Friday, March 11, 2011

6th Grade Math

I was watching a video from TED this week from the Bill Gates’ TED conference on education that featured a guy I had never heard of -- Salmon Khan.

Salman Khan is the founder and faculty of the Khan Academy ( a not-for-profit organization with the mission of providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere. It now consists of self-paced software and, with over 1 million unique students per month, the most-used educational video repository on the Internet (over 30 million lessons delivered to-date). All 2000+ video tutorials, covering everything from basic addition to advanced calculus, physics, chemistry and biology, have been made by Salman.

Prior to the Khan Academy, Salman was a senior analyst at a hedge fund and had also worked in technology and venture capital. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, an M.Eng and B.S. in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, and a B.S. in mathematics from MIT.

Remember this guy. I think a lot of people are going to be talking about him after this TED talk.

Khan’s “pioneering” idea is to use technology to humanize the classroom and help students learned at their own pace. Especially math.

It brought back memories of 6th grade math for me. Sixth grade was the only year I ever liked math. My teacher was Sr. Katherine, a School Sister of Notre Dame, who was fairly young. I went to school in the 60’s and early 70’s. Programmed, individualized learning was all the rage. In 6th grade we learned many things but the big things we were supposed to master were fractions and decimals/percentages. And I did! I’m still fairly good at fractions and percentages and it is all due to 6th grade math.

We had 42 kids in our classroom. I don’t mean we had 42 kids in my class; we had about 84 kids in my class. The class was divided into two classrooms and we had 42 kids to a room every year I was in grade school – from 1st grade through 8th grade.

42 kids in a classroom is really not conducive to instruction. It helped that we had nuns who ruled with an iron fist but even nuns couldn’t create extra minutes in an hour.

Sr. Katherine, like other teachers, tried to work around this problem by setting up programmed learning so that kids learned how to teach themselves and she could spend her time with kids who needed extra help. She set up a system where we learned “packets” of information. (She didn’t make it up, packets were used a lot back then.)

In class the student would worked through a packet by herself. The student had background/explanatory readings, exercises, and a test to take. You practiced until you were ready to take the test. If you passed, you moved on to the next packet. If you didn’t, you had additional packet material you worked through. You couldn’t move on to the next packet until you mastered the packet your were working on and had a grade that showed mastery. If you failed a packet more than twice you had to go to “class” which was over in one side of the classroom and involved Sr. Katherine going over the material with you and other students who were working at your pace.

It was great. I’m a self-motivator and I could go over things until I learned them and then take the test. I really nailed fractions and percents. That was the only time in my life I ever liked taking math because it was the only time I felt like I really learned what I was supposed to learn AND there was no one looking over my shoulder judging me on how fast or how slow I was learning it.

I even used to stay after school a few days a week and work on packets. Sr. Katherine, being a nun, had no life of her own. She lived in the convent across the street and of course she could work in the classroom until 4:30 every day so kids who needed extra help or who had detention could be there with her. That was the year my mom was in the hospital for a while and I didn’t like to go home anyway. So I voluntarily stayed after school a lot, either for sports practice or to practice math.

By the way, if you were a kid who needed extra help it didn’t mean you were slow. It meant you had simply reached a point where you could no longer teach it to yourself – it might mean you were far in advance of the rest of the class. So it was a unifying experience for our class because at any given time there were kids working together after school who learned at entirely different paces.

In 7th grade I arrived to find that Sr. Katherine had been transferred to another school. We were back to learning math the same old way. I was back to not liking math.

Watching Khan’s video, which features 5th graders, I was reminded of 6th grade. He has basically come up with a computerized version of Sr. Katherine’s class. Good for him! It sounds exciting to me. A global, one world classroom. Not a student-to-teacher ratio but a student-to-valuable-teacher-time ratio. A great blend of computer technology and real human contact.