Khan and other Education “Revolutions”

Just out of curiosity I looked up the word “revolution” on today.  Here are the top three definitions:


[rev-uh-loo-shuhn] ; noun

1. an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.

2. Sociology. a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence. Compare social evolution.

3. a sudden, complete or marked change in something: e.g., the present revolution in church architecture.

Now, I’m as interested in a good revolution as the next guy.  But I think sometimes in education we use the term “revolution” and later on it turns out we should have used the term “fad.”  Remember left-right brain strategies?  How about learning styles?  Multisensory education?  Discovery learning?  Inventive spelling?  The infamous whole language?

It seems that there are times when perhaps we should have waited for the evidence to declare a revolution.

And I would suggest that the same holds true for the latest education “revolution,” Khan Academy.  I expect this opinion to be controversial.  I have had so many personal conversations with teachers, colleagues, friends about Khan, especially after the 60 Minutes piece aired.  It seems a very divisive topic, indeed.   Many seem to love Khan or hate it….few seem to have a neutral opinion…or at least few with neutral opinions are expressing them.    One teacher acquaintance told me that she doesn’t have “time” to see whether or not it works.  She’s just going to start using it because it’s really cool and seems like a great resource.  On the flip side, a principal friend of mine told me, “Grrr…the Khan Academy!  MAYBE that is indeed the future of education, but I need to see some actual evidence!”

I’m happy to take a wait-and-see approach to Khan and other innovators in the education space.  We need new ideas and Sal Khan seems to be a pretty smart guy.  And I think there is real potential in his solution if it is improved to the point where it can produce demonstrable change in student performance.  But I start to worry a heck of a lot when I see everyone jumping on the bandwagon, making their decisions based only on opinions, enthusiasm and a piece on 60 Minutes!  Remember ‘Exercise in a Bottle’?  I think we all know what happened to THAT!

So tell me, what do YOU think?  What are some of your favorite educational fads to hate?  And what advice would you give to Sal Khan, if you had a minute to bend his ear, about what YOU need to see to be sold on his solution?

The image of Che Guevara used here may be found at

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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12 Responses to Khan and other Education “Revolutions”

  1. fran says:

    I think there never has been and will never be in a democratic society a one method that fits all. Each student is unique and each teacher has her/his own style, so there is room for many different approaches – key word is different, not better, not worse. I’ve seen kids learn to read with a phonetic approach. I’ve seen them learn with whole word approach. I’ve seen them learn with a whole language approach. Maybe what determines success is how much the teacher believes in the approach she uses and how skilled she is connecting with students and how aware she is of her student’s best learning method. Something to mull over.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Fran-

      I’m not actually suggesting that one and only one method should be used with all students. But I am advocating for focusing on using methods that have been validated experimentally and can demonstrate, with student performance data, that they work.

      I have worked with teachers who believe that the approach they use works, but the data don’t bear that out. And I’ve worked with teachers who do NOT believe a method is working until they are presented with the data showing change in student performance. It is just too difficult for people to keep track of all of this in their heads and intuition and “belief” is too unreliable. So at the end of the day (and in this post) what I am advocating for the most is data-based decision making. And those data should be observable, measurable, student performance data. Not self-reports or opinions of what is effective.

  2. I too have been hearing a lot about Sal Kahn and his academy, and while I certainly don’t have enough information, or first hand knowledge to make a definitive judgement about this approach, I certainly applaud the effort to do something different. This may or may not be the answer — maybe it’s PART of the answer. Either way, this certainly has people talking and thinking about what changes need to take place in the field of Education. I, like you, don’t agree with the idea that just because it’s “new” it should be considered the “magic medicine” that will cure all that ails the world of education.

    As a former Kindergarten Teacher, with special training in Early Literacy, I really feel a duty to put my two cents in when it comes to Whole Language and Inventive Spelling. Like everything else, there were people on the fringes who only looked at the extremes, and at people who were claiming that because they read “big books” to their students that they were Whole Language teachers. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no way that anyone can learn to read without specific instruction about letters, phonemes and how combine for form words (phonics). In my classroom we had lots of learning about letters, and what sound you make when you see this letter, and what sound do you say when you see these two letters together etc…. We also read books. A LOT of books — big books, little books and all of the sizes in between. We talked about context, and what can we tell about this story by looking a the pictures (a picture walk), and let’s use the illustration to give us hints about what some of the words on this page are. Reading and literacy are about much more than “word calling” (800-Hooked-On-Phonics anyone?) and being able to merely sound out words. True literacy means being able to extract meaning from the written word. There are a lot of strategies that good readers use to gain this meaning.

    Conveying meaning brings me to my next comment about Inventive Spelling. This is an effective tool for your readers and writers if it is implemented and supported correctly. In my class we had journal writing time every day. For 6 years, I taught 4 and 5 year-olds, some who were second-language-learners. Everything they did during journal time was called writing and illustrating. There were many, many illustrations, and a lot of talking about what they were writing. Sometimes they asked me to write down the words that they told me about their illustrations. I always put their words in quotes to denote that I was recording their thoughts. This was an important step to reinforce that what they said could be recorded and read again at another time, and the meaning would be the same. My next prompt was to encourage them to “Write the sounds that you hear.” Not surprisingly, a recurring theme was dinosaurs. A common spelling of “dinosaur” in our classroom was “dnsr” — they wrote the sounds that they heard. This actually shows a pretty deep understanding of letters, the sounds that they represent and how words convey meaning about images. The consonants always came first, and then the vowel sounds. My students knew the difference between “kid spelling” and “book spelling”. They knew that if they wanted to “publish” their stories, that we would work through the rough draft (their journal entries) and produce a final draft. This is what good, successful writers do — ask Stephen King or Janet Evanovich. So Inventive Spelling in my classroom was treated a step in the writing process. It gave these early language learners ownership of this process, and allowed them to express their creativity with confidence. Think of it this way: if a baby points to a bottle and says “ba-ba”, chances are her mother doesn’t say “I’m sorry honey, you can’t have anything to drink until you can say the word ‘bottle’ properly.” Inventive Spelling is about accepting approximations, and supporting the writer through the process.

    I hope that this provides some insight into some early literacy tenets that often get a bad wrap. It’s like I said on your earlier post “It’s a tool and is only as good as the person who uses it.”

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Erin-

      Your response was so interesting to me because I have different understandings about the foundations and philosophies underlying Whole Language and Inventive Spelling.

      The following link gives a more comprehensive argument than I will give here (, but I will say that my understanding is that Inventive Spelling encourages RANDOM and ECCENTRIC spelling of words, not the spelling out of words based on how they sound. In fact, encouraging kids to spell words based on how they sound and then reinforcing successive approximations of correct spelling is actually a phonics-based technique. Inventive spelling does not provide correction to spelling errors because the Whole Language philosophy that undergirds it is that this provides too much stress for the child and hinders the ability to learn to spell. Based on your description, it doesn’t sound like you were actually using the inventive spelling technique. Interestingly, the preponderance of evidence against inventive spelling and in favor of phonics-based spelling is so strong that the state of California stipulated that schools were not allowed to use budget for methods that included inventive spelling.

      The same is true of teaching spoken language. In your example, the mother is quite unlikely to require the new babbler to say the full word “bottle,” but typically the mother does say “bottle” in response to the child’s request “ba-ba.” Through a sequence of successive approximations the speaker’s emission is shaped until “bottle” is pronounced accurately. But in this case, as in your spelling example, the point is that there is a correct pronunciation that is the goal. An invented word for bottle is not accepted as equally valid, and as the pronunciation is shaped the previously accepted and less accurate version are no longer accepted.

      I’m glad you brought up the invented spelling example because it’s a great example of a technique that has not been validated experimentally as effective. The techniques that HAVE been validated experimentally are those that utilize systematic and direct spelling instruction.

      Can you do me a favor and read what is written in the link and tell me if you identify what you did in your classroom with the actual “Inventive Spelling” technique? Or do you think you were just accepting early versions of phonics-based spelling and then shaping those constructed sequences of letters?


      • So, I am finally getting back to you on this. Who would have thought that two little capital letters would make such a difference? Thanks for pointing out that Inventive Spelling was a movement/philosophy and what I was doing with my students was invented spelling. I had no idea that there was a group of people telling kids that random stings of letters they had written actually “spelled” something. Now, I am a big proponent of finding a way to make a positive comment about a student’s attempt to do anything, in this case, spelling. I would say something along the lines of “You did a great job of writing all of those capital letters!” and then talk a little bit more to find out what they were trying to write and guiding the student to resources so they could copy words etc…

        I guess the bottom line is that as an Educator, I didn’t expect perfection on the first attempt, but neither did I tell a child they were doing something when they actually were not. I accepted and encouraged approximation, and guided the student to a final and accurate result.

        Sorry for any confusion I may have caused! Thanks for the insight, discussion and additional resources.

  3. Ellis says:

    I haven’t seen the 60 minutes, so I can’t speak to that. I found out about Khan from a friend who lives here & went to UCSD with us! He was helping his kid place out of a math class and went to look up a concept & got stuck looking at more & more. I am personally not looking at Khan to educate my children but to be another option for information in this world- a new form of encyclopedia. I like the idea of of how it started, I like the idea that it is growing, I like the idea that it is free to the public (that has access to the internet). I am not really a fad person these days, I assume a grain of salt with almost everything I encounter. I don’t expect anything to be a magic pill… but I do like options, information & Khan!

  4. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now
    each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the
    same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Many thanks!

    • karen mahon says:

      i’m so sorry for that! yes, i’ll unsubscribe you from comments now!

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi again- I don’t see a way for me to remove you from your subscription to comments. Through my dashboard I can’t even see who is subscribed to comments, only those who are subscribed to the blog itself. Do you see a way to unsubscribe from comments in the email you are getting?

  5. Hmm it seems like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any recommendations for newbie blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.

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