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It was exciting yesterday to see 60 minutes  share the phenomenon that so many of us have been so excited about over the past few years (see the related links at the bottom of the post).

Reporter Sanjay Gupta and 60 minutes offers a helpful introduction to the value Khan Academy can offer in a “blended” learning environment (“it’s called flipping the classroom” he explains), and of course I agree wholeheartedly with Khan that use of his videos doesn’t render teachers irrelevant, but rather allows them to better provide the added value of inspiring, mentoring, coaching students toward better problem solving and analysis.    I appreciate his point that we can use his resources and those of teachers everywhere posting online video lessons to more greatly humanize and strengthen the interpersonal elements of classrooms.  And I will say again, as I have said before: what a wonderful, awesome thing this is that the enormous repository of instruction is being offered to the children (and the analytics to the teachers) of the world, everywhere, free of charge.

I am disappointed, however, that the classroom scenes we were shown only displayed students on their laptops, working their way through online problem sets that are, in some ways– not every way, but in some ways– glorified worksheets.   The teacher interviewed, whose classroom we are observing, offers the comment that these resources allows her to reduce the amount of time she is using in class to do direct instruction, and allow more time for one-on-one student interaction and, she says, project-based learning.    But we don’t see any project based learning in her classroom– that is left out and remains only an abstract, somewhat remote promise.

What I would argue we want from Khan is to create greater efficiencies for developing student mastery of basic skills, and to do so to provide greater opportunities for situated real-world, problem solving.   But even this can be misunderstood.  It is not first one, then the other; it is not that we want students to first use these Khan resources to develop mastery of skills and then apply them; it is that we want to genuinely blend in ways where students begin with challenging word problems, or better yet, problems they seek and discover in environments which fascinate them.  

We want schools where students are going out either physically or virtually to grocery stores, architectural design or construction projects, physics labs, software engineering and animated film studios,  Wall Street investment banks, automobile design studios, and other such environments and seeking/discovering/identifying the problems which need to be solved there, determining what they need to know to address these problems, and then returning to Khan Academy to acquire, just in time, the necessary mathematical skills they need.   This way students deeply understand the value of learning the necessary skills, they understand how to apply skills outside of the artifice of the workbook, and they have learned how to learn: they have learned how to acquire the tools and techniques they need when they need them and use the techniques to solve the problems they encounter.

I am not trying to be absolutist about this, and I know I can be too idealistic.  Of course it is critical we seriously ensure that students master core, basic skills.   If nothing else, the standardized testing colleges demand for admission require we instill the skills necessary to solve the standardized testing kinds of problems which Khan Academy focuses upon.  But if only there could have been shown just a little taste of the approaches and practices that, for instance, Dan Meyer shares so powerfully on his blog, (and as you can see there, Dan is far more disappointed with the 60 minutes video and Khan Academy than I am), viewers everywhere would have a far better visualization of the potential for rich, authentic, lasting understandings which blended learning offers, the kind that New Tech Network Schools, High Tech High, and we here at St. Gregory are aspiring to better provide so that our students will have far better and more lasting understanding and problem-solving capacities. .

Resources for further reading:

What did you think of the 60 minutes report?  Please share; use the leave a comment box.