Academic journal article Education Next

Can Khan Move the Bell Curve to the Right? Math Instruction Goes Viral

Academic journal article Education Next

Can Khan Move the Bell Curve to the Right? Math Instruction Goes Viral

Article excerpt

It Was goal-Setting day in Rich Julian's 5th-grade class at Covington Elementary School in Los Altos, California, when I visited last fall, and Julian was asking each of his 29 students to list three math goals for the week.



To become proficient at dividing a one-place number into a three-place number, a girl with blue-painted fingernails wrote in her math journal.

To become proficient in multiplying decimals, wrote a dark-haired boy. To become proficient at subtracting one four-place number from another. To become proficient in arithmetic word problems. To complete an exercise in the properties of numbers, like (4 + 9) + 5 = ? + (9 + 5).

No two youngsters seemed to have quite the same math goals because, of course, no two youngsters are quite alike when it comes to learning. That's why Los Altos is betting the future on an online math program from Khan Academy, and why scores of other schools and districts are clamoring to include Khan Academy in their math curriculum.

For the next 45 minutes, Julian met individually with his 5th graders to refine their goals. (In November, Julian left Los Altos to become assistant principal in the Milpitas Unified School District.) Everyone else logged onto the free Khan Academy web site and called up the "module," or math concept, that fit their goals. Some watched short video lectures embedded in the module; others worked their way through sets of practice problems. I noticed that one youngster had completed 23 modules five weeks into the school year, one had finished 30, and another was working on his 45th.

As youngsters completed one lesson, an online "knowledge map" helped them plot their next step: finish the module on adding decimals, for example, and the map suggests moving next to place values, or to rounding whole numbers, or to any of four other options.

Julian, meanwhile, tracked everyone's progress on a computer dashboard that offers him mounds of data and alerts him when someone needs his attention. He showed me, for example, the data for a child who had been working that day on multiplying decimals. The child had watched the Khan video before answering the 1st practice problem correctly, needed a "hint" from the program on the 3rd question, got the 7th wrong after struggling with it for 350 seconds--the problem was 69.0 x 0.524--and got the 18th correct in under a minute.

But just as powerful are the data kids have on themselves. The Covington youngsters regularly pulled up an array of charts that showed them which math concepts they had mastered and which they were working on, needed to review, or were stumbling over.

The classroom buzzed with activity, and amazingly, all the buzz was about math.

Khan's Rise

By now, more than 1 million people have watched the online video in which Salman Khan--a charming MIT math whiz, Harvard Business School graduate, and former Boston hedge-fund analyst--explains how he began tutoring his New Orleans cousins in math by posting short lessons for them on YouTube. Other people began watching the lessons and sending Khan adulatory notes ("First time I smiled doing a derivative," wrote one) or thanking him for explaining fractions to an autistic son.

Khan quit the hedge fund, moved to Silicon Valley, and in 2009, with funding from a constellation of technology stars (Bill Gates's children were using the videos), launched the nonprofit Khan Academy. A year later, Mark Goines, a member of the Los Altos school board and a legendary Silicon Valley investor, introduced Khan to the district's new superintendent. Los Altos already ranked among the best-performing districts in the state, but it had set itself a goal of improving individual achievement, and "capturing data at a granular level" on each student was proving difficult, Goines told me.

A few weeks later, in November 2010, Los Altos agreed to pilot Khan Academy with two classes of 5th graders and two classes of 7th graders and provide Khan with feedback to refine the web site and tools. …

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