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Pro or Khan in the Great Math Debate

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Date posted: August 6, 2012

Education Week calls it a great “Khan troversy.”

Is Khan Academy a ground-breaking innovation or “one of the most dangerous phenomena in education today,” as Karim Kai Ani of Mathalicious put it? Does Khan Academy help kids who would otherwise be lost learn math or does it reflect a focus on discrete tasks and formulae (rather a deeper understanding of mathematics) that is symptomatic of a Silicon Valley approach, as Dan Meyers argues?

The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet Blog is the site of the first debate, between Karim Kai Ani and Sal Khan.

Math_ProblemIn spite of its huge success (more than 3,000 videos, millions of views, funding from Gates Foundation and others), Khan Academy isn’t revolutionizing education, says Ani. “This paint-by-numbers method of instruction emphasizes procedures — how to do math — but ignores the conceptual understanding that’s central to authentic learning: what math means. At its core, this is a function of ineffective instruction, which to a large degree is related to ineffective content.” So long as the focus is on the formulae and mechanics, we’ll never develop the deeper understanding that lets us apply the math in real world situations. That’s one of the reasons US students fare poorly on international tests that require students not just to perform calculations, but also to apply math in solving new problems.

Dan Meyers asks us to reconsider computer-based math instruction for many of the same reasons. “At this moment in history, computers are not a natural working medium for mathematics,” he says. Partly that’s due to a Silicon Valley mindset that “tells students, ‘Math is a series of simple, machine-readable tasks you watch someone else explain and then perform yourself.’ Our best classrooms tell students, ‘Math is something that requires the best of your senses and reasoning, something that requires you to make meaning of tasks that aren’t always clearly defined, something that can make sense whether or not anyone is there to explain it to you,’” Meyers writes.

In a workshop at the Discovery Education Siemens STEM Institute recently (see here), I saw a great example of the kind of math classroom Meyers would like. The teacher leading the workshop kept asking us “what is the big question we’re trying to answer here?” “What is it we want to know?” “What does your intuition tell you and how can we test that?” Questions that stimulate curiosity drove the exercise. The formula and procedures came much later, after we had thought about the questions, defined the problems, and considered what we needed to do to solve the problems.

That leads to the kind of understanding and deeper learning intended by the Common Core math standards. And that kind of classroom climate exemplifies the Four C’s of 21st Century education—critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity and innovation—advocated by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

There’s a place for Sal Khan, and innovators like him, but as supplementary resources, helping kids master the mechanics. But if we truly want to educate today’s children to be tomorrow’s leaders, inventors, and problem solvers; if we want to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s workplace, then we need millions of teachers like Dan Meyer and Karim Kai Ani.

Disclaimers: Cable in the Classroom is a founding member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Dan Meyer is a former winner of Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award.

Photo credit: Microsoft Office Clip Art