LearnStorm is sweeping the Chicago Public Schools, and while students taking this nine-week Khan Academy math challenge will build their skills, teachers can learn a thing or two as well. If Khan Academy was a traditional classroom, we’d see some of the best practices in education happening, and I dare say we’d see much more engaged, happier students.
I love the motto: “You can learn anything.” Such an empowering proclamation should be plastered on every classroom wall. Every teacher knows the cliché “every child can learn,” but it’s meaningless if kids themselves don’t believe it’s true. In my 13 years in education, I’ve discovered that a teacher cannot make a student learn; our primary job is to inspire students to want to learn. Once a kid intrinsically believes in his or her ability, the battle for academic achievement is half won.
Khan Academy has won my heart because it offers differentiated instruction and gives kids tons of examples, tutorials and practice problems. One of the hardest things about teaching is trying to consistently meet the needs of kids who are often at drastically different levels. I once taught a class of 33 third-graders whose reading skills ranged from kindergarten to fifth-grade level. Their math skills were also just as varied. While Khan Academy mostly supports math (not reading) for younger kids, it provides succinct videos explaining how to solve math problems and gives kids loads of practice. Too bad Khan Academy wasn’t available when I was teaching that third-grade class!
Assessment and tracking kids’ progress is the third area in which Khan Academy provides best practice teaching strategies. It has algorithms that measure where kids are and automatically guides them up or down a level to make sure they are working at an appropriate pace. The beauty of this is that every student is challenged and grows no matter where they start. Sometimes an adult is needed to make sure the children are doing the computerized program, though many times kids are self-motivated to do the work, driving their own learning.
I appreciate that the software is designed like a game, though not necessarily competitive. Each student earns “energy points” and badges for the time they spend watching learning videos for the first time, working out practice problems and reaching certain milestones of achievement. My fourth-grade daughter is proud of her 147,678 energy points and her 40 badges, but she’s even more astonished by a boy in her class who has 900,000 energy points. It’s fun for them and they get excited to see their math-skill levels climb higher while sitting with a laptop open on the kitchen table.
My favorite part of Khan Academy is the comments section. While it lacks the physical human connection that a traditional classroom and teacher offer, the interactions of 8, 10 and 12 year olds in the comments are enough to make your heart melt. Here are a few student responses to a set of videos about the importance of college:
“Im only 10 is it too early to look for a good college and start planning my future.” “What if I am going to college early? I am 9 years old.” “How long do I wait to be in college if I am in 6 grade.”
The comments go on and on—they’re always respectful and supportive, and usually written by kids (I love it when they mention their age). It appears that Khan Academy staff monitors the comment space and chimes in to address some of the students’ questions and concerns. I can’t help but imagine such rich dialogue occurring in every classroom, with students answering each other’s questions with the help of the teacher facilitating.
On April 1st, the LearnStorm will end in Chicago, but Khan Academy will continue doing its thing on the Internet, proving to kids—and adults—that with the right supports, you really can learn anything. Our challenge as educators is not only teach to high standards, raise test scores, send our kids to college, but to also present knowledge in a way that fans the flames of our students’ natural curiosity and sets them on the path of lifelong learning.
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of
Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...