Chris Anderson, the visionary leader of the TED conference, recently wrote about “The Year’s 7 Most Powerful Ideas.” He highlights some important stuff, but regrettably misses the mark when he takes on education.
Powerful Idea No. 3 comes from Salmon Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy. Anderson writes, “The classroom flip can revolutionize education. Khan was a hedge fund analyst when he started posting video tutorials online. Now, over 2,000 of his videos are viewed by more than 100,000 students a day around the world. What if teachers used these videos as homework so kids could learn at their own pace, and used classroom time to help if someone gets stuck!”
Khan’s idea does not represent a “revolution.” Posting video tutorials online is a great idea, and I have no doubt that some teachers find value in “flipping” the curriculum so that students can utilize class time to get one-on-one help. But to suggest that this is a revolution—or that it will have even a modest impact on our overall education system—is pure delusion.
Anderson is a brilliant entrepreneur. However, like so many other pundits who have never been a classroom teacher, he presumes that the primary reason our education systems needs a revolution has something to do with academic content transfer. If we can just figure out a more effective way to transmit academic content, the theory goes, we can fix education.
Ask any classroom teacher. Undoubtedly, many appreciate this new resource—it’s yet another tool they have available to them—but I suspect the overwhelming majority of them will tell you this does not solve the most important issues they face in trying to reach students.
Even better, ask any group of students. They will tell you. They show up at school and attend the standard fare of required classes. The curriculum in these classes is typically irrelevant to their lives, except for the need to earn grades good enough to placate their parents and impress college admissions officers. When the academic content assigned has no meaning to them, and their engagement with it is solely to attain extrinsic rewards, of course they’re not going to retain it.
This is true if the homework is to study a textbook, listen to a podcast, or watch a video on Khan Academy. It’s all the same thing. In the lives of students, it’s all the same noise and stress that pulls them away from engaging in activities that bring them joy and feed their soul.
Here’s a metaphor: if I planted seeds in a desert and no crops grew, would it constitute a revolution if I invented a machine that planted seeds in a desert?
The real revolution comes when we decide to plant seeds in fertile soil. The real revolution comes when we decide that school is the place where we ask kids what they’re passionate about learning and match them with talented teachers who are passionate about teaching it.
(NOTE: It’s tangential to the point I’m trying make above, but I should mention: I recently had a conversation about Khan Academy with a friend who has a Ph.D. in physics. He stated flatly that some of the academic material posted by Khan is, simply, wrong. He said, ”It’s like getting a physics lesson from someone who got an ‘A’ in an introductory physics course instead of from someone like me. The material is factually inaccurate. If it was going to be printed in a textbook, it would never pass the peer review stage.”)