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Eileene drew my attention to this morning. She first learned of the site through a news article describing it in the most glowing terms.

I’m always suspicious of wondrous new teaching systems, because the reportage on such successes typically suffers from a systemic error: failing to observe that spectacularly successful new (or, more often, revived) teaching systems often get their results from kids for whom the previous system wasn’t working. Neither system is better; they just reach people with different learning styles, and careless reporting leads to unrealistic expectations of the new system, which typically fails to produce the same results on a large scale.

But it’s hard to argue with an improvement by two standard deviations in performance of students using Salman Khan’s lectures. And the results seem to work across the board, although the best results are found at the extremes: the remedial students who can rewind and pause when they need to, and the talented students who needn’t be bored by belabored points. In both cases, it’s the age-old principle of helping students to learn at their own pace.

Khan’s system combines online lectures and active solving of sample problems with an online drill in the methods used. The lectures aren’t very good; they go too fast (though students can rewind), skip details, and operate from a presumption that one only needs stick the given numbers together because math problems are made to be solved tidily—a dangerous attitude to take into the world outside the classroom. The drills, however, are excellent. Khan uses gamification superbly, giving students virtual achievement badges for correctly solving ten problems in a row on a given topic, and “unlocking the next level” when a topic is sufficiently mastered. Giving gold stars is an old technique, and one that works, done properly, but educational software usually screws it up, turning students off with a patronizing tone and a childish spin on the rewards; Khan sets the tone of his rewards just right. I can believe reports of students eager to earn achievements and “level up” to the next lesson.

This looks like a wonderful system, used properly, which is to say, in addition to, and not instead of classroom instruction. It offers a strong vehicle for patching up or filling in neglected skills without classroom drill—a double curse that eats up instruction time and makes math boring. Having watched several of Khan’s lectures, I’m not ready to adopt the whole system, in which kids watch the lectures online and turn to the teacher for hands-on instruction, but only because I don’t like his delivery. The principle of offering the basic instruction online makes perfect sense; the initial instruction—the lecture—is mass produced and mass consumed, the basic principles laid out so everyone can be on the same page. Everyone agrees the best teaching method is hands-on, personal instruction; we get too little of it because it’s also expensive and time-consuming. A teacher freed from the time spent on a lecture can spend that time doing that hands-on instruction. I plan to encourage my kids to use the drills. With slightly better lectures, I’d be wholly on board.

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