What Khan Academy Gets Really, Really Right

There is no shortage of criticism of Khan Academy around these parts. In fact, Khan Academy criticism was among the first unifying themes of the math blogosphere. Since then, however, KA has made their platform more robust and useful. And those of us who swore it off might want to take another look.

I’m taking another look because my son is using it – not because his school is assigning it, but because he wants to learn the material. This in and of itself was perplexing to me, so I decided to figure out why he was so invested that he’d want to use KA as his limited screen time for the weekend.

Part of the hook is that it comes through a screen. For whatever reason, he’s more apt to do work when it’s on a computer. He’ll struggle to write an essay on physical paper, but struggle to keep his word count low in Google Docs. He doesn’t love to draw with a pencil, but will spend hours creating an interactive image in Scratch. Or even in the KA computer science section.

So that’s one hook. There are also probably lessons to take away around customization and visualization. For example, here is my son’s “bio.”

But there are two crucial things that make KA engaging and even pedagogically sound (or at least, can push us to be more pedagogically sound).

  1. It lowers the pain threshold for incorrect answers. By allowing instant retakes on problem sets, there’s less of an admonishment for incorrect answers. Students who are troubled by a “7/10” on the top of a paper may be more prone to give the assignment another shot if they know that score will essentially disappear.
  2. It offers immediate and actionable feedback. There’s no feedback more timely than immediate. Even the hardest working teachers return tests and quizzes the following day, if not several days later. And with the immediate feedback comes suggested instructional how-to videos.

Zaretta Hammond in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain offers a few characteristics of quality feedback:

[Quality feedback] is specific and in the right dose… It is timely… It is delivered in a low stress, supportive environment.

Hammond (2015) p. 103

Hammond also cites research suggesting that students of color in particular often do not receive timely, quality feedback from teachers. I’d recommend checking out the book and especially this section about the types of feedback students receive and what type of feedback they should receive. While KA is not the solution to problems around timely feedback, it is instructive.

There remain countless valid criticisms of Khan Academy. The problems are rote and allow for little in the way of problem solving. It’s anti-social. Left in the hands of a less discerning teacher, it can reinforce negative attitudes about math and about one’s self as a mathematician. Even the timely feedback mechanism has pitfalls: a student can retake tests easily and quickly, which allows them to bypass reflection about the content and why the answers are incorrect.  If KA is a cornerstone of a classroom, I’d have concerns.

But there are elements that we can learn from to make our own instruction better, particularly in the realm of supportive, timely, actionable and low-stress feedback. And for pet drawings

What teacher training and PD can learn from Trader Joe’s

When we got a Trader Joe’s in our humble little burg of Fort Collins there was much rejoicing. Now we have a place to get all sorts of goodies, which I’ll describe in more detail in a moment. Sadly, due to some byzantine Colorado laws they cannot carry Two-Buck Chuck. Nevertheless, I hit up TJ’s once or twice a week.

Trader Joes are pretty funky. There are a few distinguishing characteristics. They are small grocery stores with seemingly bizarre, diagonal aisles. It’s actually quite an inefficient layout when compared to a big box grocery (which, as we’ll learn, is part of the success). Most of the products in a Trader Joes are branded as a Trader Joes product.

I came across this article about what makes Trader Joe’s so successful. And boy is it successful (it sells twice as much as Whole Foods on a per square-foot basis). Naturally, my mind turns to professional development and teacher training. Naturally.

What are some lessons we can take from the success of Trader Joes to make our professional development more effective

  1. Simplify the supply chain, get rid of decision paralysis.

Whereas in a typical grocery store you’ll find over a hundred pasta sauces, Trader Joes has less than ten. In the past when I’ve wanted to show how much awesome math material is out there, I just blasted out dozens of dozens of websites. Attendees are left not knowing exactly where to go because there are too many places to go. It would have been more effective if I’d just given participants three to explore.

2. Open it up, explore leisurely without that blast of cold air.

The frozen section in most grocery stores consist of a few aisles of glass doors, keeping the food frigid. At TJs, the frozen food is right there out in the open in super cold bins. A shopper will walk by and pick up and hold the food and wind up buying it. By letting customers interact with the food without barriers, they’re more likely to buy it. Professional development is so much more effective when we can get our hands on it immediately. Let participants play around with the concepts quickly (for instance, via an engrossing math task).

3. Create an element of discovery.

The reason most TJ branded products are hand-drawn is because it gives customers a folksy sense of discovery. Like, they’re the one who discovered this bag of russet potatoes.

How can we incorporate more discovery into professional development teacher training? Spend some time ideating with one another. Ensure participants are quick to share tasks and strategies that have worked well for them in the past. And for goodness sake, let attendees explore those (three) websites. Don’t just throw them a link and expect them to check it later.

And my personal favorite reason to shop at Trader Joes:

4. Offer a mix of pre-prepared items and fresh produce

If I want to bring the groceries home and have something ready in five minutes, I can grab a bag of fried rice and go with that. Or I could snag some produce and meat if I wanted to cook something. Most of the time, I do a bit of both: something quick for tonight and something that requires a bit more effort for tomorrow. While most grocery stores have both, TJs’ pre-prepared foods are cheap and good.

When I conclude professional development, I want teachers to have something quick-n-easy to implement tomorrow while also knowing where to turn for more intentional concepts. In a math PD, I may introduce number talks (interacting with them) so they’ll be able to turn around and facilitate one the next day. I’ll also often showcase a Problem-Based task or Project Based Learning unit. These require more planning than our PD often allows, so it’s something I can follow up with afterwards.

Similarly, I like to offer a task to facilitate as well as a pathway to build additional tasks. It’s a nod to a framework I wrote about earlier: Find, Adapt Create.

To conclude this blog post, as a Trader Joes sycophant, I’d like to pivot entirely away from professional development and share Geoff’s Trader Joe’s Essentials shopping list. These are the things I purchase every time I go there, because it’s always good to have these in stock:

  • Potatoes: russet, yukon gold, and sweet
  • Coffee (the $4.99 whole bean tins)
  • Fried rice (one chicken, one veggie)
  • Orange chicken
  • Chicken Schwarma Thighs ($4.99/lb)
  • Dried sweet mangoes
  • Yogurt
  • Bananas
  • Either the pollo asada or beef bulgogi, whichever I’m feeling for later in the week
  • Brie cheese