Khan Academy … everyone loves to hate it

This popped up in my feed today:

Since I’ve been using Khan Academy, an online math practice website, with my students for a few years now, I was intrigued & promptly read the blog post.

I had so many thoughts as I was reading through it that I decided to respond to each of David’s points from his post in a comment on his blog that I’ll post here now:

Feedback is terrible or nonexistent

Agreed. No worse than a textbook w/ an answer key in the back to check (KA tells you if right or wrong). Better than a worksheet w/ no answer key to check.
Obviously worse than a teacher working beside you.

Impossible to see patterns


Blocked practice

I have my students use the blocked practice to practice a skill the first time. Later I encourage them to do KA’s “mastery” quizzes which interleaves concepts they’ve practiced over time to help with retention.
So some of these offer both blocked & interleaved options.

Too easy or too hard

I use the progress tab on KA to look at a series of practice sets. Students that still haven’t mastered the first on the topic from back in September practice that again. Students that have shown competence with more skills will be assigned the next in the progression for their needs. I can do this student-by-student on the KA dashboard so that they each get what they need to practice next.Screenshot 2017-11-28 at 3.45.27 PM

Inappropriate medium

No worse than a textbook. My students solve the KA problems on paper with pencil and then input their answer to see if their right … same as they used to do w/ textbook practice.

It obscures information from teachers

Yes – it doesn’t show me the student’s work like when I used to pick up paper copies. But I also no longer spend hours checking/correcting homework. Instead I use that time to better prepare the in class activities we do where I am able to offer in the moment feedback while they work on problem solving.

It isn’t really mathematics

Again, no worse than a textbook.
Obviously worse than the problem-solving activities I run in class …

…. But here’s the thing: Khan Academy [or insert other online practice medium] is not meant to replace a teacher or a math class. I use it as a tool to allow my students independent practice like they used to do w/ a textbook. I think practice is useful to my students, and sometimes they do need to practice skills one at a time in addition to the problem-solving we do in small groups all the time in my class.

I’m not a fan of these blanket statements that these online tools are totally horrible and can’t be used in helpful ways. Is Khan Academy perfect? Far from it – but nor was the textbook my school used to offer us to use. Here are the things I like about it:

  • The report it generates is a useful tool to communicate home about students that aren’t practicing (b/c I believe that independent practice is still important)
  • That I can differentiate who gets assigned which exercise set.
  • That students can work ahead & KA can even predict what the next skill in their progression might be
  • That students don’t lug home a textbook each night
  • That it has videos (even if I don’t always love his strategies) a kid can watch when stuck
  • That I no longer have to spend time marking homework for correctness or completion
  • Probably more reasons too that aren’t coming to mind at the moment …

KA is not a valid replacement for good Math activities and teaching. But is it a useful tool to offer independent practice to students? My argument would be yes. Does that make me a bad teacher?

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)


Turning Textbook Questions into Problem-Based Learning Activities

Over the last few years I’ve done my best to create a student-centred Math class using a mix of Dan Meyer’s 3 Act Math strategy, Peter Liljedahl’s Thinking Classroom framework and some other routines like Notice & Wonder mixed in, all in a Pear Deck interactive slideshow.

This week I wanted a problem-based activity on volume so I turned to my version of a textbook; Khan Academy practice sets. I picked a problem that my students will see during their independent practice problems on the Khan Academy website and fleshed it out to create a student-centred activity out of it. Thought I’d share the process with you to show that you can take (sometimes boring) problems right out of a textbook & create a student-centred thinking task for your class.

Here’s the original problem from Khan Academy:Screenshot 2017-10-24 at 8.28.49 AM

So my first task was to find an actual image of a tent and use Google Drawings to add the dimensions as well as the volume to the image:Tent

So this is what I show students to start. I do not tell them yet that I want them to find the height. I have a series of questions we run through every time that I build in a Pear Deck slideshow (where students will be able to answer on their phone & I can display their answers on the board). But you can just ask the questions orally if you like.

Here are the questions/steps:

  1. What do you know / notice?
    They should tell me facts that they know.
    Eg. The tent is the shape of a triangular prism. It has a volume of 70 ft^3.
  2. What do you wonder?
    What questions come to mind?
    Eg. What is the height of the tent? How much canvas is need to make the tent?
  3. Now I tell them the question I want them to explore … for this tent the question was “Can you stand up straight in this tent without hitting your head?”
  4. Estimate:
    – too high
    – too low
    – best estimate
  5. What do you need to
    – measure
    – google
    – calculate
    in order to solve this problem? (plan)
    Whenever possible I bring a hands-on object in that they can physically measure. This time I gave them the measurements of the tent.
  6. Then I send each visibly random group of 3 to their chalkboard or whiteboard section to solve the problem. During this time I’m walking around managing what Peter Liljedahl calls FLOW by giving hints (usually in the form of a question) to those that are stuck and extensions to those that are done the original question (for this tent, how much canvas is needed?). Sometimes this involves calling all groups over to one spot & I do some direct teaching if they need to learn something new or review something to move on.
  7. When all the groups have solved the problem, students return to their seats and I debrief / consolidate the activity by “narrating a story” as Liljedahl says of the student work. I found the “5 practices” article really helpful in learning how to do this.
  8. At this point I reveal the correct answer (needed more if they are taking their own measurements to see how close their answer is to the real answer; for example how tall the lamppost outside actually is after we solve for its height using shadows & similar triangles).
  9. We go back & see who’s best estimate was closest to the actual answer. We celebrate the closest estimate.
  10. Which of the overall expectations from our course did we use today? (reflection)
    This is where the learning goal of the task comes out – at the END. If I say this up front, then it takes away all the student thinking about what math they can use as a tool to solve the problem.
  11. I encourage them to take a photo of any group’s board they wish to save in their notes.
  12. Finally, usually the following day, they do some individual practice using some of the problem sets on Khan Academy.

Hopefully that all makes sense and shows a bit about how you can take a typical textbook or worksheet type word problem & turn it into a more student-centred learning task. If you want to see examples of this type of lesson with student work, have a look at my collection of lessons I have blogged about.

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)

What I Did Differently This Year

A roundup of things I did differently, or that I continued to evolve with, this year in my Math classes:

Visibly Random Groups

Groups of 3 students sitting together. New partners & new desks every day. I used playing cards given out at random as students entered class to assign students to tables – with hanging numbers indicating which tables made which group. More details about VRGs here.


2 to 3 days per week I used Kahoot as our bellwork. Kahoot is an interactive quiz that the kids answer using cell phones/tablets/laptops. I have created a bank of basic skill-based multiple choice questions for each of my courses and we often start class by playing 10 randomly chosen questions. Correct answers get points & the faster you answer, the more points it’s worth. The kids really love this & it’s a great way to practice basic skills.
What’s especially cool about Kahoot is that they have pre-made question banks for lots of different topics and courses, so you can play this with almost no prep work required. Julie Reulbach does a nice job of outlining her experience with Kahoot this year in a blog post here.

Problem-based Learning

As much as possible, I try to start with a problem to solve, instead of starting with a lesson. Sometimes this is a hands-on activity in the style of Al Overwijk & Bruce McLaurin. Sometimes it’s 3-act math in the style of Dan Meyer. Other times it’s a word problem from a textbook stripped down to make it more open (like here & here) and solved on vertical non-permanent surfaces (see next). Students always started by estimating the answer (too low, too high, best guess), collect data/measurements if needed, and then solve. And at whatever point students get stuck, or need to learn something new, that is where I go to the board for a mini-lesson before having groups return to finish solving the original problem given their new knowledge/skills.

Vertical Non-permanent Surfaces

In our visibly random groups of 3, we solve the problems on whiteboards & blackboards. This gets students up out of their chairs, working together, thinking. They try out different ideas because they know it’s easy to erase whatever doesn’t work. It allows me to see everyone’s work all at once and give prompt feedback on their progress. Students can also look around at other boards to get ideas if they’re stuck. More details on VNPSs here.

Khan Academy

Now hold on with your booing & your hissing … Math teachers love to have a hate-on for Khan Academy. It’s not a replacement for a math teacher, and it has it’s disadvantages, but they have some good exercise sets that can be used as homework instead of problem sets from the textbook. At the beginning of the year the homework on KA was optional as I explained here, but in the 2nd semester the homework for my grade 10 academic class was mandatory and tracked daily.
The students sign up with you as their “coach”. You can set a certain exercise as homework with a due date. The site then summarizes who has and who has not finished their homework. You can also see how many problems they have attempted to solve and whether or not they got the correct answer. The advantage for the students is that if they get stuck, there is a “hint” button (which isn’t so much a hint, as the next step explained) and a link to the infamous KA-created video related to that specific problem.


Instead of teaching unit by unit, I have continued spiralling the curriculum. This means teaching every expectation in the curriculum over the first few weeks, albeit in an introductory fashion. Then we cycle through all the material for a 2nd time, delving deeper. And then again a 3rd or maybe 4th time through depending on time. Mary Bourassa has a good explanation here of spiralling.

There are a few smaller things I introduced also such as the wireless keyboard, a “tech tub” with 5 chromebooks for students to borrow when needed, posters of course expectations & mathematical processes on the walls, etc.

For next year:

  • Make my evaluation tools match the group-work, problem-based learning we do in class.
  • Work on recording the observations & conversations that can inform a student’s final grade in addition to the products they create (tests, tasks, projects, etc).
  • Improve my Link Crew class that I taught for the first time last year.

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)

A Day in the Life of a Math Teacher

Here’s a look into my typical day (a blog post suggested by the MTBOS last year). The day I tracked in particular was Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014.

5:15: Get up
Alarm clock rings. Hit the snooze. My partner gets up w/in the first 10 minutes after the alarm as he gets ready to go & is out the door on his bike to get to his school early too. I sleep a little longer.

5:45 – 6:00: Get ready
Turn off the snooze function (after hitting it too many times). I do a quick check for any message on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Email before getting dressed, putting on a touch of makeup & pulling my hair into a clip or ponytail. Some days I’ll fry up a couple of eggs on toast for breakfast at home. Other days I wait to eat something at school.

~6:30: Leave for work.
Most days I drive. A couple of times per week, when the weather’s nice, I try to bike. The bike ride is 1h10mins so I don’t do it very often.

7:00 – 7:30: Arrive to work.
I’m usually the first one in.
IMG_5930.JPG IMG_5931.JPG
I make coffee for my colleague & I each day & this morning I waited for breakfast till I got here so I also made some instant oatmeal to eat w/ with my coffee.IMG_1216.JPG

7:30 – 8:15: Planning my classes
I cozy up to a computer & try to plan my lessons for the day.
I spiral my curriculum (instead of teaching one unit at a time) & try to do activities as often as I can (instead of chalk&talk) but today will be a day to work on practice problems individually.

8:15 – 8:50: Math help
Wednesday mornings are when I’m scheduled to supervise the math help room. I chose a morning slot as my lunches are often filled up with club meetings. But mornings do not seem to be a popular choice & I often find myself sitting alone waiting for kids to come by.IMG_5935.JPG

8:50-9:00: Get to class
Classes start at 9am & I make my best effort to be waiting outside my classroom door to greet my students. This allows me also to keep an eye on the hallway activities during a very busy time & try to hurry along those that are busy chatting by their lockers instead of getting to class on time. I like it too because I get to say hello to past students I’ve taught as they head past me in the hall. I’ve had some great interactions with students I’ve never even taught, simply because I was hanging out in the hall as they were heading by – spend more time in the halls with the kids if you can!
As my students arrive, I hand them each a numbered playing card from 1 to 6. This tells them their group number for the day; every day they sit at a different group with different partners (visibly random groups).

9:00 – 10:15: Period 1 (grade 10 applied math)
Bell rings. We all stand for Oh Canada. Today’s bellwork was a game of fast fingers so we jumped right into that. I chose this game because it gets the kids up & active since we’ll be doing seat work afterwards. Today’s task is to work individually on practice problems for linear systems of equations. They are working individually, but still seated in their groups (max of 3 to a group). Each group has an extra desk so that myself or my peer-tutor this period can sit with the group and help them when they get stuck on a problem. Today I’ve given my students the choice: they can work on a set of systems problems in their Khan Academy accounts, or they can work out of the textbook. Some students don’t have a smartphone or don’t want to drain its battery & so choose the textbook instead. A few have just decided they don’t like khanacademy for whatever reason; others love it. I also have a few iPads that belong to the math department that I brought in to loan out to any students without their own device.IMG_5945.JPG

10:15: Prep period
I clear out of my classroom as another teacher teaches here during my prep period. This was a bit of an adjustment for me this year as I had my room all to myself last year, and with our growing staff, I gave up my desk in the math office to let a newer teacher take it since I had my classroom. So now I’m a bit of a lost soul during my prep period. I tend to hunker down at the large common table in our math office or on the couch in the CWS/Languages office where my desk used to be a few years ago.
Today I head down to the main office in order to post our daily announcements (which are submitted to our office administrator) on our Twitter account. IMG_5941.JPG
On my way into the office, a colleague comes out & tells me that shots have been fired on Parliament Hill! I head in, post the announcements & by the time I come back out to head back to my office to work our administration team is all out in the halls & we have been told by the school board to put the school in “shelter in place” mode. In hindsight, we now know that there was only one shooter, but that morning there were rumours of several shooters & their whereabouts were unclear (the day’s events described here). Shelter in place means that nobody goes in or out of the school building, but we can move around inside (as opposed to a lockdown or secure school mode).
We need to block all exits, and so I offer to go stand at the end of the phys. ed. wing to keep students from leaving out the exits there. I spend the rest of period 2 there, checking my Twitter feed for the latest news on the downtown developments.

11:35: Lunch
Normally I would have a lunch-time club meeting; Wednesdays is our Spartan Stars meeting (Link Crew).
Today, though, with “shelter in place”, no student is allowed to leave at lunchtime, so we have a staff member at every doorway blocking the students from leaving; I’m sure the cafeteria has never seen better business! The students aren’t happy about not getting to go to the plaza down the street for lunch & the hallways are packed! They’re high-school kids so they’re all checking Twitter for the latest news too.

12:35-1:50: Back to class (grade 10 applied math)
I leave my colleagues who have preps next to guard the doors & I head up to my classroom to welcome my afternoon math class. We do the same thing as my first period class. I teach a grade 10 applied class in the morning & again in the afternoon so I try to keep them on track with each other by doing the same each day. Honestly, though, my mind is elsewhere – thinking about the events downtown, wondering about people I know who work downtown being on lock-down, and wondering about the ramifications of this shooter targeting a soldier on sentry duty since my partner is a reservist who will be performing at the site of the shooting – the tomb of the unknown soldier – on Remembrance Day in a few weeks’ time.
Just before the end of this class, the principal comes on the PA to announce that the “shelter in place” mode has been lifted, & please proceed to our last period classes.

1:55 – 3:10: STARS class (Link Crew)
Last class of the day is STARS (what we call our Link Crew at Ridgemont). We cover SMART goals – how to make them. Students are asked to create & share SMART goals about a learning strategy or skill they would like to try & improve this year. A couple of students arrive 30 minutes late with fast food. They say they went to the plaza for lunch after the shelter in place was lifted because they don’t like caf food. I expressed my disappointment that they chose to skip half of my class for that – they could have eaten in the caf today.

3:10: Class lets out.
I warn the students that busses will have delays today & that busses with routes through downtown will be rerouted or cancelled; be prepared for that. I spend some time looking at the latest news on Twitter & CBC’s live blog on the event. It seems that the downtown area & the bridges over to the Quebec side are packed with traffic with police still doing searches for the potential other shooters. I decide to stay at school & get some work done until the traffic subsides.
I head to the staff room & settle on a couch there with my laptop & get some marking done. I am teaching a course in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa this semester so I have a lot of marking to do for that course in addition to my high-school classes. I mark some of their math blog review assignments – it takes a few hours; I am a very slow marker.

6:30: Drive home
I check Twitter & I’m no longer seeing any warnings about crazy downtown traffic, so I brave the drive home across to the Quebec side. It’s slow moving downtown but I get home eventually.
I cook some dinner. My partner gets home from playing hockey about 8pm & we eat dinner together. I veg on the couch at 9pm to watch Republic of Doyle on CBC before going to bed at 10pm. I read a chapter from my current book, Lake in the Clouds, then sleep!

Let’s do it all again, tomorrow!

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)

Khan Academy in the Math Classroom


This year I decided to try & integrate Khan Academy (KA) into my Math classes. This semester I have 2 sections of grade 10 applied math. Past experience has shown me that many of these students come in with significant skill gaps & little to no willingness to do any homework. On the 2nd day of school I took my classes to the computer lab & had them all sign up for KA accounts & add me as their “coach”.

KA does an assessment of what the student knows when they sign up by having them answer a variety of questions. After which it tailors the practice problems to their level. I can also recommend practice problem sets as their coach, which my students will see at the top of their list of exercises to work on.

Here’s how we’ve been using KA so far:

Lesson Plan for Supply Teachers:

I am out of the classroom a lot. This semester I am teaching at the University of Ottawa each Monday (and therefore not in my high-school classroom each Monday), a member of the digital learner’s advisory panel which will meet a few times throughout the year, a mentor to a new teacher for which there are meetings & workshops to attend, … the list goes on. I am often away for 2 of the 5 school days in a week. Now when I am planning for the supply teachers, I more often than not book us a computer lab, mobile cart of chromebooks, or set of iPads and TA-DAAAAA; lesson planned! Students work on the recommended problem sets and the supply teacher can help students as needed.


Applied students are not into doing homework for the most part. But some will ask for extra work or problems to do at home. KA to the rescue. I have recommended that each student spends 20 minutes per night on KA doing practice problems. There is no consequence for not doing so, but we’ve talked about why it is beneficial to do so. I can also see how much time each student has spent doing problems via my coach’s “dashboard”. I can also recommend a problem set to my class (it pushes it out to their accounts) if I want them to practice something specific after the day’s activities.

Differentiation & Remediation:

I spent much of this past weekend marking tests. One of my students was having difficulty using the surface area formula, in part because they weren’t following “order of operations” when simplifying the expression after substituting the appropriate values:IMG_6775With KA I was able to suggest a problem set on “order of operations” for this one student only. The student will see it at the top of their list of exercises the next time they log in. This is useful because order of operations is not grade 10 curriculum, so I do not need to suggest it to all of my students in that class.

Things I like about Khan Academy so far:

  • Differentiation: Each student works on what they need to work on (according to both my & KA’s assessments) – which may be skills that they should have learned before grade 10 math.
  • Coach’s recommendations: I can recommend exercises to students based on what we’ve done in class, or a skill I’ve noticed them struggling with.
  • Immediate right/wrong feedback: It tells them right away if they have the right or wrong answer.
  • Hints & videos: If students are stuck, they can see hints of the next step to take or watch a video of how to solve similar problems.

What I don’t like so far:

  • Too many fractions: KA puts fractions (and not easy ones like 1/2 or 1/4, but 8/3 type fractions) into exercises for solving equations. My students are panicked by these complicated fractions, aren’t sure how to work with them, and often give up when they see them.
  • Irrational numbers expressed as square roots: My applied students haven’t learned how to work with a number like 5√2. Because KA uses these in even their simplest trig practice problem sets, I can’t use them with my students.
  • Display on cell phones: The practice problems don’t always display nicely on a cell phone. Although it’s better if you hold your phone in landscape mode. And some graphics where you have to play with the graph by dragging things around don’t work well on smartphones either. This means I need to have some iPads handy if the students are working on these types of problems.

How do you use Khan Academy in your classroom? Let me know in the comments below!

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)