Thursday I read this from Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer): An Aggravating and Energizing Hypothetical. And I commented on it.
Today I read this from Adam Percival (@ampercival): Blending Learning will bring big changes. And I commented on it.
I’ve been pretty forthcoming about my thoughts about the needed shake-up in the traditional look of math classes for a while now. This blended learning phenomenon is really getting the discussion going. That can be healthy. Just so we are on the same page, I’m going to steal from Mr. Percival, that blended learning is “classes taught partially online, partially in-person.”
And in the mathematics field, the discussion is never… uh… healthier(?) than when we all get to talking about Khan Academy (@KhanAcademy): The one-stop, YouTube-based, fix-it-all for struggling learners everywhere.
Now, to put it mildly, the jury is still out on whether or not Khan Academy helpful or desirable. Robert Talbert’s Report “Does Khan Academy help learners?” casts a bit of doubt, but leaves it open. Also, for a good time, check out blog posts about Khan Academy and read the comments (this post, for example).
So, what about blended learning? Well, my teaching experiences, conversations I’ve had, reading I’ve done and talks I’ve heard have utterly convinced me of one incredibly important point.
When it comes to Algebra, students struggle because they are disengaged. DIS… EN… GAGED… period. They aren’t learning because we aren’t teaching them in a way that draws them in. There it is.
If blended learning is prepared to deal with that problem, then I think we may be onto something. My contention with Khan Academy (and similar services) is that they are assuming the wrong thing. They are assuming that students are inherently self-motivated (certainly true in some cases, certainly not true in other cases) and that we are trying to teach material too fast. (The YouTube lecture lobby gets a ton of mileage out of the ability to pause a presentation and rewatch.)
As I see it, those are not the problems. The problem is with engagement. From my location in the cheap seats, the biggest bang for the professional development buck comes from developing the means to engage students into algebra learning. Draw them in. Sell it. Make it interesting. The question of Khan Academy (and similar services) isn’t whether or not its cost-effectiveness is going to muscle out traditional classrooms.
Whether or not Khan Academy (and similar services) becomes the tool that finally breaks through the wall of disengagement that the 21st century teenager has built remains to be seen. I am not convinced Khan Academy (and similar services) can do that to the typical unmotivated student, but I’ve been wrong before.
In the end, it all comes down to this: If there is to be a magic bullet that solves the problem of the struggling American algebra student, then it will be the system/program/model/philosophy that solves the problem of the disengagement of the American algebra student.