I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on the average we get 2% efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture... where it should be possible to obtain 100% efficiency. (Thomas Edison, 1922, cited in Teachers and machines: the classroom use of technology since 1920, by Larry Cuban).
Generations, young boys twenty two or twenty three, and my generation, the generation of Rav Hayyim Brisker, of the Shakh… of Rabbenu Tam, Rav Hai Ga’on, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Elazar, and Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai… We all speak one language… We all chat. We all laugh. We all enjoy the company. We all pursue one goal. We all are committed to a common vision and we all operate with the same categories. There is Mesorah collegiality, friendship, comity between old and young between antiquity and Middle Ages and modern times… This unity of generations, this march of centuries, this conversation of generations this dialogue between antiquity and present will finally bring the redemption of the Jew. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Uniting of Generations-Pidyon Haben”, 1974, cited in The Role Of Teacher and Student in Jewish Education According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Tzvi Pittinsky)
It is difficult for a student of any age to learn by listening alone, by passive absorption. He needs activity, to exercise his abilities, to overcome difficulties, to wrestle with the subject matter until he overcomes it. Passivity in class weakens the muscles, saps the student's spiritual abilities which are given no opportunity for exercise and leads to drowsiness and sleep. (Nehama Leibowitz in Torah Insights, 1995)
I soon discovered that people all over the world were watching my YouTube videos. More important, teachers were using them to change the basic rhythm of their classrooms. They asked their students to watch the videos at home and then used class time for actual problem-solving. Instead of 30 students listening passively to a one-size-fits-all lecture, they were learning at their own speed. Some could focus on filling in gaps in their arithmetic while others were able to jump ahead to trigonometry -- and it all took place in the same classroom. It is often said that technology makes modern life less personal, but in this case, it has allowed teachers to take a big step toward humanizing their instruction. (Salman Khan in Turning the Classroom Upside Down from The Wall Street Journal, 4/9/2011)Last week, in the spirit of Salman Khan and the "flipped classroom model", I flipped my blog and, instead of sharing my thoughts, I merely described Khan's approach and asked for your feedback. You can read this posting together with the interesting responses that I received in What do you think of Salman Khan and the "Flipped Classroom"?
In analyzing my own opinion on this approach, I am torn. In my heart, I would love for this approach to work. Who would not want to use technology to allow students to learn at their own pace, facilitate more individualized teacher-student instruction, and thus humanize the classroom? Salman Khan elaborates on his approach in his recent Wall Street Journal Editorial, Turning the Classroom Upside Down and in an interview that appears below:
However, upon further thought, I wonder how this would work in a Yeshiva Day School setting for multiple subjects in both General and Judaic Studies. Rabbi Yisroel Pollack, sent me the following blog posting which lists, in excruciating detail, the many hurdles which would need to be addressed in trying to introduce the "flipped classroom" systematically into a school. You can read it here: To flip or not to flip.
I am worried that the tremendous enthusiasm currently surrounding this new approach of using online video to "flip the class" is eerily similar to the hype that surrounded earlier technologies that were supposed to revolutionize education. Larry Cuban, noted technology skeptic, in his classic book on this subject, Teachers and machines: the classroom use of technology since 1920, describes a cycle that new technologies followed. It begins with big promises that a new technology will transform education. This is followed by teachers failing to adopt this new approach. Instead of blaming the technology, administrators cite a lack of sufficient funding and teacher training for the failure, and the cycle continues. I have described this cycle in a Prezi that I created on The Rationale for Using Educational Technology. Will efforts to bring the Khan Academy into schools follow this same cycle?
My misgivings are both practical and fundamental. On a practical level, is it possible for students to watch 10-20 minute videos for each of their classes in a Jewish middle school or high school where students study, on average, 8-9 subjects a day? This would require 80 to 180 minutes of homework a night just watching online videos!
Furthermore, I wonder if this approach will work for the majority of our subjects. Even the Khan Academy only has videos on math and science. In researching this posting, I watched a number of these videos. I found the math videos to be compelling especially when accompanied by the online activities that Khan Academy offers. However, I did not think the videos in biology were as worthwhile.
The reason I think hints to a fundamental difference between mathematics and almost every other subject. Math is almost entirely about skills acquisition. One learns the skills to solve an equation, practices that skill set on a number of similar problems, and then moves on. These skills are often sequential and cumulative. The analogy that Salman Khan makes to riding a bicycle in his TED video is very apt. Learning to do math seems very similar to learning to ride a bike. But how many other subjects are like this? Certainly, Chumash and Gemara have skills but these skills are intertwined with concepts, ideas, questions, answers, and proofs. Can a Khan type of approach really do justice to this?
On a more fundamental level, I wonder if watching videos about Gemara, Chumash, and Navi prior to class will really be that compelling. In the passages that I began this discussion with, I quoted from The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who describes learning as a dialogue between teacher and student, and with all of the generations of Torah scholars that preceded them. This is the way that we Jews have been learning for time immemorial. It is the approach of the Ba'ayot De'Abbaye Ve'Rabba, the Socratic method of questioning and answering, the Shakla VeTarya, that has made Limud Torah so unique and enjoyable. Can this really be given justice in a YouTube video? As Rabbi Pollack said in his comment to my previous posting, would this not take away the geshmak in learning?
Nehama Leibowitz, who I also mentioned above, cited a different issue. The worst type of learning by everyone's admission is passive absorption or as Salman Khan derisively describes, the "one-size-fits-all lecture". So we are going to solve this problem by having students watch a video lecture at home? What more passive experience could there be! Furthermore, Khan makes a false dichotomy between the "one-size-fits-all lecture" which he believes is the primary mode of instruction today and his approach where students watch the lecture at home and then collaboratively solve problems in school. I do not think that this is a valid description of most teaching and learning in Yeshiva day schools today.
I will use my own classroom as an example. I rarely lecture. I ask questions that students must respond to in writing or through class discussions. I call on students to read. I require students to pose questions to me and to each other. I assign chavruta work in which students work in pairs. I give projects in which students learn much of the material on their own. I use interactive activities on the Smart Board, show videos, manipulate text to find key words and concepts etc. etc. etc. I don't think my class is unique. This is the way any good teacher teaches.
I am very afraid that a Khan Academy type of approach will merely relegate me to a talking head or worse, a computer technician behind a screen watching the "data" come in as students perform rote exercises so that I can "intervene" for the student with the red danger line. This is not education. As I described in my previous posting on Skype in the Classroom, no technology should ever be used to replace good teachers. That is what I am worried Khan Academy could become.
I salute Salman Khan. He has designed an excellent supplement to classroom instruction. It could serve as a great review after the lesson, or for the student who needs extra support, or even, occasionally, for the student demanding further enrichment. But it should never replace the dialogue between teacher, student, and text that has always been the hallmark of every good Judaic Studies classroom.