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Dr. Keith Devlin Headshot

What Silicon Valley Executives Keep Getting Wrong About Education

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Successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who, in creating and running their businesses, clearly understand the importance of understanding the market and testing how effective their products are, seem to leave those important instincts at the door when they comment on -- and these days increasingly get involved in -- K-12 education. When it comes to making important business decisions, they will regularly seek the advice of domain experts, often at considerable cost in consulting fees, but they fail to recognize the equal importance of domain expertise in education.

The always interesting and provocative reflections of the legendary Silicon Valley investor (and Sun Microsystems co-founder) Vinod Khosla provided the latest example of this when, in his Feb. 19 blog-post in TechCrunch, he wrote:

"Education 2.0 [...] we have not experimented enough with [...] out-of-the-box approaches but have instead tried to force-fit [...] traditional (often broken) ideas into the 'computerized' model."

Which might sound fine if this statement were not preceded by his explicit mention of Khan Academy as one of the new experiments. For KA is precisely a traditional approach transported onto the Web, namely one-to-one instruction, sitting side-by-side with the teacher. Is KA valuable? Sure it is? But "all" Sal Khan has done is take the traditional textbook instruction and put it up on YouTube.

Those quotes around "all" just then are important. It proved to be a significant leap forward, in large part because Khan is a good instructor -- he explains well in a highly non-threatening, "I am your friend" way. That's not an easy thing to achieve when the entire information channel consists of his voice and a screen-trace of what his hand writes on a tablet screen.

But what resources like Khan Academy provide is instruction, not teaching/learning. Anyone who has been lucky enough to experience good teaching will know the difference, but it's a sad fact of American life that most people's mathematics schooling consisted entirely of instruction and exercise sheets. They simply do not know what teaching is, or what it feels like to learn from a good teacher. They watch a Khan video and think "That guy is doing it at least as well as my teacher (often a lot better) and I can play through his explanation as often as I need." And they are right.

Vinod is probably like me. We learned in spite of not being taught well. Some of us figured out early in our education that the most efficient way to progress was to skip, or at least pay little attention to, classes we found boring or pedestrian, or even incomprehensible, and "teach ourselves," seeking out help from more advanced colleagues or, in my case, the teacher whose classes I largely ignored.

But for all Sal's charisma and instructional talent (and I am using his first name, since I sought him out when he was just becoming widely known and got to know him, since I recognize a valuable talent when I see it), what he is delivering is instruction -- a one-way information feed. And instruction is just part of teaching and learning. Watching videos of people playing golf will surely help you learn to play, but you won't get very far without going out on the fairway, frequently, and doing so with a good coach who can watch what you do and correct your inevitable errors. Not once but many times, over a long haul. That's teaching. It's interactive (bi-directional). And it's very human.

The traditional, instructional blackboard lecture should perhaps have been relegated to an occasional part of teaching with the invention of the photocopy machine, though maybe some people preferred a dynamic delivery by a friendly person. In which case, resources like Khan Academy should now put to rest forever math classes that consist primarily of blackboard instruction followed by "do all the odd numbered exercises on page 156." (BTW, Khan himself recognizes the importance of the teacher, and advocates using his videos as part of a "flipped classroom" model of teaching, a concept that goes back well before YouTube was launched.)

In the flipped model, teachers devote most of their class-time to the important activity that no technology can provide (at least today): helping students to learn in the same way a golf coach helps beginners (and not-so-beginners) to learn how to play golf.

Meanwhile, it will help if those who provide the technology platforms, people like Khosla, apply to education the same principles they adopt instinctively in running their businesses: seek advice from the experts. Sure, there are education experts who are still living in the past. But the same is true in technology: Xerox, IBM, and Nokia, to name just three of many, all had painful experiences as a result of not listening to those who could see that "the times they are a-changing." There are plenty of knowledgeable mathematics educators who use modern platforms and can provide good advice. Dan Meyer, Karim Ani, and Marilyn Burns are three that I know personally, but there are many more. A Silicon Valley (or Redmond, Washington) executive who wants to make a useful contribution to education could do well to spend an evening checking out just those three sources.

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