Tag Archives: Khan Academy

On Personalized Learning

The term “Personalized Learning” has rubbed me the wrong way for quite some time. Admittedly this likely stemmed from stories like how Carpe Diem school ‘personalized’ learning by putting students in cubicles;

Carpe Diem cubicles

Raise your hand if you have a job where you work in a cubicle all day and feel energized, appreciated, and passionate about your work.

I can’t imagine much worse for my children. I want them exploring, interacting, discovering, and, most importantly, interested in learning. I don’t want them moving onto the next algorithm after earning a badge.

Recently it appears the Edtech community has strayed from the cubical, Khan Academy model of Personalized Learning in favor of something more nebulous; the basic idea that students can work at their own pace with the teacher guiding and tutoring on the side. This often comes with mantras such as ‘student choice’ and ‘individualized learning plan.’ These aren’t bad things, but I submit that students working primarily on their own, at their own pace, is.

Which brings me to my recent revelation about why personalized learning as a primary structure for learning bugs me; it’s still passive. It appears that most of the ‘content delivery’ is still about students absorbing information from a source passively, then working exercises or doing practice of some sort to work towards mastery. When I think of an ideal math lesson, on the other hand, I think of rich tasks that take collaboration and significant critical thinking, such as Fawn’s Barbie Bungie Jump (listen to the kids cheer in the video!), Dan’s 3 act lessons, or Desmos’s Central Park. Shooting for productive struggle, I want to walk into a math class and see kids pointing at each others work, arguing, and even cheering.  Summarized, I want math class to be engaging in the sense that students actually want to be there. 

If I want students to be learning through collaboration and dialogue, then, generally speaking, I want them moving along at about the same pace. I do have times, particularly towards the ends of units, where students are working on problems independently for solidifying problem solving or receiving remediation as needed. This, however, is usually a few days to a week, as compared to the other three to five weeks in a unit where students learn primarily through collaboration. To be sure, my beliefs here are rooted in the decades of research on STEM education which has demonstrated consistently that a variety of methods centered around active learning are the best ways for students to learn. Additionally, in talking to my wife about this, she gave an incredible insight; “What skills can you gain from class time that you can’t gain from studying?” Precisely. Studying on one’s own helps to learn content, but collaboration, argumentation, sense-making through inquiry, and many other skills are emphasized when rich activities are the focus during class time.

There are some other things that bother me about personalized learning. It appears to be rooted in the theory of Learning Styles, which isn’t really a thing, as it turns out. (see also here and here). Students, generally speaking, learn from some types of teaching and don’t from others. Identified preferences in how that learning takes place hasn’t been shown to make any real difference in the actual learning that happens.

Then there is this post which makes the claim that the ‘factory model’ of education that many personalized learning proponents want to upheave is really the first experiment in personalized learning.

Finally, I agree with Dan Meyer who states that personalized learning is fun like choosing your own ad experience is fun. (Spoiler alert: It’s not).

I do believe that proponents of personalized learning mean well, and I believe that aspects of the model woven into a class at the right time can be useful. In the end, however, I choose rich, engaging, interactive tasks over learning at one’s own pace.

Khan Academy: Criticism as an Email to my Colleagues

(Dan Meyer’s take on Khan Academy)

Last night 60 minutes did a story on Khan Academy (video here, text here). A member on my staff emailed the links to all staff, recommending the videos as a good resource for students.  Admittedly I have not watched said video yet, but judging from what came across my twitter feed, it’s the same basic Khan story. As a result, I jumped on my [email] soapbox with the following reply;

[Start of email]

I totally agree that the videos below are a good resource for students.

However, Khan Academy as a larger concept scares me. Seriously scares me.

When I first learned about KhanAcademy about a year ago, I was very excited that this excellent resource was available to my (and any) students. The problem is that Khan [and others] want to take something that is a good external resource and turn it into the main method for student learning. In a Khan school, students would walk in, sit down at a computer, and watch lectures over and over, then regurgitate the information in computer-generated problem sets. There is SO MUCH research out there that lecture in general is NOT the best way for students to learn. Over the last 7 years of teaching physics I have shifted from 90% lecture 10% learning activities to about 80% learning activities 20% lecture. Lecture is a great way to summarize what students have learned and pull concepts together. But, to be honest, I in no way believe that any class should be taught with 100% lecture. It just really isn’t how students learn, per the research and my own experience. Specifically in physics, I have found that through lecture they can memorize Newton’s 3rd law, but they cannot correctly apply it to new scenarios unless they have experienced how it works. This is consistent with research; lecture works if all you are assessing is memorization and basic skills, but not if you want students to use higher-order reasoning skills. They need to be able to think for themselves.

The concept of Khan schools is to reverse the last 20 years of solid research on constructivism and make force kids to learn traditionally, through lecture. His ‘assessments’ in math test basic algorithms and don’t get into complex problem solving or analytical thinking. Do students do better on that kind of assessment when they do Khan Academy? Sure. But do they actually think better, become better problem solvers, better analytical thinkers, better citizens? I think not.

Much of my thoughts about this stem from a wonderful blog written by a seriously awesome physics educator, Frank Noschese. He has become a leading voice nationally on criticism for Khan, along with Dan Meyer, an inspirational math educator. Dan gave a nice, sarcastic, analogy here. Frank has a number of nice posts; You Khan ignore how students learn, Khan school of the future, and here is a post comparing constructivist learning with Khan’s methods, even using video.

I’d be happy to dig up some of my research on constructivism, but I must warn you that most of what I know specifically relates to physics education. I know there is a body of info out there supporting constructivism in other subjects, I just haven’t delved into it as deeply.

Sorry for the treatise. This is currently one of my hot-button issues (I know, I know, I have many of those…)


[End of email]

As a side note, I am not at all against the flipped classroom. I have actually done some flipping myself, when I thought the topics at hand (conversions, etc, in physics) warranted the flip. We used the extra class time to practice conversions in the context of some cool nano-science activities.  I do, however, think Sal Khan has taken what could be a good thing (the videos themselves as a resource for students) and turned it into something awful (a complete instructional program dominated by kids sitting passively at computers).

I welcome your thoughts.

***Update***  Dan Meyer, as always, has great things to say about the 60 minutes piece.