Khan Academy and the Missed Opportunity

I went to CUE 2014 this year in Palm Springs, Cali. If you’re not familiar with the conference, it’s the largest regional education conference on the west coast with over 5,000 people in attendance. As I was preparing to go, I took a look at the keynotes.

Day 1: Dan Meyer. Solid.

Day 2: Levar Burton. Advocate for literacy since the 80’s. Plus, he was on Star Trek: TNG. Pretty cool.

Day 3: Salman Khan. Oh boy.

I’ve tried to remain positive, giving the Khan Academy the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the journalism covering the Academy has been poor…perhaps it’s all media spin that can be ignored for the most part. I resolved myself to go to the third keynote even though I had a pretty good idea of how it was going to go down.

Observation one: the first half of the keynote was a history of Khan Academy. Seriously. Watch the TED Talk if you want to see it. Khan is a gifted speaker. He’s charming and endearing. His story is really remarkable. He didn’t go looking for all the attention he’s been given since 2011. The problem I had with this section is that it was all about him. You can tell a story about your life without sounding self-indulgent, and he wasn’t able to do that effectively.

Observation two: World-class education is defined by…?. The stated mission of the Khan Academy is “providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” But, repeatedly, Khan seems to define that education within the scope of the Khan Academy. Why didn’t a room full of teachers get upset about the fact that he didn’t compliment teachers in this section at all? The entire premise of the Academy is that schools aren’t doing enough. As a teacher sitting in the audience, I was offended and really in disbelief that very few people had the same reaction.

Observation three: He’s kind of short. And Dan Meyer is a giant. It surprised me, is all.

Observation four: Khan missed an opportunity when it came to the SAT. This is the kicker for me. The SAT is a test that promotes rote learning and regurgitation. Even the essay. I’ve written about the changes before. In 2011, Khan Academy reported $11.8 million in donations and other income. That’s the latest information I could find, and considering corporations like Comcast and Bank of America, that number is surely much higher. They have clout.

So, if Khan Academy is for kids learning and exploring, why, why, would they team up with the College Board for some PR media about changes that mean nothing? Because Sal Khan is not an educator.

Sal Khan speaks for Khan Academy and for his own story, not for a free, “world class” education. Not for students. If he were for students, why hasn’t he reached out to leaders in education? When he’s criticized for poor content, why has he been so defensive? Why hasn’t he answered a single, to-the-point question about education practice in any interview anywhere?

Khan has missed opportunities constantly since 2011. Teachers and education professionals have reached out over and over, offering to help, to make videos, to design lessons…all to be turned down. Khan had an opportunity – as the “leader in world class education” – to take a stand against bad education policy. But, because it’s about the Academy and achieving it’s own goals, that will never happen.

Now, where CUE missed the opportunity was in offering a Twitter question submission from the audience using the #cuekhan hashtag. As soon as it was announced, I went for it. You can see the archive of the entire hashtag.* CUE had an opportunity to ask some more pointed and meaningful questions, and they missed that chance. I understand the PR agreement and that they were probably bound by some kind of speaker’s contract, but I still wish someone…anyone…had the gumption to finally get to the point.

*I removed RT’s from the archive for clarity. You can see the entire thread – including RT’s – here.

Changing Institutions

I’ve been reading James Paul Gee’s book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning. Without diving too deep into how I feel about it, let’s just say it hasn’t been an enjoyable read for me. I find myself disagreeing with Gee a lot and struggling to find his point in the narrative. I haven’t finished yet, so I’m holding out hope that it will eventually improve. Time will tell.

The middle of the book is about institutions of thought and their tendency to become “frozen” in practice. Legal systems, city planning, and the QWERTY keyboard are all discussed, but Gee points to the stagnation of universities as his main point. Originally, they were places of religious training, then secular training, and now, research with schooling on the side. Yet, we talk about them as if they are still mainly places of education.

I’m in marginal agreement with Gee’s assessment, but I differ on the way to improve the situation. Local connections are absolutely essential to growth, and the Internet can help us create and maintain those connections.

Rather than posting the full text here, I’ve written it in a Google Doc which will allow anyone to comment in context rather than at the end of this post. Please jump over to get the big picture.

The Problem With Evolution…

…is that it’s kind of hard to teach.

Sorry for the click bait…I couldn’t resist. This is an update for my master’s class on finding solutions to instructional challenges in the classroom.


One of the hardest things about teaching in a science classroom is the abstract nature of many topics. One of my favorite teacher-isms from chemistry was introducing atoms: “This entire unit is based on our best guess. We don’t actually know what atoms look like, but we can make a good guess from observation.” I would get some funny looks from students, but they need to know that what they’re asked to learn isn’t always “hard” science.

I chose to tackle evolution for this particular assignment. Without getting into the philosophy of evolution, the task of teaching the mechanics is a well-defined problem. The principles are documented and observable, but students cannot conceptualize major changes in populations over time. That’s where the amazing simulations from the University of Colorado – Boulder come in.

The PhET Simulations have been around for a long time, yet not many people know about them. They’re interactive models of topics like evolution, but also chemistry, earth science, and physics, among others. Most of the simulations are still Java based, which means they don’t play well on Chromebooks or mobile. But, the HTML5 library is growing, and it is definitely worth checking out if you’re in a science classroom.

Let’s not forget the why. For me, it was simple: repeatability. The simulations are so simple to use, students feel like it’s a game. Playing with conditions (like trying to kill all the rabbits or blow the box of gases up) leads them to making general observations about their world that would be difficult to do otherwise. Mess up completely? No problem, hit reset and start again. Can you reproduce those results? What about getting an opposite result? Coming from multiple classrooms with limited resources, these simulations were invaluable to me each and every year.

If you want to play, my favorites were Natural Selection, Build an Atom, and Gas Properties. Have you used the PhET sims before? Which were your favorites?

The SAT is Changing! (But Not Really)

The edtech land is losing their minds of the second major revision to the SAT in nine years’ time. In case you missed it.

Horray! The SAT is finally getting on board with what really matters!

Khan Academy will help more students get ready for the test! This will level the playing field!

< /end sarcasm>


The SAT isn’t changing. The announcement and following hullabaloo is a procedural shift to improve the appearance of the test without considering the deeper implications of standardized exit exams.

Students are still coerced into the exam by the testing machine and higher ed.

Students are still given an arbitrary rank (but it’s out of 1600 now) to show what they know.

The College Board is still making money.

David Coleman now has more control over the American curriculum (not really, but really).

Khan Academy can now pull in the test-prep market because videos.

The New York Times Magazine ran a fantastic article yesterday outlining how the major players came together in one magical-you-heard-it-at-SXSWEDU press event. I highly encourage you to read it.

I keep returning to a closing point in the article:

With a redesigned SAT, Calkins thinks that too much of the nation’s education curriculum and assessment may rest in one person’s hands. “The issue is: Are we in a place to let Dave Coleman control the entire K-to-12 curriculum?”

Before we start celebrating a victory, can we please talk about the bigger implications of the curriculum and assessment that is marching on without the input of teachers? Aside from CCSS, the SAT, and the people involved, why aren’t we talking about learning? Why isn’t that newsworthy.

So much for change.