A Major Frustration With Khan Academy

Posted on January 27, 2013


A blog post by Dan Myer, Pattern Matching In Khan Academy, recently caught my attention. I’m a huge fan of the power of pattern matching, so I was curious to hear about how Khan Academy my be leveraging it.

The blog post references another blog post by Stephanie Chang (an engineer at Khan), Takeaways From My Latest Project. In her blog post she describes how she was able to witness students simply pattern-matching as a way to solve the problems her program was presenting. In doing so they were “gaming” the program, making their way through the challenges without really engaging with the learning.

Herein lies my frustration. Every time I observe students working on Khan or talk to teachers about it, or try it myself, I see a strong desire to learn through the exercises, instead of watching the video and then validating one’s understanding of the material through the exercises.

Khan Academy, though, seems to be completely against this strategy. They do not want students to use the exercises in order to learn. They do not want students to look for patterns as they solve problems and then test those patterns on future problems. They only want the exercises to be used as a means of proving mastery.

As I tried out the exercises that Stephanie had put together I was impressed by the design. It was an interesting approach to learning about derivatives, that allowed me to see how the derivatives related to the original equation visually. It has a limited option set that makes it easier to pattern-match by limiting the amount of information in which one can look for a pattern. It even had a hint system that allowed me to learn about some of the techniques for figuring out the derivative through explicit content that was presented when I asked for it.

I leverage all of these techniques in my own work. I think they can be very conducive to effective learning.

As I went through the challenges, though, it became quite evident that a lot of thought went in to preventing students from being able to discern patterns. Challenges jumped around so that if you did discern a pattern it would not apply to the next challenge and the limited option set is significantly compromised by providing a catch-all “none of the answers are correct” option.

I had started out enjoying the process, learning quite a bit as I was going, but quickly became frustrated by the anti-pattern-matching efforts and soon stopped my exploration.

Now I can appreciate these efforts if your goal is verification of mastery, which is the stated goal for this exercise, so they are doing a good job of meeting the goal they set out to achieve.

In doing so, though, they are ignoring, even fighting, against their own users, the students. Instead of embracing the natural inclination of students to engage with the content through the exercises, developing and testing hypotheses in a search for patterns that will give them a more intuitive understanding of the material, they are putting in measures at every turn to stop this from happening.

Now I appreciate that understanding simple patterns is not the same thing as understanding the underlying material and how those patterns arise, but there’s nothing wrong with a student gaining greater comfort with material through pattern-matching. And pattern-matching can lead to a deep understanding of material as the patterns become more nuanced.

This is how all of us learn our first language. We start with very basic patterns, calling every animal with four legs and a tail a dog. Over time our patterns become more nuanced, allowing us to communicate in very complex and nuanced ways with hardly any effort at all.

So please Khan Academy, stop disrespecting pattern-matching. It is a natural and very powerful process that humans enjoy doing a great deal and is at the heart of learning and mastery.

And, even more importantly, stop disrespecting the students. Stop trying to fight their natural inclinations to use your product in a way that you did not originally intend. Embrace their natural inclinations and try to work with them. I think it will pay off quite well, making the process of learning both more enjoyable and more effective.