Friday, June 24, 2011

Does Khan Academy Represent the Future of Education, Part 2

Last month, I wrote a blog post about the free, online Khan Academy and whether or not that represents the future of education.  My friend Maria of Natural Math has just written an interesting post on her blog on Metaphors explaining Khan Academy that encouraged me to think a bit more about this matter.  So this is the metaphor I would offer about Khan Academy:

Forrest Gump taught us that life is like a box of chocolates.  I would say that Khan Academy is like a can of soup.  Education, however, is like a family dinner.

To explain this metaphor, I have to go back, wow, like 20 years ago, when I visited the National Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs (which does the same sort of thing for the Air Force that its more famous cousins in West Point and Annapolis does for the Army and the Navy).  Our guide, who was one of the instructors at the Academy, told me something that really stuck with me.  He claimed that only about 25% of his job as an instructor was to teach the content in his classes.  The vast majority of his job--75%--was to be a role model who exemplified by his character and his behavior what it is to be an exemplary Air Force officer.

And while that ratio may be off compared to traditional schools, given the special nature of those military academies, I think that there are some similar roles for all teachers.  So much of education is all about the kind of person that student is becoming, not the academic subjects at all.  We send children to classes to learn math, indeed, but also to learn to be responsible, to be punctual, to get work done by deadlines, to get along with other people, to continue to struggle with something you don't understand until you do, to work collaboratively, to be creative, to be a problem-solver....tons of things besides math (or science or English or whatever).

So, for example, if it were just about the content, you would think homeschoolers would be all over Khan Academy.  We could set our children up on the computer and tell them to work their way through the videos until they are all done.

But nobody I know homeschools like that.  When people uninformed about homeschooling talk to us, their first question is always, "But what about socialization?"  And it is all we can do not to gaffaw in their face, because at least in an area like the Triangle NC, our kids are the most socialized kids on the planet.  My son had some kind of group learning situation almost every day last year.  He went to Math Clubs and Math Treks, did group nature explorations, participated in an history coop and a large, multi-age and multi-disciplinary coop, had art classes, wrote group stories for the homeschool newspaper, read and discussed over 100 books in several different book clubs, played on a homeschool baseball team, and studied world religions in Sunday School.

If it were just about the content, why would I do that to myself?  The answer is, of course, that what I want for my son's education is so much more than just the academic content of his classes.

So, to return to my can of soup....Khan may be a master teacher (maybe...there are certainly lots of master teachers), and the Internet is a vehicle by which he can can himself (or other master teachers) and make it easily available.  And canned soup is certainly handy to have.  You can get canned soup from Master Chefs--for example, Wolfgang Puck sells canned soup--that probably tastes pretty good and that is pretty healthy (although I don't think it can match the homemade chicken, barley, and vegetable soup that I make weekly for my son's lunch and that takes a minimum of about 30 hours, since I use my friend Laura's recipe for making super-healthy 24 hour bone broth as the base for the soup).

But canned soup does not a family dinner make.  The family dinner is about the other people, and the relationships, and tablecloths and silverware and candlesticks, and the conversations, and all of that, even if the family is eating canned soup for dinner.

So, Maria, there is my analogy.  Khan Academy is like a can of soup.  I might occasionally give my son a can opener and tell him to go heat one up, but I would never confuse it with a meal.


  1. I added your analogy to the post, Carol. I assume it describe the video part. What do you think about the relatively recently added exercises, hints and badges part?

  2. Those are helpful, I guess--although I loved your comment about your daughter being an Alfie Kohn poster child, and we likewise are not very motivated by extrinsic rewards like badges.

    Here is the thing for me....In Star Trek, they've had these scenes about Spock as a child, or when he lost his memory and had to relearn everything, where he stands in a pit and computers flash different information all around him for him to learn. That's what the whole Khan Academy feels like to me. Now, that make work for Vulcans...and Bill Gates may be as close to a Vulcan as we get here on Earth. But it is not at all what I want for my multidimensional and social human son and his friends.

    The Khan videos and exercises and tracking and all are great resources. But to me, education should be one of the ultimate institutions in our human socially networked experience, and I just don't see Khan Academy supporting that.