Thursday, August 11, 2011

useful & cool (dulce et utile)

I was playing around on Khan Academy (as one does).  As one does if one is unable to block out the world and write a book because unable to leave e-mails unchecked for months on end because there is a book to be launched. ('Publish and be damned' takes on a whole new meaning in these degenerate days.)


What to my wondering eyes should appear!

A couple of weeks ago I was playing around on Khan Academy, reminding myself of really basic stuff, trigonometry, bits and pieces, mostly last used a couple of decades ago, needed for less basic stuff.  The answers to the exercises were multiple choice.

Last night I went back to a couple of these exercises.

They had fixed things that weren't quite right.

Instead of multiple choice answers, the player (erm, student) had blanks to fill in.  The player could also click to get a  list of acceptable formats for answers.

So on the one hand you had to work harder -- had to generate the correct answer rather than picking it off a list -- but on the other hand you were less likely to be penalized for not giving the right answer in the right format.

I told my mother about the Khan Academy the other day.

My grandmother, Blanche Spurrier Marsh, was born in 1900; she was a mathematician.  After majoring in math at Randolph Macon she went on to teach, then to be principal of a school. She then married my grandfather, a Southerner who did not want his wife to work.  My mother was born; my grandfather told my grandmother that she could not do two things.  Her job was to look after the child; she could not also work in a school.  What it turned out to mean was that it was fine for my grandmother to go to a school as a substitute, to help out as a favor, but not to have the advantages of a permanent job. (This would imply she needed to do it for the money.)

My mother was a musical prodigy, but she had no aptitude for mathematics.  My grandmother tried to tutor her.  To this day -- my mother is now 78 -- my mother remembers working on problems in long division at the dining room table.  My mother was then 9 -- this would have been 1942.  My grandmother walked up the stairs to the landing, looked down, said: You'll never be anything but a nincompoop!

(My mother has a phobia of computers.  When things go wrong she does not remember that she played the Ballades of Chopin at her senior recital; she remembers that her mother called her a nincompoop in 1942.)

So, ANYWAY, I talk to my mother about the Khan Academy.

Khan says he started tutoring his cousins by phone, made a few videos as a "nice to have" -- and was told they liked the videos better.  Which, he realized, made sense: they didn't have to expose their ignorance, they didn't have to worry about wasting his time, they could go back, replay, shame no longer got in the way of learning.

I think I thought telling my mother about this wonderful resource would lance the wound. 

Or maybe that if my mother went online and did some exercises THIS would lance the wound.

It seems not to work that way.  

My mother did see at once the value of the resource.  She said you would go into a math class where everyone else understood something, and you would pretend to understand, so you fell further and further behind because no one bothered to explain because you had been pretending to understand.

(She never bothered to look at colleges.  One of her teachers asked her about her plans in 12th grade, and she had done nothing, and he was appalled, and pushed her into an application to Rollins, which had an excellent conservatory -- and so she went to college.  Because she was a musical prodigy, and one of her teachers noticed that something had to be done. I think we can agree an educational system ought not to depend on last-minute saves.)

It may be that you have to see the damage a sense of inadequacy can cause over a lifetime to appreciate the value of the Khan Academy.  Khan himself may be too young to understand the full value of what he is offering.  I looked at these exercises, which had been improved in a few WEEKS, and was charmed, disarmed, and for once, among all the madness, hopeful.

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