What People Mean When they Complain About Khan Academy

Came across this neat little tool in an article about the teaching of variability in a statistical literacy course. It’s a sample item to help a teacher think through the multiple ways that students might conceive of variability, and to what extent those conceptions either aid or block student comprehension of more complex issues:

Take a moment if you can, and just read the beginning of the exercise. The problem with teaching most difficult things is that simple questions are a lot more complex than they look. In the context of a face-to-face classroom the professor is exposed (via student responses) to the variety of conceptual frameworks that students might bring to bear on a problem. Part of their skill as a teacher over the years is building a familiarity with those multiple perspectives and adjusting the instruction to deal with them.

When online resources are created in the context of a traditional instructional design process, a lot of of the teasing out of these things is done up front. You spend time talking to teachers and looking at resources that identify the multiple angles that students can come at these problems from. What counts as “variability” in the context of this question may be clear to you (and to many of your students first time around). It may seem self-evident. But for a number of students it is not, and identifying the key understandings that make it self-evident for one student and obscure for another is one of the major tasks of educational design. You have to teach to the misunderstandings and nascent frameworks that are in play, not to the problem you *think* you remember yourself having once upon a time. Even beyond that, you have to dig deep into your own understandings of these topics and uncover the hidden complexities there.

That’s hard stuff, but it’s important stuff. The fact that Salman Khan states that he spends about two minutes researching each topic he explains should give people pause. Taken as a part of a larger solution (one of many resources), it’s no doubt useful, but it’s an anti-pattern as far as instructional design goes. No one begrudges him the work he has done — heck, I’ll use it myself. But as the “future of education” it’s potentially a step backwards, and certainly antithetical to the deliberate practice we are being told (quite rightly) to value elsewhere.


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