COMMENTARY | Though I'm not currently teaching, I've been a Michigan-certified educator for 26 years and have taught in numerous classroom settings. Watching Sal Khan of the highly-touted online Khan Academy on "60 Minutes," I was mostly unimpressed. What Khan is doing just basic, common-sense instruction. It's what teachers around the country do every day. At nearly 48, I've seen a succession of so-called "revolutionary" teaching methods come and go. There are four essential components of learning; Khan Academy nails the first one, but mostly misses the last three.
Good Methodical Demonstrations
Khan attributes his success to removing the human factor from the equation. He says his "disembodied voice" takes the focus off him and puts it on the lesson. That may be true, but it's incidental. My background in special education tells me it's Khan's methodical "show-and-tell" demonstrations that work. With math concepts, students have to see the process in action to understand. Most mathematical applications made much more sense after I learned how to teach them to students. Demonstrating concepts to students helped solidify them in my mind.
No hands-on instruction
Demonstration and visuals are important, but interactive lessons with real-life applications are essential. Khan's method is weak here. Students aren't engaged in any active learning, beyond paper and pencil work. It's limited to visual and auditory with no practical, tangible application or experiential learning.
Tasks limited to lower-level thinking skills
Khan's lessons provides a little self-devised application, but no higher-order thinking skills (from Bloom's Taxonomy). His lessons deal mostly in knowledge and comprehension with little student application, analysis, synthesis or evaluation. In my experience, kids learn best when they generate the applications, relate them to their own experience and use them in new way.
No individualized learning
In teaching, my best lessons were the ones in which I was able to engage and involve students as a whole. As I demonstrated concepts, I told students to speak up and stop me when the lesson ceased to make sense to them. I said I'd keep explaining in new ways until everyone got it. I also reminded students that asking questions helped everyone learn. Our classroom resembled a forum or open dialogue. I continually scanned the room seeking out those who weren't catching on. When most kids got it, I left them to work independently and assisted one-on-one as needed. Students learned from each other and interacted with the content collectively and personally. As an online resource, Khan Academy can't provide that. Students can replay if they missed something, but they can't say "you lost me there, Mr. Khan. Could you explain again?"