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Khan Academy: It’s Different This Time (mathalicious.com)
266 points by skrebbel 886 days ago | comments

tokenadult 886 days ago | link

The blog post author is a provider of educational software sold to schools, writing to identify problems that he thinks arise from the Khan Academy approach to online education. I'll respond to what he said now that I've read the blog and the earlier thoughtful comments on his blog and here on HN.

1. It is hard to compete against free, especially in education.

Adam Smith pointed this out a long time ago: "In modern times [as contrasted with ancient times] the diligence of public teachers is more or less corrupted by the circumstances which render them more or less independent of their success and reputation in their particular professions. Their salaries, too, put the private teacher, who would pretend to come into competition with them, in the same state with a merchant who attempts to trade without a bounty in competition with those who trade with a considerable one. . . . The privileges of graduation, besides, are in many countries . . . obtained only by attending the lectures of the public teachers. . . . The endowment of schools and colleges have, in this manner, not only corrupted the diligence of public teachers, but have rendered it almost impossible to have any good private ones." -- The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Part 3, Article II (1776).

Thus the only way to compete effectualy against the current system is to offer something free-to-the-user as part of the mix. The current system of public schools in the United States gains revenues of more than $500 billion dollars per budget year for government-operated elementary and secondary schools.


The blog author seeks to sell products for money to schools, and decries Khan Academy being provided directly to learners for free. Many other providers of educational products and services are doing what is REALLY hard: providing products and services to primary-age and secondary-age learners directly, on at least a cost-recovery basis, attempting to show a value proposition for products and services that families have to pay for after already paying their taxes.

Moreover, the monopoly or oligopoly the government-operated schools have on offering certain kinds of educational credentials ensures that Khan Academy and all competing providers of educational services have to rely on more than just price to win over users.

2. It takes guts to be an entrepreneur.

For anyone attempting to sell a product or service, the first challenge is competing against everyone else providing a product or service (including consumers who do it themselves). One of the entrepreneurs I most admire in the educational products space is a homeschooling materials supplier that has for more than a decade hosted a webpage called "27 Reasons NOT to Buy [Our Product]."


That takes courage and honesty. Rather than FUD, a stand-up entrepreneur lets prospective clients know what the competition offers. Clients are happier if they can shop and compare what's on offer from competing providers.

3. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

Khan Academy is provided over the Internet, entirely for free, but not everyone who has an Internet connection makes use of it. (Some readers who have commented here have suggested that the blog author should watch more Khan Academy videos before making a global evaluation of the quality of Khan Academy instruction.)

The public school system is free (that is, tax-subsidized) for all pupils, and the pupils are compelled to attend in default of government-approved, parent-funded alternatives besides. Even at that, teachers can't count on pupils being engaged in their lessons. It's not clear that providing this or that new lesson material will bring about more learning in a compulsory attendance environment, as another reader here pointed out while mentioning the interesting writings of the late John Holt.

4. Khan Academy leaves a lot of room for a better service.

I have watched SOME Khan Academy videos, including some of the most recently revised videos. My children have watched others. We have also done various Khan Academy online exercises. My homeschooled children's main online mathematics course is NOT Khan Academy, but ALEKS,


which to date offers much superior exercises (which are more like open-ended problems than mere exercises), much more relentless focus on steady skill development of learners, and a more complete and articulated curriculum for precalculus mathematics. I have urged the Khan Academy collaborators in past replies here on HN basically to reinvent the research ALEKS has done on knowledge spaces in K-12 mathematics


and eventually to build a comparable framework to integrate all the Khan Academy exercises into a coherent curriculum.

Anyone can try out ALEKS for an unlimited number of free, time-limited trials. (I'm not paid to endorse ALEKS; I learned this from a local friend who telephoned the company and asked about this.) So you and the blog author and any member of the Khan Academy staff and any other person with an Internet connection can try out ALEKS and see what is like. What ALEKS conspicuously lacks compared to Khan Academy is audio explanations, and what differs from Khan Academy most conspicuously about ALEKS is that ALEKS costs money, but I'm happy to spend money on ALEKS for four learners in my family.

An even better source of videos on prealgebra topics than the Khan Academy videos are the Art of Problem Solving videos by Richard Rusczyk,


also free and worthwhile for mathematical accuracy and engaging presentation, with very challenging problems. Art of Problem Solving links to other videos, some produced in-house and some from other providers,


that are also very good.

Competition is good. I like the public school system, the lessons I teach locally as supplemental classes for advanced elementary-age learners, and Khan Academy and Art of Problem Solving and ALEKS all to be subject to competition, the better to have incentive to improve and to do better.

5. There will continue to be an important role for in-person teachers.

Khan Academy will not make in-person teachers become obsolete. I tell all my prospective clients for my own local in-person math classes about Khan Academy before the first day of each new term. A good classroom teacher, who knows the latest research on educational effectiveness,


will take care to form a community of shared curiosity and reality checks on one another's thinking while teaching. There is an abundance of research on effective mathematics teaching,












and much of that research has yet to be implemented in most classrooms in the United States. It's even possible to compete with wholly free services and provide supplemental classes in mathematics that families pay for willingly and without compulsion. The key thing for a teacher to do is build a class that is engaging and that welcomes curious learners who are willing to challenge themselves.

See an earlier HN comment


for a bit more on the distinction between problems and exercises.

I wish the blog author, the Khan Academy developers, and everyone teaching mathematics well in spurring the development of better materials and teaching practices so that more mathematics learners learn more mathematics better.



jeffreymcmanus 886 days ago | link

It's great that you're contrasting Khan to ALEKS. I'm not drinking the Khan kool-aid; my kid just started using ALEKS in the last month and I agree it's terrific. It's really puzzled me why Khan is getting all this attention when ALEKS has been around so much longer (and seems to be better in many respects -- just lacking instructional video). It would actually be terrific to have some kind of integration between ALEKS and Khan -- to be able to see a video lecture on a particular topic would be quite useful for the student.


ig1 885 days ago | link

Because KA has had a much bigger impact, millions of people are using it.


jeffreymcmanus 885 days ago | link

You have the tail wagging the dog there.


ig1 885 days ago | link

KA had a much bigger impact when it was growing word of mouth, long before it got publicity.


zargon 883 days ago | link

ALEKS is awesome, I used it 10 years ago to refresh on some math topics. I should try it again just to see how much has improved since then.


swishercutter 886 days ago | link

Where Khan Academy has the distinct advantage to me is not in its content or teaching style (both of which seem good) but in the ability for the student who does not grasp the subject to be able to replay the lesson over and over without fear of holding up the class or causing the teacher inconvenience thereby allowing the students who do understand the ability to move on to the next subject without having to "read ahead". The overall content covered can be greater overall in a shorter amount of time.

Kids don't want to seem different from other kids. If a child has to ask the teacher to repeat the lesson or stay after for extra help he may be perceived by his peers (or feel as though he is being seen as) as slower or stupid. With KA on the other hand the student can learn at his own pace...something that just cannot be done in a class of 30+.

Khan Academy does not get upset if a student does a search and finds another method to solve the problem at hand (I don't know how many times I was told "I don't care if you are getting the right answer, we want you to do it our way" when I was in school).

To me it is not about KA at all...but more about self education. The best teacher is you, the lecturer may be giving you the information but how you perceive and use it is entirely based on you. It is a simple fact that teachers cannot at the same time be paid more and have smaller class sizes...the funding is not there. Students are going to fall behind unless they are taught early on to not rely entirely on the teacher to show them "everything". We have at our disposal the most powerful learning tool in the history of man...The internet. No longer are libraries bound to the confines of a building down the road that you may or may not have access to. This is the most amazing thing to me, decentralization of learning, and those who profit from learning in the old system obviously are going to be worried about their future income.


frasertimo 886 days ago | link

This. Right here. Upvote it now.

I work in a small start-up making educational software, and this is exactly the kind of thing I want to achieve.

A couple of months back I read John Holt's famous book 'Why Children Fail' which had a profound effect on me and my work. What he says, and what I agree with due to my own experience and observations is that school can be a fundamentally scary experience for children. Self-esteem is so central to learning, because how you react to failure and your own progress (or lack thereof) defines the way you learn. Kids who are afraid of looking stupid, of being compared to their peers, and of having to work hard without the promise of success are the ones who are branded as lazy, unimaginative, or just 'stupid', when in fact they are just afraid of trying hard.

The internet and self education offers an opportunity for kids to escape that fear, and to truly experience the joy of learning. I'm sure many HN readers will relate to my belief that the greatest joy of hard work is not when you appear smarter or harder working than others, but when you achieve something for yourself, or learn something new. Many programmers get to experience that joy all the time.

Holt became so disillusioned with the inability of schools to provide a comfortable and secure learning place for children that eventually he became an advocate for home schooling. I believe in schools' potential and what teachers have to offer, and my company's software is built accordingly, but we have reached a point where there is too much focus on comparing students; through frequent nation-wide testing, intense competition for prestigious colleges, and through insecure parents who push their children an unhealthy amount. To balance that, the schooling system has lost sight of the original reasons for its existence. The judgment-free zone of the internet and self directed learning is giving us a chance to undo the bad learning habits of our current students, and ensure that the next generation of students do not ever need to learn them.

The Khan academy is not about taking the power away from schools and administrators, it is about putting the emphasis back on why we have them in the first place; which is because for all the good of self education, the greatest help you can give a student is a teacher who understands them and the way they learn.


zopa 886 days ago | link

I used to tutor math at a community college. I did mostly the basics: lots of algebra, very occasionally a little calculus. I learned two things.

First, it was usually the assumed knowledge that got them. They'd mess up at calculus because of algebra; or get algebra wrong because they couldn't add. When you don't know the basics, you get the wrong answer even when you do all the new stuff right. The whole thing starts to seem futile, like climbing a mountain of sand.

Second, just as above. Most of my students had no idea that math, like weightlifting, is supposed to hurt a bit. They thought that heavy, stretching sensation you get when you learn new concepts meant they were stupid, that they couldn't do math. They didn't realize that every feels that, if only briefly. If you're in the bottom third of the distribution, and a third of people are, you never get to the other side of that feeling before the class moves on.

The answer isn't magic teachers. It's for kids to learn that learning is possible. You do that with practice, and feedback, until they get it right.


swishercutter 886 days ago | link

I tutored some adult basic education for a bit...helping people get their HSE/GED. Some of these people had tried to pass the pretest many times and were stuck at fractions. Over and over they failed the tests. I kept hearing "I just can't get this" or "It makes no sense". One of the other TA's and I were discussing it and we realized that a lot of these people were people who had "been around drugs" in their life. So we decided to handle things this way. We went to them with a problem like "5/8 + 1/4"...to which they would respond "I don't know"...then we said "You have bought weed before right?" "yes" is the response. Well...if you have 7/8 of weed and you add another quarter ounce what do you have. Every time...the got it immediately. The teachers came back to us and asked what we had done differently...we explained. They said they really didn't approve but it was working.

It is all about relating things and explaining in a way that can be easily referenced in your mind.

By the way...several of these people who could not pass the TABE tests at the time went on to get their GED's because of that one little step with fractions.


DanBC 886 days ago | link

> Self-esteem is so central to learning, because how you react to failure and your own progress (or lack thereof) defines the way you learn.

See this BBC article, which is about a good school teaching pupils that it's okay to fail.




patio11 886 days ago | link

To address our challenges, we need to do what every other successful country has done: invest in professional development; give teachers more time to collaborate; and provide them with resources that help them not only meet the learning standards, but exceed them.

You could have copy/pasted that conclusion without altering a word from the debate about every other educational reform: school choice/vouchers, NCLB, high-stakes testing, teacher testing, etc etc. It's invariant under every proposal because the goal is to employ teachers and education of students is a welcome-but-unnecessary industrial byproduct.

It is also just as false that the US lags peer nations in professional development / collaboration time / pointless frippery ("resources that help them not only meet the learning standards, but exceed them") than it was the last 47 times this was brought up as a panacea.


AgentConundrum 886 days ago | link

> the goal is to employ teachers and education of students is a welcome-but-unnecessary industrial byproduct.

This is pretty much exactly what I was thinking, albeit less eloquently, as I read this article. The entire article, while it made good points, always had an undertone of "Khan Academy is dangerous to me, therefore it's dangerous for everyone."

It could just be a difference of perspective - the author is a teacher and has been trained in a certain way of educating students, so any idea that isn't the way they were taught seems weird, scary, and wrong.

I'm not saying that Khan Academy is entirely the right direction to take - I haven't used it enough to say, and I'm too old to be able to stand in the shoes of its target demographic - but the entire time I read the article, I felt a bias underpinning the entire thing.


yequalsx 886 days ago | link

Been in the classroom for 17 years in higher education. I'm much better at my job now than I was 17 years ago. I've learned a lot in the intervening 17 years. Wisdom and experience count for something and imparting this onto other is useful.

Professional development can be helpful and to suggest that the goal is simply to employ teachers is ignorant and naive. I've never met a single teacher who has proposed an innovation with the goal of employing teachers. There are people who do care about teaching and some of those people are teachers and educational leaders. It does not appear to me that your cynicism is rooted in reality.


arijo 886 days ago | link

How do you know you're better at your job now than 17 years ago? Does an effective teacher evaluation system exist in your country that you can use as a reference to validate your claim?


Jach 886 days ago | link

Plus one for "how do you know?". My only caution to add in the case of teachers is that since the problem (or benefit) with standards is that there are so many of them, and since one corollary is that when a standard is chosen it's hard to change later and experimentation is rare, then the situation is doubly worse for teachers whose jobs revolve around a standard of performance because unless they have tenure the risk of a failed experiment aimed at helping the students learn (as opposed to only getting a high score with some performance standard) is too high. Anyway, your comment immediately reminded me of this anecdote I had saved in my quotes file that I thought was apt:

'One day when I was a junior medical student, a very important Boston surgeon visited the school and delivered a great treatise on a large number of patients who had undergone successful operations for vascular reconstruction.

    At the end of the lecture, a young student at the back of the room timidly asked, “Do you have any controls?” Well, the great surgeon drew himself up to his full height, hit the desk, and said, “Do you mean did I not operate on half the patients?” The hall grew very quiet then. The voice at the back of the room very hesitantly replied, “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.” Then the visitor’s fist really came down as he thundered, “Of course not. That would have doomed half of them to their death.”

    God, it was quiet then, and one could scarcely hear the small voice ask, “Which half?”'
Dr. E. E. Peacock, Jr., quoted in Medical World News (September 1, 1972), p. 45, as quoted in Tufte's 1974 book Data Analysis for Politics and Policy; http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/12...


XLcommerce 886 days ago | link

Are you a better programmer now than you were 5 years ago? How do you know? Has anyone evaluated your work and told you are now 18% more efficient than 5 years ago?

It may not be 100% accurate (since we are all masters at deluding ourselves), however it is possible to self-assess. Speaking as a teacher I know that my work is much better than it was 7 years ago (when I started). Simply delivering the material so many times has meant that I now have far more effective ways of describing and teaching certain concepts. I know that 7 years ago teaching a 10th grader how to iterate over an array would have taken 5 false starts and 4 weeks worth of instruction (bearing in mind that many lack motivation). Now the same content takes half the time because I can anticipate what kinds of questions will arise and how to deal with them effectively.

Oh and teacher evaluation is hard. Teachers fear it because it's done by non-teachers to teachers. And as some comments on this thread indicate the world is full of monday morning quarterbacks who have lots of opinions without any real experience.


boredandroid 886 days ago | link

In companies of any size, programmers generally go through quarterly, biannual, or annual performance reviews where they are assessed by the manager and peers. Programmers who are overperforming are promoted and given more responsibility (and money), those who are under-performing get coaching or are fired. This is the same as virtually every other job on the planet.

You can argue this kind of evaluation is not fair (it is certainly less scientific then test scores), but the point is that on the whole it works. And teachers don't have it. They mostly cannot be fired, and receive compensation on a schedule based purely on years of tenure and education.

A good analogy would be if programmers were given tenure after two years at a company and then could not be fired regardless of productivity or any other offense other than gross misconduct. If the programmers then (unsurprisingly) resisted every attempt, no matter how small, to reward high performance and punish incompetence, we would have an equivalent situation.


XLcommerce 886 days ago | link

I understand your points and they're all fair in the context of programming as a job. Code is code and can be evaluated in an atomic fashion, its objectively either good(correct, efficient etc) or not.

How exactly do you accurately assess teaching? Test scores? I've worked at very tough schools. High unemployment, high crime area. Good teaching in this context meant the teacher showed up, made it through the year without having a mental breakdown and student attendance was > 50%.

On the flipside I've worked at top tier private schools where success was gauged by how many of our students were in the top n% for the state.

Teachers fear outside assessment from bureaucrats. Here in Australia we even have league tables for schools, and there has been talk of tying teacher pay to student performance. Obviously a worry if you are a classroom teacher who understands the human component of teaching (ie it's more than test results in a spreadsheet).

In my opinion to truly assess a teacher you'd need to observe their teaching for weeks to see how they deal with the myriad of situations that arise in the classroom. What we end up with though is standardised testing which ends up telling us what we already know.


boredandroid 886 days ago | link

Yeah I am fine with doing in-class evaluations, but I think if you think that through you would admit that those are biased in a different way. My point is really more about the importance of doing the kind of evaluation and talent management that every successful private sector company does--figure out who is doing well, and reward them, figure out who is doing poorly and try to help.

Basically I think all this "it can't be measured" stuff is a bit dishonest. My wife is a high school teacher, and amongst her department everyone knows who is good and who isn't, same as any job. The only difference is that that knowledge can't possible have any effect on your career.

In any case, the point you are making about standardized testing is completely beside the point. No one who advocates using testing advocates using only testing for teacher evaluation. And no one advocates using the raw scores. Of course teachers with poor students in bad schools will have worse raw scores then teachers with rich students in good schools. The proposed measurement is virtually always some kind of "value added" score that attempts to control for these variables and measure the teachers impact.


XLcommerce 886 days ago | link

I think we're in agreement. I totally agree that good teachers need to be rewarded and that and bad teachers need to be identified and helped or sacked. We owe that to our kids.

I never said that it cant be measured. It's just really hard to do it right.

The solution is not to simply use private sector type performance reviews since correcting for differences within the school is difficult let alone correcting for differences between schools.

Measuring teacher performance is a hot area of debate around the world, and a consensus for how to "do it right" hasn't yet emerged.

Lots of questions need to be fairly addressed:

-- Will testing be able to differentiate between school-based and non-school-based influences on student performance?

-- Will testing be able to differentiate between the influences of different teachers on individual students or groups of students? What might be the ultimate extent of increased standardised testing?

-- What criteria are intended to form the basis of a performance-based pay scheme?

-- If the predominant criterion used is to be student progress as measured by standardised testing, what measures will the Government take to ensure the implementation of valid and appropriate testing regimes and instruments?

These questions come from an issues paper published by Australian Primary Principals Association.

Also from the paper:

In jobs where pay is linked to performance: The criteria for determining the payment of additional rewards are to be objectively determined: whether in volume of product or sales, increase in profits, or additional hours worked. More accurately put, the context of the industries in which systems of this kind work well are those where outputs and outcomes are easily, and objectively, quantifiable. This quantification can usually (although not always) be reduced to monetary terms.

So how exactly to we quantify and reward the teacher who helps her students develop skills that 'are not quantifiable'?

PS: In Australia primary and secondary teachers can't get tenure, however given a powerful union it is difficult to sack teachers, and this admittedly is a big problem.


enjalot 886 days ago | link

I don't think you understood the parent's points... First, the main point was that programmers were evaluated by their peers and managers, i.e. the people who they work with, not bureaucrats.

Second, judging a programmer solely (in an atomic fashion) by their code is the exact same thing as judging a teacher solely by test scores. How do you know the code was not written at 2am the night of a release to stop vital information from being deleted every time a user submits a form.

On the flipside how do you know that the elegant code wasn't the combination of effort and discussion of several coders all considered to be in the top n% of some mailing list.

I think my point is really that we all tend to rush to judgement of professions outside of our own, when in reality we share the same human problems that are incredibly hard to formalize and hence provide a systematic solution for.


GFischer 885 days ago | link

As a matter of fact, I work in a company with a close equivalent: due to the worker-friendly labor laws and a very powerful union, if a worker stays with the company for three years, firing him costs the company a years' salary (unless gross misconduct is demonstrated), thus giving high-salary positions (like programmers) an equivalent to tenure.

On the other hand, programmers are rarely/never advanced, there's no career plan.

As you suspect, it discourages studying and promotes laziness and getting out of date with current programming pratices.

And it also raises a tough mental barrier to exit, I'm unhappy here, but I really like having a safety net and have high fixed expenses and there's no unemployment in my country if I quit voluntarily, so I'm reluctant to quit unless I make my nest egg, which I've been putting off for some time.

Back to teachers, if there are no incentives, I suspect it might make them less motivated to stay up to date and better themselves - of course there are always those that are internally motivated and will do so whatever the environment, but many will be discouraged by it.


thelock85 883 days ago | link

Forgive if someone has already stated the obvious, but the difficulty of rating the teacher profession, as opposed to other professions, lies in the intended outcome. For an engineer, there are many objectives metrics to measure code work against. The same is true for many non-programming corporate jobs (usual metric is $$$).

But what is the intended outcome of teaching?

Better test scores? (Google Scholar 'standardized testing and success' and take your side of the argument, but at best the jury is still out)

The three R's? Social development? Curiosity for learning? All of the above?

I understand your underlying point, but it is dangerous to contrasts teacher evaluations with other professional evaluations, lest we find ourselves programming students a science) and not teaching them (an art).

Crazy idea alert! With intended outcomes varying so much for teachers and teaching environments, I'd offer that teachers should be only evaluated by fellow teachers, parents, and students themselves.


jeffreymcmanus 886 days ago | link

"the point is that on the whole it works"

How do you know that?


intended 886 days ago | link

So, as asked earlier in this thread, how do you know it works?


yequalsx 886 days ago | link

In the same way that a bad parent who becomes a better parent knows they are now a better parent. Some things are not quantifiable. I know of no effective national evaluation system for parenting and yet some parents are good parents. I know that I am a better teacher now than when I first started.

I'm not claiming to be a good teacher. I'm just claiming to be a better one. It's common for a practitioner to get better over time so one should assume that I've gotten better and not worse. What is the point of disputing this claim or doubting its veracity? I don't know the purpose of your question?


quanticle 886 days ago | link

I know that I am a better teacher now than when I first started.

Sure, you know that you're a better teacher than when you started. But can you prove it? What can you do that a fresh-out-of-college teacher can't? What can you do better? How can you show that you do your job better?

As a programmer, I have a similar problem. But I don't just throw up my hands and say, "Well, some things just can't be quantified." Instead, I try to quantify them. I try to show how my estimation skills have gotten better. I try to show how my code now has fewer bugs and requires less maintenance effort.

As a teacher, what can you show me to distinguish you from a wet-behind-the-ears graduate?


keithpeter 886 days ago | link

What can you do that a fresh-out-of-college teacher can't?

I can plan lessons that include activities tailored for the needs of specific students. Training teachers find this hard and tend to plan for the median.

I can plan lessons more quickly than a training teacher, thus liberating time for more tailoring. I can use technology to differentiate delivery and to save time.

My feedback to each student is more accurately geared to that student's 'zone of proximal development'. I can set targets that mean something to each student.

I can 'reflect in action' in the classroom. I can read the situation in the whole class, and I can understand the logic behind mistakes that individual students make, and suggest alternative approaches.

How can you show that you do your job better?

In the institution where I teach we have QA observations and peer observations in place. That gives me some kind of benchmark.

Education is fuzzy, hard to measure, hard to standardise and quite hard work if you do it properly. As are many human occupations.


shinykitten 886 days ago | link

It's interesting to me that all of your examples are also very important aspects of being an excellent Dungeon Master. I never made this connection between teaching and DM'ing before.


thomaslangston 886 days ago | link

I'd expect similar skills are involved for coaching, directing, and executive management.


yequalsx 886 days ago | link

Patio11 made a claim that calls for reform, school choice, testing, etc. all had as their goal employment of teachers and that education of students was a by-product. Specifically he/she said this in regard to professional development.

I responded to the professional development aspect of Patio11's comment. My point being that seasoned professionals do have wisdom to impart on less experienced colleagues. I used myself as an example but the point made is clear (I think).

Even if I really am not a better teacher now than I was 17 years ago the point is still true. Well, in order for the point not to be true one has to believe that there is no wisdom gained from experience is teaching an that this is universally true. I know of no profession in which practitioners do not generally get better over time. Indeed,there is no profession in which no practitioner gets better over time.

So what is the point of requesting that I prove that I really have gotten better over time? It's not germane to my point unless one believes that no one ever gets better over time in teaching.


Retric 886 days ago | link

I know of no profession in which practitioners do not generally get better over time. Football players and Strippers don't automatically get better with time and despite learning new things their overall performance decreases with time. More generally any profession that deals with burnout either physical or mental has the same sort's of issues.

Look, my Mother has 2 PHD's in education and often does professional workshops for teachers. However, like most forms of professional development her workshops are both expensive and their value is hard to quantify. So it may pay better than her normal job but as she says it's of limited value.

Programming is a lot like teaching it takes a few years to get up to speed, but vary quickly years of experience stops being a useful metric.


Symmetry 885 days ago | link

The problem with thinking you're good at a non-quantifiable, hard to measure thing is that almost everybody thinks they're better than average at them. Are you sure you aren't just measuring your previous methods of teaching against your current methods? There's no way they can hold up if you use that measure, but that doesn't mean your current methods are better.

When I was a student I didn't notice much difference in teaching ability unless the teacher hand only been teaching for a couple of years.


roel_v 886 days ago | link

"You should believe me because I say so"? Really? I'm not saying you are or are not, but this line of justification is an insult to anyone who considers themselves rational thinkers.


XLcommerce 886 days ago | link

Not really. I would have though that: 'do it a lot and you'll get better at it' is fairly self evident. Obviously testing of some sort would help us to determine how much better one became.

I'd go so far as to say that it would be very difficult not to improve at something you were doing over a period of time.


wahnfrieden 886 days ago | link

I think the point they're trying to make (through this admittedly condescending questioning) is that when the institution is fundamentally wrong, elongated experience can only pervert rather than further skills. Or f it does further, it is only furthering a perversion of some concept of what's right. I think there's a degree of truth to that but but it's oversimplifying a bit.


romnempire 885 days ago | link

the bottom line is that america's eternal quest for a teacher metric is failing in relation to systems like the (perhaps overly touted) finnish one, where the discriminating factor for teacher quality is much more a measure of trust in the intuition of experienced teachers.

I think the 'I NEED MORE NUMBERS' mentality of empiricism you're using here has neutralised the prospective utility of the intuition of experienced teachers who would make effective consultants, if they ever come across something that works that they simply can't explain. Obviously, questioning their suggestions and looking for answers is the next step, but to insult their ability to think and view their opinions with derison? How are you helping anything talking that way?


rmc 885 days ago | link

In the same way that a bad parent who becomes a better parent knows they are now a better parent.

That's not a great example. There are loads of bad parents who think they are good parents. There's a bit of Dunning-Kruger effect, and also some bad parents who hold beliefs about what makes a good/bad parent that differ from the norm (i.e. some parents think beating their children is OK and think that modern society is wrong to condem that practice. They think they are good parents because they beat their children. This is wrong)


enjalot 886 days ago | link

I read this question as an insult. How could they not know they are better at their job after 17 years of doing it?

This is just my personal opinion but the true judge of a teacher's effectiveness is how much their students learned, and even that can only be used as a measure if the students were willing to learn in the first place.

Relying on some national standard to judge teachers hasn't seemed to help any country in history to have better teachers. I'd wager to guess that periods in history where education unilaterally improved are more due to the motivation of those being educated than anything else.


metafour 886 days ago | link

Are you suggesting that if they're in the United States the system is not effective and thus can't be used as evidence?


jforman 886 days ago | link

This is an incredibly depressing post. The discussion over educational reform has devolved into one side begging for teachers to stop being treated like cattle and the other saying, essentially, "if you cared about the kids, you'd be happy being treated like cattle."

Doctors go through significantly more schooling and receive significantly more professional development — yet they are still perceived with respect as professionals who care about their patients. Why can't we do the same for teachers?


JupiterJazz 886 days ago | link

Give it time. With the direction healthcare costs are going it's just a matter of time before the hate enters the profession. Soon people will see doctors, nurses, and administrators for what they really are: rent-seekers gouging taxpayers for enormous amounts of money by erecting barriers to entry, keeping accountability to a minimum, and charging endless procedures to the bottomless pits that are medicare and medicaid.


phaus 886 days ago | link

From my experience a significant percentage of the population already feels this way. Maybe it's because I have mostly dealt with the military health care system(which also uses civilian specialists), but most doctors seem arrogant, uncaring, and incompetent.


jvc26 886 days ago | link

'... most doctors seem arrogant, uncaring, and incompetent' - it's unfortunate if this is your take-home from meeting doctors, but I have to say that is a serious overstatement.


jasonwatkinspdx 885 days ago | link

Unfortunately this is the reality of healthcare for a great many of us in the states.

My experience with one of the larger HMO organizations here was very disconcerting.

I was bedridden with spinal joint pain for several days. They were unable to see me in a reasonable timeframe (2 week wait minimum), which meant by the time I was able to come in for a blood test the acute inflammation I was experiencing had passed, preventing screening for the condition I was concerned about (my dad and brother both have ankylosing spondylitis, making it extremely likely I do as well).

Worse than that, I found I had to educate the RN that was responsible for interpreting my test results (specifically that ankylosing spondylitis shows negative rheumatoid factor).

In addition to this, I've watched what's happened to friends with serious but not readily diagnosed diseases. One was in advanced stages of liver failure. In the end she only got a diagnosis by going to a hospital, making herself a bother and refusing to leave until someone took responsibility for actually finding out what was going on. The result was she avoided an unnecessary liver transplant. Her diagnosis was an uncommon but easily treatable autoimmune condition.

There's roughly 50% odds the transplant would have killed her by now (this was some 10 years ago). Taking an adversarial approach and having the support of a friend's mom who worked for the business side of the HMO in doing this probably saved her life.

It shouldn't have to be this way.

It's abusive to doctors that things are set up this way as well.

In any case, I don't mean to rant, but I just wanted to provide some counter anecdotes to to your feeling that the callousness and incompetence of medicine in the states was being exaggerated.


GFischer 885 days ago | link

Wow, contrasting this with the latest 2 experiences my family had:

My stepfather went for a routine visit to the doctor in Vienna, Austria. They found a suspicious object, and decided to treat him immediately, and he was operated on the very next day. It ended up being benign, but I was amazed at their speed of treatment.

My uncle went for a cardiologist evaluation here in Montevideo, Uruguay (where we have a form of socialist-style medicine in the style called Mutualism). They found a suspicious spike in his heartbeat, which they suspected to be a treatable syndrome (Wolff-Parkinson-White), and decided to do some special evaluations. He was treated (with full anaesthetics) one week later (at almost zero cost).

Both were quite good experiences, times are a little slower in Uruguay but everybody has access to basic medicine.

That said, I suspect that for difficult-to-catch diseases, you have to make yourself a bother, otherwise you might slip through the cracks like your friend almost did (doctors here in Uruguay are heavily penalized if they take too much time with one patient).


jdvolz 886 days ago | link

Don't forget about the true rent-seeking, taxpayer gouging insurance companies. I find that by the time I've paid my $950 a month in insurance, paying another $40 copay to the doctor just makes me angry. When the cost to have semi-decent insurance is the same cost as leasing a BMW it's no wonder that people don't go to the doctor's.

[Note: I realize it might just be that my insurance is ridiculous. I'm looking into alternatives.]


barry-cotter 886 days ago | link

Doctors go through significantly more schooling and receive significantly more professional development — yet they are still perceived with respect as professionals who care about their patients. Why can't we do the same for teachers?

Because peoplegenerally have much less exposure to doctors and when they are they're desperate for either treatment or hope. Both of these contribute.

Also, medical training is much harder than education. There are teachers at every average large high school who could have been doctors but they're a minority.


stoolpigeon 885 days ago | link

The study of medicine is grounded in hard sciences. There are many things that are known and many that aren't known but usually the line between the two is relatively clear. When something works or doesn't work, it is also often very easy to see.

The study of education is based on social sciences and everything is much more slippery. What is being taught to teachers right now is whichever theory is currently popular. When I earned my credentials to teach, it was quite frankly a joke most of the time. Getting an A was easy. Many of the people in my program were not competent enough to compete in a more difficult field or program.

In the years since, as my own children began working through the public school system, I am taken aback regularly by evidence that their teachers are poorly educated themselves.

I'm shocked that someone would be surprised that there is a gap between how people view doctors and teachers.


tomjen3 886 days ago | link

You seem awefully cynical considering that you sell software to teachers (which they themself pay for) so that they can teach their children more efficiently.

I mean I have no love for unions and I am well aware that they have no great love for the students but even so, isn't your point a bit to cynical?


patio11 886 days ago | link

One can have a lot of respect for teachers and still like education reform.

That said, I've also worked with big companies. This does not obligate me to believe that big companies are universally properly managed collections of competent, self-effacing employees who would never dream of advancing their own interests at the stake of the job. It also does not obligate me to believe that big companies cannot be improved, even radically improved, by measures which would discomfit at least some people who work for big companies.

Indeed, if I hypothetically believed either of those two things prior to working for a big company, working for them would have cured me of those delusions, rapidly.


bambax 886 days ago | link

> you sell software to teachers (...) so that they can teach their children more efficiently

Does the whole "Bingo card" concept qualifies as efficient teaching? The word "gamification" seems to have been invented for it.


pjscott 886 days ago | link

Because this wasn't clear to me: are you arguing that his point is wrong, or that its amount of cynicism displeases you?


whatusername 886 days ago | link

"the goal is to employ teachers and education of students is a welcome-but-unnecessary industrial byproduct"

For an example of this -- look at the amount of times the Student-to-Teacher ratio is brought up. Which is such an interesting statistic because it implies that time with a terrible teacher is preferable to having the good teachers handle a few more students.


swcpg 886 days ago | link

No. It implies that in general having fewer students makes it easier to be a good teacher. And that being in a smaller class makes it easier to be a successful student. The importance of class size is well-supported by systematic reviews and meta-analyses.


barry-cotter 886 days ago | link

The importance of class size is well-supported by systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

[Citation needed]

IIRC in disciplined classes between the sizes of 6ish and 40ish the results are very similar.


swcpg 886 days ago | link

The US does not spend anywhere near tour nations in professional development nor build in the same collaboration time. It does not have as much coaching and other "frippery" . There is plenty of great research on this and while you are right that many pay lip service to improving these areas of US education, little is ever done to meaningfully invest in said improvements.

Also the article did not bring these up as a panacea. These kinds of complicated, cultural, and meaningful improvements will not be made easily, in a short period of time, etc.


nupark2 886 days ago | link

Khan Academy provides a low-overhead, on-demand learning environment. The format is good, but it's not novel, and the format isn't the point.

Khan Academy allows me, with no overhead whatsoever, to pick (or refresh a skill), whenever I want. If my math skills aren't up to snuff for a hobby project I'm working on, Khan Academy is there. If I can't remember how a transistor works ... Khan Academy has me covered.

Compare this with the incredibly high overhead of high school and 4 year degree programs. If I just want to take a refresher engineering class at the local University or Community College, I have to go through the full admissions process, provide a full academic history, justify my reason for being there, and then work at a preset pace and on someone else's schedule. If I'm stuck at the undergraduate level, I have to take a slew of general ed courses totally unrelated to what I actually want to do.

Contrast this with frictionless learn on-demand education.

There are, obviously, downsides:

- Not all topics are covered.

- The depth of coverage is not on par with a university education.

- No access to very expensive university equipment

- No one-on-one access to a professor

- No student discounts on expensive software

Despite those downsides, the format has worked great for me.

In my ideal world, formal K-12 and college education would be comprised of:

1) Elective projects that rely on a broad swath of skills.

2) Courses to be taken in concert with the projects to provide requisite skills, as those skills become necessary.


GuiA 886 days ago | link

Or you could just go at your local library/bookstore and get a book about transistors :)

I agree with your general sentiment but I feel like your premise oversimplifies the situation.


autarch 886 days ago | link

I think you're overstating the friction. After I graduated, I wanted to learn Mandarin. I signed up for a course at the University of Minnesota through the Continuing Education department.

I didn't have to apply, it was really trivial. I took one course, and they were happy to let me do so.


toyg 886 days ago | link

That's usually the case for most Humanities disciplines (history, languages, literature etc), because their overheads are really low and there is an abundance of teaching professionals compared to actual audiences.

The opposite is true for "hard" sciences like chemistry, engineering or CS, where expensive laboratory equipment is necessary and where teaching resources are scarce (due to higher private-sector demand). There, courses are expensive, demanding and small in number, so they are usually inaccessible to the layman.


jeffreymcmanus 886 days ago | link

That's not really true. It's not challenging to find CS courses online, and the year I spent in a CS graduate program (through Colorado State), the cost per course unit for CS was the same as any humanities course.


nupark2 886 days ago | link

I believe toyg already covered the split between humanities and science/engineering, but I'd also like to cover the Continuing Education departments themselves.

The course offerings are generally constrained, and the courses themselves are often lightweight versions of the university course -- assuming that the subject you want is covered at all. The facilities for continuing education courses are also often less robust.

Take CCA in San Francisco. This is a highly considered arts college, and they offer a small number of introductory extension classes:


Compare to their full course offering:


You'll have to drill down on individual categories to explore the full breadth and depth.

Continuing Education offerings are rarely a substitute for the quality of courses they offer to a matriculating student.

Given how often educational institutions have raised their tuition in recent years, I'd love to see them institute a program where they charge a (possibly large) fee to allow non-matriculating adults to audit a course, without limitation or requirement, and use those fees to subsidize enrolled student tuition.

However, this may be a shift too far in the "trade school" direction for their comfort.


jonnycowboy 885 days ago | link

Actually, it's very easy to 'take' courses (technical engineering or otherwise) in University/College. Just show up. Attendance is rarely enforced.


z0ot 886 days ago | link

Silly article. It offers no proof to their statement that students learning through Khan are on a "wild goose chase" for correct answers except for a 1973(!) paper. I believe it to be the opposite, the chances of you just guessing 10 correct answers in a row is ridiculously low. It encourages you to make sure every answer is correct before submitting it, otherwise you would have to start over again.

It doesn't address the issue that each student can learn at their own pace, which is the main part of Khan. It ignores people that had success with KA except for a quick mention. It also ignores the fact that Khan is a great teacher, and with this model anyone can learn from the best teacher there is.

It ignores the tools it gives teachers to see the progress of the students. It ignores the fact that teachers can give personalized assistance. it ignores that more advanced students can teach less advanced students.

It dismisses the achievement system while every single educator knows they work and have worked since the first teacher decided to give students gold stars. It only mentions it in passing to say that it doesn't work without offering any proof.

The truth is: There are a LOT of people who have their own idea of what the "perfect" teaching system is. When something comes around that challenges that, as with everything else, those people will try to say that it won't work. Let it be field tested, let's see the results. THEN we can say if it works or not.

EDIT: I forgot to say that it also ignores the fact that students can only advance once they completely mastered the subject. It doesn't mention that it puts the power in the hands of the students and let them take control of their own education by deciding which classes to take and when to take them. And as someone mentions, the author is also biased.


capnrefsmmat 886 days ago | link

> I believe it to be the opposite, the chances of you just guessing 10 correct answers in a row is ridiculously low. It encourages you to make sure every answer is correct before submitting it, otherwise you would have to start over again.

That's not the point. You can learn to solve ten math problems in a row by simply memorizing algorithms to solve the problems, rather than learning the underlying concepts. The author criticizes Khan Academy because its methods emphasize the algorithms, rather than the concepts.

There's a good bit of research suggesting that the ability to solve quantitative problems isn't necessarily related to underlying qualitative understanding. Students could benefit from teaching methods designed to promote understanding.


archgoon 886 days ago | link

The article is pointing out that the Khan Academy is very similar to previous pedagogical attempts. You are also not presenting any evidence that the ways in which it differs are significant. I fail to see why you can claim that the article, which raises a valid objection to the Khan Academy, is silly, but your own arguments, also without data to back them up, are not.

But yes, let us get more data, that I can always get behind.


firefoxman1 886 days ago | link

By the way it's written, it just seems like this guy is pouting about Khan Academy getting all the press.


kamens 886 days ago | link

(Obviously biased member of KA here.)

"Khan Academy and its donors may preclude better products from coming along"

I just don't understand this. KA, Udacity, Coursera, Codecademy, MITx, teachontablo.com, this list goes on. I don't see how KA has done anything but prove the possibility of traction. When professors like Thrun and Norvig and investors like Paul Graham, Fred Wilson, and Peter Thiel are excited about the educational space, I believe the students will eventually win. It's no secret that many of the above have been inspired by Sal in one way or another.

The more products competing here, the better education will be. Yelling at Khan Academy because it's "the only thing that [exists]" feels...oddly misplaced.


wlesieutre 886 days ago | link

I think it's a mistake for them to throw KA in the same category as traditional K-12 education in the first place. At least from my experience with it, people don't go on Kahn Academy to try to learn everything; it's more valuable when you're looking for knowledge about a specific subject, and you already have a reason for wanting to learn it.

The article's main criticism is that KA doesn't try to talk about all the possible uses of the subject matter. I'd rather they didn't, or at the very least kept it separate. Unless someone's being forced to sit down and watch educational videos, that doesn't add enough value to justify the time spent.

It may be that other competitors (including the ones you've mentioned) will try to fill the gap and take a more traditional education role. But saying something's bad just because it's not occupying the exact niche that the author wants it to? That's not a very useful criticism.


enjalot 885 days ago | link

I feel like KA frees up some of the time constraints of traditional educators so that they can spend more time doing the motivation and the possible uses of a subject matter.

I'm no teacher but if I was I'd much rather spend my time getting kids excited about stuff and then point them to the resources they need to get going. I'd also have more time to answer questions so the kids wouldn't get as frustrated or stuck.


izaidi 886 days ago | link

Replace "better products" with "the products I make" and it makes more sense.


DevX101 886 days ago | link

Expect haters when you're doing something disruptive. The term 'disruptive' itself implies you're pissing someone off.

I'm sure Henry Ford had people who thought cars were a bad idea.

Carry on.


quanticle 886 days ago | link

I don't mean to quibble, but you should really replace Henry Ford with Karl Benz. By the time Henry Ford got into the act, cars had already proven their usefulness. Ford's innovation was making cars cheap enough for the average person to afford.


swcpg 886 days ago | link

Ford also wouldn't be happy about truly progressive, disruptive innovations like the rise of a strong labor movement.


kragen 884 days ago | link

What are you talking about? The labor movement in the US was stronger during Ford's lifetime than it has been since then, and Ford always had good relations with it.


UK-Al05 886 days ago | link

But he also paid High wages.


Osmose 886 days ago | link

I think the best rebuttal to this article would be Sal's TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM95HHI4gLk

In particular, he doesn't present the Khan Academy as a full replacement for primary education, but as an enhancement. In the second half of the video, he illustrates the teacher as maximizing the amount of useful interaction between themselves and the students.

Instead of spending class time lecturing and producing examples (things that technology can handle easily, and in some cases better than a human can), teachers use their class time to interact with students individually, helping them better understand the content and meaning behind it. This time becomes even more useful because the application gives statistics on how students are performing, and what directions they're moving in; it arms teachers with better data and more time to use it.


Clanan 886 days ago | link

This is a good point that touches on what seems like a communication disconnect. While Khan advocates using it as an enhancement, many in education think it's more than that and use it accordingly (disclaimer: based on my experience, totally anecdotal). Perhaps decision-makers are viewing Khan Academy as THE SOLUTION, which is what the author takes issue with.


zackzackzack 886 days ago | link

This guy should probably come out and say Khan Academy is eating his lunch and he is pissed about it. The passive aggressive approach to talking about companies with better lessons and teaching styles gets completely undermined when you realize that this guy is selling math lessons[0] and you conclude that he thinks his stuff is better than Khan's. Yeah, maybe it is, but it looks really pretty weak to write an article like that and not mention the fact that you are selling a competing product. Where's the Chutzpah? Just say "Khan sucks, we are better, here's why".

Of course, the context is missing here in the writing, and Hacker News probably wasn't the intended audience, so maybe it was assumed people would make the assumption that Mathalicous' stuff was the better solution the author was talking about. But so far, the overall response has been pretty poor[1].

[0]http://www.mathalicious.com/sign-up/ [1]https://twitter.com/#!/mathalicious


aaronbrethorst 886 days ago | link

For many of us teachers, this is somewhat disconcerting. Gamification is fine when students are trying to save Zelda, but it’s more problematic when math becomes an obstacle, and eighth grade just another “level.”

The author is delusional. That's exactly what 8th, or any other grade, is. Get enough points, proceed to the next grade. Score high enough on the leader board, proceed to the college you want.


brownbat 886 days ago | link

Agreed, this was exactly where I started to get suspicious.

Author: "Gamification is bad when applied to eighth grade."

I kept looking for the support for that claim, didn't really find any. The IPI study was tossed in, but it dealt with a tangentially related educational program, and seemed to endorse methods focused education over memorization of answers. This article was attacking process focused aspects of Khan, so I'm not sure IPI was the best study to cite.

It's a drawn out article, and light on evidence. I wouldn't look to the author for advice on teaching others critical thinking.


swcpg 886 days ago | link

Sadly the majority of Khan videos are not process focused but rather focused on memorizing procedures. This is a very big problem in math education traditional and otherwise. Hard to fix, but KA makes no acknowledgement that incorporating good mathematics pedagogy is even important. This is short sighted and could be remedied.


jmcqk6 885 days ago | link

The problem here is that it's called "gamification." This view is an impoverished view of gaming that leaves out it's most important component: gaming is play.

Gamification of education would be wonderful. The thing is, it wouldn't consist of adding things like leaderboards and achievements. As people have pointed out, we already have those. Gamification should really be about the return of play to the primary role in learning.


JoshTriplett 886 days ago | link

> Get enough points, proceed to the next grade.

That would improve on the current system, which passes failing students along as well, right up until they hit university and find out they need a few years of remedial classes.


tzs 886 days ago | link

I disagree. Gamification is the application of game design techniques to non-game situations to make them more interesting and engaging, in order to encourage people to do things they might otherwise not do because they find them boring or uninteresting.

You can't just take something people don't like and don't want to do, and stick in arbitrary "levels" and have that motivate them. The levels have to represent some achievement that is desirable to the person.


zackzackzack 886 days ago | link

The more invested and successful you are in some arbitrary game, the more you seek to justify the (nonexistent) purpose of the game. It's pretty scary.


wanderful 886 days ago | link

And not to mention, kids love games! If fun and play makes things more engaging, and we learn better when engaged, why not make school more fun?


kamens 886 days ago | link

I'm shocked by how often this needs to be pointed out.


pjscott 886 days ago | link

There is one group of people who hardly ever need to have this pointed out to them: eighth grade students. They know how arbitrary it can be.


swcpg 886 days ago | link

Part of school is playing the game. But if you reduce education to a game, you are losing something of incredible value. School and education are not always the same thing. And education is not a game. It's purpose is freedom. And it is fundamentally important to the human experience in a way that points and rewards simply aren't.


fdschoeneman 886 days ago | link

I think this piece would be more effective, or at least somewhat effective, if its author had described a vision for online learning that takes the best of Khan's approach and combines it with, well, something interesting. The author never really explains what that something is. I don't think Khan Academy is perfect. Its gamification techniques will not work for all students. But it is an alternative for some students. If a kid who is ahead can stay with her peers at the same grade level while watching Khan videos at night, great. If a kid who is behind can stay with her grade level by using Khan to catch up without the shame of remedial math, even better.

Frankly its author sounds bitter.


swcpg 886 days ago | link

Unfortunately all evidence so far seems to indicate that online approaches to learning, on average, do not work very well. To be clear, meta-analyses continue to reveal that schooling, as it exists now, works as well or better than tech centered or online education. I do not find this surprising, if you do not change the philosophy and pedagogy, no repackaging will overcome the serious inherent flaws in the approach. This is particularly pronounced in math Ed and I encourage anyone to dig into the research on what good teaching and learning of math is characterized by.


fdschoeneman 886 days ago | link

You wrote "...online approaches to learning, on average, do not work very well..."

Huh? Listen my good man, we aren't talking about the average online approach to learning, we're talking specifically about Khan Academy approach. And I know Khan Academy works for some kids because I've seen some kids using, and liking it -- both kids ahead of their peers and kids behind them.

Whether it works for all kids, on average, is totally irrelevant.



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