Khan and Papert: Transformational Computers vs. Transformational Computing

In doing some MOOC reading I again got into the comments section to find a difference of opinion, this time on Khan Academy, a content delivery system many xMOOCs herald as inspiration for their wares. I evoked Seymour Papert’s 1991 book The Children’s Machine, specifically his kitchen math discussion, in an attempt to look at why a lecture-based mathematics instruction often doesn’t translate into understanding math for application in life. Another commenter provided this Papert quote in saying that Khan and Papert would agree on the benefit of Khan Academy:

“There won’t be schools in the future…. I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum-all of that. The whole system is based on a set of structural concepts that are incompatible with the presence of the computer. …But this will happen only in communities of children who have access to computers on a sufficient scale.

My response:

1) I have not read all of OWS, but I have viewed Khan’s TED talk, a Forbes interview, and a recent Gates Foundation keynote where he discusses his views on the education system, so I feel like I understand his perspective, I just disagree. He looks at edu as a content delivery system…kids come in, get content, show mastery, matriculate. He doesn’t see why that has to follow the Prussian model of formal ed where students are placed in age-based cohorts. For him, the ease of content delivery in numerous ways (he would call it Personalized Learning) makes our current model ineffective at best.

2) Papert believed in constructivism, a learning theory focused on the student as a maker of knowledge (constructivists often talk of knowledge as something everyone creates) through hands-on practical exercise and authentic experimentation that affect the student and his/her environment (crude summary). For Papert, computers were transcendent machines that allowed numerous opportunities for hands-on practical application that changes environment through programming, design and application. The classroom becomes ineffective here because students can create and program with ease, not be lectured to and run through meaningless exercises of drill and kill.

So while Khan and Papert see the computer as transformational, how they get there could not be more different. Khan Academy replaces the teacher for a video, but it’s still lecture. The flipped classroom says you do your homework at school, but if the homework looks like the quiz problems KA generates in their tutorials, it’s just behaviorist assessment of an inauthentic situation. Papert wanted the computer as a machine of creation, not as a replacement of an outdated learning model.

Khan Academy is not new…it’s technology used to do something we’ve been doing for a long time…lecturing at kids and having them do drills to show a competency. Papert wanted knowledge to transform students…not just competent enough to pass an arbitrary exam, but the ability to use the knowledge in a life context as needed.

I watch how-to videos a lot…how to fold a fitted sheet, how to tie a bow tie, how to change my car oil. It provides me a startin point for a skill I need in that moment (but still need practice for). That being said, tying a bow tie won’t help me launch rockets with my son, and folding a fitted sheet won’t help me communicate a thought effectively. The skills we teach youngsters and want our students to learn are those applicable, transferrable cognitive and creative skills. In my life, I never solve for x on paper…I am presented with a problem and have to utilize algebra in my environment to solve. For some kids, switching from the lecture and worksheet to real life is easy peasy, but most struggle, and in effect don’t do well with math. Khan Academy doesn’t change that paradigm, it just cuts out a weaker lecturer for a stronger one, never questioning that this didactic method might not be the best one.

4 thoughts on “Khan and Papert: Transformational Computers vs. Transformational Computing

  1. Mary

    It’s interesting that both Seymour Papert and Sal Khan share experience at MIT in common (See the book One World Schoolhouse (OWS), chapter “My Background as a Student”). A discussion between them would prove very interesting. Hopefully Papert will recover enough from his accident at some point in the future to have this discussion. I believe they share a vision of what education ought to be. There is an opportunity to investigate this by comparing Papert’s Logo programming language and the new Khan Academy Computer Science tutorials.

    I just finished a month of teaching 5th graders to program using the new Khan Academy Computer Science tutorials, function library, and spin off programs. The classroom teacher and I did this to supplement and reinforce the geometry unit the students were learning. In the midst of this activity we realized that many students never understood ordered pairs until they had to create a program to draw triangles. Computer programming is not part of the elementary school curriculum so we were free to try “flipping the classroom”. That is, let the students go at their own pace, mastering as much programming skill as they were able. What we discovered is the students don’t want to stop learning to program. We have given them access to a tool and they have taken responsibility for their own learning. (See the OWS chapter “How Education Happens”).

    Remember Khan Academy is not about watching how-to videos. It’s about wanting to know something and finding a tool that helps you learn.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      I don’t know you or your background, but it sounds like you work with students in some technological capacity and are truly interested in their growth, knowledge and well-being, so while we might disagree on methodology and other things, we have a common goal at heart. I think you should be celebrated for trying to better the lives of the students you see every day.

      The pedagogical problem I have with what you are describing comes to where you might see a commonality between Papert and Khan Academy (KA) — one built a programming language, while the other has built computer programming tutorials (similar things exist at Code Academy). You saw in your analysis that kids really enjoyed learning this, and took the onus themselves. That is awesome, and that’s what a lot of us see when we let kids handle the learning — they really want to learn. My primary background in the classroom is a writing teacher, and I can get kids excited about grammar and vocab the same way you talk about programming. That’s exciting and infectious.

      The difference between Papert and KA, however, is that Logo was an actual language, built of the same ilk as C++, where students could use it to create of their own volition. There is something similar out of MIT’s Media Lab (which is where Papert started, and while both Papert and Khan went to MIT, Khan comes from the MBA part of the school…not a lot of overlap there) called Scratch, which I would encourage you to throw at the kids who really love programming (or try it out for a test-drive as a teacher if your district is supportive). Logo gave kids the opportunity to build on a language with the same basis as C++, making eventual learning of the programming language a much easier affair. Now, I don’t know what programming language KA uses, but if it’s like Code Academy, it’s based around replicating what they provide…build a triangle, draw a house, etc. That’s fine, but until the training wheels come off, we don’t know if they learned in a way to make it applicable in the future. It’s the difference between constructivism (hands-on, free-range learning) versus behaviorism (follow the directions, get the result).

      I admire Sal Khan for his efforts to bring resources to the world, and for his desire to continuously improve education (in the first part of his book; don’t have it in front of me). I don’t like the lack of educational quotation in his book (very few resources), and it ignores 80+ years of progressive research in educational theory and pedagogy. There is a lot of room for improvement, and I hope future iterations of KA utilize some of the volumes of research that are available to KA, which heretofore have been forgotten or ignored.

  2. Abdul Saleh

    I’m not sure that you, Rolin, and Mary are not on the same page. My wife runs a Khan Academy “flipped classroom” in an elementary school in Silicon Valley and she is a very dedicated constructiviist. The children do the Khan lectures and exercises at their own pace and primarily at home and this frees her to run class sessions that are interactive, hands-on, group based and thoroughly constructivist in nature. She and her students love the new format.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      I have no problem with what is termed a flipped classroom — I am humanities trained, and pretty much every course I took from undergrad on was “flipped” — we read before class, discussed and perhaps created during (and continued after). And it sounds like your wife creates rich learning environments for her kids, contextualizing and shaping to the environment. That’s what education should be. Khan Academy doesn’t shape, doesn’t contextualize, and it’s summative materials are aimed at short-term recall. Used as a tool, it’s fine…just like thousands of other learning objects. Adopted as The curriculum or The platform, it is found wanting. And Mr. Khan has no need for the history of educational research that would show him the problems of his system in an effort to improve them. I have problems with a guy who puts down edu research without knowing it yet has no problem with being labeled an educator.


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