Viewpoint | January 2013 Digital Edition

The Myth of Khan

Educators need to do a better job of explaining to the public what effective education really looks like.

I spent Christmas with my brother and sister-in-law--intelligent, educated, well-read professionals--who turned to me in earnest over dinner one evening and asked, "Do you know anything about this Khan Academy that’s supposed to revolutionize education? Are we not going to need teachers anymore?"

I sighed. I patiently explained that Khan Academy is an extensive system of online video tutorials that many teachers and parents are finding useful in helping students understand math concepts they might be struggling with, or in allowing advanced students to accelerate their math learning. The videos sit on top of a data system that allows teachers to monitor student progress. Because it is free and always available, it is a valuable tool for math educators and families, and Sal Khan is truly deserving of the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education that "recognizes outstanding individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education in this country." (See our complete story on the Khan phenomena.)

But, I explained, Khan’s pedagogy is the exact same one that educators have used for the last two millennia. There is nothing revolutionary about lecture. Lecture is only useful sometimes, and is certainly not the most effective way to reach struggling students, whether online or in person. And, I reassured them, there is no chance that the Khan videos are going replace any teacher any time soon.

I’m guessing that some of you had similar conversations with your relatives over your Christmas break. Maybe it wasn’t about the Khan Academy. Maybe it was about online learning replacing teachers. Or virtual schools that were going to shut down neighborhood schools. Or if computers were a big waste of money for schools. Some topic that the mainstream media have gotten a hold of and simplified to the point of idiocy, leaving people confused, misinformed, and probably scared.

You can’t do anything about how the mainstream media does its job, but you can do a better job of explaining to school boards, parents, and local businesses--in more than a few soundbites--exactly what is happening in your schools and why. A couple of years ago, I was at a SETDA event in which a high school principal and some of his students did an amazing presentation about how learning takes place in their school: authentic, connected, mastery-based, and effective beyond measure. I thought to myself at the time, “They should take this presentation on the road. They’re preaching to the choir here.”

I think that is exactly what progressive education needs right now: a road show. Communities need to see what the thoughtful use of technology, 21st century curricula, and effective pedagogy looks like from the people who do it, not from "60 Minutes." How do we make this happen?

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at [email protected].