The Khan academy and maths for the masses…

Posted by Senay on Nov 15, 2015

The article by Daniel Willingham explores the ideas of whether all people are capable of learning to the same level and what biological and cultural factors are at play in this regard. I found the information about the Mundurucu culture fascinating (and the fact that they only have words for the numbers 1-5). I am aware from previous learning that it is because the numerals we have today in the West (based on Arabic numerals) contain a symbol for “zero” that mathematics advanced so quickly in the cultures that adopted this system. Such a simple concept which we today take for granted.

It is a common conception that all human beings are good at different things, that our brains somehow work in different ways and that inevitably there will be things that some of us are just not good at. Maths is one of those things that it is often said people are either naturally good at or not. Willingham clearly shows that we are all born with an ability to appreciate the concept of number and a sense that number and space are related. The implication is that we do all have the biology to allow us to understand complicated mathematics. I think that the talk by Salman Khan and the Khan Academy he has founded are an example of how all children could be allowed to reach their potential. It is true that many are disadvantaged by the traditional teaching environment, but a more progressive use of technology and the clever monitoring that accompanies it, allows teachers to spend more time interacting with their students in the classroom, as well as highlighting which students are struggling and in which areas.

Willingham’s criticism of traditional text books in relation to their explanations of the “equals” sign echoes the previous criticisms of Dan Meyer in this regard. There is also a clear relationship between Willingham’s ideas about factual vs. procedural vs. conceptual knowledge and the concepts of instrumental and relational understanding previously discussed. The debates surrounding procedural and conceptual learning clearly mirror those surrounding instrumental and relational learning. The inclusion of the concept of factual learning advances these ideas further. It is a simple fact that the more simple material/facts you can recall easily the easier it will be to achieve both procedural/instrumental and conceptual/relational learning. Whilst the latter is clearly desirable it cannot be achieved if the other kinds of learning are overlooked. The Khan Academy concept for this reason is ground-breaking; it allows learners to accumulate knowledge at their own pace; not move on to a new topic until more than a factual understanding has been achieved; tries to ensure that there are no gaps in a student’s knowledge; humanises the classroom and allows more time for the teacher to spend picking up on individual difficulties; and even opens the door for peer on peer support and coaching to create the global one world classroom of Salman Khan’s dreams.


  1. marcus
    20 November 2015

    I think you have summed up the main points of the articles really well in this think-piece, Senay.

    I agree with the advantages that you have outlined in your last paragraph about Khan academy but do you think there are any disadvantages of it? For example, do you think that all students would engage with this type of model?

  2. rajchopra
    22 November 2015

    I liked the introduction of your own knowledge – you mentioned “zero” and the way you tied together this task with Dan Meyer, as well as making the connection to procedural and instrumental learning.

  3. Emma
    22 November 2015

    I like your title Senay! Your positive opinion of Khan Academy comes through in your think-piece. I agree that it is a great way to try and fill the gaps that are so often left due to the way our curriculum and classes work. I personally, would have found it useful, especially during GCSE years. I would be interested to hear more regarding your concept of peer on peer support and coaching in association with Kahn Academy.

  4. pepsmccrea
    23 November 2015

    Some great thinking here. You have clearly engaged with both articles and thought carefully about how they link with previous ideas explored.

    In future, you should try to look at both the pros and the cons in trying to figure out your position on an idea or initiative (eg. Khan Academy).

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