Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Build Up, Don't Tear Down

I came across a post on Scott McLeod's blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, regarding a recent Washington Post article that was critical of Salman Khan, and his online education efforts.

Reading the article put my blood pressure up a mite, and I ended up leaving this as a comment on McLeod's post.

I'm of two minds on that article. On the one hand, I do agree that the aesthetics of Khan's videos leave much to be desired, but as to whether Khan's approach is inherently bad teaching? I'm not so sure.

A normal teacher is observed during a lesson around two or three times a year wherever I have worked. After an observation comes a feedback session where everything that occurred in the lesson is nitpicked.  Strong areas are highlighted, areas of improvement are pointed out, and the teacher walks away with a record of that observation. 

Generally speaking, teachers wear their Sunday best when being observed. They pull out the assessment tool, make sure to touch upon the key elements being assessed, and put on a show. While every other lesson in their day-to-day practice may still be good, it is rare for any teacher to bring their B-Game to an observation. And after the observation is over, they are left to keep on keeping on.

But that's not the case for Khan. For Khan, every lesson is an observed lesson. Every lesson has thousands of keen eyed educators assessing and nitpicking it, commenting on it, and judging it.  Imagine if every lesson you taught, day after day, were observed in the same manner? Would you be brining your A-Game each and every time? Would you be as infallible as the Pope with your facts, figures, explanations and analogies?

Probably not.

This, then, is what so irritated me about this article. It encapsulates a mindset that I find absolutely infuriating. 

So Sal Khan goes ahead and teaches a couple thousand different lessons. Some are great, some not as great. But instead of saying "Hey, this is an awesome foundation we can build upon", or "I like Khan's video, but I would add that another way to conceptualize (concept) is...", all I hear is "How come Khan doesn't explain (insert concept) as good as (insert educator's name) does?" Or they make an entire video about why Khan was wrong on some point or another.

Khan is trying to do something that few educators have tried to do. He is trying to create a broad swathe of resources that can be accessed by anybody, covering a broad span of topics, grade levels, and subjects. As Odin was the "All-Father" some see Khan as turning into the "All-Teacher," and look upon that with the specialist's contempt of the jack-of-all-trades, and dismiss his work as merely a lesser effort.

The article says "[i]n the class it's bad teaching, and online it's a revolution?" In a word, yes.

Khan's lessons, whatever their merit, are there, online. Available to one and all. You can put the greatest teacher in the world in a room and have them teach the greatest lesson ever taught, and it will still amount to less than what Khan has achieved. Why? Because that lesson, however good it was, ceased to be the moment class was over. All that would remain would be, as Tenacious D would put it, a tribute.

Serious educators do not criticize and tear down. Serious educators analyze and build upon. Don't like Khan's explanation of something? Then edit his video, add your own spin. Credit the source and make it better. 

That's the whole point of the creative commons. It's the underlying principle of the scientific method. It's the entire basis of western culture since the enlightenment.

Make, share, use, make better.

Okay. End of rant. But as a postscript...

Bad teaching? That's a first world view. I teach in Asia, and for students who study the Indian syllabus, or in similar systems in Asia (which is most of them), what Khan does is what they want. The student centered, problem solving, independent learning approach is better, but it is not the norm in the most populated areas of the world. It is only prevalent in wealthy nations, and even there these approaches are limited to the relatively privileged groups.

Teachers in North America are insanely privileged in comparison to teachers almost anywhere else. In South Asia, the average teacher barely earns a subsistence level wage, has to contend with enormous class sizes, and has little to no logistical support. Students get little to no individual attention, so resources like what Khan produces are an absolute godsend. Sure he may be just going over example after example, but you know what? That's what the they want over here. That's how education functions over here.  It's not a question of what is best practice and what is not, it is a question of what actually is. 

"[H]ow the price of an iPod changes as you buy more memory" may not necessarily work as well in Bihar as it would in Iowa. 

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