by Diana Senechal
Ever since the entrepreneur Salman Khan burst forth in 2011 with his
education revolution—a massive video library and proposal that the classroom be “flipped”—there has been no end to the euphoric roar from reporters. They delight in the idea that students could watch instructional videos at home, then come to school to solve problems, work in groups, and engage in discussion. That’s the flip, right there: the instruction takes place at home; the problem-solving, in school. Khan argues, and his fans believe, that such a reversal would “humanize the classroom.” But something about this humanization doesn’t sit well in the belly. Is it really so wonderful to make problem-solving a social activity, or to remove lectures from the classroom? Is the video as flexible a tool as Khan suggests?
Practical problems come to mind first of all. Who ensures that the students actually learn the material at home, or that the videos convey it well? Khan suggests that their activity should be electronically monitored, so that teachers know how much time they have been spending on each video and what they have been doing with it. But isn’t that a bit intrusive? Isn’t one’s study time at home supposed to be somewhat private? Moreover, what will students and teachers gain from such monitoring? Some will find ways around it: they will pretend to watch the videos while doing something else. Others will do the work yet need additional explanation. There is no getting around the difficulty of some material; it requires more than one mode of presentation.
The advanced students, those who already understand the material, have even more to lose. They may not want to solve problems among their peers, in the noise and chatter of the classroom. They might not want or need a teacher peering over their shoulder. During class time, they may need something that pushes their thinking further: a lively lecture or discussion or both. At home, they might need nothing more than challenging assignments and good books. Khan states that each student may progress at his or her own pace, but this goes only so far. Students ultimately reach a point where they need the insights of the teacher: not just a brief check-in, but a substantial presentation and discussion. Where will they get this, if the teacher must circulate from student to student?
Videos allow for thorough learning, proponents argue. Students may watch them repeatedly until they fully grasp the lesson. But who wants to watch an instructional video over and over, unless it is superb? Doesn’t a book allow for a more compelling sort of repetition? When reading a book, you can dwell on a sentence or paragraph as long as you want. If you need to find something specific, you can look in the index or flip through the pages. What’s more, you can hear the words in your mind and give them the emphasis or tone that seems right. A video can become a trap; though you may move backward and forward, you hear the same voice, watch the same gestures, and witness the same explanation in motion. The instructor seems a moving cadaver—unaffected by anything in the room, intent on repeating the same inflections and making the same marks on the board. This can get irritating, if not depressing.
The model has problems of principle as well as of practice. It implicitly downplays the importance of the lecture by taking it out of the teacher’s hands. Supposedly this “frees” her up for real teaching. But what sort of freedom is this, when the teacher is no longer supposed to present the subject? Lectures, even short ones, contain not only information but insights. Teachers and professors raise questions, take apart false conclusions, point to overlooked details, and leave the student with a keener view of the subject than he or she had before. A video—even a superb one—cannot do this as well as a teacher can in person, nor would many teachers want this aspect of their work taken away. Even when the lecture is purely unidirectional, there is subtle exchange: students’ facial expressions and gestures, the teacher’s tone of voice, and the anticipation of the discussion that will follow. A teacher, unlike a video, has the ability to enhance the instruction spontaneously—for instance, by offering yet another angle on a problem (“Here’s another way of looking at it.”). The “flip” model could turn out to be the opposite of freedom, as it would lack many of these subtleties.
In order to learn subject matter, one needs instruction, practice, review, reinforcement, and extension. A student listens to the teacher, thinks about the material, reads about the topic, thinks about it some more, works on problems, discusses the problems in class, and considers how the topic relates to those before and after it. Videos can play a part in this, but there’s no reason to flip anything at all for them. Why not have them handy and let teachers and students use them as they see fit? No grandiose terms, no education revolution—just a resource for those who need it.
But there is little glamour in a resource for those who need it. Khan started out with a modest vision—helping his cousins with school—but before long, it grew louder and louder until it reached the status of a momentous potential reform. Khan has some fine ideas: he recognizes the value of puzzling over material on one’s own, of repeating concepts until they come clear. But even a fine idea can be ruined when turned into a grand model. The challenge for the Khan Academy, and for much of education reform, is to offer something helpful without exaggerating its import. Those who do so will one day be recognized as wise.
Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012.