Bad teaching in classroom = “crisis.” Bad teaching on YouTube = “revolution.”

effective teaching is incredibly complex. It requires planning. It requires reflection. And it certainly requires more than just “two minutes of research on Google,” which is how Khan describes his own pre-lesson routine.

teachers aren’t “pissed off” because Sal Khan is the world’s teacher. They’re concerned that he’s a bad teacher who people think is great; that the guy who’s delivered over 170 million lessons to students around the world openly brags about being unprepared and considers the precise explanation of mathematical concepts to be mere “nitpicking.” Experienced educators are concerned that when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it’s a crisis; but that when it happens on YouTube, it’s a “revolution.”

Karim Kai Ani via

10 Responses to “Bad teaching in classroom = “crisis.” Bad teaching on YouTube = “revolution.””

  1. I’m of two minds on that article. On the one hand, I do agree that the aesthetics of Khan’s videos leave much to be desired, but as to whether Khan’s approach is inherently bad teaching? I’m not so sure.

    A normal teacher is observed during a lesson around two or three times a year wherever I have worked. After an observation comes a feedback session where everything that occurred in the lesson is nitpicked. Strong areas are highlighted, areas of improvement are pointed out, and the teacher walks away with a record of that observation.

    Generally speaking, teachers wear their Sunday best when being observed. They pull out the assessment tool, make sure to touch upon the key elements being assessed, and put on a show. While every other lesson in their day-to-day practice may still be good, it is rare for any teacher to bring their B-Game to an observation. And after the observation is over, they are left to keep on keeping on.

    But that’s not the case for Khan. For Khan, every lesson is an observed lesson. Every lesson has thousands of keen eyed educators assessing and nitpicking it, commenting on it, and judging it. Imagine if every lesson you taught, day after day, were observed in the same manner? Would you be brining your A-Game each and every time? Would you be as infallible as the Pope with your facts, figures, explanations and analogies?

    Probably not.

    This, then, is what so irritated me about this article. It encapsulates a mindset that I find absolutely infuriating.

    So Sal Khan goes ahead and teaches a couple thousand different lessons. Some are great, some not as great. But instead of saying “Hey, this is an awesome foundation we can build upon”, or “I like Khan’s video, but I would add that another way to conceptualize (concept) is…”, all I hear is “How come Khan doesn’t explain (insert concept) as good as (insert educator’s name) does?” Or they make an entire video about why Khan is wrong on some point or another.

    Khan is trying to do something that few educators have tried to do. He is trying to create a broad swathe of resources that can be accessed by anybody, covering a broad span of topics, grade levels, and subjects. As Odin was the “All-Father” some see Khan as turning into the “All-Teacher,” and look upon that with the specialist’s contempt of the jack-of-all-trades, and dismiss his work as merely a lesser effort.

    The article says “[i]n the class it’s bad teaching, and online it’s a revolution?” In a word, yes.

    Khan’s lessons, whatever their merit, are there, online. Available to one and all. You can put the greatest teacher in the world in a room and have them teach the greatest lesson ever taught, and it will still amount to less than what Khan has achieved. Why? Because that lesson, however good it was, ceased to be the moment class was over. All that would remain would be, as Tenacious D would put it, a tribute.

    Serious educators do not criticize and tear down. Serious educators analyze and build upon. Don’t like Khan’s explanation of something? Then edit his video, add your own spin. Credit the source and make it better.

    That’s the whole point of the creative commons. It’s the underlying principle of the scientific method. It’s the entire basis of western culture since the enlightenment.

    Make, share, use, make better.

    Okay. End of rant. But as a postscript…

    Bad teaching? That’s a first world view. I teach in Asia, and for students who study the Indian syllabus, or in similar systems in Asia (which is most of them), what Khan does is what they want. The student centered, problem solving, independent learning approach is better, but it is not the norm in the most populated areas of the world. It is only prevalent in wealthy nations, and even there these approaches are limited to the relatively privileged groups.

    Teachers in North America are insanely privileged in comparison to teachers almost anywhere else. In South Asia, the average teacher barely earns a subsistence level wage, has to contend with enormous class sizes, and has little to no logistical support. Students get little to no individual attention, so resources like what Khan produces are an absolute godsend. Sure he may be just going over example after example, but you know what? That’s what the they want over here. That’s how education functions over here. It’s not a question of what is best practice and what is not, it is a question of what actually is.

    “[H]ow the price of an iPod changes as you buy more memory” may not necessarily work as well in Bihar as would in Iowa.

    • Thanks for the long and thoughtful reply. I guess I have two thoughts on this, agreeing with a lot of what you said (particularly the observation about every Khan lesson being an observed lesson)…

      1. There’s a difference between nitpicking delivery and being concerned about preparation and/or accuracy. If every Khan lesson is an observed lesson, at the very least it should involve some decent preparation ahead of time and it should be accurate, no?

      2. Khan is quite willing to accept the accolades and money offered by others. Although he was at one point, at this time he’s not some individual relative/educator who’s cranking out videos one at a time for a small, most likely local audience. Instead he’s taking millions of dollars to create a system of videos and interactive learning components that will reach hundreds of thousands of learners. As such, I think the criticisms about his preparation, accuracy, etc. are warranted. If the Gates Foundation is going to invest significant funds toward educational videos that are going to be used by thousands of educators and students, at the very least we can ask that they don’t contain inaccuracies.

      • You’re quite right about using some of what’s been given to improve production values. I coordinate lesson video development for a high school system in the UAE, and based on what we can produce with $0, I can’t see why a well funded entity like the Khan Academy shouldn’t be able to do a lot more.

        Mind you there is a quantity/quality tradeoff at work, though I am more than sure that Khan could easily round up a small army of tech savvy young educators willing to work for a pittance, helping broaden the scope of resources available, while improving the aesthetic.

        I think what it may come down to is the difference in perceived importance of form vesus function. It’s often said that Apple’s success stemmed from their understanding of the imperative of form, where Google’s engineer driven focus on function sometimes worked to their detriment.

        • I actually don’t care that much about the form / production values. I – and, I think, the others that are Khan’s biggest critics – care about the underlying substance and accuracy. Video math explanations don’t fulfill their essential function if they’re not accurate…

  2. Actually Apple was more concerned with Causation than Form or Function. They were concerned with the “why” and this opened up the possibilities in form “what it is like” and function “how it works”. Simon Sinek discusses this very well in Now if Sinek is right, I understand clearly the rant of this post. Those that feel Khan has connected to the why by openly sharing these resources to improve education probably like him. Those that feel that Khan is extorting educators and students to get rich off of Gates and others by showing that anyone can teach and with little preparation (school of education or pre-lesson preparation), then they do not like him. Bad teaching is bad teaching and good teaching is good teaching. If Kahn is being reflective of his practice and is correcting videos after reflection, then that is great. However, if he is just in the business of mass producing videos that are laced with misconceptions or errors, then that is worse than bad teaching, it’s bad for the future generations that are being exposed to it.

    • I understand your point, and if Khan’s videos are the only videos available for future generations, then you would be correct.

      The thing is, these should not be the only videos. These videos represent a foundation that can be built upon and expanded.

      I firmly believe in not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And if Khan’s videos were crammed full of errors to the point where they made Glenn Beck look like a paragon of accuracy, then you’re right.

      But his videos are not laced with misconceptions and errors. I haven’t made thousands of videos, but I have made hundreds of them, and even when I have checked and double checked, stuff slips through. An omission, a confusing phrasing, a mis-timed transition that causes confusion. Not intentional, and something I’ll happily fix when I come across it. Sort of like how Khan does.

      It doesn’t matter if Khan makes a mistake. It only matters if he, or any other concerned party, chooses to not correct that mistake when they notice it.

      The quest for absolute accuracy can be ultimately self-defeating. If you’re searching for the Higgs Boson, then yes, you want infallible accuracy. When you are trying to develop and deliver a comprehensive set of learning materials to hundreds of millions of children, then a more organic approach is probably for the better.

      Like with Wikipedia. Not perfect, not by a long shot. But boy is that a powerful tool.

  3. Thanks for the post. I enjoyed the commentary, too! Yes, the quality of the video seminars (let’s call them) could be better and if I was doing a single video I would spend more time on it, making it the best lesson I possibly could. However, if I was trying to cover as much ground as possible, I am sure I would start to cut corners, too. I’ve seen quite a bit of classroom instruction now, and it is often better than a typical Khan video. Sometimes it is much better. Sometimes, but not always.

    The relationships, support, different connections to prior knowledge, checking for understanding, feedback, lateral learning, and other pieces you get in a productive classroom should make that environment much, much more effective than a video used on its own. Most kids quickly recognize this and few will intentionally miss classes because the video lessons are sitting there, especially if they think their teacher is doing a reasonable job.

    I support the use of Khan and other video resources like it, but always in ADDITION TO classroom instruction (when available) rather than INSTEAD OF classroom instruction. It can be useful for flipping lessons, extra help at home, review prior to exams, and I love it in the school learning center, especially with another adult supporting a student in an area that is not their specialty.

    I find some people will run down anything that threatens the “bricks and mortar” tradition. Change is scary. I think that resources like this, rather than marking the end of what we know, have the potential to make us much better at what we are doing in the system. We just need to understand what it is and what it is not. This being said, if are not creating an environment that is more effective than a video, especially one that was rushed, we really do need to look at what we are doing in our classrooms.

  4. I had a Twitterbate with one of the MTT2K teachers who
    Posted their video response to one of the KA videos. To me, they missed the point. The strength of KA is that it shows what the power of the flipped classroom can be.

  5. Khan has no excuse for his casual (the nicest word I can think of) approach to preparing his lectures (and that’s by his own admission about what he does). He’s just lazy coupled with deluded about what comprises a sound mathematics lesson.

    The excuse given by Mr. O’Hearn about how poor Sal puts himself out there to be torn apart by nitpickers fails as soon as we realize that these aren’t live lessons but pre-recorded ones. If he were selling this stuff, would he really just sit down, do one take, and let the intellectual chips fall where they may? I hope not. But given that he could look at his lessons afterwards and touch up the dumbth that pervades them, yet prefers that the rest of the education world do his proofviewing and editing for him speaks volumes.

    His defenders say, “Can you do better?” and the answer is two-fold: 1) Since when does a critic have to be able to do better? and 2) Yes, of course. Any competent mathematics teacher can do better. And GOOD teacher would do better. But Sal Khan, far from being a good teacher, is just a hedge fund guy who knows some math (not as much, apparently, as he thinks he does, and certainly not as deeply as he needs to, for the sake of his viewers) and thinks he can throw intellectual paint at the wall and whatever sticks is “high art.”

    My colleague Chris Danielson and I critiqued the Khan lesson approach in the Washington Post in July of 2012. We pointed out how random the selection of examples Sal used in a particular lesson was, how disjointed the presentation, and absent was any indication of pedagogical content knowledge on his part.

    We had nothing to say about the “quality” of the technology, because that’s not what bothered us then and still doesn’t. It’s the lack of thoughtful reflection on the students and the topic that is deeply worrisome, particularly as others are likely to see Sal’s success as giving everyone carte blanche to dash off similarly poor lessons. And as our critique has been up for over a year, in a prominent education column for a top news outlet, we can only suppose that the lack of revision of the lesson we critiqued is representative of Mr. Khan’s attitude about quality.

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