Khan we all do maths

Posted by Raj on Nov 22, 2015

Khan we all do maths

When Sal Khan started posting videos on Youtube it was an altruistic act. His cousins needed help with maths and he used the Internet to as the vehicle that would carry this information. Teachers, I suggest, have had similar experiences when explaining a mathematical concept to a student results in a “Ohhh … I get it now” eureka reaction, this is nourishment to the soul, job satisfaction, it beats making widgets for a living. This is where his journey started and now a million students a month tune in to his Khan academy videos.

Khan’s view that students should have a comprehensive knowledge of a topic and not plough through on to the next one is an interesting one. He suggests that even if a student attains 90% in a test there may be a ‘Swiss cheese’ element to students’ knowledge, which later down the line will obstruct their progress. What is the 10% they didn’t master and is it significant ? I have seen this in the classroom where students trying to answer, for example, an algebra question are au fait with balancing equations, or are trying to get to grips with it, interrupt their flow of thought as they struggle with the times table. The self-paced nature of these videos means that a student can gain confidence in all aspects of maths, after all, we all struggle with different things. More importantly, students that may have initially appeared to be less gifted than others can gain ground and be on a par with the so-called ‘gifted’ students. This is a hugely significant development.

In his article, Professor Daniel T. Willingham discusses the notion that some people just can’t do maths. This is a valid point. If it is true that some people cannot do maths, then perhaps, they should not be put under pressure to do something that is impossible. On the other hand, if everyone can do maths then there must be some strategy that allows students and teachers to achieve their goals.

Studies have shown that humans are indeed born with an appreciation of numbers and space. Interestingly, ten-month old children can also tell the difference between 1 & 2 but are less sure when comparing 2 & 4. Given the evidence it is incumbent on the teacher that every effort is made to use methods that will engage students in lessons and thus learn. It goes without saying that students need to make an effort. As a teaching assistant I often try and encourage a student to participate in a lesson, and hear the reply, “but Sir, I’m rubbish at maths.” In practice, when a student is persuaded to make an attempt he or she are at least as good as the other students in the class.

Professor Willingham’s article, referring to three types of knowledge:

  • Factual (memorised information)
  • Procedural (following an algorithm)
  • Conceptual (appreciate concepts, such as -1 x- 1= +1)

ties in with Khan’s assertion that students should understand a topic fully before moving on. I agree that it is difficult to progress if there are gaps in knowledge. A connection can also be made with Ken Robinson’s views that it is wrong to compartmentalise academic and non-academic students. This is a lesson as student teachers we need to remember too.









  1. Dom
    22 November 2015

    Raj, I liked your post. The idea that if some people can’t learn maths then they should not be put under pressure is comprehensible. By reading Willingham’s article we have discovered that everyone is capable to learn Mathematics, but my question is, do you think that it is important to teach maths to students because they need that sort of knowledge, e.g. to know all the syllabus because they will need to apply it in their future jobs, or because by doing something as much logical as mathematics while they are young they will develop their critical thinking?

    • rajchopra
      23 November 2015

      Thanks for your comments Dom. I think its important that students “learn to learn.” No matter what their future vocation is they will have to learn new things; not be too daunted in order to progress and treat difficult things as a challenge. If they say, “I’m no good at maths,” it tantermount to giving up before they start and impeding their progress.

  2. Sergio
    22 November 2015

    I like the point you made about students learning being interrupted by the gaps in their times-tables as it’s something that I’ve encountered a lot in schools too! Definitely exemplifies what Willingham is talking about! If they can’t recall their times-tables from memory they’ll leave more room for error and confusion.

    I also relate to your experience dealing with students saying “I’m rubbish at Maths”. However in my experience there are many students who have very weak mathematical skill or bad memories that are still at the bottom of the class when prompted, so I’m curious what approaches you take with those students.

    • rajchopra
      23 November 2015

      Thanks for your reply Sergio. I’m wary of of the fact that some students may not have not been engaged with maths, literally, for years. If you can inspire them to be intereseted in a topic, there is no better feeling as a teacher (other than a wage rise and praise from your peers). It’s wrong to believe they will all be able to do ‘A’ level maths in the future, but equally, it is wrong to believe they can’t move one or more steps forwards with your help.

  3. pepsmccrea
    23 November 2015

    Good to see you engaging with both articles, and taking in their ideas with an open mind. In future, you should try to look at the cons and well as the pros of any idea before reaching a considered conclusion.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.