Education Reform: Lectures at Home, Homework at School

Salmon Khan argues that students should watch videos at night and practice during the day.

Ezra Klein passes along Salmon Khan’s TED talk, which he summarizes:

Salmon Khan makes the argument for “for teachers to consider flipping the traditional classroom script — give students video lectures to watch at home, and do ‘homework’ in the classroom with the teacher available to help.” He’s got a good case: In particular, the power to rewind seems like a legitimate gamechanger.

Here’s the talk:

Here’s why I’m skeptical–aside from the fact that Khan is in the business of selling educational videos via his Khan Academy. [Update: I’m reliably informed that Khan isn’t “selling” anything via his nonprofit academy.]

First, it further reinforces the huge advantage that kids with engaged parents and stable home lives have over those less fortunate. Leaving aside that some portion of kids don’t live in homes with easy access to video equipment, a lot have home environments much less conducive to contemplative viewing than others.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it further robs kids of their childhood. Young kids, especially, already spend a ridiculous amount of time doing homework, taking away time when they should be playing with their friends and otherwise exploring the world around them. For older kids, it makes it even harder for them to hold after-school jobs and earn some pocket money.

It’s bad enough that the Information Age has turned most white collar jobs into 24/7/365 connectivity to work. Let’s not do that with the kids. There’s plenty of time to compete with the Chinese later in life.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stipulating that there are reasons to be skeptical of the suggestion, I will say this: homework is often more work for the parents than for the kids. Of my three children one is about to kill both his mother and me (and we are both educators) just getting through his homework (granted, he has some special needs). Another of my kids often requires a great deal of help/cajoling (often forcing me to reteach myself stuff I haven’t had to do in decades). Only one of my kids mostly does his work without input from us (and he gets As in the process).

    I frequently feel like I am going through elementary school/middle school for a second time.

    In short–the idea that they would be doing that work at school with teachers who were aware of the 2011 version of how to do math (vice my late 70s/early 80s vague recollection) has some merit.

    Still, I question the feasibility of the recommendation.

  2. Steven Plunk says:

    So test the hypothesis. Too often it seems education reform is tested on the unwilling and on a grand scale. I know even as a student years ago I grew tired of being a lab rat for educrats looking to make a name for themselves.

  3. steve says:

    Eliminate most of the homework. It is mostly busy work. have the kids read a bit more, especially the classics.


  4. James Joyner says:

    @Steven Taylor:

    Yes, that’s a fair point. We swung from the extreme of 30 years ago where there was little to no homework to piles and piles of it. I agree that puzzling through problems might be a better use of class time. But I’m skeptical of having the kids watch the lectures at home.

    @Steven Plunk

    I agree with hypothesis testing. I just think we should be realistic about likely impact ahead of implementation–and not try experiments with very obvious downsides.

  5. progcivlib says:

    @Steve Plunk – others refer to it as research. You know.. the whole ‘testing the hypothesis” thing you mentioned in your first breath.

  6. john personna says:

    Khan Academy is a IRS-recognized 501c3 not-for-profit organization.

    … and I think Khan himself is an amazing guy. He had the insight to generalize what was working for his family, to see that in the internet age it “scales,” and the gumption to do it.

    Regarding this specific suggestion, it should obviously be piloted somewhere. That’s the only way to know.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    I can’t listen to the talk right now, but watching videos seems like a pretty passive form of education; perhaps we can develop some more interactive form of technology.

  8. john personna says:

    BTW, I’ve watched a few Khan courses. I thought these were fun:

    Cupcakes 1

    Cupcakes 2

    Cupcakes 3

    They illustrate why his accidental “watch the blackboard” metaphor works so well with YouTube bandwidth.

  9. john personna says:

    (I think James is too defensive of an educational status quo, and he certainly illustrates than innovation is scary to him. It is almost a post on innovation, as a bad thing.)

  10. Rob in CT says:

    I’m inclined to agree with what appears to be a concensus here: pilot it and see if it works.

    The question is who does the pilot, obviously.

  11. Michael says:

    A couple of points in support of Khan’s proposal:

    1) Homework requires adult involvement, video lectures don’t. If our concern for children who lack parental involvement, shifting the homework portion to the place where there will be an adult to help them certainly makes sense.

    2) As Steven Taylor pointed out, parents often have to “re-learn” the material before they can help their children with the homework. The best way for them to learn what their children are learning, is to view the same lecture portion their children are viewing.

  12. Michael says:

    Rob, Florida, of course. We always seem to be the ones testing bad ideas before they get implemented nation-wide. The real work isn’t in running a pilot, it’s in realizing when it’s failed and stopping it, rather than expanding it.

  13. john personna says:

    (A pilot test is described in the video above.)

  14. PD Shaw says:

    To follow-up on Michael’s comments:

    I think the nub of the particular issue with home-learning is that the studies all appear to show that parental involvement is one of the most significant factors in education achievement.

    Schools seeking to boost performance (test scores) are all looking for ways to boost parental involvement; homework is one of the easiest.

    It’s certainly not clear to me the extent to which efforts to boost parental involvement enhance achievement or increase pre-existing disparities based upon home life.

    Without knowing the answer to that last question, it’s not clear to me what role the videotapes could play. The videos could reduce the cost of parental involvement down to putting the dvd in a player and going to another room. Or perhaps parental involvement is a red herring and we simply want to extend the length of the instructional day.

  15. john personna says:

    Please guys, don’t comment without exploring Khan academy.

    There are no “tapes.” This was invented on and for YouTube.

  16. PD Shaw says:

    I meant to imply they were Beta Max tapes, better to reach out to the disadvantaged, who may not have access to the intertubes.

    I promise I’ll watch the Cupcakes videos later, and perhaps even make my kids watch.

    But I do think the questions pertaining to why such effective videos need to be shown at home still stands:

    Is it to get parents more involved?
    Is it to lengthen the instructional day?
    Does it stand to make more money this way?

  17. john personna says:

    WTF PD, “make more money”?

    Do you and James have any idea what you are talking about?

    This is (as I mentioned above) a non-profit, which makes every single item of its curriculum free online to anyone.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    I meant make more money in the broad sense, including the school budget. But no, the Non-Profit tag doesn’t mean much to me. Non-profits make profit.

  19. john personna says:

    BTW, isn’t it a little absurd that conservatives have a negative reaction to a private charity which has proven effective relative to the State efforts along the same lines?

    James, are you a closet defender of the State-Education complex?

    Hell, even if it was for-profit, which it absolutely is not, shouldn’t it be the pinko’s objecting? You should actually want industry to prove better than the State.

  20. john personna says:

    “But no, the Non-Profit tag doesn’t mean much to me. Non-profits make profit.”

    Now you are just flapping your keys.

    You haven’t watched the video up top, or a single one of the instructional videos, have you?

  21. James Joyner says:

    @john personna

    My critique above is very limited and applies almost equally to the current system: We’re expecting kids to spend way too much out-of-school time doing schoolwork. 8 hours a day is more than enough.

    My aside about Khan’s conflict of interest here isn’t to suggest he’s getting rich, merely that OF COURSE he’s in favor of this since IT’S WHAT HE DOES. That was mostly throat-clearing, though.

    And I actually have some serious criticisms of the current system that I’ve outlined in previous posts: the failures of Schools of Education and the emphasis on rote and “good behavior” chief among them. I just don’t think that demanding children make learning a 12-hour-a-day job is a great idea. (We’re actually leaning Montessori for our own girls, but have a little while longer to decide.)

  22. Janis Gore says:

    Sounds like a good idea to me. My parents had the pre-war eighth-grade education. Videos that could have been played and played again could have been helpful.

    The problems would have been affording the computer and the Internet service.

  23. Steven Plunk says:

    This conservative isn’t having a negative reaction. My negative comments go back to the 60’s and 70’s when hippie education PhD. candidates were experimenting willy nilly. It was a huge waste of time. Change is likely necessary but for gosh sakes make sure it works for everyone before wholesale changes are made.

  24. Janis Gore says:


  25. @Steve P.:

    Darn hippies!!

    And the ones with the Ph.D.s are the worst.

  26. Janis Gore says:

    Dr. Joyner — girls?

  27. john personna says:

    This is not healthy James:

    My aside about Khan’s conflict of interest here isn’t to suggest he’s getting rich, merely that OF COURSE he’s in favor of this since IT’S WHAT HE DOES. That was mostly throat-clearing, though.

    The guy is helping a lot of kids (and adults), who are watching voluntarily at this point. The in-school use has been piloted in 4 classrooms, but that doesn’t make much of a dent in the 4,899,972 views he’s racked up.

    Think about 4,899,972 views and why you needed to throat-clear.

  28. Michael says:

    Dr. Joyner — girls?

    So it’s not just me? When did it become plural? Are congratulations in order, or was that just a typo?

  29. Michael says:

    @PD Shaw:
    I don’t think the point is to increase the amount of instruction, but rather to re-align the instruction to the parts requiring adult involvement take place at a time and place where the children will have adult involvement.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @Janis Gore and @Michael: We have a second due late June.

    @john personna: Fair enough. I all honestly, I’m only vaguely familiar with Khan’s work and was just acknowledging an obvious retort. No insult was intended.

  31. Michael says:

    @Janis Gore and @Michael: We have a second due late June.

    Ah, well congratulations then.

  32. Janis Gore says:

    Well, then. Congratulations, good luck, yadda, yadda!

  33. Janis Gore says:

    Let’s get back to the topic. I friend is a school teacher — earth science in middle school. Hands-on lab work gives her more satisfaction than lectures.

  34. Janis Gore says:

    I have a friend who is a teacher.

  35. Michael says:

    I have a friend who is an anecdote.

  36. Janis Gore says:

    Aren’t we just discussing a possibility and the reasons we might pursue it?

  37. Janis Gore says:

    Or not.

  38. PD Shaw says:

    JP, I watched the first cupcakes beta max and I and my10-yr old found it wanting. It was like watching someone writing words on a chalk board for the first time. (Oh, I should have done that in red; I’ll just write over it.) My handwriting might be better, and that’s not saying much. No. . . ., it’s an insult.

    Granted, my adolescent self and near-adolescent daughtter may not be the target audiencefor this econ class, But I really thought it was awful. I am optimistic that technology will drive more opportunities, but this . . ..

  39. Janis Gore says:

    Is there something about TED that we should accept the actors as they stand? Isn’t it a concept sort of thing?

    I am reading “We, the Drowned” when I’m not cleaning the refrigerator.

  40. michael reynolds says:

    I’ll spare myself and everyone else my denunciation of schools as currently conceived. Sort version: they’re f**king stupid. This dude is on the right track at least, though not very far along the right track.

    Every nostrum, cure-all, and patent medicine advanced by political groups or parties is pute, distilled, essence of bullshit. The Left’s “Spend more money! More tenure!” is bullshit. And the Right’s “Back to basics! Break the unions!” is bullshit.

    Bothe sides should be embarrassed. No, ashamed. Because this is not about your deeply stupid political agendas, it’s about figuring out how we teach in the age of Google.

    I’m right now, today, trying to find educational solutions for my two very different kids. With absolute flexibility as to where I live, and with a decent amount of money to spend, I still can’t square the circle. The imbecility concentrated in the education sector — public, private, parental and political — boggled the mind.

  41. Janis Gore says:

    I don’t think we do well to underestimate the animus that can appear between a student and a teacher.

    I know well that my math teacher in 6th grade pretty well hated me when I transferred to her lily-white district from a black school. Nothing between us improved when I vomited Salisbury steak outside her classroom one day early in our acquaintance.

  42. Janis Gore says:

    Ms Fanscher was a suitable substitute.

  43. Janis Gore says:

    That’s when my working class education took a downtown. I vowed then to get out of the sytem as fast as I could, and I did.

    Not necessarily to my benefit.

  44. just me says:

    I am not a huge fan of homework. I think it is mostly busy work anyway-especially for elementary aged kids.

    Some kids do need the extra practice at home, but for the most part homework seems to be more oriented towards giving kids something to do than real learning.

    I don’t know that lectures should be at home either.

  45. john personna says:

    Khan stumbled on something very simple that works. I love simple things that work, and am always surprised by suspicions people have for them.

    If anything, I’d worry about Khan breaking his Academy by trying to climb a hill he doesn’t have to. That is, the student testing, tracking, and formalization path. If he makes it work, it’s the big win, but it’s also a risk.

    (A few people here would benefit from The housing price conundrum and the follow-on parts 2,3,4. It’s a simple thing, but it works.)

  46. Dutchgirl says:

    Haven’t had a chance to watch the videos, but the inversion of lecture/practice seems right to me. But my recollection of elementary/middle school was a very short lecture by the teacher followed by practice time, and what wasn’t finished by the end was homework. Since I usually finished my assignments during this time I rarely had homework. The main problem with this model is that students who are unable to finish during classroom time (which is conducive to such work) often don’t manage to complete the work at home (with all the distractions).

  47. Janis Gore says:

    I have a question for parents. Have students become less academically competitive than we were 40 years ago?

    I watched the video up top. Khan assumes an altruistic cooperation between students that I don’t remember in my classrooms. Not that I think our attitude was healthy then.

  48. I have a question for parents. Have students become less academically competitive than we were 40 years ago

    I am not sure that, ultimately, it is much different now than it was then (and very much dependent on the given child).

  49. john personna says:

    Janis, have you noticed that boys like to demonstrate their expertise?

    See also “blogs”

  50. Janis Gore says:

    Oh, JP, I think they’re parents afraid that they’ll be responsible for videos and dioramas, with nothing to show for it afterward.