Khan Academy Does Angry Birds

In case you missed it, Justin Reich and I are co-sponsoring the #mtt2k prize and the eligibility window for applications closes August 15. Upload some commentary on a Khan Academy video to YouTube and tag it #mtt2k. You could win a few hundred dollars to take the missus or the mister to the boardwalk before school starts.

Here is my submission, playing out of competition.

If you couldn’t make it through the setup (a Khan-style explanation of Angry Birds) here is the punchline:

Okay, wait. Obviously, Khan Academy would never lecture about Angry Birds. But what makes Angry Birds different from math and science? Angry Birds makes it easy to play, experiment, get feedback, and learn. I’m not saying lectures and explanations are never necessary in math and science – or in Angry Birds, for that matter. When I couldn’t get past that one really tricky level, I went online and found a walkthrough. But the walkthrough – the explanation – wasn’t the first thing I did when I experienced Angry Birds. So why does Khan Academy make an explanation the very first thing a student experiences with a new topic in math. When we put the explanation first, we get lousy learning and bored students.

Comments open until I come to my senses.

17 hours later. Comments closed. I couldn’t handle it. Sorry.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Um, yeah. What you said/did. The rearranging of the order in which learners/players experience things is brilliant. Also, heart-breaking, given how the Khan style of explanation-first, “do cool things” much later (if at all) is now widely viewed as the Future Of Education.

    What seems like a trivial point — the sequence in which a topic is approached — is vital. A motion picture screenplay with exposition up front would get you kicked out of film school. I’m amazed that we all realize Sequence Matters in *story*, novels, films, etc. yet somehow don’t think it applies to learning.

    We are UNwilling to sacrifice attention and engagement when it’s for *entertainment*, but hey, if it’s education, no big deal…

    The push to gamify education in an attempt to capture engagement completely overlooks what’s really happening with a game — the point you so beautifully made in this video: it’s about diving in. What’s the minimum they need in order to actually DO something creative or interesting? Instead, we seem to be asking what’s the maximum we can *tell* them before they get to do anything at all?

    As always, thanks for doing this.

  2. You are missing the point entirely, Dan. Khan Academy videos allow teachers to “flip” their classrooms. Flipping frees up class time to do meaningful work. Instead of kids sitting and listening to their teacher lecture about how to play Angry Birds, they watch the Khan Academy video lecture at home. Now in class, kids can play Angry Birds, they can get one-on-one help from their teacher, and they can peer tutor each other.


  3. Frank:

    Nope. You’ve forgotten that students have these nifty things called textbooks. They have cool features:

    You can read them at your own pace.
    You can reread any section that doesn’t make sense to you over and over again.

    We can flip any time we’d like.

  4. This is useful because I’ve been thinking about buying an iPhone and wondered “What is this Angry Birds thing all about?” Now I don’t have to buy it to find out.

  5. Jared: I can’t believe I forgot about the power of the pause and rewind buttons on the Khan Academy videos. Some students might have a hard time following the teacher’s lecture about how to play Angry Birds. These students might be embarrassed to interrupt the teacher and ask a question. Now these students can pause and rewind the video however many times they need to because a video can’t get impatient with them.

    Besides, Khan is better than a textbook because he distills the textbook into easy to understand explanations. I couldn’t have gotten three stars on every Angry Birds level without him.


  6. Frank & Jared,

    I think your both missing the point here… While textbooks are a good aid and ‘flipping’ the classroom may also be a good idea… I think mathematics and science is more about discovering together through projects and other inquiry and the students can learn to critically think without having either a) teacher lecturing in class or b) Kahn Academy lecture through video before class

  7. I don’t know too much about Khan Academy, but I always thought of the videos as supplementary resources as opposed to a complete program. In that sense the critique would address the incompleteness of Khan Academy as a learning platform?

  8. Dan, you hit the nail on the head. The point is not necessarily that Khan’s videos are horrible – just that they are used inappropriately by too many folks.

    With all due respect to Bill Gates and his influence, he is not an educator with a deep knowledge of pedagogy. He’s wrong about Khan’s model being the future of education – being powerful doesn’t make you right. Aristotle missed also with the four elements thing.

    On the subject of models though, maybe we should ask why Khan’s work is such a big deal? His videos are filling some percieved need. Maybe we need to identify the psychology and apply it appropriately. Is it the on demand nature? The scalability? Does it appeal to different learning styles? Exposing the flaws in KA videos is productive; it advances a discussion. Let’s also explore what’s positive and discuss that as well.

    I think the trend toward gaming in education is a good example of misplaced efforts. Gamers have done an outstanding job of exploiting the factors that motivate individuals in the context of gaming. This RSA animate video based on a talk by Dan Pink is informative in that regard.

    The magic is not in gaming; it’s that the game offers the player autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

    Leading students through learning by inquiry is hard work. I don’t blame folks for looking for some magical silver bullet – we just have to have enough experienced educators around to remind them that there are no miracle cures.

    “Flipping” is another example. Folks trying to follow some recipe of “watch a video at home” then “do problems at school” will not have success. If a teacher is trying to take care of some lower-level Bloom’s efforts at home, and devote class time to upper-level Bloom’s, I think that is a valid reason for “flipping.”

    Just as scientific models evolve to reflect greater understanding, perhaps we can learn from KA and the game designers and improve our inquiry based classrooms.

    My 2 cent’s worth – your milage may vary.

  9. Who claims the Khan academy videos come first? Why can’t students be engaged in an activity or a 3 acts math task and somewhere in the middle of act 2 when they get stuck or need information, (information they have demanded by creating their own questions based on the task) they then go to khan academy to get that info.

    Even Khan academy is not set up as videos first. If you go to the practice section of khan academy as some of my students have for extra credit, they work through the concept map and play with the questions, and try to attain mastery on their own. Only as a last resort do they go get the video to help them. The videos are just a tool, there is a much bigger picture.

  10. I’ll admit it: when I first watched Sal Khan talking at TED about his site and his (at that time) 2200 videos watched by millions of kids, I was impressed.

    Then I’m sure I was among many educators who started to think of ways we could use Khan’s library of free videos to supplement teaching of math in school classrooms, in 100 different ways.

    Everything was going so well, when Khan started talking about “changing the face of math teaching across America”, and I went “wait, what?” then “thank goodness I teach in Australia”.

    Surely this guy, who has generously posted thousands of free videos to help students all over the world, doesn’t really think that he can replace classroom teaching with kids watching videos at home? He can’t be that ignorant, to think that the work of a professional educator could be replaced by a video. Come on, really?

    Your video is spot on, Dan. The problem isn’t really with the videos per se, it’s that the video explanation (annoyingly called a “lecture” by Khan) is being elevated to prime position, the first or most important aspect of the student’s learning.

  11. Dan you used to be so inspiring – what happened? I used to come here to digest the beginnings of an innovative solution to creating engagement in mathematics. Watching your three act videos, seeing clips of you using it in class, watching vlogs of you discussing what worked and didn’t work – that’s what inspired me to come here.

    Is this marketing? Are you just driving traffic by using buzz words like “khan academy”? If that’s the case, then brilliant, but just to let you know that these rants and hating on KA isn’t really helping teachers like me out in the field.

  12. Kelly Henderson

    August 10, 2012 - 7:00 am -

    Jeremy Bell-

    But Khan thinks that slope is “rise over run”. Clearly, he must be destroyed.

  13. I’d be more impressed by the Khan Academy nitpicking if I got the sense that the nitpickers had ever, like, watched any kids actually use it. Any kids at all. Ever.

  14. Todd Smith:

    Who claims the Khan academy videos come first?

    Sal Khan does.


    I’d be more impressed by the Khan Academy nitpicking if I got the sense that the nitpickers had ever, like, watched any kids actually use it. Any kids at all. Ever.

    I spent two quarters working in the field with a school that was implementing Khan Academy in a 1:1 computing environment. And I wrote about it.

    FWIW, these threads would stay open a lot longer if everyone here could be bothered to do the assigned reading. It would be especially great if we could mind what Sal Khan says he intends for his project (every student starting their conceptual development with a video about the concept) rather than what we imagine he intends for his project (ie. “it’s just a supplement, it could be used in the middle of a three-act lesson, etc.”, which is all great stuff, but totally beside the point).