My recent post about the differences between Salman Khan and Conrad Wolfram’s TED Talks (Compare and contrast: using computers to improve math education) brought a lot of traffic to the blog, some great comments, and more than a few Twitter conversations about how to teach math.
So I’d like to get more specific about what I think is wrong about the Khan Academy approach by writing about things I see as wrong with the way we teach math in the US.
No matter if we agree or not about Khan Academy, I’m fairly certain we can agree math learning is not going as well as we’d like (to say the least.) Too many people are convinced by the system that they “hate math”, and even students who do well (meaning, can get decent test scores) are often just regurgitating stuff for the test, knowing they can safely forget it shortly afterward.
There is plenty of blame to go around… locked-in mile-wide inch-deep curriculum, focus on paper and pencil skills, lack of real world connections, assessments that are the tail that wag the dog of instruction, a culture that accepts “bad at math” as normal, teacher education programs that have don’t have enough content area specialization, … you can probably add to this list.
I can’t tackle all of these. But if you are interested, I’d like to share my thoughts about Khan Academy and a few epic math myths that are relevant to a discussion of the Khan Academy. In America, these myths are so pervasive that even people who were damaged by the way they were taught themselves accept them and insist that their children be taught using exactly the same methods.
I think these myths explain both the widespread acceptance of Khan Academy as a “revolution” and also why in reality it’s not going to change anything.
Myth: Learning math is about acquiring a sequential set of skills (and we know the sequence)
I think people have a mental image of math that looks something like a ladder. You learn how to add single digit numbers – rung one. You learn 2 digit addition – rung 2. You learn 3 digit addition – rung 3. In this model, you get to rung 3 by throughly learning rung 1 and then rung 2.
The myth continues with the idea that the march up the ladder goes faster if we tell children exactly how to do the problems step-by-step. In the language of math instruction, these step-by-step processes are called algorithms. Some kids “get it”, some don’t, but we accept that as a normal way that learning happens, and “help” the ones who don’t get it by drilling them harder in the step-by-step process, or devising additional tricks and supports to help them “remember” how to solve the problem.
If they don’t learn (meaning pass tests), we take this as evidence that they haven’t practiced the steps well enough, and prescribe more of the same.
Khan Academy plays perfectly into this myth. Here are a convenient set of videos – you just find the one you need, push play and the missing rung in your mental math ladder is filled in.
A corollary to this myth is that we can test students for these discrete math skills, see which “rungs” are missing, and then fix that problem with more instruction and practice on that specific skill.
Let’s diagnose how we think about learning a simple math skill
When we teach 2-digit addition, we immediately introduce the algorithm of “carrying”. You should know, though, that the U.S. form of carrying is just one of many addition shortcuts, not handed down on stone tablets. It’s not used world-wide, nor is it something that people naturally do when adding numbers. But it’s cast in concrete here, so we teach it, then we practice that “skill”. With our ladder model in mind, if a child can’t answer the 2-digit problems correctly you do two things: 1) Do more practice on the rung under it, and 2) do more practice in the algorithm, in this case, carrying.
The problem is that if a student has simply memorized the right answers to rung 1 without real numeracy, reviewing carrying will not increase that understanding. In fact, it will reinforce the memorization – because at least they are getting SOMETHING right. They are like the broken watch that’s right twice a day. This issue gets worse as the math gets more complex – the memorization will not be generalizable enough to solve more complex problems.
A different vision of learning
“Some of the most crucial steps in mental growth are based not simply on acquiring new skills, but on acquiring new administrative ways to use what one already knows”. “Papert’s principle” described in Marvin Minsky’s Society of the Mind.
If this is true, and since these administrative skills are not sequential, it makes it less likely that we really learn math in a sequential way. I think we’ve all had similar experiences, where a whole bunch of stuff suddenly makes sense.
This different vision of how people learn is called “constructivism“. It’s a theory of learning that says that people actively construct new knowledge by combining their experiences with what they already know. The “rungs” are completely different for each learner, and not in a specific order. In fact, rungs aren’t a very good metaphor at all.
“…constructivism focuses our attention on how people learn. It suggests that math knowledge results from people forming models in response to the questions and challenges that come from actively engaging math problems and environments – not from simply taking in information, nor as merely the blossoming of an innate gift. The challenge in teaching is to create experiences that engage the student and support his or her own explanation, evaluation, communication, and application of the mathematical models needed to make sense of these experiences.” – Math Forum
Learning theory? What’s the point?
We need to talk about learning theory because there are different ones at play here. And to be complete, we are also going to need to talk about teaching theory, or pedagogy, along the way. Constructivism doesn’t mandate a specific method of teaching, but is most often associated with open-ended teaching, constructionism, project-based learning, inquiry learning, and many other models. Most of these teaching models have at the heart an active, social view of learning, with the teacher’s main role as that of a facilitator.
However, the teaching theory underlying most of American math education is instructionism, or direct instruction – the idea that math is best taught by explicitly showing students how to solve math problems, then having students practice similar problems. Direct instruction follows when you believe that math is made up of sequential skills. Most American textbooks use this model, and most American teachers follow a textbook.
This is important distinction when talking about Khan Academy. Khan Academy supports teaching by direct instruction with clear (and free!) videos. If that’s your goal, you’ve found the answer…. but wait…
Is clarity enough?
Well, maybe not. Even if you believe in the power of direct instruction, watch this video from Derek Muller, who wrote his PhD thesis on designing effective multimedia for physics education. Really, if you are pondering the Khan Academy question, you must watch this video.
“It is a common view that “if only someone could break this down and explain it clearly enough, more students would understand.” Khan Academy is a great example of this approach with its clear, concise videos on science. However it is debatable whether they really work. Research has shown that these types of videos may be positively received by students. They feel like they are learning and become more confident in their answers, but tests reveal they haven’t learned anything. The apparent reason for the discrepancy is misconceptions. Students have existing ideas about scientific phenomena before viewing a video. If the video presents scientific concepts in a clear, well illustrated way, students believe they are learning but they do not engage with the media on a deep enough level to realize that what was is presented differs from their prior knowledge. There is hope, however. Presenting students’ common misconceptions in a video alongside the scientific concepts has been shown to increase learning by increasing the amount of mental effort students expend while watching it.” – Derek Muller, Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos
Derek makes an interesting point – clarity may actually work against student understanding. Videos that slide too smoothly into an explanation do not give a student a way to process their misconceptions and integrate prior knowledge. The very thing that makes the videos so appealing – Khan’s charisma, sureness, and clarity may lull the viewer into comfortable agreement with the presentation without really absorbing anything (Research references and Dr. Muller’s PhD thesis on this subject)
Hooks, not ladders
This goes back to my original point. People learn by reorganizing what they already have in their head and adding new information that makes sense to them. If they don’t have a “hook” for new knowledge, it won’t stick. The tricky part is, though, that these hooks have to be constructed by the learner themselves.
Wishful thinking about downloading new information to kids is just that – wishful thinking.
There is no doubt that Khan Academy fills a perceived need that something needs to be fixed about math instruction. But at some point, when you talk about learning math, you have to define your terms. If you are a strict instructionist – you are going to love Khan Academy. If you are a constructivist, you are going to find fault with a solution that is all about instruction. So any discussion of Khan Academy in the classroom has to start with the question, how do YOU believe people learn?
I have more to say about Khan Academy and math education in the US — this post turned into 4 parts!
My context for these posts: I fully admit I’m not an expert in math or math teaching, just an interested observer of K-12 education in the U.S. In my work, I have unique opportunities to see lots of classrooms in action and talk to lots of teachers. It means I get to see patterns and similarities in classrooms all over the country. I don’t intend to do a literature review or extensive research summary in these posts. This comes from my personal experience, my master’s degree in educational technology and draws from a subjective selection of research and sources that have had a deep impact on my thinking about learning. Finally, I am NOT trying to tell teachers what to do. I’m not in your classroom — that would be silly.