Learning Math the Khan Academy Way

By Katie Ash — September 22, 2011 2 min read
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I recently returned from a jaunt down to sunny San Jose, Calif. to convene with education journalists from around the country for a one-day summit hosted by the Innosight Institute and the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based Innosight Institute grew out of Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn’s book Disrupting Class, and the Hechinger Institute, which publishes The Hechinger Report, is an initiative of Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

During the summit, we heard from Sal Khan, the founder and executive director of The Khan Academy. The project originally began as a series of videos that Khan created in order to tutor his cousins in math and has grown into a trove of math-related instructional videos (there are now over 2,400 videos, all created and narrated by Khan), as well as practice problems for students to complete that correspond with a visual map of which areas they have covered and which areas they should complete next. Students can watch videos and then complete practice problems about the concept they are learning, and data about how each student is doing on each module is then collected and can be viewed by the teacher on the back end. Students are considered proficient in each module after they have correctly answered 10 questions in a row. If a student is struggling with a particular module, that student and module becomes highlighted in red in real time on the teacher dashboard, giving teachers instantaneous data about how their students are doing.

Efforts to use this system in K-12 classrooms are in full swing, and we were able to visit one of the school systems that have embraced Khan’s tools, the 4,500-student Los Altos School District. The K-8 district is in its second year of pilots with its 5th, 6th, and 7th grade students, and we were lucky enough to visit a 7th grade class currently using the Khan Academy.

Students were broken into several groups, with some students in front of computers working through math modules while others were huddled in groups working on problems that applied the math skills they’d recently learned. For instance, one group of students was writing out a skit about dividing up coconuts between people stranded on a deserted island. Their teacher circled the room, checking on student progress through the Khan Academy’s teacher dashboard, which she viewed on an iPad. The students completed the modules using notebooks as scratch paper. The notebooks also contained goals the students set for themselves, as well as notes they took from watching videos.

Los Altos public schools is a unique district in that it is a high-performing, fairly wealthy district with active parental involvement. In fact, the equipment needed to make use of the Khan Academy (laptops for the students and iPads for the teachers) was paid for by donations from the PTA. It is exciting to see what Los Altos is currently doing, but humbling to know that that is not the reality for the vast majority of schools in this country. The Khan Academy is working with districts from lower-income areas and has begun to partner with organizations in those areas to provide computers and Internet access to those who do not have it at home.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.