Salman Khan’s Khan Academy is an amazing labour of love, if you haven’t come across it. Over a thousand video tutorials, each around ten minutes long, on subjects ranging from calculus and statistics, through biology, to modern history.
But this is what’s really mindboggling: while skimming the list of topics, and pondering the immensity of the undertaking, you might wonder how many experts contributed, and how anyone could have the stamina to organise it all — until you discover that all the tutorials are presented by the one guy.
It all started when Khan tutored his cousin in maths, at first face to face, but later via Youtube just using Microsoft Paint. Struggling students discovered the clips and begged for more.
According to the testimonials, academics have begun directing their students there, and it’s easy to see why. I would send mine to the finance ones. They deal with a number of technical topics engagingly, but even more useful is the series on the financial crisis and the US bailout. Francis, aged 12, had high prasie for the series on the French Revolution.
There’s more background in some PBS and CNN profiles linked at the top of the home page. What I’d like to emphasise here is what this approach tells us about effective teaching. Whatever you might say about the clips, they are not polished. He uses a humble drawing software, scribbling and crossing out, and improvises his script, humming and hawing his way through examples he makes up on the spot.
One might be inclined to conclude that the tutorials are effective despite the informality, but I think it’s because of it. Khan is quoted thus:
If you’re watching a guy do a problem (while) thinking out loud, I think people find that more valuable and not as daunting.
Exactly. It’s more natural. As any decent teacher knows, students pay more attention when you stumble and bumble through a topic using chalk and talk, because they feel they’re participating — active partners in a process of thinking something out. You’re talking with, not just to them, let alone at them. If you make some slip-ups along the way, so much the better. And how many teachers have had the depressing experience of discovering that when a student is sitting in your office, motivated by an impoending exam, you can easily explain some concept to him in a ten-minute, improvised session, that he failed to grasp from several hours of your elegently crafted lectures.
In Keynes’s essay on Marshall he quotes Mary Marshall:
He said the reason why he had so many pupils who thought for themselves was that he never cared to present the subject in an orderly and systematic form or to give information. What he cared to do in lectures was to make students think with him.
He adds his own recollection:
I remember Marshall telling me that if he saw a man taking detailed notes at one of his lectures, he wrote him off as a fool: but that if he had reason to believe that the individual in question was a man of ability, he would have regarded it as a personal insult.
Returning to the current century: show your students a polished video or PowerPoint show on some technical topic, where every point is handed down with military precision and confidence, and their eyes will glaze over in no time. This applies with even more force to presentations by students for students. The first rule you give them — DO NOT READ FROM A SCRIPT — is the first one they want to break. ‘But we’re too nervous!’ ‘I won’t be able to remember how the explanation goes!’. Yes, I know, and that’s precisely why your classmates will be payiing attention and trying to figure it out for themselves.