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Inspiration and Khan Academy

Thursday, June 28th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the work of Khan Academy. I’ve felt uncomfortable with the success of Khan, and uncomfortable with my discomfort: why do I have a strong, negative, and emotional reaction to something that’s receiving so much praise and respect?

I thought, for a long time, that it was the lecture format.

I now think it’s something else: the assumption of motivation. Lectures (both in person and online) assume that the viewer wants to learn. Baked into this assumption is a more subtle idea: that the viewer wants to integrate the new material into their existing view of the world.

I think, broadly, that’s false.

Educational scientists use words like active and passive to describe the nature of learning. Active can then be described with more nuance: compare collaborative learning (where students work together to solve a problem), cooperative learning (where students work together but ultimately solve a problem on their own), and problem-based learning (where actual examples are introduced and then solved over the course of learning). (pdf link) Cases – the norm in business school – come to life as problem-based learning through skilled delivery from a master teacher. Projects are the basis of most design and architecture education, and typically include collaborative, cooperative, and problem-based learning. While engineering is typically taught as a private endeavor, paired programming is gaining recognition as an effective form of learning for both lower and higher level topics of computer science. The “Socratic method” – a form of systematic questioning – forces students to think critically and then construct a compelling argument to substantiate a point; it’s a common way of learning law.

All of these examples show how teaching can encourage sensemaking. Sensemaking is a complicated name for a process of integration: it’s how we take new ideas and meld them with our existing world-view.

My interest in sensemaking began as I examined how designers explored new topics quickly. Each time a designer gets a new project – say, to redesign a shipping website, or to create an iphone app for banking – they need to rapidly understand enough about the subject matter to propose beneficial changes. This process happens most effectively through apprentice-based learning in context. Sensemaking, for designers, is about working alongside an expert, asking them questions as they work, trying things, and building models that illustrate existing and optimal approaches. A designer making a banking app would benefit from working alongside a banking teller to serve customers, from standing in line with a customer as they fill out a deposit slip, from sitting with a loan officer as they formulate mortgage agreements, and so-on.

The larger idea of sensemaking, outside of the discipline of design, recognizes that learning happens through conversation. I don’t necessarily mean a literal conversation, although that’s how Karl Weick describes it. I also mean a “conversation” with a model as it is being built, as described by Daniel Russell.  All of the various perspectives of Sensemaking acknowledge that it’s an active process, and there’s two salient points here. First, learning has to be active in order for Sensemaking to occur. Second, the active part of a learning experience occurs inside of the learner. Put an apathetic thirteen year old in the middle of the most active and vivid chemistry experiment in the world, and if they aren’t interested, they won’t learn a thing.

Consider that, for many of you, you just heard the work “Sensemaking” for the first time; it’s a new idea. It won’t be meaningful to you until you find a way to integrate it with your existing view of the world. You might find this blog post inspiring enough that you reflect on your existing learning style, consider how Sensemaking works, and then come to a new conclusion of your own. But I bet you won’t, because being interested is exhausting. It takes effort. It usually takes a human as a support structure. It’s one reason why we have therapists, coaches, and consultants. It’s why we have TED and PopTech. It’s the only real reason why we have teachers.

The missing part of Khan Academy, and the missing part of online learning, and the missing part of blended, or flipped, or hybrid learning, is the passion. Passion can come from inside. For lots of people, it comes from outside. It comes from heros, and inspirational talks, and stories of failure and success, and through competition and collaboration. It comes through hundreds of different forms for hundreds of different people. For some people, it does come through online learning. But my guess is that it’s a very small amount of people, people who are extremely introverted, and thoughtful, and reflective, and self-motivated. Further, I bet there’s a correlation between those people and people who excel at engineering. Khan Academy is being built by a team of extraordinarily bright engineers who are building for people just like them.

Online tools have the potential to be inspirational and drive the type of passion described above. Facebook has illustrated how engaged we can be with digital. The medium is not the problem. But a digital medium, in the context of learning, can’t yet adapt to individual passion drivers: it can’t learn to inspire.

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