The Con Academy

"Mr. Johnson, we have a guest who we'd like you to meet," my principal informs me. I walk down the hallway and into the conference room.

"A bagel?" he asks.

"No thank you," I tell him.

"It's free. Just like our system," he says. I've heard of Sam and his specialized academy. Just like the bagel, it looks healthy, but it's more dangerous than it appears.

"I would like you to consider the flipping your classroom," he says.

"Pardon," my principal interjects, "I am not about to have someone flipping off our students."

"No, it's not that at all. See, we have a whole system that you can use in a pencil-based classroom.  Imagine this: each child learns discreet skills independently.  Step-by-step they move through a sequential order designed for the mastery of each math skill. It is powerful. Indeed, it pretty much replaces the role of the teacher. As we think of a modern pedagogy and differentiated instruction, you need resources to reach every child, every time," he explains.

If only I had my Buzzword Bingo card with me. I probably wouldn’t have a blackout, but definitely a five-in-a-row. Besides, what he's advocating is not even a truly flipped classroom. It's simply a stack of packets.

"Wouldn't it make sense to have students use paper and pencil to write essays and solve equations instead?  What if they did some of it independently and worked cooperatively together instead? What if they developed their own problems?" I argue.

Missing the sarcasm, the slick suit snake oil salesman answers, “That sounds great.  But aren't you tired of kids not working?  This allows each child to work at his or her level independently."

“If I didn't know how to teach I would use this product instead,” I answer.

Missing the sarcasm, he says, “Exactly.  The program is designed to fit the needs of teachers struggling to provide adequate intervention.”  Intervention?  Are we dealing with drug addicts here or with children who can't comprehend expository text?

“I just don’t see the appeal of this. It’s a series of worksheets,” I explain.

“Wrong! It’s an academy. It’s a whole system of learning. Kids get to pick their worksheets and the follow the instructions. Can you help every kid at every moment?”

“Well, I can’t. But if I have given them the freedom . . .”

“So, you can’t help each child in the moment? Is that correct?” he asks.

“That's true, but . . .”

“There you have it,” he points to the principal. And so, with that, the con artist and his con academy have prevailed over the voice of a teacher. I get it. This con academy is a free gift. However, so was the Trojan Horse.


  1. Anonymous3:21:00 PM

    That's a strawman fallacy. See


    The Khan Academy is not simply about practicing worksheets and differentiated instruction. There's actually plenty of group work and PBL as the video above shows. If you actually bothered to do your research, you'd realize that. Of course, it's convenient for you to distort the real practice KA advocates because it's convenient for your pedagogy.

    1. The first thing I notice is that there is training available that one must pay for. Interesting. I thought it was all about being free. The second thing I see is that the projects aren't truly project-based. There is no place for student inquiry. If it's pre-packaged, it's not truly project-based.

      Next time you troll, take the time to do some research as well.

    2. Anonymous3:52:00 PM

      I don't deny that he might be altruistic. He might be a nice guy. However, the resource is bad. The ideas are bad...The hard part is this: if you rip KA people assume you're ripping Khan himself.

      Paid training is obviously so that resources are used an intended and not used the way you think they are used in classes. THERE IS ROOM for inquiry. Read the posts linked before. The point of the projects is to allow of a balance of creativity and attaining skills. The video I linked above (had you really watched it in full) would show that. In fact, that type of lesson is the kind PBL folks propose on

      Also, I don't think you wrote an ad hominen on Khan. My point is different. And I am not trying to "troll" as you tweeted. KA critics need to respond back with data/evidence/research, which they rarely do. A 3rd party study from SRI International will be available in June/July that will show the effects of KA on pilot classrooms. At least wait for that. That's all I'm asking.

    3. Anonymous3:55:00 PM

      You wrote "The second thing I see is that the projects aren't truly project-based. There is no place for student inquiry. If it's pre-packaged"

      By that token, Dan Meye's 3 Acts lessons and Mathalicious lessons are also "pre-packaged" and seek to guide students toward one answer.

      And regarding "Next time you troll, take the time to do some research as well", I'm am not trolling (which is posting inflammatory or off-topic posts). When a misconception (due to bias and misinformation) is corrected, I believe that is part of a healthy (and much-needed) discussions needed in education. My aim is not to criticize, FWIW...

  2. By pre-packaged, I mean the learning is pre-packaged. If it doesn't begin with inquiry, it's no different than a worksheet. Project-based learning should be constructivist. The Khan Academy is not constructivist. Period.

  3. As interesting as it is to watch your banter. I personally have very little problem with a teacher who is well versed and experienced with providing a constructivist approach to teaching and learning AND using some of the Con materials. As a fly on the wall in this conference room there is a bigger concern than the Con materials. Why isn't there a conversation on how to make components of this resource fit into the teachers' current approach to teaching? A product(resource) was "sold" to the principal which fits in well with the popular flippin buzz word and it is now viewed as the "fixit" solution by the principal. There was no conversation between the principal, teacher, AND Con man on how to use the resource constructively for teaching and learning. Unfortunately, those brainwashed by the system (unfortunately too many) will just plop their obese pupils in front of their own device and drill and eventually kill with the Con man's product.

    What concerns me is that this was probably not a "meet for a bagel in the conference room" meeting but rather time allotted as professional development. Who developed professionally?

  4. Great post my friend! As somebody who is speaking the flipped classroom conference in June (shameless promotion), I want to thank you for including this line "Besides, what he's advocating is not even a truly flipped classroom." in the story.

    I'll admit that it was the news story of Con that got me interested in flipping the classroom and I even blogged about it. However, the more I dove into it, I kept thinking about how there had to be more than this?? This is just all the worksheet packets my teachers used to give me on a screen with some fancy tech twist.

    That's what pushed me to search for me and I found out what truly flipping the classroom is. It's a class where the teacher becomes the chief learner, works to develop a culture and community or learners. The students own their learning. It's inquiry and project based learning.

    You leverage whatever technology you can to assist. You can lots of videos or no videos. You can be a 1:1 classroom or have little/no technology. There is no silver bullet. There is no one-way to flip your classroom.

    If life is all about passing test and memorizing facts, then ultimately the con man may have it right, but I know there's more out there than that.

    Thanks John for this thought provoking post! (sorry for the loooooong comment)

  5. In actuality the videos can be useful tools for students. The problem I have is in how teachers implement their use. Not every student will learn best by watching a Kahn video and it is foolish to advocate they would, just as it is foolish to argue any one way of learning works best for every student.

    Quite simply the problem is we don't do a very good job analyzing the motivations behind these programs. Mr. Kahn probably has very good intentions (probably misguided though) and I don't really suspect his motivation. I think he really wants to help students learn.

    Whoever is behind the idea to make a curriculum out of these videos probably has very different motivations than Mr. Kahn. I suspect their motivation is simply to make the most amount of money possible, which is exactly what a business is supposed to do. Who knows, they may even believe they are promoting a good product. Of course our motivation isn't to buy a good product, it is to help our students learn and when we look at the Kahn academy in that light, we don't find the one, best solution for our students.

  6. Anonymous8:16:00 PM

    Nicely said. Resources are resources, and pedagogy is pedagogy. The two should not be confused, but too frequently are, whether the resource is in iPad, a textbook, a worksheet, or a video taped lesson. We should not give over intentional reflective practice to any system, but access appropriate resources for the topic and the student.

  7. I agree with the story very much so. I think the origin of Kahn academy actually proves why the videos really won't work universally for all students. Sal Kahn made created these videos for his cousins (or nephew? - not sure exactly which). A real person to person relationship exsisted behind these original videos. But when you're listening to a voice of a complete stranger and no real relationship exsists, I look at these khan academy videos as basically talking worksheets. Sure, a handy tool sometimes but NOT a revolution or the key to fixing education! I do think they're a nice model for other teachers who want to create some videos similar to Khan's for their own students, or, even better, to have the students create THEIR own videos to explain their conclusions when they are actually participating in true project based learning. A good example of student created tutorials are on by Eric Marcos' class... Those are the videos that would inspire my students to engage in real learning!
    Thanks for sparking some good discussion John!

  8. Can I just say how hopeful I am that the "Con Academy" meme gets out there now because of this article?

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  10. I had the opportunity to hear Sal Khan speak about his academy a few days ago. Here is my reaction The bottom line is that we need to approach initiatives like Khan's with both an open mind and critical eye. I do both in my review.

  11. Dear John,
    Thank you very much for this great story. I think that this system is the perfect idea because in order for more kids to learn they must get more involved. I think that your ideas are great to and one pencil can make a huge difference. I really enjoyed reading your story.

  12. Mr. Spencer,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Your use of dialogue and humor are captivating, and they make the reader want to know what's going to be said next. Flipping the classroom is actually a topic I only recently learned about. I think teachers should create a happy medium between using the criteria of a flipped classroom and maintaining a healthy student-teacher relationship. I believe the teacher is still needed to help the students with any questions or problems they may have, but I also agree that students should grab that pencil and strive to begin a self-learning process. Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post, and I look forward to reading more of your work.

  13. I agree with some of my previous colleagues in their comments about this post that it is not so much the system but its implementation and use in the classroom that will make or break the students subjected to it. Although videos and worksheets may reinforce learning, they do not instigate it very often and that is the objective of the "flipped teacher". Though I am not yet a full time teacher, I hope that all teachers take the time to evaluate their use of all available resources to help their students to succeed. Remember always that your biggest question should be "Is this going to help the majority of my students?" If it becomes at any point more about you or proving you are right, your students lose and so do you.

  14. Dear Mr. John Spencer,
    My name is Cari Raymond, and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. For my EDM310 class, I have been assigned to read and comment on your blog. I will summarize your blog posts and my comments to your blog on my own blog on April 28, 2013.

    I understand why you did not want the school to use a program that made it clear that they value the "busy work" of students who might simply be working below their grade/skill level to make it easier on then over the teachings of a real teacher. Every time I had to do it it felt as if the teacher did not care about us and just wanted us to be quite. I liked it when I got a textbook that was also on-line because I could easily look up information and still study if I had to leave my backpack at home while on a trip but I needed a teacher more. They are the reason why a child wants to learn or not and sending them to a school where they are asked "how much work would you like to do for your grade?" and not "I see that you can do better" makes them question if trying is worth it. I am sorry that the principal did not listen to you but maybe because you wrote this article others will see it and begin to really question is this version of flipping a class is good or not for the students.

    Cari Raymond

  15. Very helpful suggestions that help in the optimizing topic,Thanks for your sharing.