Tom Bennett

Home » Uncategorized » The Laugh of Khan: if this is the future, then classrooms really are fl*pped.

The Laugh of Khan: if this is the future, then classrooms really are fl*pped.


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:
Meet Toby.   Then have a weep.


  1. Naz Hussain says:

    Nice blog, and I hope it served it's purpose for you well (besides promoting your e-status up a couple of divisions in the Internet World League). However, you slightly missed to point, a bit. Khan never made (or makes) the infantile assumption that his online academy (or any other for that matter) will ever replace the classroom, but only serve to enhance it. It's preposterous to suggest otherwise. Read what he writes about himself, not what others like to apportion to him, perhaps sometimes for their own gains as much has his.

  2. gillibob says:

    Funnily enough I was discussing the flipped classroom with my friends on facebook-fellow teachers who like me had not heard of it. I follow a few educational blogs some of which are American-it is an interesting notion. I did however think Special needs! Where the teacher flips after a child flips the V's…but that's just me.

  3. Hi Tom. I entirely agree. I've already spoken my mind here:

    Further more it's potentially just another step towards a 'Pearsonalised' Learner Analytics-led school system, as I've more recently described here:

    It's a shame really. educational technologies, such as Khan, have so much to offer, but until there is a vast improvement in quality they tend to do more harm than good.

  4. bstockus says:

    The problem isn't so much Khan's intention. At this point, it's taken on a life of its own, and people – teachers, parents, administrators, policy makers, and wealthy individuals – are looking at it and using it through the lens of their own intentions, desires, and agendas. They are giving it meaning above and beyond why it was originally created.

    However, it does appear that by virtue of its “success” (relative to what goals you want to assume) people are looking to Khan to steer this thing in a particular direction (possibly multiple directions). As the author of this post points out, is Khan the savior who should be steering educators and millions of school children anywhere? Does his volume of content and number page views mean he's earned the power he's being given? And what are the implications of giving it to him?

  5. Tom Bennett says:

    I don't claim if its Sal Khan or Shere Khan who claims it: the claims are made, and often. And that's what I'm challenging. That, and Khan's childish assumption that kids are all keen to learn, and only need a prod/ vid.

  6. Tom Bennett says:

    It's creeping over here like a red mist. Watch this space…

  7. Anonymous says:

    I teach physics & maths which appears to be the focus of the Khan academy so far. I like the site. No, it's not a replacement for classroom teaching & interaction but it's very worthwhile and yes, I do recommend it to my students.

  8. Mel says:

    I think you're kinda missing the point. As I understand it, the purpose of online sites like KA is not to replace the classroom; it's to free up classroom time for the activities that are further up the Bloom's Taxonomy ladder. If you can push the “information presentation” portion of the program–SO often packaged, especially in higher ed environments, as 50 minutes of walk/talk/chalk–online, then you can use classroom time for application and interaction.

    I've taught middle school through uni, including three years of Special Ed, and I can tell you that children absolutely ARE “learning machines.” The trick is getting them to learn what WE want.

  9. Tom Bennett says:

    More than the videos doing harm, I think the assumptions of the cult surrounding it are extremely dangerous. There is, mark me, an increasing belief by many that the school experience is somehow a nuisance to the learner. Hmm…Thanks for the comment.

  10. Tom Bennett says:

    Sure, the videos are OK, as far as they go. What I'm challenging is where they stand in relation to a child's experience of school. And what they are, are revision aids.

  11. Tom Bennett says:

    I think you've kinda missed the point of my blog. Most of these vids are decent enough revision aids, but if a child doesn't do them, then the lesson is stuffed. And many kids will avoid home study. And many kids won't understand the video, no matter how many times they pause. He's expecting them to act and behave like University level self-starters.

    Khan doesn't claim they replace the classroom; but he puts the direct instruction part firmly in the home environment. And children just won't, reliably, en masse self-instruct. That's why we need teachers to deliver the content in the first place. The model you envisage just doesn't work for children.

    I know children are learning machines. The problem is that they don't usually want to learn things that bore them, unless we make them. Hence, schools, and pressure from teachers. That's how the trick is achieved.

  12. But even then: It doesn't really free up classroom time. I tried flipping my classroom as far as I could, and got a real weird result:

    The kids that were eager to learn scored better, the kids who never made their homework before the flip, now scored even worse! After analyses, the reason was quite simple. If they don't make their exercises at home, then they also won't watch the video-lessons at home. Instead of getting excuses like: I forgot my books, I now got excuses like: My internet was down.

    Now I do both: I teach like I did before, but make these video's to give them a second chance to listen to the explainations. Sure, I want them to make notes during class and study them too, but these video's do help if they lost their notes.

  13. tomboulter says:

    Interesting blog – here's a post showing why I don't agree! I like this stuff as it means I can make the students accountable for learning, without exhausting myself with constant re-explanation, and by putting chunks of the subject-content stored on video, I'm able to concentrate on the hard bit – helping kids to learn it. It enriches classroom interaction rather than erodes it, I reckon.

  14. Gareth says:

    The Khan academy: I sens the hoopy froods.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Works well with motivated learners. See But much harder to organise and implement when students don't really want to learn.

  16. Sue Sims says:

    Whenever I read teachers (or non-teachers) becoming dreamy about the wondrous prospects of learning-through-computers, this Asimov short story comes to mind:

  17. JoeN says:

    There is also the small question about the accuracy of some of the Kahn Academy material. Real teachers can contribute here:

    In her essay, “Making Excellent Teachers,” Erica Mcwilliam argues, “The work of eradicating the Great Teacher has been in progress for some decades. Much of the praise (or blame) for this achievement rests, initially at least, with the rise of minoritarian politics in the late sixties and early seventies, and the powerful messages it disseminated about education as part of the Ideological State Apparatus (Althusser, 1971). Re-framed through ideology critique, the Great Teacher is rendered a less than admirable figure. Dragged from his pedestal, he is now a stumbling block to the achievement of social justice and equity in a democratising classroom. Stereotypically white, male, and middle class, the Great Teacher represents a set of moral-ethical values that have come to be seen as both oppressive and out of touch with the politicising times.”

    Politicians, reformers, ICT gurus especially, and an industry that promotes them as “key influencers”, has latched onto this ideological bandwagon with relish and unfortunately, real teachers like you Tom, are increasingly in the minority.

  18. gillibob says:

    I agree Anonymous-would really be a useful learning tool for those who are motivated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: