Khan Academy: Good, Bad, or Ugly?

03/20/2012 11:56 am ET | Updated May 20, 2012

CBS's 60 Minutes segment on Khan Academy recently, opened with former hedge fund manager turned world-educator Salman Khan riding home on a bicycle, evoking (I suspect deliberately on the part of 60 Minutes) one of America's most cherished images: the lone stranger who rides into town and fixes what needs to be fixed.

Whereas John Wayne or Clint Eastwood would dismount and walk into the saloon with guns at the ready, Sal Khan got off his bike and walked into his tiny home office to record a math lesson on his computer, to upload onto YouTube. But the message was the same: The outsider who rides into town to save us is a part of our mythology.

Like most mythologies, when you analyze it you find many reflections of ourselves and the society we have built. In particular, it captures that "can do" attitude that attracted me, like many before me and since, to emigrate here. But it does so in a way that is totally unrealistic. There are no such lone heroes, and real life's problems are never so simple that one individual can fix them.

The real West was not won by people like Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name," and it is equally naïve to think that one person at a computer terminal can "fix" mathematics education. But we Americans are suckers for the myth, even extending it to our election of a president, on whose decidedly human shoulders all sorts of unrealistic expectations are regularly placed.

For me, the most wildly inaccurate "lone outsider" statements were made by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who repeated Silicon Valley's own favorite creation myth, that the major changes arise from the activities of mavericks outside the system. This is just another variant on that same romantic story.

The truth is, the vast majority of technology companies in the Valley emerged from either Cold War DARPA funded research, from decidedly corporate AT&T Bell Laboratories and Xerox PARC, or from federally funded research at Stanford University and SRI. Hewlett-Packard, Shockley, Fairchild, Intel, Cisco, Sun, etc. all came from one or more of those sources. (Though Apple does not fit that mold -- it is one of the few examples that match Schmidt's description -- its breakthrough Macintosh came from research at SRI and Xerox PARC.) Schmidt's own Google was a result of a federally funded program carried out by two graduate students in Stanford's Computer Science Department. It doesn't get more "in the system" than that!

True, in many of those cases, it was one or more young researchers who ignored the advice of their seniors that a particular research path was unlikely to succeed and pressed ahead anyway, but young people have always been at the cutting edge of "the system."

Though I found the 60 Minutes coverage of Khan Academy disappointingly superficial, and in places plain inaccurate, it took some time before I realized what it was that left me bothered.

It was not the claim that there was something (potentially) revolutionary going on. I think there is, though no one in the program pointed to what it is. Nor was it the fact that there was no mention of the debate going on in the educational world as to whether Khan Academy is, in the metaphor of Sergio Leone's famous Spaghetti Western, the Good, the Bad, or the Ugly.

No, what bothered me was the program's unspoken implication that the many thousands of American mathematics teachers did not know what they were doing, and that they, or perhaps the kids in our schools, needed "saving." (Some probably do, but some is not the whole system.) It was not Sal Khan himself who gave that impression -- what he said, very clearly, as he has on many occasions, was quite the opposite. Rather it was the way the program was structured and narrated.

People both for and against KA (for the record, I am a significantly qualified "for") tend to portray the issues involved as black or white. But like most things in life, they are many shades of grey.

What is without doubt, however, is that millions of people around the world have found Khan's videos valuable aids to help them to pass a crucial math test. Some of them (almost certainly a minority) have, in the process, learned some mathematics -- meaning that, faced with a real world problem whose solution requires the use of math, they will, as a result of watching Khan's videos, be able to use math to solve the problem. (That, of course, is the ultimate goal of mathematics education.)

I would myself have been such a person. Had KA been around when I was at school, I would have loved it. So would Bill Gates, whose public statements and financial support have enabled Khan to build on the initial success of his home-made videos. So, I suspect, would most scientists and engineers. So would many teachers who are critical of KA's pedagogy. (Former Google Education Fellow Dan Meyer, for example.) Almost certainly, the younger Sal himself would have been able to teach himself math using his videos.

For those of us who find ourselves with the ability to learn math, we will do so with whatever tools we can find, and most of us do just fine. For people like us, Sal Khan's videos are a great resource.

Unfortunately, we are a minority, and a school teacher has the responsibility of teaching all children. And there's the rub. For the majority who find mathematics extremely difficult, instructional videos have known problems, and we currently know of no approach that comes close to regular group interactions with a good, inspiring, human teacher. Changing the way a human mind works, which is what teaching amounts to, is a difficult task. Moreover, it involves emotional, psychological, and social factors. It would be impossibly hard, were it nor for the fact that teachers are themselves emotional, psychological, and social creatures, at heart very much like their students. The key is for the teacher and the student to establish human contact.

In short, teaching is complex and hard, and math teaching particularly so. A lone stranger riding into town on a bicycle is not going to provide the "answer," not even if he has a broadband connection to the Internet and Bill Gates behind him. Sal Khan is not the Clint Eastwood of Math Ed. No one is. No one can be. Such a person is a myth.

By focusing on the great American lone-stranger myth, 60 Minutes missed what I think are the causes of the relatively poor performance in mathematics of America's children and a number of practical ways we might turn things around. KA -- and there is now more to KA than just the videos -- or something like it is likely to be part of the answer. Unfortunately, the US has yet to agree on the question. What exactly do we mean by "mathematics education"?

Those are far less romantic stories. But they are real.

To be continued ...