Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Kahn Academy Problem

I'm sure you've seen at least one news story on the "success" of Kahn Academy -- over 2,400 videos delivered over 64 million times. With those kind of numbers, the site has to be good, right?

The folks at Mathalicious have written an open letter to Sal Kahn, the man behind Kahn Academy. Mathalicious is a site that provides free math lessons that relate math to real world situations. (One I just looked at today used the dimensions of the iPad and iPod to teach about ratio and proportion. Great stuff!) If anyone should be getting attention from the media in droves, in my opinion, it should be Mathalicious. They are doing the heavy lifting. Instead of just describing a step-by-step, mechanical process for solving math problems, they take the more challenging, and more effective route. They engage students in real-world situations first. Students discover the need for math to solve a curious problem. Having a real need to know the math provides the motivation to learn and remember.

Think about times when you are faced with math problems. Do you find yourself thinking something like, "Oh, yeah! I have to do step 4 of the process Mr. Rosenblath taught me."? Or, are you more likely to think something like, "This is a lot like the garden area problem." Ok, maybe you don't think either. Maybe the math you most often face you can solve in a very robotic way because you've done it a million times before. But if you can think back to when you were first learning math, you might have thought about Mr. Rosenblath's step 4 when you were solving problems with no connection to the real world. And that's ok. But we want students to get beyond that because, honestly, you will never meet a troll who will require you to divide 37,465 by 492 before you can cross a bridge. We want students to be able to apply math skills.

In all of the news stories I've read about Kahn Academy, they make it sound as if the videos at Kahn Academy are the solution to the problem when really, it's just the beginning. Word problems are often taught using a four step process -- Read, Plan, Solve, Look Back. Sal Kahn has provided step three of that process. The numbers of videos viewed on his site is like the number of burgers sold at McDonalds -- 64 million served. Mathalicious, and many great educators, provide the full-meal deal.


  1. I like Khan Academy. I don't think it's fair to accuse Khan of teaching only procedures. In his introduction to ratios video, he gives a clear explanation of the ratio concept, and he is careful to explain his thinking process. He never says "here are the steps for solving a ratio problem".

    I also like the iPhone lesson on Mathalicious. The activities are well thought-out, and the Photoshop activity is very practical. But the lessons serve different purposes. Khan's videos are intended for review or self-study, but Mathalicious's lessons are intended for use in the classroom.

    One big difference that you overlook is that all of Khan's lessons are free. Mathalicious is great, but it's a commercial site, and most of its content is only available by subscription.

  2. David, I admit I have limited experience with the videos on the Kahn Academy site. Those I have seen have simply shown a step-by-step process and have never been connected to how the math would be used in the real world. I'd love to know I'm wrong about this and that most of the problems do make the connection to the real world. If you know of a video that does this, please post a link.

    I agree that Mathalicious and Kahn have two different purposes. Mathalicious is meant for teacher use. Currently the site is free. I didn't notice until my visit today that in the fall they will be setting up annual and monthly subscriptions. From what I can see of their content, I think it would be worth paying for...depending on the price, of course.

    My point in mentioning Mathalicious wasn't to say that they provide a replacement for Kahn Academy. My point is that, in my opinion, Mathalicious does a better job of providing the type of help our students need, and, therefore, should be getting a whole lot more attention than Kahn. Unless I am wrong and the majority of Kahn's videos provide a connection to the real world, I see Kahn in the same light at McDonald's. They provide the fast food, the quick fix. It may get the job done for the moment, but it causes more harm in the long run.