About physics and teaching

What Salman Khan might be getting right

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Salman Khan created Khan Academy, a website where you can get short video lectures about math (and many other subjects now). He is being credited with “revolutionizing education,” a description with which some critics take issue. Rather, these critics say (if I may boldly paraphrase), these videos are just standard lectures packaged a different way, and therefore still suffer from the same problems of transmission that live lectures suffer.

Sal Khan has given a TED talk video entitled “Let’s use video to reinvent education” which is worth a listen. Yes, there has been hype about Khan Academy… the “reinvention of education” being credited to any one website or just to the “use of video” is a little much… but I think there are two lessons here that are worth considering.

First, there is “flipping the classroom,” with lectures being homework and practice problem-solving becoming classwork. Second, there is the idea of making sure you master each skill before moving on.

Flipping the Classroom

I was interested in seeing Khan’s video lectures when I first heard about them last summer because I have nieces and nephews who occasionally ask me for long distance tutoring (usually just short term “I can’t get this one thing” kind of help). I thought perhaps these videos could serve as a first line of help, as in “Watch so-and-so video, then let’s talk.” I was not overwhelmed by the videos, specifically because they seemed a pretty direct translation of whiteboard, classroom lecture to a computer screen. Also, the presentation was a bit messy, with what looks like a mouse being used to “write” … but maybe that’s just me being picky. And anyway, there’s just no reasonable way to make the video lecture interactive other than the fact students can rewind and pause, skip over parts that seem too obvious, etc. (which definitely makes video lectures better than traditional lecture, especially for the easily distracted like me).

I had also been experimenting with videoing short lectures for my own physics classes, with the hope of freeing up valuable classroom time with the students. I believe in making class time practice time (I think I’m stealing this phrase from Grant Wiggins, but I’m not sure). I do short mini-lectures occasionally, so I reasoned that if the kids could watch these lectures at night, we could get right down to practicing with new concepts, practicing new skills, and talking more about what we were doing. Currently this effort is not going so well in my own classroom, mainly because I haven’t created many lectures and the whole idea is still a novelty to my students. The result is many students figure they don’t have any “real” homework when a video lecture is assigned. It is short, it is a video, there’s nothing to turn in or show me the next day, so it falls to the bottom of their priority list.

Nonetheless, I still think that having students puzzle over lectures at night and do problems with each other (and with me) during the day is vastly preferable to the standard classroom. So I’m going to keep experimenting in the direction, and I hope to write about this topic in detail in the future.

Finally, if I can find someone who presents a topic more engagingly or more clearly than I do, I’d rather have my students watch that lecture over my lecture. I’ll add value the next day when the rubber meets the road in my classroom.

Mastery-based Progression

The other good idea in Khan’s video is that a student should master each concept or skill rather than moving on with incomplete or faulty knowledge. I have been using Standards Based Grading this year for the first time in an effort to track student mastery of learning objectives in a more rigorous and transparent (to the student and to me) way. The point that Mr. Khan makes when he asks what the student who made a 95 on a test missed, and whether that small misunderstanding or gap will hurt the student in the future is an excellent one. Using traditional grading techniques, the student with the 95 feels that he’s finished, rather than feeling like he still has 5% more to learn before he can say “I’m done.” The entire idea that you get one chance to learn a skill or concept before moving on is just totally odd to me. I have in fact heard teachers say “The students just get one chance in my class,” and I shudder thinking of all the holes I’ll have to fill next year with those students. The reason for “moving on” is often the quest for more coverage, but there is also a strand of thinking that those who get the concepts and skills quickly are just more talented and should be sorted for college admissions.

In the near future I hope to write more on Standards Based Grading, sorting students by grading (and grading philosophies in general) as well as the idea of innate talent.


Written by Mark Hammond

2011/03/12 at 14:53

Posted in grades, SBG, talent

9 Responses

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  1. Congrats on your first post Mark.

    And thanks for being catalyst for me to actually go and watch the video instead of just reading what the critics have been saying. It is nice to see that there is more going on that just the direct-transmission video model that I had been picturing.

    In terms of public service, I feel that he could have sold the idea of the flipped classroom as something that every teacher can do, even without his videos, but that his academy makes it even easier for teachers to implement. I’m sure this is the first time that many people have heard of a flipped classroom, and it would be nice if people understand that this is a general teaching strategy and not something brand-new that you can all of a sudden do thanks to Khan.

    Joss Ives

    2011/03/13 at 13:04

    • Thanks, Joss. You make a very good point about teaching teachers about the flipped classroom. (I’m assuming there are student populations for which this won’t work… lack of home computer or high speed access would be issues.) It is absolutely true that you don’t need Khan Academy to make your mini-lecture video for you! Nor should you wait for it to happen.

      Mark Hammond

      2011/03/13 at 20:43

      • Just wanted to say welcome to blogging and I’ve subscribed. Great start and look forward to reading more.

  2. […] Mark Hammond’s first post on his Physics & Parsimony blog talks about some of the positive things that we can take away from Khan’s recent TED talk that has recently been a hotly discussed topic on the old internet. I had been paying some attention to the discussion, but didn’t actually watch the talk until after reading Hammond’s post. It is much easier to tear something apart than to do as Mark did and to pull out some important lessons. Mark’s two things that Khan is getting right are related to flipped classrooms and mastery learning, and it is important to remember that the audience being reached by this talk have mostly never heard of these education paradigms which are generally supported by the greater education reform community (myself included). I commented on mark’s blog:  “In terms of public service, I feel that he could have sold the idea of the flipped classroom as something that every teacher can do, even without his videos, but that his academy makes it even easier for teachers to implement. I’m sure this is the first time that many people have heard of a flipped classroom, and it would be nice if people understand that this is a general teaching strategy and not something brand-new that you can all of a sudden do thanks to Khan.” The Science Learnification Weekly (March 6, 2011) GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "0"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_bg", "f6f6f6"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_border", "eeeeee"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_text", "333333"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_link", "e12000"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_url", "e94325"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "science"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_below_post"); LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. I teach (college-level) physics with a flipped class all the time. I love it for lots of reasons but I greatly benefit from having students who, if they don’t have internet at home, can certainly be expected to come to campus to use the library computers.

    One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that it works better in my intermediate and advanced courses with dedicated majors than in my intro or non-majors courses. I wonder how that would translate to HS courses.

    By the way, there are a couple of chemistry teachers in Colorado who say that they invented the flipped class model. They have a lot of good resources on their site but it’s neat to see how the idea gets reinvented all the time.

    Andy Rundquist

    2011/03/15 at 20:56

  4. I have talked to my students about a “flipped classroom”. Most say “if it’s not for a grade why would I watch it?” I have put a few short tutorial videos on my classroom blog (review for those who still do not get it and refuse to ask me or listen to me in class). I cannot say that no one has watched them, but I would guess the number is closer to zero than anything else. Their mode is “I will do just enough to get by, and no more.”

    paul shircliff

    2011/03/18 at 19:04

    • I found that some students just do not like videos. In order to respect the different learning styles I also allow them to prepare for class with the Kahn videos, reading from an online text and the occasional activity sheet.

      I assess the activity outside of class with two means. Cornell notes with sources listed are checked and there is a short quiz on basic concepts and vocabulary. This seems to do the trick.

      Stan Forrester

      2011/03/27 at 02:39

  5. I found that at the lower division college level that an assessment on the reading/videos/practice sheets due before class starts is enough to get the kids to complete the assignment. The assessment is online (most CMS software lets you do this) covering basic vocabulary and concepts. I deliberately avoid calculation in the pre-lecture assessment.

    Stan Forrester

    2011/03/27 at 02:34

  6. I tried something less ambitious at my last school. After numerous students complained that the text was too confusing, I wrote Power Point lectures for each section and posted them. It was time consuming, but it allowed me to switch into problem-solving mode right away in each class. I suspect that many students did not read them, but their presence allowed me to move more deeply into the material more quickly.

    Jim Doherty

    2011/03/27 at 22:52

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