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This Khan Academy History Video Is Just Awful

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As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of the Khan Academy (see The Best Posts About The Khan Academy). Several of the posts and articles on that list question the basic pedagogy used in how Khan teaches math, and one teacher has even produced their own alternative video highlighting those problems (and there are, of course, many other problems with how the Khan Academy is being used by “school reform” advocates). Though I have agreed with those critiques, I’m not a math teacher and have been a little reluctant to provide my own analysis.

However, now Khan is beginning to produce videos in other content areas, including history. And they are just plain awful. Here’s an example of one:

It’s a disembodied voice listing “just the facts, ma’am” with minimal, if not horrible, media to support it — lecturing at its worst. With all the much more engaging content that’s online (see my U.S. History Class blog), why in the world would anyone use this kind of video?

Help me out here — am I missing something?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

40 Comments

  1. Larry – You and I both know that the unfortunate answer to your question is about a mix of many of our modern culture’s worst aspects…we want to blame others, meaning that anything other than having kids in class with “one of those teachers” is popular to support. We want a quick fix to replace the long haul, which will never work in education. We believe that anything new is better; in this case people have overlooked the fact that he’s presenting mediocre to poor lectures because he’s on YouTube. Teaching and learning are hard work that’s often in need of deep resources and bottomless time. Where does that fit into today’s America?

    • Please read my post below. It explains that Khan has since abondoned the history curriculum and hired professional PhDs to develop the humanities side of the website their history videos may be found at the smarthistory website.

  2. In response to your post on Khan’s history videos I recommend doing some research before posting. Khan made these videos a few years ago and has since realized his errors. Since then, he has hired two PhDs in Art History to head the development of the humanities side of the Khan Academy. My source is http://www.khanacademy.org/about/the-team

    Also, the new content in history is available here under the Art History section. http://www.khanacademy.org/#browse
    Khan Academy is developing the humanities more with these and other experts.

    Incidentally, the original motivation of these overview videos was to provide a basic scaffold of history (very rudimentary outline) because few people have this. With new faculty, this motivation is slowly being fleshed out.

    • Jau,

      According to the date it was uploaded, the video was made less than a year ago.

      Larry

      • That was an error on my part. The point is that Khan no longer makes history videos and has since hired professionals to do that job. Also, please reread the last paragraph. Khan didn’t intend the overview videos to suffice as a history curriculum, but rather like a preface or table of content, initiate the history curriculum.

    • Jau: If that is true, then why don’t they take down the embarrassingly bad videos?

      • The overview videos are NOT intended to function as a complete history curriculum, but merely as a starting point. Khan responded to another historian’s critique of this same video on Hacker news a while ago. He wrote

        “The reason why I make history videos is that many people I know (many of whom are quite educated) don’t even have a basic scaffold of world events in their minds (or the potential causality between events). Most American high school and college students would find it difficult to give even a summary of the Vietnam War or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many of these people have sat through years of traditional history classes (taught through state-mandated books by “experts”). Even more worrying is many experts who have taken one side or another of a historical issue and view their viewpoints as facts (this is the tone of most history books).
        If the author really watched my videos, he would see that I start most of them telling the listener to be skeptical of anything I tell them or anyone tells them; that no matter how footnoted something is, in the end it is dependent on people’s accounts–the people who weren’t killed–which are subject to bias (no matter how well-intentioned). Very few history books or professors do this. If anything, they create a false sense of certainty.
        As for the “one voice” issue, I don’t see how a guy making digestible videos that inform and encourage skepticism (on YouTube where anyone else can do the same) are more dangerous than state-mandated text books. I don’t see how lectures that are open for the world to scrutinize (and comment about on YouTube and our site) are more dangerous than a lone teacher or professor who can say whatever they like to their classrooms with no one there to correct or dispute them.
        Finally, there is nothing I would like to see more than other teachers/professors/experts adding their voice to the mix. Rather than wasting energy commenting on other people’s work with pseudo-intellectual babble, why don’t they produce their own videos and post them on YouTube? If someone can produce 20 videos that seem decent and want to do more as part of the Khan Academy, we’ll point our audience at them. If our students respond, we’ll figure out a way that they can potentially make it a career.
        regards, Sal

      • I’ve just watched one of its videos about Vietnam War. The video is bias and contains disputable facts. KA should review and remove subjective videos ASAP to recover its reputation. I won’t donate a penny until it becomes objective and fair. Thanks.

    • I think one could reasonably argue that just because you are a content expert in a field (ie. PhD) doesn’t make you good at educating others about it…I would like to think that part of Larry’s point is the “sit and get” philosophy that these videos tout. There is much more to learning and teaching then explaining facts.

  3. I tried it for a while, and turned it off when the narrator said that the Boston Tea Party was carried out by “a bunch of people, who, for whatever reason” dumped the tea in the harbor. Yes, I’ve taken that out of context, but still, I don’t see it helps students grasp history – or more importantly, learn how to study history – if you speak so imprecisely.

  4. As a math teacher I can tell you that the Khan video series is what it is. I have always thought that they were poorly produced and never really got into alternate methods of solving problems.

    However, I do not blame him for the rise in his popularity. I blame the consumers! Everyone has a choice and many are choosing the Khan Academy (Bill Gates included). If this is the best alternative then education is in trouble. Consumers have made Paris, Kim and Snooki millionaires! It’s time for us to push for “better programming.”

    • “Better programming” is actually in development. Khan has hired Vi Hart and Brit Cruise (from Art of the Problem) who develop more substansive and edited math videos. They has already contributed videos to Khan Academy.

      • KA should review and remove its questionable history videos. I’ve just watched one of KA’s videos about Vietnam war. I’ve found the video is bias and contain disputable facts. KA is helpful in subjects like math, physics but it should be very careful and fair in “lecturing” subjective subjects like politics, history. What it should teach kids (and adults too) is how to read, watch, think critically for themselves. Thank you.

  5. I agree Larry. I have told more than one overly excited person that they should watch a Khan Academy video on history before they announce “this is the way Everyone should learn”. I had an elected official the other day stop me in public to tell me about “this amazing new resource that can help teach anyone, anything” and then he told me he had just heard about Khan.

    I think the medium has great potential but when the quality is suspect and people like Gates start proclaiming it is the answer we have a big problem.

    Eric

  6. I thought you wanted to focus on “websites that will help you teach ELL, ESL and EFL”… Why are you throwing stones when instead it would be more constructive to explain how a brief history overview video could be better. Or better yet, try to make a better one instead? At least Khan Academy is creating things and not spending time trying to bring down folks who are trying to make a difference.

    • As I wrote in the post, there are many other resources on the Web that are available to help students learn U.S. History. On my class blog, which I link to, there are literally thousands of good examples. Here on my main blog, I highlight good resources and critique ones that I think are bad. Both on this blog and in my books, I share numerous other examples of effective teaching. Creating ineffective resources is not anything to praise or be proud of….

      Larry

  7. Oh look, another Luddite, I mean teacher, criticizing Khan without offering an alternative.

    I love to hear teachers go on and on about his incorrect “pedagogy”, but can’t seem to grasp why his video have grown organically…meaning people are using his site for a reason (here’s a hint..it’s because that “correct pedagogy” doesn’t seem to be working in the classroom).

    If you don’t like what Khan is doing, why don’t you contribute something more than criticism, because what is happening in the classroom obviously isn’t working?

    • Larry Ferlazzo may be a lot of things but Luddite is not one of them.

      1) When you have a criticism, be specific of the issue at hand.
      2) NAme calling doesn’t belong on the schoolyard and it doesn’t belong in education. Period.
      3) Khan Academy’s classification and awards system is what makes it usable, not the content of the videos. Students (and teachers) NEED to drill down by topic and find content, something the textbook companies haven’t done at all. That is one thing the common core will help in — even though there are issues in the common core. If you look at when innovation happened in computer technology it is when they standardized the interfaces. We need to have easy ways to find things and Khan has done that. I’ve also heard the “gamified” model allowing students to earn credits for certain things is what attracts math teachers there and that many of them don’t use the videos at all.

      Education has a major upheaval coming. I do agree that we need to work on alternatives if we don’t like something, however, I think the way that people are commenting here is a show of very poor digital citizenship. Applause to those who are specific and respectful. Those who are namecallers – such behavior is disgraceful and takes away from the nobility that teaching is and teachers should be.

  8. Normally I would not jump in here, but I feel the need. Anyone who is accusing Larry Ferlazzo of being a Luddite who doesn’t contribute more than criticism is simply not paying much attention.

  9. Sal Khan has done an amazing job forcing the entire education space to rethink how we teach. That being said, it is clear that his work in the more clear cut subjects of math and science has been more widely accepted and successful.

    The work that has been done for the Art History videos on the site is well done and much better than the example that sparked today’s discussion board.

    If anyone is actually looking for some amazing content on American History, come see Professor Bob Allison’s course (Suffolk University/Harvard Ext. School):

    http://www.udemy.com/us-constitution/

    To see more Professors coming together to teach the world online for free, check out http://www.facultyproject.com.

  10. Kelly, if you would take a couple minutes to read some of Larry’s blog or his other publications you would know that he has contributed proliffically to the alternatives. If you don’t like the contributions that teachers are making to the field of education then don’t read their blogs and don’t send your kids to school.

  11. Thank you Larry and others for a critique on published videos that represent poor quality educational programs. Video is hardly new on the educational landscape, and poor quality is sadly not new either.
    Buyer beware.

  12. I hear what you’re saying Larry. The pedagogy issue is exactly as you mention- many say this is the new answer to ed reform yet they don’t go on to share how these videos should be used for the best learning experiences. As a flipped classroom teacher myself, videos watched on their own won’t improve learning. They are the same lectures as in the classroom- blackboard to whiteboard innovation- no real change, just different format.

    If the videos are watched then followed up by application and exploration of the concept in class, then it has great potential. Many assume that everyone knows this and would follow the explore, flip, and apply philosophy to flipped teaching, but that is not always the case. I am excited to spread the word as I explore the possibilities with this new type of teaching.

  13. One use of these videos, less than ideal they may be, is in places that have no internet connection.
    I teach in a correctional centre, where no internet access is permitted, and any video material that is brought in needs to have a licence, Since our budget is a quantum removed from zero, the Khan Academy at least provides some help in a situation where I have to assist students whose academic levels are all over the map. I would prefer to help those with basic literacy needs (triage, I guess).
    If anybody can suggest alternative free downloadable educational video for high school topics, I’d love to hear them. Meantime, I’ll continue with Khan — fortunately, I’m in Canada, so I have little need for US history (in our courses, that is!).

    Any alternative resources?
    Cheers from a ‘correctional’ system that sadly appears to be moving in the opposite direction to the movement to de-privatize the American system.

  14. When a student uses Khan’s math videos he or she is looking for and getting some relatively direct solutions to solving a problem. That is a model that can work if a student needs help completing a mathematics homework assignment (if I recall correctly, Khan started his video series to help a family member with mathematics homework). Applying the same model to history lessons doesn’t really benefit anyone. A good history teacher isn’t asking his or her students to solve a problem that has clear-cut right or wrong answers. Even if a history teacher is asking for that, the Khan history videos that I’ve watched don’t offer anything more than narration of a history textbook with a couple of pictures thrown-in. At that point students aren’t being served any better than they would be by opening a textbook.

  15. I’ve been reading the thread on and off over the last couple of days. What stands out to me is that we’re not differentiating what the video is being used for, much like what Richard said.
    I teach in a flipped classroom, and part of that includes producing my own lecture videos for students. BUT, I do not create indiscriminately. I create a video for a lesson where I would use direct instruction to convey the material. If direct instruction isn’t the best medium, I don’t use it.
    So, what it gets to, is that video is useful in some cases, not so much in others. It requires the discretion of a teacher whose goals are to accentuate the class experience using technology responsibly.

  16. A comment on Dan Meyer’s blog says it best:

    “Incompetent/bored teacher < khan academy < better online learning platform < Good teacher.”

    • Unfortunately, not everybody can afford a private “Good Teacher”.

      If a FREE “better online learning platform” does not exist, than you are basically indicating what Khan has stated on ted.com . Otherwise, provide a link which provides free access to “better online learning platforms” for K – 12 !

      • Dennis,

        If you look at some of my other “The Best…” lists, you’ll see that I have provided multiple links to what I think are better sites for learning history online.

        Larry

  17. Larry, I couldn’t agree more. Instead of the Khan folks jumping to his defense, perhaps the whole organization should be more concerned with good content to begin with, rather than churning out videos, as if they were confetti.

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  19. My daughter uses the Khan academy and she actually likes the fairly simple approach to teaching just the facts that Sal uses. I understand that this approach may not work for all students , however my daughter is autistic and she finds it far more comforting and easy to follow than a live teacher in front of a room teaching a class. That situation was something she could not tolerate and she is home schooled now. No matter what you think of Mr. Khan, I have watched my daughter to respond to him and the way he teaches like NOTHING else. He has been a blessing beyond measure to our family.

  20. KA still has its bias history videos on its site. I won’t donate a cent to it if it does not try to remove subjective videos. Big donors should review its quality. Thanks Larry.

  21. I think you guys are missing the whole point of khan academy. He stumbled across a new way to teach, accidentally. Watch his Ted talk on this. Anyways, he’s flipped the classroom. This means providing lectures as homework, and homework to be done in class. I can tell you this is a massive improvement on the current system, especially with math. His lectures are also very easy to take in. In math, I’ve never met a professor who could explain concepts more clearly. So what if he’s casual, it lightens up the material.
    I was a semi-decent math student who dropped it in university since the curriculum was so hard to digest. Now I’m in third/fourth year advanced mathematics, and it’s mostly because of khan academy. Every time I have an assignment, I watch the relevant sections of khan, and I understand. That is much more than I can say for any professor I’ve had.
    However it’s not their fault. This is a fundamental problem with the lecture concept. We pack classes with students to list to a teacher jabber on with almost zero involvement. What’s the point of this? How is a lecture differen from a video? I would argue a video is better, as you can pause, rewind, fast forward as you like. Not like a “one size fits all lecture”. The second key point (that most online video series miss) is the length. Educational psychologists will tell you long lectures and very ineffective. Students naturally tune out, or have a lot of trouble keeping up. This way one can digest a topic efficiently, in several small sessions as opposed to one long one. I think he overreached a bit with history, but I don’t think he should delete the videos. He’s not afraid to admit his mistakes or hide the truth. Whenever I see a small mistake in my lecture, I actually feel better. I’m reminded that everyone makes mistakes, even MIT grads.
    You guys should see his new section on computer science. Revolutionary!

  22. I disagree with the entire analysis. First of all, as a history teacher and professional tutor, I understand that chalk and talk has fallen out of favor. However, I learn quite a bit from lectures, especially when the material is not meant to build analytical strength, but retention strength. Have you a better method of memorizing a list of events than a timeline? In my opinion, we ask too much of our students at times, and they are unable to simply take down information in an organized fashion and then respond to basic prompts. I use Khan Academy for that reason. It is direct. It replaces lectures in classroom environments with lectures in an individualized, DYI environment, in the same way that one might use a YouTube clip to help them tie a windsor knot or build a shelf for their garage without having to sit for a given time period with a bunch of other ignoramuses who provide little additional help. To me, the above analysis is the same argument teachers use against Wikipedia, which for all intents and purposes serves a CRITICAL role in education, namely, breadth of knowledge with the offer of more depth of knowledge, the pursuit of which sits solely with the end user.

  23. The Khan Academy is like a religion. Arguing about it’s quality is like arguing about whether or not god created the earth in six days. To be clear, I do not think Khan is god, but clearly his followers do.

  24. To speak with candor on behalf of the education system, I believe that Salman Khan is a very impressive figure in the educational system, with 3 MIT degrees coupled with a degree from Harvard. Evidently, he is a very knowledgeable individual who strives to teach students on a global scale about topics ranging from the humanities to the sciences and mathematics. He does a good job in producing over 4000 videos in a short period of time, and with additional funding from the retired Bill Gates is able to expand his prospects into a world wide educational reformation revolution. The issue here is that he is adhering to the classical American system of educational teaching. He refuses to present challenges and difficulties in lessons, instead taking a more direct and straightforward approach in getting the factoids straight to you, in a particularly superficial manner. I pay homage to him for performing a difficult educational feat in such a short span of time, but in the midst of a technological and information dependent era, his pedagogy is outdated and will remain so until he makes significant amends to his teaching methodology.

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