Over the last several years I’ve been exploring online and blended learning options for my school.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I received a call from the Head of our Middle School asking if I’d like to be a learning coach for five 8th-grade girls who had asked to accelerate their math curriculum by taking an online geometry class.

“What year is it?” I asked, attempting to do a little quick mental math to determine when I had last thought about geometry. 1972 or 1973?  He thought I was joking, but I was dead serious.  It was approaching four decades since I had picked up a protractor.

I knew right away what I’d do to review the material:  I turned to Khan Academy, found my way to the geometry section, and dug in.  I’m making progress and learning how Khan Academy works. More importantly, I’m enjoying it.

Let me state for the record, I like Khan Academy.  Specifically, I like the principle behind it: students can move at their own pace and practice until they understand the concept.  In other words, students can own their learning. They need to know how to learn and how to manage their learning.  In possessing this valuable skill, our students will hold the keys to the kingdom.

Brains are not all wired the same way

At the opening keynote for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Philadelphia, John Medina, author of Brain Rules, described how our brains are wired differently from one another.  He equates our brains to our system of highways and roads.  While we all have the same interstate highways in common, it’s the system of local roads and alleyways that are vastly different.  In other words, no two brains are alike and as a result, no two brains learn alike.

Our current system is founded on a series of expectations that certain learning goals should be achieved by a certain age.  Yet there is no reason to suspect that the brain pays attention to those expectations. Students of the same age show a great deal of intellectual variability. (Medina, 67)

This has huge ramifications for our classrooms, which are prone to move students along based on a schedule determined by the calendar rather than concept mastery.  We all know students who advance to the next unit, the next concept, the next skill set, without having mastered the material.  Both Medina and Khan would argue that these students have “gaps” in their knowledge.

These gaps accumulate until the content overwhelms the student.  The teacher, not knowing where the gaps are and feeling pressure to continue to move the rest of the class forward, is equally frustrated.  Medina argues: “Lockstep models based simply on age are guaranteed to create a counterproductive mismatch to brain biology.” (Medina, 67)

At this year’s National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS) Conference, Sal Khan demonstrated how the Khan Academy Dashboard could be used in a classroom with students demonstrating a range of math abilities. Using data from the Los Altos School District in California, part of a KA pilot program, Khan pointed out how one student struggled with a concept, falling behind his classmates. We saw how his peers mastered concepts and moved forward. We also saw when it finally “clicked” and he took off like a rocket, quickly catching up and then surpassing many of his classmates.

Every single person in the audience that day understood the ramifications of that example. Do we relegate our students to an underachieving status because they don’t progress at the same pace as their higher achieving peers? How many academic stars do we lose because they don’t progress at the rate considered necessary by unit and test calendars?

Brain research supports blended learning

I’m a proponent of a blended or hybrid learning model for instruction.  This approach “blends” online resources like Khan Academy with face-to-face interaction between the students and the teacher. A strong relationship between a teacher and her students is absolutely critical to student success as it allows teachers to differentiate, or focus, on the specific learning needs of individual students.

This mix of instructional support has a foundation in Medina’s brain research, which shows that when we combine learning software with classroom interaction and hands-on application, we see the best outcomes (Medina, 68).  It is also supported by the study I cited in my last blog comparing online, blended, and face-to-face instruction. Use the technology to guarantee concepts are mastered; use the classroom time to expand learning with challenging, real world problem solving. This is a critical component and leads to deep, lasting learning.

In the end, Khan Academy only works if teachers and students use it.  Students at my school are using Khan Academy for their summer math review.  Our Math Department Chair had her doubts early on, but has since come round, noticing that students “have spent hours on it over the summer,” and “the more time doing math, the better!” The few students I’ve heard from like Khan Academy as part of their summer review.  As one student remarked to her mother, “it’s better than the big, scary math packet” our students are typically asked to complete over the summer months.

Moreover, Khan Academy gives teachers a “starting point” for preparing a personalized curriculum for students from the very first day of school.  Now, that’s “knowing your students.” And minding the gaps.

About the author
Renee Hawkins is a 4th/5th grade teacher and Director of Instructional Technology at Garrison Forest School, a nursery-to-grade 12 girls’ school near Baltimore, Maryland, and co-author of the blog The Flying Trapeze. A teacher for 28 years, she has taught in the U.S. and Japan and currently lives with her husband in Baltimore County. Follow Renee on Twitter at @rhawk.