Khan Academy launches ambitious math ‘challenge’

February 9, 2015

Over the past decade, the free instructional website Khan Academy has transformed how tens of millions of students across the globe perceive and approach math. Now, it’s pursuing a bigger aim: transforming how students perceive themselves.

On Monday, Khan Academy, a nonprofit based in Mountain View, launched LearnStorm, a three-month pilot math competition for 3rd- through 12th-graders in 10 Bay Area counties. Students will be vying with each other by school, district, even city, as they master skills in math by plowing through Khan Academy’s extensive tutorials and quizzes. There’ll be weekly recognition through online leaderboards, swag bags with stickers, wrist bands and certificates, and fun events at an in-person final event in May.

At least that’s what will attract kids. Teachers may find the LearnStorm competition useful as “a really great way to have fun reviewing math skills” for the first Smarter Balanced tests in the Common Core State Standards, which California students will take this spring, said James Tynan, Khan Academy Partnerships and Community Lead. Khan Academy’s math instruction is aligned to the Common Core.

But its more subtle, larger goal, Khan Academy founder Salman Khan said in a video, is to “help every student appreciate that they really can learn anything.” For Khan, whose website is now translated into 28 languages and offers tutorials in economics, science and art history, that’s not a platitude, it’s a conviction. His belief is borne out by research like a study that Khan Academy did with Stanford University researchers confirming that students’ perceptions of themselves as learners – whether they are “naturally dumb in math,” for example – affects their motivation and their achievement in math.

The aim of LearnStorm is to build students’ “growth mindset,” the term that Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck popularized in her 2008 book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” It refers to the idea that intelligence is not fixed and that talents and abilities can be developed through effort and persistence.

LearnStorm’s strategy for building an awareness of a growth mindset starts with the pledge that students take when they sign up. It reads, in part, “I hereby acknowledge that nobody is born smart, that we’re all born to learn,” “that every wrong answer makes my brain a little bit stronger,” “and that the most beautiful, complex concepts in the universe are built on concepts I can understand, even if I don’t know them yet.”

Credit: Khan Academy

Salman Khan discusses the Common Core standards in one of many videos on the Khan Academy website.

LearnStorm will award points for perseverance as well as mastery, making it worthwhile for schools and students to recruit not just the math whizzes but all students – and making the competition a cooperative effort. Taking a lesson from sports, where teammates respect those who work hard, LearnStorm is calling these “hustle points,” “earned for taking on skills that challenge you and struggling to complete them.” An algorithm that Khan Academy has developed will figure out how to award effort. Khan Academy includes hints for solving problems and an instructional video that students can watch when they’re stuck on problems.

LearnStorm will also send out weekly challenges, starting next week, that will encourage students to develop qualities like grit and to adopt study strategies and habits that can help them learn. Khan Academy developed the challenges with PERTS (Project for Education Research That Scales), a center affiliated with Dweck and other researchers. Khan Academy isn’t sharing them ahead of time, but Tynan said an example might be to ask students to watch a video on facing challenges, then cite a challenge they face and two potential obstacles. “We might say, ‘What would you do to overcome them to grow your brain?’” Tynan said, and then ask students to share their insights with others or to write a letter to someone they know is struggling with something.

The idea of a growth mindset to help students get better at math, “just as they would to improve their jump shot or golf swing, is something ingrained in our math department,” said David Cary, a math teacher at George Washington High in San Francisco.

Khan Academy will monitor the results to see which activities students liked and responded well to. Based on schools’ demographics, it may be able to distinguish the impact of the mindset messages on different student subgroups, Tynan said.

Based on participation in MATHletes, a Khan Academy math competition in Ireland, Tynan said he was hoping to sign up 1 percent of students in the Bay Area, about 13,000 to 16,000 students. Already, more than 28,000 have signed up from 1,200 schools, and students can continue to enroll throughout the three months of the competition, he said.

Credit: Khan Academy

A student answering a math problem on Khan Academy can ask for clues or watch a video explaining the concept by clicking in the key to the right. (Click to enlarge.)

About a thousand of the participants attend George Washington High in San Francisco, where math teacher David Cary signed up all of his 120 students. Cary has used Khan Academy daily for several years to supplement his classroom instruction and sees LearnStorm “as a good opportunity to further what I do” and to encourage students to explore areas outside of work they’re doing in class to earn extra credit.

The idea of a growth mindset to help students get better at math, “just as they would to improve their jump shot or golf swing, is something ingrained in our math department,” Cary said. But it could be helpful for Khan Academy to reinforce that message, he said.

The importance of motivation and the social and emotional underpinnings of learning are drawing increased attention in California as it shifts away from a strictly test-based accountability system. The Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, that districts are creating under the new state funding system require that schools address issues of school climate and student engagement, including discipline policies.

This spring, seven California school districts known as the CORE districts will be field-testing how to measure students’ growth mindset, self-management skills and social awareness. These are three pieces of the social-emotional component of a new School Quality Improvement Index that the CORE districts are implementing as a condition of their waiver from the penalties of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The seven include three of the four largest unified districts in the state: Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno.

Promising research

LearnStorm extends Khan Academy’s previous work in growth mindset. Two years ago, PERTS conducted a randomized experiment through the Khan website involving 265,000 students. Growth mindset messages like, “Your brain grows new connections every time you practice. Help your brain grow new connections!” were flashed atop some students’ math exercises while no messages or neutral messages like, “When you get a question wrong, be sure to re-read it carefully,” were shown to the control group.

The growth-mindset messages increased the rate at which students learned fractions exercises by 3 percent, which the researchers considered promising. “The experiment showed us that ‘even a sentence of growth mindset encouragement can help, but we wanted to do something better and more involved – hence the weekly challenges (through LearnStorm) that will involve deeper activities around mindset,” Dave Paunesku, PERTS executive director, wrote in an email.

Two more recent studies, in which students received messages about how math is used to help people, like predicting earthquakes, worked well for some students but not others, said Paunesku.

Last August, Khan Academy began the campaign You Can Learn Anything, a series of messages and inspirational videos that include a Sal Khan tutorial on brain development and an interview with singer-songwriter John Legend on how his failures led to his success. “I’ve been unsuccessful in my career,” he says into the camera. “You just didn’t know about it yet because I wasn’t famous yet and I was trying to be famous.”

Tynan said that, as the pilot, the Bay Area LearnStorm should prove instructive. “If this pilot reveals interesting data, we will develop a deeper and more productive mindset for the United States and the globe,” he said.

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