|Is this what you want? IS IT?|
There is an intellectual abyss in the educational debate so deep you could lose a school bus down it. I’m reminded of this every time someone writes about evidence-based research in education, and clearly doesn’t know what that means. Worse, they invoke it like a totem, when all they seek to do is justify their own superstition.
‘Design, for instance, is an exercise in problem-solving that involves lateral thinking….. music engages the same parts of the brain as maths and poetry.’
‘The academies chuck out their disruptive kids by the second term. Disruption can mean anything from very disturbed behaviour to crimes against uniform to socialising in groups of more than three.’
|‘Of COURSE I have time. Nothing but.’|
|‘We feel the Ebc is both a good and a bad thing.’|
I have noticed that whenever things change, my pupils often resent it: a new teacher; a different room; a new pupil in the class. Then people get used to it and everyone calms down until things change again, and then we all get upset and pine for the good old days. It’s like when they change the layout of Facebook.
|Is this what you want? IS IT?|
|You’re going to make me, aren’t you?|
This week’s TES leads with a story on the rise of the Khan Academy. This is a not-for-profit on-line project that seeks to provide free access to short videos on a variety of subjects to anyone who wants to look at them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve seen a few of them, and they’re perfectly serviceable little shorts talking about primary/ secondary level maths, computing, a little history and so on. 3,600 videos in all. As far as that goes, I clasp them to my bosom. Personally I find them as entertaining as watching Miranda, but then I suppose I’m not the target audience for either.
The problem is- and it is a problem- that I frequently hear it hailed as the future of education/ the saviour of education/ the model for the 21st century century and so on. And I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
The Khan Academy. Motto: ‘It is our mission to accelerate learning for students of all ages,’ which is the most boring thing I have ever read outside of the Radio Times. The website is unbearably groovy, giving me the impression that everyone at HQ wears Thinking Crocs and calls each other by their favourite emotion. Don’t believe me? One of the staff members is Toby, the Director of Wellness. Toby, I’ll point out, is a dog.
The videos themselves are astonishingly pedestrian. Having been ordered several times by enthusiasts to watch a few, I was expecting something game-changing. What I got was a short chalk ‘n’ talk video that reminded me of watching someone’s interactive whiteboard without the pen moving. It was fine, and clear, but no more than that. And the humour was funereal. What, I wondered, was the fuss? It certainly wasn’t the tutorials themselves.
|Give me a huge bag of money and a lobotomy, and I’ll tell you.|
Some perspective: total revenue is $150,000 in donations from Titans like Bill Gates, Google, and private donors. That, plus $2,000 a month it made in advertising (now discontinued) meant that it had a revenue in the ballpark of $175,000 PA, which….which is pretty small beer actually. I ran a Soho nightclub for a few years that took around £2,000,000 PA, and people paid to get in (and sometimes out again). With 36 staff on the payroll, what we have here is what I like to call ‘something on the internet’. Yes, yes, half the population of the world have clicked on one of his videos, and there are certainly some big numbers there (202 million clicks). But do you know how many people watched ‘Charlie bit my finger!’? (If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a video of a wee boy whose brother bites his finger and I am not f*cking with you here). I’ll tell you: 500 million. You heard me. Do you hear about anyone hailing the ‘Charlie Bit my Finger’ movement? No you bloody well do not. Because the only party for whom hits are intrinsically important, are advertisers. Piers Morgan has more Twitter followers (3.1 million) than the population of Lithuania (2.9 million), but no one’s particularly worried about him invading anywhere soon (I know this is perfectly redundant, but isn’t he awful? His latest Twitter pic is ‘Me and the Obamas,’ Christ have mercy).
|Controversial saviour of 21st Century Learning|
But Honey Bear don’t care, not with Bill Gates blowing thousand dollar bills up his ass. And that’s part of the problem. Sal Khan, the Messiah of educational modernity seems to be a perfectly committed, intelligent young man with little other than a desire to share free lessons. But he’s never been a teacher. Nor have his principal donors. Never run a school. Never had to design, execute and assess a curriculum for a cohort of students that had to display evidence of accumulated learning. What he does is impressive, in a dilettantish way. But it isn’t education. It’s a cartoon.
The main USP of Khan is that his academy offers an unusual and fluid level of access to potential audiences. But that isn’t enough to get kids learning. You see, in a real school, we have to teach children who don’t want to learn, sometimes. Who couldn’t give a shit about the Tudors, or trigonometry. In a real school we also offer easy access to learning, and expertise. But that doesn’t mean they want it. His assertion that ‘almost every four or five year old takes ownership of their learning,’ is touching, but laughable. It’s the view of a man who knows nothing about scaled-up education (for example, an ex-Hedge Fund analyst) or someone drowned in Rousseau or Montessori. I have many children who are starving to learn, and practically bite my hand off when I offer them a lesson. I have far more who would rather be texting unimaginative insults to their friends or playing on their X Box. Because they’re kids.
|James Kirk’s most feared adversary|
The main problem with the Khan revolution is that it assumes that children will, with bare direction, blossom into beautiful learning butterflies. They won’t. Most will do as they please, because they are humans, often frail, and because they are children, often unwise, often a little lazy, a little selfish, a little short sighted. Just like us. It angers and frightens me a little that enthusiastic amateurs propelled by the capital of equally enthusiastic and terrifyingly wealthy amateurs can fancy they could reinvent education. But then we get into the territory of the Cult of 21st Century Learning, and the Cult of IT, and the big beasts who smell an emergent market in education, and it suddenly starts to make sense as to why it’s happening.
Do the Khan videos serve any purpose? Sure. They’re better than nothing. I wish him luck, because if a child has the choice between no teacher in their remote village, and seeing one of his videos about spelling or maths, then let it be the latter. But that’s the strategy of disaster relief, not world class education, which requires experts with whom you can interact, peers with who you can discuss, and people there to encourage and push you when you feel like giving up or succumbing to misunderstanding.
In other words, a real school. With real teachers. I know, it’s radical, isn’t it? Perhaps Bill Gates will give me a box of money to start one up.
Original TES article:http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6313486http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6313486
Meet Toby. https://www.khanacademy.org/about/the-team Then have a weep.