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.
Latest posts by Renee Hawkins (see all)
- Blended Learning Helps Us Mind the Gaps - July 13, 2011
- The Necessity & Promise of Online Learning - April 27, 2011
- Make the Shift: Teachers learning from teachers - March 25, 2011
What a brave soul you are! And thanks for sharing this thoughtful piece about blended learning. I am hopeful this is a model for what we can do with all students (and for ourselves).
Thank you Susan! I was so apprehensive about accepting this “assignment,” but my confidence is improving. I wish I had had something like Khan when I was in Junior High. I had a wonderful math teacher, but really could have used the extra instruction. Sigh…this generation get all the good stuff 😉
2 quick thoughts.
1. The fact you asked what year it was seems to once again point to the much of our curriculum is irrelevant.
2. While I find the Kahn model as useful as you stdescribe, it’s important to understand that Math
is very much skill based. People often Think Kahn is a panacea for all learning. I’m finding it’s important to be careful not to lump in all learning into a single solution or model.
I realize your post wasn’t about these issues, just wanted to share a couple things that struck me as I read.
I had the same thought about relevancy when I wrote it. When was the last time I used geometry? (As a matter of fact, just recently I needed it to finish a Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box puzzle on my DS. Does that count?)
As for the wider application of the Khan model…? I agree that it seems to best suit curriculum that focuses on acquiring skills – I have see it demonstrated successfully in math and science specifically. Then two days ago I was working with the Chair of our English Dept. She wanted to make a short video instructing students how to read a title and interpret it as a way of gaining insight into the story. I was doubtful. Her rationale for creating this and other similar “how to videos” was that these were the little lesson she felt always needed repeating. She was thinking about creating a library of these type of videos to assign to students when needed. I love it when teachers surprise me.
I appreciate your comment!
Hi Renee! I like how you include the points by Medina. I enjoyed listening to him at ISTE and I’ve started reading his book. What I think is important is the fact as you quote in your post “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)” with that in mind blended learning as you state combined with face to face and real world problem solving seems to be the only way to go! Hope many teachers read your post!
Ann – I really appreciate your comment. It seems that most everything I’m reading this summer (just started “Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom”) reinforces Medina’s conclusions. In fact, this type of differentiated instruction has been a stated goal of lots of teaching organizations for years. It’s not new, but still it’s not what you see in most classrooms. I attended the Flip Classroom session at ISTE with Bergmann and Sams and think that’s a great model. Did I see on your website that they would be visiting Norway in the fall? Wow!
If you want to ignite the learning foster the relationships and provide students with multiple sources of information. http://athome.harvard.edu/threemanifolds/watch.html
I bet some of the students are ready to explore the concepts this summer. Although they meet face to face be sure you provide a rich online collaborative environment and tools that allow them to replicate what Khan and other online instructors use to teach. Check out Jing… Thanks…
Brain Research Conference this summer in Boston: http://www.learningandthebrain.com/
Thanks for sharing the resource, very cool, and I’ll be sure to share it with our math department. You recommend Jing, which I have just started to explore. We have been using CamStudio. I’d like to switch to Camtasia, but cost is a factor. Several of my colleagues have attended the Learning and the Brain conference and loved it! Maybe it will be my turn next year!
Do you feel like Khan Academy worked for you because you went their with the purpose to learn something? What I mean is, do you feel like programs like Khan Academy, or Khan Academy specifically, work for students that are assigned a Khan Academy video rather than choosing to go there on their own accord?
Good question. One of my points, I think an important point, is that we have to give students a chance to “own their learning,”to be self-directed and self-motivated. I think students like the video game component of the KA. It rewards you with points and badges for good work. Years ago, Marc Prensky wrote how video games are a great motivator for learning. They allow students to control the pace of instruction and they get constant feedback which allows them to rethink, review, and come at it again. I think this is a huge motivator and so unlike a typical classroom in which students have to wait for feedback.
I’m not sure I can answer your question specifically. I’ll have more information in the fall when I have a chance to review the KA Dashboards and talk with teachers and students. Anecdotally, it seems that students at my school prefer the KA over the review sheets of past years. Our Math Chair says that she has observed that students are spending a good amount of time “doing math,” though admittedly, we have nothing to compare it to. I don’t know that students would do KA if they happened to find it on the Internet, but I do believe that once they are there, they do find it more engaging, helpful, and yes, motivating, than traditional math instruction.
I really appreciate your question. Please let me know if I’ve missed your point and I’ll try to clarify.
One way to think about blended learning.
Let computers do things that stupid machines can do. E.g., deliver content when and where students need it.
Save humans for things that only humans can do. Work one-on-one with students, diagnose misunderstandings, motivate, …
What a great answer you and your school have provided to your students who want and are ready for a math “class” your independent school isn’t ready to role out as a regular part of the program. I think the differentiated instruction various resources such as Khan Academy provide will increasingly allow students to progress at their pace AND help us avoid that horrible sense that all math teachers have that in moving on to the next unit some of their students still haven’t mastered what they have been studying.
While I am not a math teacher and the cumulative effect of not mastering particular concepts is different in the history classroom from the math class, I think we do need to continue to shift and help our students find the resources that help them learn and shore up “holes” in their background.
My own daughter is taking geometry this summer as the surest route to taking Linear Algebra her senior year. We are both kicking ourselves that an online course didn’t occur to us back in May when her idea seemed like such a good one (and she already knew and liked the teacher). She could be studying geometry on line at her grandmother’s summer home rather than here in hot PA.
Thank you so much for your comment and for reinforcing an important point: we need to understand how technology can be used to help fill in the gaps. In addition, I often day dream about a different type of math class. In a perfect world, a student could move through the math curriculum at their own accelerated pace if desired, as in this example: . How would this type of class be structured if this were the norm?