and really helps them to focus.

The videos always explain why things are done the way the are done. Obviously, this isn’t completely ground breaking. Plenty of teachers and parents explain mathematical processes quite well.  What is ground breaking about Khan Academy is that since these videos can be watched on the students’ own time, they can listen to the explanation as many times as they want and need to.

A Khan Academy video introduces fractions on a number line.
Image captured from Khan Academy

Khan does not water down topics with cute cartoons, songs, or fancy tricks. In Khan’s world, math is math. I like this approach and feel that it gives kids a more holistic view of the subject.

For example, in one of the first videos on fractions, the fraction 1/5 is not only introduced as a part of a whole circle, but it is shown on the number line as well.  The reality is that while a circle and rectangles are great examples of a whole, when we talk about fractions, we are talking about numbers. Seeing the fraction visually on number line from the get go, I think, is a great way to get kids to think about fractions as numbers from the beginning.

The “math is math” approach doesn’t have to mean boring. Each video lecture series is followed by practice sets, and Master Challenges, that kids seem to love. I can hand my kid a worksheet and he’ll do it, eventually. However, he is motivated by the practice sets, challenges, and badges. Of course the “points” tallied for completing these tasks don’t amount to a “prize” but it is somehow motivating and fun. Our son, and many others I know, ask for Master Challenges. He asks for more problems, almost as a game.

The problems come in sets of five and if the student gets five in a row, that challenge is complete. The problems start out basic, but really enforce what topic the proceeding video introduced. There are an almost infinite amount of problem sets for any given topic. If the student gets stuck she can ask for a hint, and she will be helped step by step with effective prompts.

A student can work through a particular grade level that is laid out by topic, or a student can choose any topic that they need help with. If you go the latter route, the software will suggest new topics, and areas where the student needs to work more before moving on. This path also allows students to choose whatever topic interests them, regardless if it is considered “grade level” or not.

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Screen shot from Khan Academy

For parents, Khan Academy is great because it tracks all that your kids do, suggests areas where they need more work, and suggests new topics to tackle. If math homework seems confusing, or if your child can’t remember how the teacher explained reducing fractions and you’re rusty, search for that topic and in ten minutes, you’ll be refreshed. Perhaps Khan’s explanations resonate with your child and they can even preview a topic and have a base understanding before hearing in the classroom.

The independence that kids can gain using Khan is great. No topic is off limits, no topic too hard for them to at least be introduced to. If an eight year old is curious about square roots or algebra, why not let them go for it? A friend told me that she and her son have spent hours surfing the “world of math” on the site, just looking at random topics that interested them. Perhaps students that see these topics introduced for the first time while sitting comfortably on their couch will have a less stressful transition to advanced math as they get older.

There are stories of classrooms using Khan as a starting prompt for topics, followed by the students being able to move through practice sets and related topics at their own pace. Kids that catch on quickly can quell boredom and move on, while students who need more practice can do so without feeling stressed. Additionally, teachers can track what each child is doing to monitor progress in real time, without the pressure and stress of exams. Many kids that are interested, will use Khan at home as well and move beyond what is being taught in the classroom at that time.

Our son really likes using Khan Academy and his use of the site has breathed much needed fresh air into his math curriculum. I wouldn’t say that Khan Academy is all that is needed to effectively teach math, because while it works for many, it will obviously not work for others. I also think that one view is never enough with education, including math education. While our son doesn’t prefer the methods used in the textbook, a different perspective and alternate approach to tackling problems is always good to see.

Khan Academy is  great for homeschooling families as every topic is available, the content is arranged by grade level, and there are almost infinite practice problems. College students can also use his calculus tutorials for extra explanation and practice sets. Using Khan as a tool in the classroom or at home does not have to mean that teachers, parents, and textbooks are obsolete. Khan himself does not advocate for that scenario.

We are currently using Khan to introduce topics and for practice sets while still using the textbook for an additional perspective and practice problems. The great thing about Khan is that it is an option, and in education as in life, options are great things to have.