There’s been a lot of fuss about Khan Academy. In 2010, it received over $3.5 million in grants from Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, and people on Twitter seem to love it.

However, I have three major issues with the site.

Firstly I think Khan Academy and me differ in significantly in our view of what mathematics should be, and they way that it should be taught.

Recently I went to Crytek UK to interview people on how they use maths and why maths is useful (a video of this will be up on the site soon) and one of the interviewees said something really interesting. He talked about how most of the programming is actually fairly simple, and often he refreshes his knowledge of mathematical processes by simply Googling the answer. He told me that what they really needed from graduates, and the skills that were really useful were those of mathematical problem solving.  By far the greatest need was people who could see a problem and write that problem in a mathematical context. Most of the best mathematics is not in the doing of the problem, but working out how to phrase the problem in the first place.

Let’s consider these two questions:

Calculate £25 x 22000 and How much revenue do Hull City make each game? One of those is significantly more challenging and much more interesting and open.

Khan Academy focuses almost entirely on the mechanics of mathematics, the skills, and leaves almost no room for creativity, for thinking or for problem solving. Surely these are the very reasons we’re learning the mechanical processes for.

The second issue that I have with Khan Academy is that it’s simply not very engaging, and doesn’t make best use of the environment that it’s in. For instance, watch this video.

The web is an interactive medium. Simply presenting boring old lectures through a computer screen is not good enough. There is real possibility on the web to simulate things. You can take guesses from thousands of people. You can collate data and create rich learning environments with models and interactive software. Simply doing the same thing that put of thousands of students before but on the web isn’t a breakthrough and isn’t real innovation.

As a side note, the interface for writing equations and expressions on the web really needs a think through. Things like the image below are really unhelpful, and I found myself not bothering with the problem, becuase there’s something so unnatural about using a computer with a notepad and pen to do working out (surely using the interactivity of the web we can build in the ‘working out’ tools to enable people not to need a notepad and pen)

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 20.37.14

My third issue with Khan Academy, and with MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) is that they neglect the role of the teacher. I strongly believe a good teacher isn’t just there to fill student’s head with knowledge. A good teacher questions. A good teacher challenges and pushes. A good teacher is created by a thousand tiny, human interactions. No online course in the world can substitute for a teacher asking a really probing question or responding to a student with enthusiasm and warmth.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Khan Academy. It’s aims to pass on functional knowledge to people with no access to it otherwise are laudable, and people taking control of their own learning is brilliant. But let’s not pretend that it’s new, or that it’s the future. It’s simply a reissue of an old book with a fancy new cover.

EDIT: This video on Khan at 6:36 terrifies me. A teacher wondering around a near silent classroom.


On of my fields of interest is typefaces. It comes from my dad working as a typesetter when I was a kid, and a general interest in design.

From a young age my dad always drilled into me a hatred of Comic Sans.  I think of it in the same way a Liverpool fan would think of Manchester United. However, a lot of teachers use Comic Sans on their worksheets as a way of helping dyslexic learners. I’ve never found solid research to back this up, but the British Dyslexia Association do recommend it and I’m not going to argue with them.

Luckily for me and other Comic Sans haters there’s been a raft of fonts specifically designed to help dyslexic people read over the last few years that are even better.

Dyslexie was probably the first. It has completely different glyphs for each letter, using weighting at the bottom of the letter to avoid the letters being turned around in the readers head. For instance, the p and the d on this page are identical, but rotated. This is not the case with Dyslexie. Problem is, it’s £75 a year to use it. Have a look at the video below which does a good job of describing why Dyslexie is so great.

Don’t worry, though, as there’s a free alternative called Open Dyslexic that uses the same ideas. I’ve used it quite a lot, and it’s often quietly appreciated.

As always comments welcome. I love FONT TALK.

I made this:

Negative Number Code Breaker[PDF]

It’s a simple worksheet where students find the answer to an addition, subtraction, multiplication or division sum and look it up in a grid. This then generates at letter. Once students have found all the answers their letters will spell something.

These kind of worksheets are quite fun. They take a list of questions and turn them into a puzzle, and they’re really easy to make.

You might want to show students the video below before starting the task.

This would set the atmosphere and make the lesson more themed and engaging.

If you use this, let me know how you get on.

Tutor Time Videos is a great little website full of videos to show to your class. In tutor time. One video in particular, however, made me think of an interesting idea for a lesson. It’s a video showing what amount of different foods is equal to 200 calories. You can watch it below.

A good way into the lesson might be to show different meals, and ask students to take a guess how many calories are in each. Most cooking websites list calories next to recipes if you want to find some examples.

You could then show them the video. The video also links to a website here which gives a nice list and visual representation of 200 calories of different foods. You could print this out and give the list to students. You might then want to ask them to refine their initial guess based on new information.

At this point, I’d reveal the answers.

You could then give students 3 scenarios. For example:


Ben is happy with his weight. In order to maintain it at his current level, he needs to eat 2500 calories a day.


Kate is underweight. To make sure she is more healthy, Kate needs to make sure she’s eating 2200 calories a day.


Simon wants to lose weight. To do this he needs to eat 1700 calories a day.

Then you could ask students to design a diet for each of them, trying to stick as close to the intended calorie target as possible.

To make the task more rich, you could even ask students to look at home and find their own data for the calorie content of foods in their cupboard.

The mathematical skills used here would not be hugely advanced, but this kind of task is all about the application of that maths and trying to stay away from a simple ‘234 + 456’ contextless question.

If you try this, please report back with how it went. I’m going to give it a go with my nurture group and put a follow up post on here soon.

Hat-tips to David Gale for inspiration. Follow him on twitter @reflectivemaths and to Adam from my maths department who suggested the initial guessing idea which I think adds a lot to the task.