Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Still the Sage - On a Different Stage

I recently watched a 60 Minutes piece on Sal Khan and Khan Academy. The piece portrays Khan as a hedge fund coordinator who falls into an idea that is "revolutionizing" education. He started his non-profit site by initially trying to give his niece some help in math. Khan creates teaching videos by recording his voice and capturing his ideas on a tablet connected to a computer. Teaching, but using a different delivery method. Although the news piece portrays him as an exceptionally good teacher, he downplays his ability to relay a concept to his audience. If you have ever viewed a Kahn lesson, you would agree that he is engaging in his own way and his voice is distinct.
Strong terms like "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are lightning rods when it comes to education. If you profess to have the next best way to educate our youths' - look out because you are going to get some criticism coming your way from the traditional classroom teacher. The teacher that will tell you that it has been tried before and it is just another fad that will go away. They believe that the only way to teach our students is to present information in an engaging way in a classroom, with the teacher in front of some type of presentation medium. The term "sage on the stage" is now commonplace in the world of educational jargon.

In the last few years, technology has changed every traditional business model that we can think of. Education, on the other hand, has been slow to jump in. You might think that a technology professional in education is just there to show off the bells and whistles and what could be accomplished using technology. I find myself trying to battle fear more than anything else.

Everybody has an opinion about what Sal Khan is trying to accomplish. The negative opinions focus on his inability to teach and the discussion surrounding what makes a good teacher. His delivery methods are traditional and his style is straight forward but Khan has found a way to deliver information to a digital audience that is consuming it at a surprising rate. He really does nothing special in terms of his delivery, he is just one of the first ones to convert to a new digital delivery system. Khan is someone who has hit upon an idea that may work and his value is that he was one of the first ones to do it. He is still a Sage but on a different Stage.

I relate this transition to the birth of the motion picture industry as compared to the theatre culture in the late 1800's. The birth of a new idea that will kill another cultural phenomenon. Last I looked, Broadway was still doing fine and the motion picture industry seemed to be doing pretty well also. Why? Because no matter what the delivery method, people who are successful at their craft will continue to engage the masses.

Khan's new digital delivery system will make good teachers better teachers. Your crowd just went from the 15 - 20 kids in your class to a mass market of students. What if, as a teacher, you could capture the feeling of the best class you ever taught? That day when you were "on" and every student in your class seemed to be clicking and learning. The ideas you were trying to present seemed insanely clear and concise. All the right words came to you and every student was engaged. You capture that moment in time and share it with more students than you can possibly imagine.

The new delivery system is just a new stage, a new platform, a new vehicle by which good teachers can excel at what they do. Don't look at what Sal Kahn is doing as threatening the nature of how teachers teach. As far as I can tell, he has no background in education and has never taught in an actual classroom setting, yet he is seen as a very good teacher. What happens when we take trained professionals who are adept at helping kids learn and give them a better, more engaging and wide-reaching vehicle? A vehicle that Khan has proved will work.

We are now ready to see the other side of educational creativity. We have long been witness to the theatre style of teaching where you had to be there to experience. Technology advancement has allowed us to change stages and create experiences with many students with a medium not too dissimilar to the motion picture camera. We can plan, create storyboards, add engaging content, film and film again if need be - all with the goal of making the best educational experience.

These two methods are not mutually exclusive. If I wish to see a Broadway show - I still have the ability to do that. I can continue to experience very talented individuals at their craft entertaining people in a live setting. If I wish to see a movie, I can experience that as well - once again, taking witness in talented artists doing what they do best. If Sal Kahn is the Charlie Chaplin of the new medium, who will be the next Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese?

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Death of Memorization

There have been countless movies in the past few years where the idea of instant knowledge has been given super human status. Films like The Matrix and Limitless toy with the ability for a normal human to be instantaneously given the ability to carry out a task or have some level of knowledge about a subject.

For example, your car breaks down on the freeway and you have never fixed a car in your life and possibly have never even opened up the hood to see what an engine looks like. At this point in time, you summon your special abilities ( push on a charm or pound fists with your friend and say something about wonder twin powers activating) and batta bing! You now realize that your spark plug cable is loose. You know exactly what cylinder of your car is the problem. You identify the correct area of the engine, push on the cable, the car starts and you are on your way.

Sounds crazy, I know but quite honestly, I sometimes think that people do not realize how close we are to that scenario. Welcome to the age of mobile computing, where we do have the ability to acquire knowledge about a subject no matter where you are. If you are fortunate enough to have access to a smart phone, you already carry the ability to acquire knowledge at a rapid rate. That is, if you know where the information is.

I recently was approached by a student of mine asking if I could give him a definition from a study guide for a mid term. Being the empowering teacher that I am, I quickly informed him that I would not give him the definition and he needed to find it himself. I also asked him if he had tried to look it up on Google, because that is where I usually go to find information about a topic. He looked at me as he was having his "A HA" moment and quickly pulled out his smart phone only to find the same definition that I gave him in class.

So the $25 question is..... If we have the ability to summon any piece of information we need at any given time, why as teachers do we still think our students need to memorize content? In Math class, the discussion focuses on the use of a calculator vs. memorizing multiplication facts. Most third grade students will ask this very question as they get tired looking at flash cards.

Traditionalists would tell you that a memorized body of knowledge shows intelligence. I do not disagree but I also think since vast amounts of information is now readily available at the touch of a button, we also have to enable our students to think about those possibilities as well. Do they really have to memorize who Abraham Lincoln's first wife is when they can push a button on their iPhone and ask Siri?

Most times that I have needed to know something in my professional career, I have not been required to have answers off the top of my head. I have been required, though, to know where to get those answers in a timely fashion and to evaluate if that answer is the correct one. Fortunately, I have been able to hone the art of Googling for some time now and it has served me well.

By the way... Siri told me Abraham Lincoln's first wife's name was Mary Todd.

Thank you Siri...