Khan Academy: The Hype and the Reality (Karim Kai Ami)

Karim Kai Ani is a  former middle school teacher  and  founder of Mathalicious. This post appeared in Valerie Strauss’s  “Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post on July 23, 2012. Following the post is Sal Khan’s response.

In a new profile in Time magazine, Sal Khan, founder of the popular Khan Academy, explains how he prepares for each of his video lessons. He doesn’t use a script. In fact, he admits, “I don’t know what I’m going to say half the time.”

During a recent address to Washington D.C.-area educators, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted the importance of teacher education and professional development, and urged that we as a country provide teachers with more time to collaborate and plan lessons for their students. He then turned and praised Khan as a leading innovator transforming education for millions of students around the country.

The highest ranking official in American education says that effective teaching requires training and planning, and then holds up as his archetype someone who openly admits to showing up to class every day unprepared. If a teacher said that, they’d be fired. And yet in the past year Sal Khan has been hailed as the “world’s teacher;” the “Messiah of Math;” and the savior for everything that ails public education.

The narrative surrounding Khan Academy has, it seems, gotten a bit out of hand.

It’s not Sal’s fault. He didn’t set out to become one of the biggest celebrities in education but simply to help his cousins with their math homework. But Ann Doerr, wife of venture capitalist John Doerr, picked up on it. Then Bill Gates. Then the San Jose Mercury, “60 Minutes,” the New York Times … and all of a sudden Khan Academy, a collection of low-res videos offering step-by-step instructions for how to solve math problems, was being hailed as the Next Big Thing in education.

And big it is: Khan Academy boasts almost 3,300 videos that have been viewed over 160 million times. That’s a heroic achievement.

But there’s a problem: the videos aren’t very good.


Take Khan’s explanation of slope, which he defines as “rise over run.” An effective math teacher will point out that “rise over run” isn’t the definition of slope at all but merely a way to calculate it. In fact, slope is a rate that describes how two variables change in relation to one another: how a car’s distance changes over time (miles per additional hour); how the price of an iPod changes as you buy more memory (dollars per additional gigabyte).

To the lay person this may seem like a trivial distinction, but slope is one of the most fundamental concepts in secondary math. If students don’t understand slope at the conceptual level, they won’t understand functions. If they don’t understand functions, they won’t understand Algebra. And if they don’t understand Algebra, they can’t understand Calculus. It’s that simple.

Or rather, it’s not. Because effective teaching is incredibly complex. It requires planning. It requires reflection. And it certainly requires more than just “two minutes of research on Google,” which is how Khan describes his own pre-lesson routine.

As a result, experienced educators have begun to push back against what they see as fundamental problems with Khan’s approach to teaching. In June, two professors from Grand Valley State University created their own video in which they pointed out errors in Khan’s lesson on negative numbers: not things they disagreed with, but things he got plain wrong. To his credit, Khan did replace the video. However, instead of using this as an opportunity to engage educators and improve his teaching, he dismissed the criticism.

“It’s kind of weird,” Khan explained, “when people are nitpicking about multiplying negative numbers.”

When asked why so many teachers have such adverse reactions to Khan Academy, Khan suggests it’s because they’re jealous. “It’d piss me off, too, if I had been teaching for 30 years and suddenly this ex-hedge-fund guy is hailed as the world’s teacher.”

Of course, teachers aren’t “pissed off” because Sal Khan is the world’s teacher. They’re concerned that he’s a bad teacher who people think is great; that the guy who’s delivered over 170 million lessons to students around the world openly brags about being unprepared and considers the precise explanation of mathematical concepts to be mere “nitpicking.” Experienced educators are concerned that when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it’s a crisis; but that when it happens on YouTube, it’s a “revolution.”

Because the truth is that there’s nothing revolutionary about Khan Academy at all. In fact, Khan’s style of instruction is identical to what students have seen for generations: a do this then do this approach to teaching that presents mathematics as a meaningless series of steps. Khan himself says that “math is not just random things to memorize and regurgitate,” yet that’s exactly how his videos present it.

Sal Khan has done something remarkable in creating such a vast and varied library, and he deserves to be recognized. His commitment to making the site free is a rare and selfless act, and he deserves to be praised. Sal Khan is a good guy with a good mission. What he’s not, though, is a good teacher.

Unfortunately, the media hype surrounding Khan Academy has created a level of expectation far beyond what it – indeed, what any person or website – could ever reasonably deliver. Reporters have confused journalism with sycophantism, and the entire narrative has become a head-scratching example of the suspension of common sense.

The real problem with Khan Academy is not the low-quality videos or the absence of any pedagogical intentionality. It’s just one resource among many, after all. Rather, the danger is that we believe the promise of silver bullets – of simple solutions to complex problems – and in so doing become deaf to what really needs to be done.

As Arne Duncan said, we need to invest in professional development, and provide teachers with the support and resources they need to be successful. We need to give them time to collaborate, and create relevant content that engages students and develops not just rote skills but also conceptual understanding. We have to help new teachers figure out classroom management – to reach the student who shows up late to class every day and never brings a pencil – and free up veteran teachers to mentor younger colleagues.

I recently attended the inaugural #TwitterMathCamp, a collection of teachers who traveled from around the country (plus two Canucks!)…during their vacation…and paid out of pocket…to discuss how best to introduce proportions and whether slope always requires units.

We need to stop focusing on the teachers who are doing it wrong and instead recognize the ones who are doing it right: the Frank Noscheses and the Kate Nowaks; the Sadie Estrellas and the Sam Shaws; the ones who spend their time trying to become better to make someone else’s kids smarter.

We have to recognize the good, and then cultivate it.

Before we can do that, though, we have to agree on what “good” is. I don’t know what I’m going to say half the time isn’t good enough, and we have to stop pretending that it is.

We face very real challenges in K-12 education today, and they will not be solved with just a Wacom tablet and a YouTube account. Instead, they’ll be solved by teachers who understand their content; who understand how children learn; who walk into the classroom every day and think, “I know exactly what I’m going to say, because that’s what teaching means.

Sal Khan’s response to Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post July 25, 2012

Hi Valerie,

We here at the Khan Academy appreciate a public discourse on education and really encourage as much feedback as possible.  We believe that we are in the early days of what we are and feedback will only make that better.  I agree with you that no organization should be upheld as a magic bullet for education woes.  We have never said that we are a cure-all and think we have a lot to do just to fulfill our potential as a valuable tool for students and teachers. Unfortunately, some of the headlines on articles are more grandiose, but we have no say in this.

In your previous post, you talk about the value of experiential learning versus lecture-based.  We agree 100% with you; that is what KA is about too–allowing classrooms to be more interactive and experiential.  See this video:

We are also running project based summer camps.

With that said, there have been some major errors on your blog.  In particular, Karim’s corrections are very incorrect (I encourage you to seek out an impartial math professor). 

 Slope actually is defined as change in y over change in x (or rise over run).

Karim’s definition is actually incorrect. Slope is not just a rate between two variables. It is how the variable plotted on the vertical axis changes with respect to the variable plotted on the horizontal axis (or “rise over run”). For example, if price were on the x-axis and memory on the y-axis, then Karim’s “how the price of an iPod changes as you buy more memory” would not be slope (it would be the inverse).

And, yes, slope is often unit-less (especially when measuring the slope of say the surface of a mountain which is where the whole idea comes from — you are dividing a distance by a distance so the units cancel).

I walk through this in a video at:

I also think you might misunderstand our “business model.”  Unlike Mathalicious which is for-profit (and if it does well, Karim will become very wealthy), Khan Academy is a 501c3 not-for-profit.  I take a salary from it that is approved by the board, but I do not own it (no one does).  It can never IPO or be sold.  It is a public charity.

Let me know if you’d like to chat further.




Filed under how teachers teach

23 responses to “Khan Academy: The Hype and the Reality (Karim Kai Ami)

  1. What I think is fascinating in this debate about Khan Academy is how many people criticize his videos, without supplying teaching videos of their own (critique videos don’t count).

    [I have commented here before that I think video of teachers in action is where teacher assessment is going.]

    But the broader question is interesting, is Khan Academy’s slope video helping students understand slope? Are they doing better on those much-maligned standardized tests (or even non-standardized ones?).

    Let’s say we find that “best” slope video tomorrow. Will that be how I should teach slope this fall? Any guarantees of that? Probably not.

    [7530 hits for “slope of a line” on YouTube just now, wow!]

    • larrycuban

      Jon, You ask fine questions, none of which I can answer. Thanks for pointing out hits on “slope of a line” on YouTube.

    • Your arguments don’t hold water. First, it is perfectly reasonable to criticize a product without offering a product yourself. No critic of Khan video’s can be silenced just because he doesn’t produce video’s himself.

      Second, the use (or abuse!) of video’s on ‘teachers in action’ for assessment purposes is irrelevant to the use of video’s in K12 instruction.

      Third, you shift the issue. The issue is not whether Khan video’s make students ‘score better on standardized tests’. Specially because you don’t tell what ‘better’ means. The issue is whether Khan video’s offer a good alternative to (or can serve as an instructional tool in) traditional teaching by math teachers who know their job. That is an interesting question, which cannot be easily answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

      Please note that Strauss does not fall into that trap. Yet she makes clear that a ‘Yes! Yes!’ answer chanted by the many (and many non-teaching) Khan fans is premature, to say the least.

      Lastly, ‘better test scores’ and ‘many YouTube hits’ are by no means what good math teaching, or good math learning, is about.

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  5. Steve Davis

    Although our “factory model” of education has it’s faults, it is often unfairly derided by reformers and academics. Reform solutions like Khan’s Academy and other online learning platforms simply do not perform all of the unspoken societal expectations (positive and negative) that are provided by traditional schooling. There are many reasons why the age graded classroom persists. Many adolescents need the structure that is provided by the current system. Access to technology and content is not enough for many of our students. Some students need a safe place to go. Some students need someone to tell them “you can do it,” and “I am proud of you”. Even with “perfect” instruction, the inequalities present in current educational outcomes would be exacerbated if the age graded school vanished overnight and was replaced solely with online learning.

    Quibbling about the perfection of a lesson, wether online or traditional, misses the forest for the trees. Even good/effective teachers will make occasionally missteps when discussing formulas or definitions. Simply posting videos of your instruction (no matter how perfect) is not teaching. It’s presenting. Presenting is a lot easier than teaching. Khan’s Academy, and other online offerings, while useful, serve as a supplement for those who are being engaged and often prodded somehow by a human being, whether that be a teacher in a traditional classroom or a parent at home nagging their teenager to log in to their online algebra I class. To present Khan’s Academy as a real solution to the day-to-day uncertainties and realities inherent in traditional classroom teaching is to to dishonor and devalue the teaching profession.

    Furthermore, I shudder to think that there are teachers out there who actually want to be evaluated based on videos of their lessons. Either these video evaluations turn in to contrived dog-and-pony shows (no class is “real” when put on the spot like this) or the video evaluations need to be somehow randomized, which raises privacy concerns. I would much rather have an admin. pop into my room unannounced throughout the semester. It’s easy to be an arm-chair quarterback and scrutinize all the missteps present in a given lesson. At the end of the day, you have one instructor trying to engage 30+ students with varied skill levels and unique personalities. It’s easy to say could have…, should have…, would have…

    • larrycuban

      Nice points, Steve. Presenting is a monologue, teaching is a dialogue–as a few people have pointed out with online classes, TED talks,and most undergraduate lectures.

  6. I like Steve Davis’s point about the Khan Academy videos being presentations rather than teaching. I often think that Khan-Academy style online presentations are great ways for people to learn, but only if they have the background knowledge and skills necessary for engaging with the presentations. Many students, however, do not. And that is why good teachers are valuable. They identify what things are stopping students from being able to engage, and supply them.

  7. Jeff W

    Good article. The excitement about Khan Academy has always puzzled me. I don’t think it’s bad, just not very good. I teach middle school math and look at Khan from time to time for supporting materials to help students and parents, but I’ve never found much there. The videos just seem to march through the standard explanation that any first year teacher or textbook would try to give. When used for support with kids who didn’t master the topic from class time or the textbook, it’s like giving them a third serving of the same thing they couldn’t eat the first two times. There are many sites that provide better instruction.

    However many of these are specialized or commercial, so I still keep returning to Khan and looking around because it’s known, free, and comprehensive. Didn’t Wikipedia go through a stage like this, when it wasn’t that good, but was known and ubiquitous, and eventually, the quality caught up?

  8. There’s a piece of the Khan Academy debate missing in this and some other articles: the exercises that go with and are linked to the videos. If you look at the Khan Academy video referenced here, you will see that both the previous and next videos in the playlist have a Practice button in the upper right corner. For reference, the link to the practice exercise for the previous video cited here is:

    The Khan Academy math video playlists cannot be evaluated without considering the Khan Academy exercises and the data collected as the student progresses through a playlist using both the videos and exercises. The data, which includes time spent viewing videos and details on exercises attempted, is available to BOTH the student and any designated coaches.

    It appears to me that critics of Khan Academy who only point out faults in math videos and do not reference the exercises have not invested the time to understand the structure and capability of the Khan Academy website. I recommend teachers who are interested in Khan Academy, create an account, pick a math playlist and complete the videos and the exercises. Along the way be sure to make some mistakes that your students would make and to take a look at the dashboard by clicking on the Coach tab.

    There are many ways to use Khan Academy, I don’t think the intent is to replace the teacher. Take a look at the Teacher Resources tab, especially the Teacher Toolkit (

    Over the next few months we all will have the opportunity to see how easy it is to pick out faults when being recorded as the election progresses. As with Khan Academy, rather than focus on specific misstatements as the media sometimes does, it would be better to focus on the total content.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Mary, for broadening the picture of what Khan Academy does. And your caution about rushing to judgment.

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  10. Raj

    I am a parent. My kids go to school but I also teach them at home. I tried several math programs and did spend pretty money on them. But once I came across Khan Academy (early 2012) , I got hooked on to it. Because of KA, my kids can do higher level math then their grade level. I am so impressed by Sal’s teaching that I would not mind paying for it.
    I wish people would spend their intellect and energy for a good cause. It does good to no one by criticizing Sal for what he has done. If you can, help him (put your ego away) otherwise just shut up!

  11. Jason Roeschley

    From my quick read of Karim’s article, it seems she has two problem with KhanAcademy: rote learning and Sal not preparing his videos to a T. From my experience with KhanAcademy, her criticism is unfounded.

    First, KhanAcademy does not put emphasis on rote learning at all. This is obvious when you see that KhanAcademy uses word problems and context for probably all skills, which require comprehension and application–not rote learning. Sure, there may be some rote learning (such as memorizing multiplication tables which is probably good to be able to do automatically), but there is much more emphasis placed on deep comprehension and application. There are word problems that involve multiplication and activities that aim to evaluate comprehension of the concept of multiplication after all.

    Second, so what if Khan doesn’t prepare the content of his videos to a T? Karim seems to be forgetting the objective of the videos (and any math class), which is to help viewers understand math, which is exactly what the video does. Karim confuses the importance of a means with the importance of the end.

    To summarize, Karim’s main concerns of rote learning and unpreparedness are simply wrong and myopic for the reasons given above. KhanAcademy is doing great work for countless people around the world, including myself.

  12. Mary

    It would be interesting to be able to compare Khan Academy in 2012 to Khan Academy in 2016.

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