I can still remember the taste of chocolate on my tongue as I fought back the tears brought on by trigonometric functions and page after page of scratched out formulas on yellow sheets of paper ripped from the pad. Joel would turn to me with a fierce determination and insist that I was on the verge of “getting it.” After 5 minute cookie breaks designed to break my spiraling mind and dam the well of salt water threatening to stream, we would begin again– moving through dozens of steps to reach a final circled answer. We skipped none. All of those “basic” ideas glossed over with a wave of the hand as my fingers cramped during note taking in class were redefined and explained. Connections were made.
For all four seasons of my Junior year of high school, I spent hours toiling away with my math tutor Joel as I waded against the raging river that was Algebra 3/Trig. When finals came around, we booked 10 or more hours of time together, with me working independently for just as long on practice problems. I cost my parents hundreds of dollars over those two semesters. I took my final exam in a separate room when the stress of other students finishing their tests and leaving started to crack the steely grip I had on my mechanical pencil.
I know now that it wasn’t that I was bad at math. Whenever I met with Joel, I understood everything she threw at me. Rather, it was the teaching style of my math teacher that refused to mesh with my personal learning style. Despite several efforts to get help during my lunch hour and the worn eraser marks that covered my devoted homework assignments, he couldn’t find a way to explain the scrawling formulas on the board to me. He didn’t have the patience to back up and explain how it all related. There was only one example. When it came to tests, it didn’t matter how long I pored over my scrupulous notes or how many practice problems I did from the text book, (and trust me, I did them all) the numbered questions always left me tearing at my hair. They were foreign. The mathematical principles were familiar, but the context and format were completely new.
My teacher believed he was pushing us to “succeed” by allowing us to apply what we had learned to things we hadn’t seen–pushing us to real world application. Now, I actually respect this kind of teaching, but at the time I wasn’t at all trained for it (at least in math.) I cared about getting an A and feeling like I wasn’t about to drown.
I wasn’t the only one who struggled to learn with this particular teacher. Joel once told me that my math teacher was singlehandedly providing most of her income because she had so many students who needed help. However, I also know several students who excelled under this teacher’s watch. They were the kids who thought the way he did–latching on to a formula and unwinding it to fit any context. Those of us who struggled were sacrificed for the success of those lucky few. I realize now that this was true too in the subject areas where I excelled. I thrived in our high school English Department because I could anticipate what each of my teachers wanted. I loved to write, and I devoured modern literature with a vigor they appreciated.
So, what if there were a way in our digital and “plugged in” age to assure that all students succeed? What if you could learn from a proven effective teacher from the comfort of your own home–pausing and rewinding without embarrassment to review basic concepts that still had you lost? What if you could work at your own pace–moving through unique practice materials and mastering content through short lessons and working one on one with your teacher in class to finish homework problems that gave you trouble? What if all of this was free?
The answer to all of these questions is found in the Khan Academy— an online learning tool that may just be the face of future education.
An archive of about 2,400 short youtube videos on topics from high level calculus to basic arithmetic and cell biology, Khan Academy is the almost accidental brain child of Salman Khan–a former hedge fund analyst– now reaches over a million students and has his videos viewed almost 100,000 times a day. It began as a unique attempt to tutor his cousins from afar as he offered them short videos for review on topics they were studying. It has become a tool used by teachers across the nation to “flip” classrooms–allowing students to learn lessons at their own pace at home, and come to class ready with questions for one on one work with their teachers. The tool has also been streamlined to give teachers an easy way for their teachers to track progress– showing which topics the students have mastered and which have them “stuck.” Educators are able to step in and help students in specific areas–even assigning those students who have been shown to be “proficient” to help their peers in areas where they struggle.
This Ted Talk is a great overview of the Khan philosophy and success.
After spending a summer studying the complex lifestyle of my generation Emerging Adults and how our electronic connectedness is undeniably linked to our political involvement, civic engagement, and world view, the Khan Academy hits several key themes.
In the texts Teaching Generation M, Decoding Digital Activism, Born Digital, Debating Emerging Adulthood, and The Narcissism Epidemic, (not to mention countless online, newspaper, and magazine articles) the idea of our Millenial Generation living lives on screen was addressed. As we create multiple identities online and merge the world of the Internet with the world of face-to-face contact, the traditional structure of the classroom becomes obsolete. Teachers begin to feel like entertainers– competing with lit screens hidden beneath desktops as students move thumbs at breakneck speeds. With the distractions of technology and the new expectations that come with a multitasking success-driven generation of resume-building trophy-kids groomed to be CEOs, the development of lesson plans becomes a greater and greater challenge. Time poverty is king, and individualized attention is more popular than ever.
When I begin to peel back the layers of the Khan Academy, I see benefits and concerns. As is true with every issue I’ve studied over these past two years, the complexities are endless. The Khan Academy becomes a microcosmic example of education in a digital world of changing expectations and tools. It offers personalized progress (just as online standardized testing now does) and makes learning into a sort of game. Kids jump through levels with a competitive drive associated with our generation of overachievers and entrepreneurs. The “flip” of the classroom is an example of innovation that allows a “unique” experience–something our admittedly narcissistic generation has come to both crave and demand. The tool also allows constant monitoring–feeding the desires of helicopter parents and teachers who are more and more concerned about being deemed “effective” as cuts like those made by the passionate Michelle Rhee become the new norm.
The pros and cons of Khan: On the upside, Khan is a great way to cater to the digital minds of the younger generations, to allow personally paced progress, to give more tailored help, and to motivate in a straightforward yet unique way. It gives control to the student–something we have come to value in our American society. However, the Khan program also offers a few concerns:
- Khan himself is not an educational professional, and works largely through improvisation.
- Some critics say the style of Khan videos is fairly repetitive and ends up being a series of drills. It probably will not match all learning styles.
- This type of learning might feed our addiction to technology a little too much–decreasing our skills when it comes to face to face interactions and decreasing the community feel of the classroom. When students are all at different levels, how do you know what to put on the test?
- Is this tool going to become another way to stress competition and always getting a “step up?” Will it become an element of future electronic resumes and professional profiles? How will it affect self esteem and narcissism–giving teenagers and Emerging Adults yet another tool to rank themselves with?
For now, watching the rain pound outside of these windows, I am thinking that if I could re-do my mathematical hell of junior year, I’d probably spend a little time with Khan…