Edsurge article: Are teachers at the table or on the menu?

Edsurge writer Christina Quattrocchi shares with readers about the impact of Khan Academy’s teacher trainings that are happening across the country this summer.

Are teachers at the table or on the menu? No company would dispute the value of teacher perspectives. However, often times it seems teachers become specimens to be studied, rather than vital partners. Yet, giving teachers time, training, and building trust are vital steps to ensuring products gets used and used effectively.

This week, Khan Academy showed the industry one way to bring teachers to the table by hosting its own free teacher trainings in Redwood City. As the first of many around the country, the workshop hoped to teach math teachers about the nuances behind each of Khan’s education tools and offer different ways to implement them. By the end of the day, teachers were charged with developing a “frame of mind” around what Khan could do for students. 

The full day of training took place at the Sobratto Center for Nonprofits in affluent Redwood Shores, CA, where over 100 teachers filled the room.

Coming from far and wide

The event attracted teachers from cities near and far, from charter, public and private schools in Sacramento and Santa Cruz to those Grand Rapids, MI. Some came for at the behest of their supervisors, others by way of parent recommendations, but most teachers were there because they’d tried Khan before but wanted to dig deeper into how they could more fully implement it in their classrooms.

Typically, teachers only get training for products that their schools have paid for. So they appreciated that Khan Academy put on this session without a price tag. One teacher explained, “this is certainly one of the only places I’ve seen where something is completely free.”

Start simple. Just start.

Maureen Suhendra, who leads Professional Development for teachers at Khan Academy, began the day by emphasizing that Khan Academy’s role is not to offer prescriptions about how to use the program. “Today is not about giving you a scripted curriculum. There is no right way to do this.” She continually reinforced the importance for teachers to staying flexible and open-minded as they explore for themselves how Khan can best be implemented in the classroom.

Teachers then split into groups, spending the first half of the morning digging deeper into coaching tools, with a self-guided tour through Khan’s world of data. Khan developers were on hand to answer questions and break things down for teachers when they got stuck. Teachers spent the rest of the day consulting experts, exploring case studies, and planning out their own implementation models. Teachers in Residence at Khan Academy, Tal Sztainer and Suney Park, were also on hand to share their personal stories and experiences of implementing the tools in their own classrooms.

Park, a 15 year veteran teacher, was initially scared by the prospect of fully integrating Khan into her classroom. Dipping her foot into the Khan Academy waters, she began by integrating the videos and exercises one unit at a time. However, the persistent need for even more differentiation led Park to creating playlists of exercises ahead of time so that students could dip in and out of practicing different skills as they pleased, regardless of the unit the class was on. 

Park will continue to integrate Khan Academy next year, retaining the aspects of differentiation her students have enjoyed. However, she hopes to add more depth to each unit with real life application projects, an area Khan Academy has been historically deficient in. 

On what she’s learned from her experience using the tools, Park says “there is a fluidity that I didn’t expect to be possible… I thought that learning the content was very linear, but these connections [between concepts] can be made and they can hold multiple pieces of information at one time when it comes to math.”

Important ingredients

As Khan Academy wrapped up its first workshops this week in Redwood Shores, the organization looks forward to the next stop on it’s PD tour: Chicago. As they move forward it’s clear there are a few crucial ingredients to bring teachers to the table.

First, make it about more than a product. What Khan Academy did so well this week was convince teachers they care, starting with offering the workshop for free. They continued to demonstrate this as they discussed mission and vision throughout the workshop. They also make it clear that the training was about helping teachers to find ways to help their kids, rather than forcing a preconceived implementation plan on them.  

The second ingredient in bringing teachers to the table was to show that they “get” what it’s like to be a teacher on a very deep level. From the beginning they explained that they get that kids will throw curveballs to initial implementation plans and that the final picture rarely looks like what teachers may originally have in mind. They also seemed to understand the emotional side of teaching. Park explained, “Every teacher knows they can’t reach every kid and there is this guilt that results. Khan Academy addresses that discomfort that teachers feel and gives some ideas on how to make it better.”

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