A Japanese approach to Khan Academy

Got 13 minutes? Watch this video from Michael Pershan. Plain and simple, American math teachers teach differently than Japanese (and other international) math teachers. What would Khan Academy look like if it came from Japan? Well, it would look more like the work that Dan Meyer’s doing

Michael’s video was the winner of the #MTT2K prize. Happy viewing!

10 Responses to “A Japanese approach to Khan Academy”

  1. A few questionable assumptions early on need to be debunked, but otherwise very thoughtful. Both my objections hinge on failing to compare apples to apples: the repeated claim that the US spends so much more than most or all other industrialized countries per pupil on education misses a lot of key facts that the late Gerald Bracey was always quick to debunk in his work. Just consider that we routinely pay for things in public schools that many other countries do not: transportation, special education, and food service add enormous costs that are not universally part of public education elsewhere.

    Second, too much credence is given uncritically to international standardized test scores. A more careful analysis of these scores suggests that again, apples are not being compared to apples. We test everyone. Do the countries against whom we’re supposedly being fairly compared do the same? My understanding is that when we take our affluent districts and compare them with similar districts overseas, we more than hold our own. Also, there is a lot of cherry-picking done to highlight those subjects and grade-levels where we seem to be weakest. I strongly advise skepticism before concluding that as a nation, we’re lagging behind.

    On the other hand, the dismal impact of extreme poverty (in which nearly 25% of our children now live) is a national disgrace. We can’t blame schools or teachers for that, so it’s not a popular theme among politicians. Much better to talk about “no excuses,” while funneling money to phony miracle workers and the snake oil they’re peddling.

    All of that said, yes, one big message of THE TEACHING GAP is that Japanese math classrooms are much more a balance of students thinking, coming up with their own ideas, extending and connecting what they’ve learned, on the one hand, and practicing (they actually DO spend time doing that, too).

    Our biggest problem, as well-highlighted in this video, is that we don’t have anything close to balance in that regard. Almost everything we do is imitative and designed to practice routine skills offered directly by the teacher and book. That’s not going to develop mathematical thinkers.

  2. Something I should have added to my previous comment: interacting with videos alone misses a crucial thing students get when they struggle with peers (as shown in the excerpt from the Japanese lessons). I’m not sure that any videos, no matter how well done and carefully considered, can replace by themselves that aspect of mathematical thinking: bouncing solution attempts off peers; giving and receiving constructive critical feedback; partaking in the sort of synergistic creative thinking that emerges when people collaborate in a healthy way with others.

    Of course, Americans are big fans of the power of the individual. And I love finding things out for myself in math and other venues. But I’ve also loved it when working with one or more teammates/classmates/colleagues to reach a solution that it seems in hindsight none of us was likely to arrive at individually.

    Both sorts of experiences are important. Better, more thoughtful videos and in-class lessons can help a lot with building individual mathematical skill and power, but it takes interaction with others in a discourse community to get that second kind of experience, and I strongly believe both are important for growth in both key intellectual and social domains.

    • Truthfully, being stuck in groups to work out math problems always seem to drag my performance down, as I was typically correct more often than the group, and groups (at least in America) have a hard-on for democracy, regardless of correctness.

      The group is a good go-to for problems that are hard to solve or are unsolvable, but should never be the FIRST go to. It should come after individual attempts. Nobody in real life goes to society at large, with nothing in hand, to develop a theory, but usually that someone has thought something out on his own first.

      I’ve always found the group to be the lazy-teacher’s way of getting mechanical attention and focus off her and into group interaction. Also considering other effects of school and its regimentation, it seems like rote and socialization are the larger goals and education is a secondary. Refer to John Taylor Gatto and ex-DOE secretary Charlotte Iserbyt.

      Individual ability is a must, and individuals should be taught to leverage the group, not depend on it.

      • Oh, my. Charlotte Iserbyt. Maybe you can explain why any sane person would want to listen to someone who thinks that we are involved in some international plot that started either under Ronald Reagan (her ex-boss) or 70 years or so earlier than that thanks to the Carnegie Foundation, to import Russian education methods (because, after all, Reagan was such an admirer of the Soviet Union and Communism, as no doubt was Andrew Carnegie and his foundation. I think he was the guy who funded public libraries in this country. Can’t get any more socialistic than giving the public free access to books.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! This is exactly what I have been trying to say to my cohorts in my office and other math teachers about Kahn Academy for so long. Yes, Kahn Academy has its place possibly for students who have already completed the content and need a bit of review or adult learners to use as a review, but never as the first introduction to a new topic. Students need to build their conceptual understanding. And, if you are following the 8 standards of mathematical practice, your example video and suggestions for additional hint videos, then to the final series of videos using a variety of methods has a better fit to these 8SMP.

  4. This video is really fascinating. Like Michael Paul Goldenberg, I think there are some assumptions made that I’m not quite ready to accept. But I do agree fundamentally that the “tell and practice” model that is used in Khan and elsewhere is faulty. I don’t know that I buy that the “struggle” is what is critical, but I do think that the learner’s behavior has to be shaped through the process, i.e., the problem solving behaviors get modified through the course of trying to solve the problems. I don’t think it necessarily follows that significant struggling and error-making need to happen (e.g., errorless learning programs can be used to teach problem solving with great success).

    I really like the idea proposed here about separating out the chunks of the videos, if videos continue to be used. My preference would be to put the same concepts into an individualized instructional product and dispense with the videos altogether, but I think the approach suggested here by Michael Pershan is a great intermediate step. Nicely done and very well presented and explained! Wish you had been my math teacher!

  5. Hello!

    Thanks for the comments on the video, and especially thank you to Michael for challenging my assumptions about expenditure and test scores.

    I have to admit that defending my assumptions takes me a bit out of my depth, but I’ll point to the work of others that I’m relying on.

    I rely heavily on “Measuring Up” by Koretz for some of my assumptions. In particular, I’d like to use a quote from his book to push back on the idea that if we just take our strongest students overseas that we compare favorably. What that sort of idea is really suggesting is that America suffers in international rankings because of the unusually large spread of inequality in the US.

    In short, according to Koretz the inequality of outcomes in the US is comparable to international inequalities, and the size of these inequalities doesn’t predict rankings. Here’s the quote:

    “In fact, the variability of student performance is fairly similar across most countries, regardless of size, culture, economic development, and average student performance…Yet more surprising was the ordering of countries: by and large, the social and educaitonal homogeneity of countries does not predict homogeneity of student performance.” (p.111)

    In short, while I agree that we shouldn’t worry too much about the fine details of the rankings, following Koretz I take the superiority of East Asian students on these assessments to be a robust result. Now, if you want to worry about the content that these tests are assessing, that’s an entirely different story…

  6. @Michael P.: Taking your last comment first, I think that is a very important point that is generally ignored by politicians and education deformers. There’s an old saw in education: you test what you value. To me, that means that everyone notices what’s going to be tested and assumes that’s the only thing that matters (at least to those controlling what’s on tests). Teachers decide (or are pressured by administrators and perhaps parents and/or students) to focus upon only that which will be tested. (Of course, kids are always asking, “Will this be on the test?” but that used to mean in-class assessments. In any case, it reflects the culture in which if something isn’t going to be assessed, it can safely be ignored. Mathematical (and other) knowledge isn’t valued as anything but whether it can be exchanged for “points” somewhere).

    In my experience, however, the most educationally-conservative folks in the US math wars only seem to value K-12 tests of the multiple-choice flavor. They don’t want anything where “subjectivity” can rear its head in the scoring process: no partial credit, no rubrics, no performance tasks. I have tried without success to provide evidence that multiple-choice questions don’t provide accurate evidence of what students know (any problem that involves more than one step or “bit” of mathematical knowledge likely will not be able to show just where the student went wrong), and yet one justification for the influx of so much testing is to provide “useful feedback” for teachers so they can properly adjust instruction. To say that I’m skeptical about that as a real or realistic goal would be a vast understatement. But it seems that those in power are much less concerned about whether the tests they promote (and demand that the public pays for and that teachers are held accountable by and that students are, at earlier ages than in any sane country, tortured with) are really delivering truly meaningful data.

    As for the economic points, I’m still skeptical that we’re really being judged along a fair set of criteria. There may have been a time when the US did more sorting into college-bound tracks and other tracks such that a lot of students who are now still part of the tested 10th grade population would have been “elsewhere.” And we do know that goes on in other countries. I don’t think that other countries mainstream special education students the way we are doing these days, particular in places like Detroit, where money is so tight that they seem not to have any other options. I’m not convinced that some of the high performing Asian countries are really testing a fair cross-section of students. And I know that we pay for services I mentioned last time (food, transportation, and special education) that many of the countries we’re being compared with don’t. I think you didn’t address that in your reply, and it seems awfully important, along with our world-leading percentage among industrialized nations of children living below the poverty line.

    But none of that changes my view that we have a lot to learn from SOME of what goes on elsewhere, in math class and in general. I have always liked what I’ve seen of K-8 math education in Japan and see many things I wish were part of US math culture. But we really don’t have anything like that in most classrooms: we continue to stress math as imitative, procedural, computational, and, frankly, dull as dishwater.

    I also greatly admire many of the things the Finns do. But it seems that what the politicians and deformers notices are only their test scores: not their values, not their much more child-friendly view of education, not the Finns’ apparent lack of interest in winning some imagined international testing competition or in competition as a central value for education.

    I think there’s room for debate on whether there is a fair comparison going on, and I know that there are researchers who consistently argue that “money doesn’t matter. I don’t happen to trust their work very much, but it certainly is out there.

  7. Thank you for a well thought out video. I have several concerns around Khan Academy – for the most part it:
    • Tends to focus on one type of learner
    • Rarely incorporates concrete learning (manipulatives)
    • Uses very few instructional strategies beyond lecture/demonstration
    • Is repetitive in style and technique
    • Focuses on math, with little integration to other topics or subjects

    I like the ideas you presented in your video. You showed a variety of good teaching including scaffolding and building background knowledge. I also like your idea of breaking up the video into components.

    I’d like to go even further and suggest the inclusion of videos for teachers. One type might be “talk over” videos explaining the “what” and “why” of the teaching on the screen. The other set of videos would serve as instructional models to help teachers incorporate manipulatives, technology and language-based activities (story, background, context, talk) into their instruction regardless of the grade they teach.

  8. That this approach might work for high school students seems probable, but if it’s fit for young children that’s to be questioned.

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