'Math of Khan': Sal Explains Academy's Common-Core Aligned 'Missions'

Khan Academy

“Math missions” are the latest in Khan Academy’s student-driven features. Khan Academy founder Sal Khan on Saturday during the CUE conference announced the launch of the organization's Common Core-aligned, adaptive math exercises, which he described as “a culmination of what we’ve been working on since the beginning.”

“Standards are great, but they don’t meet the students where they are,” Khan explains as the reasoning behind launching the features, which were developed through a collaboration involving Khan Academy, Smarter Balanced and 40 handpicked teachers who wrote math questions. 

Khan also expresses that these new features are meant to support teachers in Common Core integration, rather than replace teachers as the facilitator of instruction and practice. "There will never be anything that replaces or marginalizes teachers. If it came down to choosing between technology and an amazing teacher, I would choose the amazing teacher and nothing else," says Khan, who chatted with EdSurge at the CUE conference. "This [set of new features] elevates the role that a teacher can play."

So how exactly do these "missions" enhance the teacher experience? 

Math missions (see photo below) consist of interactive math problems aligned to every Common Core standard. Each problem is accompanied by a step-by-step solution created for that problem.

Upon logging onto Khan Academy, students are given a pre-test to find their level before they are directed to a page of “math missions.” The missions, which cover Kindergarten math through calculus, take students through a series exercises tailored to them (based on the pre-test) to build what Khan calls "skills." Elizabeth Slavitt, Khan Academy’s math content lead, reports that “every student receives… a queue that recommends exercises for them based on their level.”

With each skill, students must answer three to five exercises in a row to gain “energy points” and move closer to finishing all skills in a given mission. Here are some examples which Khan links to Common Core standards:

Successful completion of missions gets charted on a progress report on the student’s dashboard while “coaches”--whether teachers, tutors, or parents--can see a student’s progress when he or she gains access with a class code or coach ID.

Additional new features include a Common Core Map, which teachers can use to “assign material that is most appropriate for each student's needs without spending countless hours developing and grading different classroom and homework assignments,” according to Khan Academy’s Manager of External Relations (and former math teacher) Charlotte Koeniger. Teachers can use the map to search by standard, grade level, and/or math concept to view the standard with exemplar questions.

Surprised by the move away from videos? Khan Academy gained popularity as a video-based instruction platform, but Khan says that he's always had interactive practice questions on the site. 

“To be honest, to some degree, this is a return to what Khan originally was. The original platform was a focus on interactive exercises and the videos were a complement to that,” says Khan.

The Khan Academy missions team also stresses that instead of solely focusing on introducing new topics, the adaptive platform was designed to help students address skill gaps. Slavitt explains:

“For us, our goal isn’t necessarily that Khan introduces new concepts to students. We want to give practice. Students can fill gaps if they have gaps. If it’s good for introducing new concepts, that's great. But if it's for practice, that's also great.”

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