The Math of Khan, and the Wrath of Can’t


It’s now official: Salman Kahn , of the Kahn Academy is a Very Bad Man. Why? Because he’s become popular, as an educator, and he’s not even a proper teacher!! Worse than that – he’s an ex-hedge fund trader… imagine that. Despite the 90 million lessons his website claims to have delivered, he’s never stood in front of a bunch of rowdy inner-city kids, so he clearly needs bringing down a peg or two….

….which seems to be the way of the world these days, I’m afraid. We build ’em up, we knock ’em down.  But there seems to have been an increasing backlash against the Ted-ification of Kahn’s ideas, among teachers. I find this saddening. I should come clean: I’m a fan of Sal’s work – I blogged about the power of on-line learning a while back.

Sure, he’s not the only one doing it. And he’s definitely not the only resource for the flipped classroom. But some of the carping which I’ve read on the blogosphere in recent weeks just seems to be nothing more than professional jealousy.

I was particularly saddened to see Diane Ravitch re-tweet a post today from Gary Rubenstein on Khan. The gist of Gary’s attack on Khan seemed to be that Khan was, well, famous, and he, Gary, wasn’t. In order to prove how much better Gary was, he embedded a specially prepared video tutorial, which, alongside a similar Khan video, would show the world what a proper teacher looked like.

Well, I’m sorry, Gary. I’ve looked at both, and yours comes off worst (even though you proclaimed yours, in your opinion, was better). I personally found it moving at too slow a pace, and wasn’t asking much of your students – Kahn’s first calculation demanded a fractional answer, yours didn’t.

But that’s really not the point of this post.

Who said that posting math videos was a competition? Not Sal Khan. A long while back I posted on the difference between rivalrous and non-rivalrous properties of the Learning Commons. Commodities are rivalrous: if I take a bite out of your apple, there’s less for you to chew on. But some commodities – like learning – are gloriously non-rivalrous. Like a candle doesn’t lose its glow from lighting another candle, so putting forward an idea, like Khan has done, doesn’t take anything away from other pedagogic approaches.

As a teacher, I can choose to use Khan’s Math video, or Rubenstein’s, or any of those that are out there. But, perhaps we should at least give Sal Khan the credit he deserves for spurring on so many people to  out-do him, by creating their own online, complementary, flip/non-flipped videos. Be honest, would you have even bothered if you hadn’t seen all the acclaim that Khan was getting?

Come on, people, we’re bigger than this. Salman Khan may have scooped a ton of money from Gates and Google, but that doesn’t mean to say that any of the kids we teach are worse off as a result.

There are so many other issues in the education world that we should unite over: the dead hand of standardised testing; the so-called accountability agenda; the need to take the great leap forward in pedagogy. In the bigger picture, the  Khan Academy getting lots of headlines, and some extrenal funding, comes pretty low down on the list of things to complain about.

I mean, it’s not like it’s compulsory, is it?


3 Responses to The Math of Khan, and the Wrath of Can’t

  1. Ben Gibbs says:

    I too have been having trouble with the vitriolic response from some quarters of the teaching profession to Kahn’s service, and am really interested in what cultural, social or psychological phenomena sit behind such knee-jerk, unprofessional rivalry. So thanks for this post, which will illuminate my position at my school. Also, thank you for the beautiful analogy: “Like a candle doesn’t lose its glow from lighting another candle, so putting forward an idea, like Khan has done, doesn’t take anything away from other pedagogic approaches”.

  2. David Price says:

    Thanks Ben. I wish I could say it was original, but I think Lawrence Lessig used it before. Don’t know who used it before him, but I’m sure he had a license for it!

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