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I like Sal Khan. It's hard not to. I've only met him once, okay, granted, but he's a pretty affable fellow. In fact, he's extremely charismatic. And charisma is one of those characteristics that makes for the best -- or at least, the most memorable -- teachers... and lecturers and celebrities and politicians.

I like Sal Khan, but it's that simple chain of equivalences there -- teacher, lecturer, celebrity, politician -- that gives me pause.

My colleague Tina Barseghian at KQED's MindShift recently described Sal Khan as "the Seinfeld of education." The metaphor works in part because Sal is definitely replete with wry and witty observations. He's self-effacing at times; he's goofy.

It also works, perhaps, because Seinfeld (the television show) became a behemoth thanks to its syndication. When the rest of what's on TV is crap, at least you know that Seinfeld will provide you with 30 minutes of entertainment, whether you've seen the episode and know the jokes already or not. And it's the easy syndication and distribution of Sal Khan's YouTube videos -- not really his one-liners, I should clarify -- that some people find so appealing about the Khan Academy model.

The metaphor doesn't work, of course, as far as Seinfeld -- as popular and highly-acclaimed as the show became -- was a self-described "show about nothing," and Khan Academy -- as popular and highly-acclaimed as the videos are becoming -- aims to be a show about everything.

Ah metaphors. Perhaps you think I'm making too much of them. But they're important. They shape the way we think. And lately I've seen a whole slew of metaphors used to describe Sal Khan -- ones that make me far more uneasy than the comparison to Jerry Seinfeld, ones that elevate him beyond the realm of teacher or celebrity to that of divinity. He's been called the Messiah of Math. An educational Moses. These comparisons make me cringe, not simply because of the religious power they place in him but because of the narrative of salvation that they also invoke.

Here's what Sal Khan can save us from:

  • Low (math) scores on achievement tests
  • Teachers
  • The necessity of teacher training

This narrative of salvation involves the belief that Internet technology (and its concordant scalability) is the answer to education's woes. It involves the belief that when longstanding classroom practices such as the lecture are captured via video and disseminated via the Web, that these old practices become instantly better. It involves the belief that deep cognition is secondary to -- or maybe triggered by -- the power of pause and rewind. It involves the belief that better test scores are not just a marker of achievement, but the goal of learning.

Some of this I think Sal Khan subscribes to. But much of this is a narrative much bigger than him and narrative where he looks more like a pawn than a savior. Much of it is part of a larger national dialogue about education reform, something that, as with the religious metaphors, makes me squeamish. And like Khan Academy itself, much of this narrative seems to be underwritten by Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation. This is Gates' vision of what education should look like, and we should be suspicious, I'd argue, because it's a political vision with very little grounding in pedagogy.

Pedagogy is important. How we teach matters, as does how we learn. Preparing to teach (not just the "act" of teaching itself) takes a lot of thoughtful consideration. It takes preparation. It takes practice. Sometimes you deliver a lesson and it works brilliantly. Sometimes you deliver that same lesson and it fails miserably. The live audience is important. There is no laugh track that you can insert into the classroom as you can with a sitcom to point out the funny bits, the important bits, the things you should pay attention to, the things that should be learned.

Many educators have pointed to the flaws in the Khan Academy pedagogy. You can read Sylvia Martinez's blog series or Frank Noschese's thoughts or the brilliant "Open Letter to Sal Khan" by Mathalicious. Or you can have a look at some of the videos that Dan Meyer has made if you want to see how math instruction can really be new and different.

 

You see, despite my liking Sal Khan, I'm just not sure that what he's doing in his videos really is that different. I commend the thousands of lectures on YouTube, I do, and I understand the great power of distributing this content for free online. But honestly, his videos look a lot like the math lectures I received in junior high and high school, where the teacher stood at the board, solved an equation, and turned around with a proud "Ta da. That's how you solve a quadratic equation." I have this vague recollection of being good at math once, but now I struggle to remember any of it -- something that makes me doubt that I ever understood the concepts. I just knew enough to do well on the tests.

 

Let me reiterate: I don't think Khan Academy is a bad thing. I don't think Sal Khan is a bad guy. But I do think some of the narratives and politics and metaphors surrounding the two are uncritical at best, dangerous at worst. I don't believe in silver bullets or a savior. I don't believe that one person can single-handedly educate the world, or even that such a thing, if possible, is something we really want.

 

Photo credits: Steve Jurvetson

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Audrey Watters


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