I’m a bit of a geek. Actually, I’m a total geek. I once owned a device known as an Apple Newton - two of them as a matter of fact. If you know what that is, you are probably laughing right now. I am always interested in the latest technological “stuff”.
About five years ago, my son Wil told me about a website called Khan Academy. Kids at his school were using it to help with their physics class and math classes. At that point it was just videos. He showed me one. I thought it was pretty cool. I could even understand what the guy was talking about. My historical track record with both math and physics is not good. I kept it in the back of my mind and started recommending it to my high school clients. Seemed like a new way to do things.
Last year a young lady came to my office at school with a math worksheet. She was in fourth grade at the time. The worksheet was on subtracting mixed numbers. She just needed some individual help to get going. I started to show her how to do it the way I was taught. She stopped me and said, “That’s the way my Dad does it, and it’s wrong. My teacher does it a different way and now I’m all confused.” Khan Academy (KA) to the rescue! All of a sudden we had somebody explaining it “the right way.”
While I was on the site, I noticed this time that you could do math exercises along with watching the videos. I decided to spend time relearning math. So I set up an account and started working. I can tell you that’s it’s pretty cool. When you log on for the first time, it does a quick evaluation to see where you are. Then it presents you with appropriate exercises. The results show your on-going level of mastery.
As someone with ADD and working memory issues, there are several things I like about the math skills module of this program. I like the fact that you only have to answer five problems in a row correctly before you can move onto another exercise. Every problem has instant feedback, and you can’t move to the next problem without putting in the right answer. To find the right answer, you need to look at all the problem steps (called “hints”) one at a time. If you don’t know how to do the problem, the hints and a video are right on the screen to help you out. For every skill you attempt, you earn points and “badges.” You can ignore those or use them as incentive. So positive reinforcement is intermittent and frequent.
As a Montessorian, there are other things I also like about Khan Academy. Yes, it’s computer based and it’s not truly didactic in the same way that the other math materials are. It is self-correcting. It is also tailored to the individual right off the bat, and can be further tailored to meet individual need and skill practice. It is self-paced. The interface is easy to use, so it promotes independent learning. Children can explore skills that interest them as well as do those needed to meet standards. Planning a garden and need to know how to calculate area? A child can learn that concept from scratch right here. The program does offer extrinsic rewards in the form of points and badges. Instead of rewarding simple mastery of skills, it provides the biggest rewards for effort. I like that.
As an educator, I like the program for the student data it provides. Not only does the program show me which skills a child is practicing, it shows how well the child has mastered them. Is a child struggling with a particular concept? I can look at the answers they entered for each problem attempt and see how long it took them between attempts. Often you can see if the child is guessing, or where they might be missing a piece of the concept. The skills align grade level with Common Core standards, which can be handy.
Is this the only way or the best way to teach math? No. Technology is never going to replace the one-on-one relationship between a student and a teacher. Is Khan Academy an important tool? Yes. As a child who struggled with math, this tool would have made a great deal of difference for me. It helps a lot of the children I work with.
I know that Sal Khan and Bill Gates have lately taken it in the teeth for the “corporatization” of education. “With material online, they will be able to sell more computers.” Yep, and with material printed in books, McGuffey sold a lot of readers. So I’m not sure the criticism is entirely fair. That is a whole other post. I do hope that Khan Academy continues to be strong, adds a lot more interactive material, and is always used with mindfulness.