Saturday, April 11, 2015

Education Snobbery and Math

At least one of my children uses Khan Academy a lot, so I decided to research the organization and as usual, I found a lot of conflicting beliefs and a lot of education snobbery. Some math people feel that Mr. Khan only explains procedures and not the actual concepts involved. Thus, they opine, he doesn't ensure that learning is intuitive and transferable.

My opinion is that Mr. Khan hopes to be a good tutor and he is good--but not perfect. Should that surprise anyone? He isn't going to transform a mediocre math student into a great math student, but he can certainly help your child pass some classes and feel far less defeated.

If you already have a math whiz on your hands, you can look forward to your student learning far more than is available in a year's curriculum, and independently for the most part. Any math topic can be accessed at any time using the indexes, just for curiosity sake, or for mastery's sake, but a more structured use of the site is facilitated as well, with parent or teaching coaching built in.

Opinions abound about the rapidly growing site, but people are quick to forget that this man does this free of charge, based on a belief that anyone in the world should be able to expand their education or have access to free education, with only an Internet connection. A number of partnerships, including one with NASA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enhance Sal Khan's site. The site teaches far more than math, although it started with just math as he began tutoring his cousin on YouTube. Later, due to the popularity of his videos, he eventually left his job as a hedge funds manager to develop Khan Academy full time. He has three degrees total, from Harvard and MIT.

The preparation for college available on Khan's site, including an entire SAT practice exam, and counseling on every aspect of college admission, levels the playing field for students hoping to apply for college. Traditionally, advantaged kids go into the SAT or ACT and apply for college with far more input and financed preparation behind them, compared to middle income or disadvantaged students. Mr. Khan deserves kudos for this invaluable service, as well as the many other services he provides.

Mr. Khan states that what his site can do now will not compare to what it can do 5 to 10 years from now; it is constantly evolving. Indeed, millions the world over use his instructional videos, enjoying his conversational style and unscripted methods. Bill Gates supports Khan's not-for-profit endeavor, as well as other philanthropists.

Math educators don't know what to think about the Khan Academy phenomena--usually either loving Khan or hating him--and many balk at the idea that video lecture instruction could revolutionize education. They especially balk at Bill Gate's assertion that Mr. Khan is the "world's teacher".

Sal Khan can't be responsible for what people say about him or his instruction or the future of education, but he's humble enough to revise videos people have criticized. He also never claimed that he could replace classroom teachers.

Obvious math snobbery stood out in some of the reviews of Mr. Khan and his site. When I was researching the Teaching Textbooks math program my older children use, I found evidence of educational snobbery as well as it related to math. Math people have some strong opinions and can be cult-like (as I'm sure the humanities group can be as well), not understanding that many of us use math as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

If you have a mathematical mind, great. Go with it and expand upon it as you pursue mathematical fields, but don't say to me that if the instruction were good enough, and intuitive and hands-on enough, all of us would develop a mathematical mind. There are left-brained and right-brain thinkers, after all, and few people prove equally strong with both. I don't beat myself over the head because math isn't my thing, or blame all my teachers for my deficits in math. I just want to be free to pursue my own passions and strengths and keep math in perspective.

I remember more than one opinion when researching Teaching Textbooks that started with the statement, "I think math is the most important subject." 

Really? How about...the most important to you and for you? Many such parents have chosen a math curriculum for its rigorousness over the enjoyment factor, much to their child's dismay, not taking into account what is most important for the way God created their child. As a result math remains a battleground in their home, all in the name of rigor, even taking a toll on the parent-child relationship.

Many from the snobbery camp say Teaching Textbooks is behind other programs, but the fact is if you stay with Teaching Textbooks, your math education will be complete. If you constantly leave one math program for another, there are going to be holes in your education, but if you stick with one publisher, the continuum and organization and thoroughness are usually there, even if it doesn't match the continuum of your local high school or elementary textbook. You can't effectively compare math programs by looking at a single year. You have to look at the entire programs across years.

Teaching Textbooks has placements tests on their site and they strongly encourage you to have your child take them before purchasing a grade level, precisely because different math curricula follow different philosophies as to the order concepts should be presented, which I don't think is a bad thing. I don't believe in the Common Core one-size-fits-all model of education.

If you find that your child hates a particular curriculum and you've decided to change, don't expect a precise line-up of topics when you switch to another one, and don't lightly accuse your former curriculum of not being rigorous enough.

I have found that one of the worst ways to choose a math curriculum is to rely too heavily on reviews from people who have skipped around too much and then given their superficial opinions about a number of curricula.

Another problem with reading reviews is that you can't put too much stock in a parent's detailing of their own child's experiences. One parent stated that Teaching Textbooks is not rigorous and shouldn't be used by college prep students because when her daughter took the SAT, she scored too low on math. Later down the review she adds that math is not her child's strong point, and that her child took the SAT with only two weeks notice and didn't have much time to prepare. As many Teaching Textbooks parents countered such testing assertions by stating that their student did fine on college entrance exams and went seamlessly into college math classes.

Teaching Textbooks doesn't teach to the test by any means, but they do embed college entrance exam questions into several years of their materials. They're also very strong at including real-world math questions, especially in the 7th grade, which we're currently using. We've used the program with joy since the third grade, but Peter needed a supplement to learn multiplication facts.

Video instruction certainly isn't for everyone, but it does have the added benefit of being both auditory and visual, simultaneously. We also find the option to replay any part of the lecture invaluable. Kids also benefit from having the solution to each problem explained, and hints provided at a click for the more difficult problems, for students who need it. If your child is a math whiz, no problem; these children can just work ahead and avoid clicking on any of the extra scaffolding.

We love Teaching Textbooks and their humorous, but not silly lectures and problems. We also love the option of using Khan Academy in conjunction with it. My math whiz, Paul, can learn Algebra and Algebra II and more without me having to purchase the expensive Teaching Textbook CD's more than once a year. He's not held back by our finances and my son Peter can learn math in peace, at his own pace, and even enjoy it, even though he doesn't excel at math generally.

The Teaching Textbooks company's products are expensive, but you get a lot for your money, including automated grading. To me the curriculum is worth even more than we pay, in fact, and their customer service is outstanding.

Everyone has different goals and beliefs and that's why there are so many educational options out there. I would just caution parents to consider not only what they personally believe and hope for, but also what is best for their individual child's learning profile.

Is math likely to be a means to end for your child, or is it likely to feature prominently in their future? Choose accordingly, rather than from some rigid beliefs about education as a whole.

If you don't regularly read curriculum reviews, you probably don't encounter educational snobbery that often, but I find myself increasingly aware of it. Education can certainly become a god, particularly for those of us involved in it intimately.

God is teaching me, a former professional educator, that knowledge can be a source of vanity and pride. Looked at from the wrong perspective, it can bring shame on us, rather than glory to God.

1 Corinthians 8:1 Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.

Have you encountered education snobbery? Has your view about education altered any over the years?

Click here for a balanced, researched review of Khan Academy.

Here's a Harvard Business Interview with Sal Khan.



Christine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think Khan Academy is excellent. I have used it myself for Maths and Biology.