Tag Archives: structures

A Letter to Sal Khan

Over the summer, I spent some time following online discussions about the role that Khan Academy and similar sites can or should play in education.  Much of what I read and much of my own thinking was prompted by the tweets and posts of Frank Noschese, who has consistently been both fair-minded and critical when it comes to Khan Academy.

My thoughts began to gel as I considered how I would like to be able to use Khan Academy in my own classroom.  It became clear to me that the many great resources available on Khan Academy are not nearly as useful for my students as I would like them to be.  The main reason for this is that I have few tools to customize and curate these resources for my students.  A person who wants to be taught a potpourri of math topics on his own could find much of use to him on Khan Academy, but this is not how school courses happen.  Courses have shape and structure, and each one is unique because individual teachers bring their own ideas and approaches to the table.  School, district, and state curricula bring to bear their own powerful influences.  Khan Academy, as it stands, does not have the capacity to adapt itself to this variety of circumstances.

As my thoughts along these lines came into focus, I decided to write a letter to Sal Khan and his colleagues.  You’ll find a copy of it below.

At first I tried sending the letter through the Comments and suggestion email address provided on the Khan Academy website, as well as through the one for Feature Requests.  When several weeks passed without a response or acknowledgement, I—in a moment of audacity—blasted the letter to every Gmail and Khan Academy email address that I could think of that might belong to Mr. Khan.  After still not hearing a response, I made the more reasonable move of tweeting to a variety of people on the Khan Academy team listed on their About page.  Ben Kamens responded to my tweet and told me to email him the letter, explaining that it had probably been received already but that the Khan Academy staff doesn’t have time to respond to all of the feedback and suggestions that they receive.

When I followed up a few weeks later with Ben, he said that he couldn’t say much, but that the Khan Academy team is at the moment seriously considering ideas along the lines of those that I brought up in my letter.  Needless to say, I was really excited to hear this!  I think these kind steps could really turn Khan Academy into a powerful tool for classroom teachers.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how the development and use of Khan Academy unfolds in the future.

Not receiving a reply to my emails for a long while was a little frustrating, but I’m really glad I wrote and sent it.  It definitely helped me to clarify my own thoughts, and maybe it will have some small effect in the dialogue at Khan Academy.  I hope that by sharing my letter here it might prompt thought and discussion about the ways in which Khan Academy and similar resources can best be incorporated into the future of school.  I’d love to hear your comments.


Hi Sal,

I hope that this message reaches you and relevant members of your team.  I teach middle and high school math at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY.  I have followed the Khan Academy with interest for some time now.  I really appreciate your efforts at creating, sharing, and popularizing resources for learning.  My own adventures in incorporating Khan Academy’s resources in my own classroom have produced promising results, and I look forward to working to find more and better ways to use it to help my students to learn.

There are three ideas I want to share with you about the future of the Khan Academy—possible to implement independently, but mutually supporting in spirit.  Perhaps you and your team have thought of them as well; in that case, consider this an enthusiastic letter of support.  These ideas have to do with the customization of learning and with putting the best learning tools into the hands of students, teachers, and independent learners.  I think it would be a quantum leap forward for Khan Academy if on the site:

  • Teachers could create and share their own instructional videos.
  • Teachers could devise and share their own exercise sets.
  • Teachers could design and share their own customized “knowledge maps”.

These three features in tandem would move Khan Academy from being a supplemental resource in my classroom to a central and crucial pillar.

For instance, one of the classes I’m teaching this coming year is a high school geometry course.  I have a list of skills that I want all of my students to master by the end of the year.  Each skill is small and focused, and each has connections to other skills.  Mastery of these skills is just one goal I have for my students, but it is an important one.  In the past I’ve created multiple practice worksheets for these skills and I allow students to quiz on individual skills at their own pace, but it is difficult to truly customize individual students’ learning experiences.  You have created videos for many of these skills and exercise sets for some of them.  Others of these skills aren’t included in Khan Academy’s offerings, and some likely never will be because they’re peculiar to my own way of approaching geometry.

Videos and exercise sets for more of these skills would be available if other teachers were building up Khan Academy’s offerings by creating their own videos and exercise sets.  I could then create and share my own content for the remainder of the skills, and other teachers and students would have access to these in turn.  Once all of the videos and exercise sets that I want for my course are available, I could organize them into a knowledge map that would be specific to my course’s goals—pruned of skills that are too basic or too advanced to be relevant.  Students could proceed at their own paces in mastering these skills and together we could chart their progress.  Being able to curate the full resources of the Khan Academy into a course-specific knowledge map would allow for focus while still retaining a connection to the whole universe of other skills that students could learn on Khan Academy outside of the structure of my course.  All told, having all of the content that I want for my class and being able to organize it in the way most suitable for my students would make Khan Academy a powerful tool for my students in taking ownership of their learning.

Now, it’s the case that an individual teacher could create their own website with their own videos, their own exercises, and their own knowledge map, entirely apart from the Khan Academy.  But there are strong arguments that creating such a learning environment within the Khan Academy would be a much better option.  First, it would allow easy access to the content that you’ve already created. Second, it would allow for the use of the coherent and powerful software environment that you’ve created.  I don’t have the knowledge needed to create my own exercise engine, but I bet it wouldn’t be too hard for me to learn how to drop a new exercise into the structure that you’ve already created. Third, the visibility and popularity of the Khan Academy provide a unique opportunity to build a wide community of teachers and learners who would mutually benefit from collaborating on and sharing learning resources.  We teachers are so often isolated in our own classrooms or schools, having access only to the limited and pre-packaged resources of textbook publishers and the small amounts of content that we can create ourselves.  We are only beginning to see teachers use the internet to share and collaborate on learning resources, and the Khan Academy could be the clearinghouse that takes these grassroots efforts to the next level.

You have created an enormous amount of learning content and a powerful portal in which to house it. Together these have already helped millions of people toward their learning goals.  I understand that the ideas I’m proposing are something of a departure from the Khan Academy’s current model, and that there would be obstacles to their implementation.  It might even be difficult for you to give up being the sole content provider on the site.  However, I believe that true customization of learning can only come with the variety and creativity that will be released upon opening up the Khan Academy to the world.  Teachers know their own students best and need to be able to adapt the structure of the Khan Academy to their own classrooms.  In particular, having a single unalterable knowledge map is not amenable to personalized learning.  Finally, projects like Wikipedia have shown that having the right portal and the right momentum will draw in remarkable and robust content.  I suggest that the brightest future of the Khan Academy lies in becoming such a portal for education.

I would be thrilled to be in conversation with you about these ideas and would volunteer all of my own energies and talents to help to implement them—from the pilot level to something full scale.  As you might suspect, I could go on and on about these topics, but I know that you must be very busy and want to remain somewhat brief.  You have a powerful position and voice in the current national conversation about schools and learning.  Please use that position and voice to help teachers create more customized learning experiences for our students.

Thank you!

Justin Lanier
Saint Ann’s School
Brooklyn, NY


That Itchy Feeling, or, Asynchronous Quizzing

Never am I more passionate about giving students choices and helping them to find their own learning groove than when I find myself sitting in a PD session.  There I am, waiting to find out what the presenter has in store, suddenly thrust back into student-mode.  From deep inside, up arises this wily and irreverent and pushy punk who is so used to being in charge of his own learning and time.

I’ve been to plenty of great PD and am so thankful for the amazing learning opportunities that my colleagues-from-afar often put together for me to experience.  But boy am I uber-ready to be a critic when walking into a PD session.  I mean, they had months to plan this one lesson and they’re seriously going to show me a video I could have seen on my couch in my pj’s?  Or read me a Powerpoint that I could have skimmed or dug into at my leisure?

These kinds of experiences have sowed in me the conviction that the time and effort spent to bring people together to learn—be it hundreds of miles or just a subway ride—makes that gathering at least a little sacred.  It should be social and interactive, and it had damn sure be aiming to meet the needs of the individuals who have hauled themselves there.

That’s the introductory bluster.  Maybe I’ve got your dander up a little.  What I want to analyze in this post is a thought related to this emotion, and it has to do with trying to avoid misusing my students’ time.

Thesis: Students taking solo-and-silent assessments is a poor use of classtime.

Looking at that statement now, it strikes me as more radical than it seemed in my head.  It runs contrary to a lot of classroom practice, including my own.  Still, I think I have convincing arguments to support it.  What it would imply on a practical level is encouraging students to quiz outside of class, as they often do for requizzes.

Before I start, I should say that this thesis is contingent on a couple conditions being present in a school.  All are present in my own case.  First, there have to be at least some open periods in students’ schedules for them to quiz during non-class time.  At my school, middle school students have study halls and high schoolers usually have free periods in their weekly schedules; both often have discretionary time during lunch.  Second, I’m taking for granted an SBG-like assessment system that admits of modularity—where there are several versions of quizzes for a given standard.  I can certainly see serious obstacles to allowing student to asynchronously take a unique quiz.

What is required for a student to take a quiz?  The student, the quiz, and probably some amount of monitoring to keep things on the up-and-up.  Possibly access to a teacher to ask clarifying questions, but one could argue that—especially SBG-style—quiz questions should be clear, low-stakes, and non-surprises anyway.

For a student to take a quiz, the following are not needed—interaction with peers; a teacher giving instruction or even much attention; nuanced human intervention to change the course of proceedings.  A student certainly has no need of having other students around them who are also taking quizzes.

Most of the time I aim to have an interactive, social, and personal classroom that is an occasion for sharing, collaboration, and spontaneity.  Somehow, though, I drop these values completely every time I give a solo-and-silent assessment in class.

Why do I do it, then?  I’m really curious to hear your own reflections on the question; here is what I’ve come up with:

  • Classtime is the time that my students have for my class; to ask them for some of their “outside of class” time break a tacit agreement.  (This concern somehow completely evaporates when it comes to assigning homework.)
  • Duh, class is when things happen?  (i.e. inertia)
  • I don’t know.

Not particularly compelling.  So I’m going to try to this out.  I’ll work out a master schedule with my students for when and where they can take quizzes outside of class.  We’ll see what they do with it.

In the past, I’ve had a day in class each week where quizzes were taken for the first part of the period and free-choice time happened for the second part.  What I’m planning on doing this year is making that whole day free-choice.  If some students choose to use that time for taking solo-and-silent assessments, that’s fine by me—I’ll have the quizzes ready and on offer.  If they calculate that quizzing is a good use their in-class time on a particular day, then it’s the right move for them.  Super.  But I have to imagine that many students will find it more choice-worthy to use classtime in other ways to further their learning and cultivate their experiences—and to find time outside of class to quiz, at least on occasion.

These thoughts have arisen for me as I’ve slipped deeper and deeper into a combination of the SBG Borg and SteveMiranda/PaulSalomon-esque personalization.  There may be other influences, and I don’t claim that these ideas are original.  They were perhaps first instigated in my head last year when I had seventh graders showing up in my room for the last fifteen minutes of lunch on Fridays.  They wanted to start working on their quizzes early so that they could have more free-choice time with their friends.  They were giving up the freedom of recess in exchange for more free-choice time in class.  I think that’s a huge testimony to how much value and fun can be created by the combination of choice and a rich classroom environment.

I’ve read about others’ efforts at arranging times outside of class for requizzing, and I appreciate how difficult and time-consuming it can be.  I have no illusions that it will be easy to encourage outside-of-class quizzing and recognize both logistical and hearts-and-minds obstacles.  But I really want to push this in my classes, plant the seed in my students’ heads, and see what happens.  Maybe you’ve tried something similar; if so, I’d love to hear.  I’ll certainly be posting about what comes of my attempts.  Maybe—just maybe—this will help my students to become more wily, irreverent, and pushy, and used to being in charge of their own learning and time.

PS  Speaking of that itchy feeling, classes started today!  Ahhhhhhhhh…

Free-Choice Time: Gearing Up

Finding the balance of freedom and structure that is good for kids—who are of course all different from each other—is hard.  Still, I know that giving my students a fair shake at some real autonomy is a principle that I’m willing to work for and stand by.  My dear friend and colleague Paul Salomon and I collaborated last year on making free-choice time happen for our middle schoolers.  For me, this meant that every Friday, my sixth and seventh graders would take their SBG skills quizzes; after finishing these, they were free to pursue whatever they pleased.

Inspired by my mom, I distributed a bingo grid of different activities at the beginning of the year to encourage my kids to dig into a variety of tasks.  It looked like this:

last year's bingo board

(BTdubs, Bloxorz was a huge hit.  You should definitely give it a whirl.)

I thought I would roll out other boards as the year progressed.  I didn’t.  The school year, as school years are wont to do, took on a crazy, unkempt life of its own.  While I introduced a few new activities to my classes over the course of the year, the activities that I put on offer at the beginning were basically the ones that students worked on.  In addition, I never got around to providing the resources for students to actually do some of the activities, so this cut down on their options even more.

To better serve our soon-to-arrive new batch of students, Paul and I are aiming to improve upon our last year’s attempts to provide students with structure and rich resources during their free-choice time.  This year I’m giving out a board that has categories of activities, rather than individual things to do.  Like so:

free-choice bingo board

Really broad stuff, plus a center square that rivals Zombo.com in making the sky the limit.  To accompany the board will be a list of some possible activities for them to pursue:

Those are the ones that I’ve penciled in for the start of the year.  The full brainstormed list currently stands as follows:

…although that will probably be out of date as soon as I publish this post.  Over the course of the year, the list of pursuits that my students will have in hand will expand to include more items from this larger list.  I’m planning to limit the options at the start for a few reasons.  First, I didn’t want all of the possibilities to overwhelm kids.  Second, for some of the activities on the full list, I want to have the chance to introduce the activity in a whole-class setting—for instance, to have a day or two where we talk about cellular automata, run some by hand, and take a look at the Game of Life.  Finally, I figure for the sake of diversity, it won’t hurt to put off the unveiling of Bloxorz for a little while.

An important part of my plan to make free-choice time an opportunity for my students to grow is to have them record and reflect upon the progress they make on their free-choice projects, as well as to help them to set goals for themselves.  Students will be able to write their goals into their bingo grid, and they’ll also have opportunities to goal-set and reflect in their journals.  By design, the items in the list above aren’t very specific.  Yes, here is a Rubik’s Cube.  But what’s your goal?  Try to figure out how to solve it on your own?  Watch some videos online and try to internalize some algorithms?  Solve a cube in under five minutes?  Take one apart?  Only you can decide.   My thought is that putting this decision down in writing–even if it will change a few days from now–can give kids more empowered visions of themselves and of mathematics.  That’s what I’m betting on, anyway.

I’ll have a poster-sized copy of the bingo board on the wall of my classroom.  When a kid completes a goal in one of the categories, she’ll get to write her name into that square on the poster.  She’ll also get to share her accomplishment with her classmates, either by announcing it, making a presentation, or displaying it in the room.

It may feel to you—I know it does to me—that in my description of this supposedly free-choice time, I’m emphasizing structure over freedom.  My excuse is that I don’t have live, kicking, and wooly fifth graders to share this stuff with yet, to run rampant in my classroom and test and break and remold my structures—until they aren’t really even structures any more, but rather the culture of our classroom.  Right now, the build-up of thoughts and hopes just lies in potentia, waiting to go live and spring forth.  I can’t wait to share with you the awesome things my students do!

There’s a lot of good stuff on that list of activities, and I’m excited to uncover, stumble across, and get suggestions for even more.  And I feel that the list is not only good, but that it includes things that often have no place in our mathematics classrooms.  And so if I may…

<ascends soapbox>

We as teachers, by the tasks and opportunities we provide in our classrooms, define what mathematics is to our students.  If we don’t model activities like reading books about math, creating mathematical games, or communicating with “outside” people who are interested in math, then our students may never encounter these activities.  And to me, that’s a lot scarier than a kid missing out on any particular fact, theorem, or skill.

<descends soapbox>

To conclude, let me say that I’m working to find ways of incorporating more free-choice time into my high school courses, but this is a challenge.  While I’ve made room for choice in my high school courses, free-choice feels more difficult.  In the usual mold, middle school is more student-centered, while high school is more content-centered.  Still, just typing this out has got me thinking about how I might construct a similar board for my high schoolers to encourage them to try out different kinds of tasks over the course of the year in a non-deadline way.  Stay tuned for that, and for lots of sharing of how free-choice goes down with my fifthies!

At the moment, though, I would love to hear your suggestions for pursuits for my middle schoolers to take on.  Help that list grow!

Free-Choice Time: Origins

As I mentioned in a previous post, having regular free-choice time for my students has become an important part of my middle school classes.  (Plans are still simmering for bringing free-choice into my high school classes more explicitly.)  Last year was my first go at this.  My original inspiration for sharing free-choice time with students probably sprung from a number of influences, including The Open Classroom by Herbert R. Kohl and Mindstorms by Seymour Papert.  As I remember it, however, the notion really crystallized for me when my mom, who is an elementary school librarian, told me about a way that she helps her students expand their reading horizons.

Mom and me

Mom and me, bundling up for the harsh Louisiana winter.

Now you’d think that picking library books would have a lot of choice built into it, and you’d be right.  However, the circumstances surrounding selection can affect what choice (and reading) feel like to kids.  You may be familiar with the Accelerated Reader program.  I did it when I was in elementary school, and for me it felt like an add-on.  Whenever I happened to read a book that was a part of the Accelerated Reader program, I took a short computerized test on it and accrued “points”.  There were incentives involved, but it didn’t wholly shape my reading experience.  In the two decades since, the AR program has evolved from being an add-on to a core concept, at least in some schools.  My mom found that her students had been trained to seek out books that were in their AR reading level range—which could be something as specific as 3.2 to 3.6.  I know—it sounds almost like a horror story.

My mom worried that the narrow focus that these kids had on their reading levels was getting in the way of their relationship with reading.  In an effort to help kids to stretch themselves as readers, she designed a “bingo card” with a different genre of book in each square—science fiction, poetry, biography, and so on.  This allowed kids to keep track of the genres they had read.  Over time, she more often heard kids asking for help to find a mystery novel rather than a 3.2 to 3.6 book.  She was fostering personal, eclectic choice just by giving kids a different window into the selections they were making.  (I think there was also a reward for bingo “black-outs,” which certainly didn’t hurt.)

There was already room for choice in my mom’s library.  Unlike the status quo in most math classrooms, she didn’t have to make a conscious effort to install choice.  What was needed was curation of the available resources—a reframing of the decision-making of her students.  By imposing a small amount of structure, she actually gave them more power to find things that they liked and to pursue them.

I think that before my mom shared this organizing principle with me, free-choice sounded very amorphous and abstract.  Even with my experiences at free-wheeling Saint Ann’s, it was unclear to me what–if anything–students would do without direction from me.  Somehow, what my mom said made it click for me that free-choice isn’t the same thing as structurelessness–that choice at its best happens in a context.  In my next post I’ll go into some details of how I’ve used and am planning to use this bingo card idea in my middle school math classes to help create context for free-choice time.