A learning revolution: Khan Academy

Where have I been, you may have been wondering. Well, this chart above shows you where I’ve been. I used to take my coffee breaks blogging, but for the past month I’ve been taking them (ie, a couple of 10-minute breaks a day) at the Khan Academy, which is the subject of this post.

The chart shows my time logged watching chemistry-lesson videos during the past month. (Notice that I’ve earned some meteorite badges, and even a moon and an earth badge. 🙂 This boy — his name is Sal Khan — knows how to motivate kids of all sizes.)

Now, you too should care about this (ie, the Khan Academy), and I am about to tell you why. But first…

1) Credits

I don’t know how it’s possibly that I only discovered the Khan Academy last month, but that’s what happened. And I discovered it because Dafna, a frequent commenter here on The Hannibal Blog, mentioned it in passing, apropos of something else, and I clicked through and was hooked.

Dafna: You get more than a fist bump, you get a chest bump or body flop. Now…

2) “Revolution”: definition and polemic

I used the word revolution in the title of this post, so please indulge me in another brief tangent, concerning that word.

I can’t tell you how sick I am of it. And the verb, to revolutionize, is even uglier. Practically every PR pitch I get in my inbox (and I get many) announces that something or other is being “revolutionized”. How yucky. And how ludicrous.

By definition, revolutions are extremely rare in human history. I myself have, as a journalist, proclaimed precisely one revolution in fourteen years (and that was the ongoing media revolution, which I put on a par with the Gutenberg printing press.)

So I don’t use the word lightly. But I think there is a revolution underway, and it is in learning. So now I might have your attention.

3) What is Khan Academy?

I was tempted to summarize it here, but why would I distract from Sal Khan explaining it personally? So watch this talk below, and then come back here to read the rest of the post:

4) Revolution or rotation? How Sal flips education

Now that you know what Khan Academy is, you’re ready to contemplate what makes it (or things like it, such as future iTunes U courses et cetera) revolutionary.

A revolution is technically a circumnavigation of something (as that of our planet around the sun). But we usually think of it, in human affairs (the French Revolution, say), as a rotation, a turning upside down of something.

This is what Sal thinks Khan Academy can do to education as it is traditionally practiced in schools.

In this piece in the Wall Street Journal, he argues that Khan Academy can

“flip” the traditional classroom: Students can hear lectures at home and spend their time at school doing “homework”—that is, working on problems. It allows them to advance at their own pace, gaining real mastery, and it lets teachers spend more time giving one-to-one instruction.

Ponder this for a while. And then you see why this might be revolutionary.

On a personal note: Sal, with his approach, epitomizes a lot of my own worldview. He:

  • loves — clearly adores — learning for its own sake;
  • takes the pomposity out of it; and
  • makes learning playful and intimate.

In due course, you will hear more, much more, from me on this subject.

31 thoughts on “A learning revolution: Khan Academy

    • Fantastic reference, Margaret!

      I had not heard of the man or the concept or the book (what’s wrong with me? You, my readers, are giving me a complex) but am now reading up on him.

      Since you brought it up: how would you compare/contrast his vision to Khan’s? Is the Khan Academy the first step toward “deschooling society”?

    • Why don’t you go and watch the 480 Khan videos on world history and find out for yourself. Let us know when you’re back and give us the CQ Digest! (I obeyed Master Cactus and watched the 20 minute clip before reading on.)


    • I see only 12 history clips. None of them appear to be about the Mongols. Why don’t you consult the algebra section and then let us know the percentage by which you’ve inflated the history section.

    • Hmm, that’s a tough one for a psychologist. Still working on it. But coming back to your original question, given Mr K’s stage performance I’d rather go for relation to SRK than Ghengis.

    • I always have time for Peter Thiel’s latest theories. He’s talking mostly about higher ed, and the peculiar “exclusivity model” that America’s elite universities are thriving on. Khan will probably disrupt from the bottom up, ie from Kindergarten through 12th. But who knows?

      I recall, btw, reading an economic analysis explaining why American college is so expensive: It has nothing to do with the in-class or in-library education one might or might not get there. It has everything to do with signaling membership of an elite, and with networking among that elite in the afterlife….

  1. Wow. This seems very interesting. I was really struck by how he explained the excitement of learning and argued that it might be the “highest high.” Too often it seems people don’t really care about learning new things – I find that incomprehensible. Yet, deep down I think that’s because they’re not really learning but just “going through the hoops” like Mr Khan said. His example of the joy of the girl dancing summed it up perfectly for me. Notice: she wasn’t dancing for the excitement of dancing. She was so elated by learning that she was moved to dance. Amazing.

  2. Oh I also meant to comment on the connection you share with Mr Khan. I think you have an affinity for him because you both grew tired of your “success” in the financial industry. It looks like his worldview is even closer to yours.

  3. A little pushback to get you thinking….

    I’m a HS physics teacher. I’m still on the fence about flipped classrooms in the form of “watch lecture at home first, practice in class second.” It reinforces the notion that school is about digesting someone else’s knowledge, rather than constructing your own. The videos could be a useful resource following knowledge building in the class, but I haven’t found any KA videos that work for me.

    While Khan argues that his videos now eliminate “one-size-fits-all” education, his videos are exactly that. I’ve actually tried finding KA videos for my students to use as references for studying, or to use as a tutorial when there’s a substitute teacher. However, I teach physics from the Modeling Instruction paradigm, and so I haven’t found one good one. They either tackle problems that are too hard (college level) or they don’t use a lot of the multiple representations that are so fundamental to my teaching (kinematic graphs, interaction diagrams, energy pie graphs, momentum bar charts, color-coded circuit diagrams showing pressure and flow, etc.) that the videos are useless to me because his videos do not align with proper Physics Education Research pedagogy.

    Instead of relying on lectures and textbooks, the Modeling Instruction paradigm emphasizes active student construction of conceptual and mathematical models in an interactive learning community. Students are engaged with simple scenarios to learn to model the physical world. You can watch one Modeling class in action here: http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/modeling-instruction/

    In comparison to traditional instruction, under expert modeling instruction high school students average more than two standard deviations higher on a standard instrument for assessing conceptual understanding of physics: http://modeling.asu.edu/modeling/Mod_Instr-effective.htm

    More discussion about the ineffectiveness of lectures here: http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/pt-pseudoteaching-mit-physics/

    And even more discussion about the ineffectiveness of Khan-like videos for learning science here: http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/khan-academy-and-the-effectiveness-of-science-videos/

    I also find it troublesome that the Khan Academy team is not spending time and energy on the pedagogy of teaching math and science, but rather on refining the gaming mechanics of KA: http://bjk5.com/post/2506586245/good-behavior-bad-behavior

    The “gamification” of learning in KA has had disastrous consequences: http://lasdandkhanacademy.edublogs.org/2011/03/31/sun-badges-and-beyond/

    There are some truly innovative learning technologies that have been around for years. I hope the KA team takes a look at
    * ANDES: http://www.andestutor.org
    * the history of PLATO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdDwoUk4ojY
    * and these Multimedia Pre-Lectures: http://vimeo.com/4432733
    if they want to grow out of their infancy as electronic worksheets. These have all been developed, researched, and tested.

    While I agree that Khan Academy may be a supplement for students, it shouldn’t replace solving complex, real-world problems. My take on that here: http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2011/03/30/khan-academy-is-an-indictment-of-education/

    Also, if you haven’t seen these, please check out this four-part series on Khan Academy:

    Khan Academy and the Mythical Math Cure

    Khan Academy – Algorithms and Autonomy

    “Don’t we need balance?” and other questions about Khan Academy


    They do a great job of summarizing my thinking.

    Interested in your thoughts about my points…. Thanks!

    • Well, first of all, welcome to the Hannibal Blog, Frank.

      Your comment is EXACTLY why I love this blog: where and how else could I get “pushback” as excellent as yours?!

      You’ve given all of us a lot of homework in the links, and I will do mine diligently. Then we will discuss, here or on yours.

      I just started with Derek Muller’s video and it is making me think. But let me withold judgment till I’ve had time to take in all the “evidence”.


    • If you can’t find ANY Khan Videos that work for you, perhaps you should try making your own? Maybe your method of teaching would benefit from someone being able to enter your classroom at anytime via a video on youtube.

      Make a video!

  4. Well, as you know, I have operated a little writing academy for 13 years after teaching 26 years in the public school.

    The reasons these supplementary programs (including mine) have grown in the past ten years is that public education has deteriorated dramatically in places like California.

    A successful educational experience, in my view, depends upon a live teacher (the best) and a live student. Nothing can fully replace the magic of eye-to-eye human interaction, replete with ahems, ahaas, and all of those emotions that make us human. I’ll even go so far to say that when a student experiences emotions while learning, the learning imprints in the brain.
    This equation is simple.

    It is all about the teacher, both the solution and the problem.

    If Khan Academy gets the blood pumping and moves a person to learn, why criticize? Will it replace the magic? Maybe. Magic is not as plentiful in public and private school classrooms as it used to be.

    • Our motto at Williams was always: The ideal education is Mark Hopkins (famous teacher) on one end of a log and you on the other.

      So yes, we all toast to the live teacher.

      But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it? In practice, school lectures involve a teacher standing far away with his face to a board while kids snooze half a universe away and are too shy to ask anything.

      What Khan is proposing is this: do the lectury (one-size-fits-all) stuff at home, in your privacy, at your own speed, without pressure, then practice.

      THEN come to class so that you can be at one end of the log and I (the teacher) on the other. So he is ENABLING the experience you describe, which today hardly exists anywhere at all.

  5. This post is inspiring. It brings to mind all the questions I had and never posed in class out of shyness. Learning by going back and forth over the material until confidence sets in,and,without fear of annoying anyone is heaven for some.

  6. This model sounds perfect for busy people who still want to learn/refresh knowledge bases.
    And yes, by its very sound, the word “lecture” kills interest.

    Khan is banking on what his data probably show: talented lecturers are doing other things, rather than teaching.

    We’ve all been in the presence of a masterful lecturer…even TED speakers can magnetize their audiences in 18 minutes, no matter WHAT the subject.

    So Khan Academy is an excellent solution to boring lecturers and for shy students (as Geraldine attests above).

    I’d much rather come hear you discuss your new book live rather than watch you on Book TV.

  7. Did you just start at the beginning and go through the videos or do you jump around based on preference? I’m thinking of “going to Khan Academy” but this prospective student would like some advice from a current pupil.

    • I randomly picked chemistry (because I seem to have, ahem, forgot all about that), and am watching videos in the given order, often fast forwarding or skipping, often rewinding or repeating (just as Sal intends).

      Then I might try physics, biology, etc

    • Sounds like a good strategy. I’m starting with finance – I don’t think my one college class (where is was only one aspect of the curriculum) gave me a very strong foundation.

  8. hmm, where were you, indeed? where was I when you posted this? i missed a body flip!

    here is irony for you. since you were AWOL for so long, i took a hiatus from checking in on your blog also. you posted while i was at my parents home. my father (Zalman) who is a genius and a luddite when it comes to computers, was the person who told my son about the khan academy site. there are no computers at my folks home.

    grampa was very excited to find the khan academy because we had hit a “wall” – a dreaded sixth grade question that could not be answered either by my cousin who teaches math @ princeton nor by my father. hence the shout out to Mr. C for HELP!

    that a curious child with above average intelligence (with the help of three like minded relatives) could not find ONE single age appropriate resource concerning “the math of skyscrapers” reveals a failure in the approach to teaching math and science.

    i agree with your original assessment that the khan academy is revolutionary because it affords equal access to a knowledge base; with the caveat that cheri provided – it seems to work best for those who are looking to “refresh” their knowledge. originally i did not get “the flip” model you described, i thought khan academy was an adjunct to the current system.

    let me ponder… 🙂

    nothing can replace human interaction. i have dropped a continuing education class for the simple reason that the course was offered as a hybrid, which meant that most students took it online and the few that came to class sat in silence…yawn. as horrible as the memory of the 100 student first year courses where the professor is a lectures and the students sleep.

    we were not able to find the resources we originally sought at khan academy. perhaps because it is still growing? i also appreciate the links provided by mr. noschese and began where you did with the first of four series on the “generation yes” blog.

    i really enjoyed your post the comments. what struck me most was the comment you made about the joy of learning having disappeared. i have noticed this with my son. there are flaws in any system but if khan academy can “Take pomposity out, take pressure out, take anxiety out and you get… sheer, natural, inborn human JOY” then it is doing something that the current school systems are not.

    • Well, there you are. Zalman, not even having a computer, introduces you and your son to the revolution. Let us savor.

      I’d like to submit that you and Cheri are still missing a crucial nuance, however:

      Nobody, least of all Sal (as far as I understand him), is proposing “to replace human interaction”.

      It is in fact the opposite proposition: To enhance human interaction so that it indeed a) human and b) interactive.

      Most classroom “lectures” today are neither human nor interactive, really. So let’s do THAT part on Khan Academy.

      Then — and this is the great part — let’s use the class time (remember, we’ve not reduced any physical class time) for teacher and students to interact, one on one, based on need and interest.

  9. I really do get it, Andreas.

    I conducted an informal survey with my eight grammar students on Wednesday night. They range in age from 13-15 and are half boys/half girls, six Asians, one East Indian, and one half Chinese/half Caucasian, four shy, four outgoing and all wishing they were anywhere else than in an after-school grammar course.

    The two shyest students liked the idea of DVD lecture and hands-on lab.
    Six students said that were I (the teacher) on a DVD, it would still be funny, but my side-stories unrelated to grammar but designed to suck them back into the lesson, would be missing. One student observed my stories tend to be spontaneous and would thus, be missing.

    The two shy students added that I would probably include those stories on a DVD.

    The most vocal student in the class observed that were they watching a DVD at home, their parents would drive them crazy; at least at my little school, they have one hour of peace and quiet (albeit filled with grammar).

    • Oh, in rereading this, I shutter to think that Cyberquil will appear and comment on “the two shyest” students.

      OK. Several of the shy students….

  10. nice to read your blog about Khan Academy 🙂
    thanks Mr Hannibal, i am sorry, i can’t say much about this.
    but one think i sure, you with this blog is one of the teachers that I always visit lovely 😆

  11. Andreas and others, I would imagine that this is just another tool, a very important tool may be, in the hands of educationists. I think many of us can learn in various ways, so while for some eye contact may be important, some can absorb the most boring lectures straight away ( most of my childhood was spent looking at those who found certain lectures interesting, which as they call it was over head transmission for me). If this gets me interested in Calculus, i would update the post.

    • Alright, sasha, you’ve got a deal: You’ve hereby volunteered to watch at least three calculus lectures on Khanacademy.org, and to do some exercises and earn some meteorite badges.

      Then, if you’re on fire, you come back here and tell us so.

      See you very, very soon. :mrgreen:

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