Beyond Mañana

Real Expat Life in Spain

Khan Academy: The Secret Weapon for all kids in Spanish Schools


I used to be considered quite good at maths, back in the day.  Certainly when I was 12 it didn’t present any difficulties, and to be honest I preferred maths and sciences academically to all the woolly intangible stuff it was harder to get full marks for.

Our 12 year old however isn’t just learning maths, she’s learning it Spanish. And whilst a lot of the time the universality of numbers is a levelling factor here, when it comes to understanding something new for the first time there can still be problems, even into her third year of the Spanish system – and she is past the point of allowances being made for language differences most of the time.  So, when she comes home with homework she doesn’t understand how to do, there are serious difficulties…

To me the work they are doing on exponents looks pretty advanced for 12, though that often seems to be the case with science and maths in the Spanish system, and the problem is I can’t remember how to do it.  I mean, honestly, when was the last time anyone reading this did any kind of maths the hard way, in a world of spreadsheets and calculators?  Of course we have to keep selling the idea of learning it to our kids, but compared to the words and language we use every day, the numbers are really best left to the machines these days. They do it much faster, and (so long as properly used) better.

But we can’t write that on the homework in any language, and all her schoolbooks explaining the workings are in Spanish.  My Spanish isn’t always up to getting across exactly what I want in the fish market, so pre-algebra is not going to happen… what I really need is someone to explain the same concepts to her, in clear English, in a way she can refer back to when she needs it.  Thank goodness for Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy is awesome, and it is changing the nature of education around the world.  As it says on the strapline, it enables you to ‘learn almost anything online for free’, and it does exactly what it says on the header.  In a series of short videos now numbering in their thousands, Salman Khan and his associates deliver lessons and instructions in simple clear language on subjects including maths, computer science, natural sciences, finance, history… it’s all so quick to browse and locate and above all it’s FREE.  Apple talked about replacing the textbook with tablets – but video is so much more powerful and engaging than any written text, for learners of every age-group.

You can generate test exercises too (“Uhh what’s the point of that Mum I already have all these ones I have to do for homework!!” “But do you get HOW to do the homework now then?” “YES!”), in fact there are reports and stats, you could easily plan a robust and comprehensive home-schooling plan around this entire site for many subjects, and there are also extensive tools for teachers and coaches to use their materials in the classroom

Of course we are not home-schooling, and whilst developing independent study skills from an early age is definitely important, we use it as an adjunct to classroom learning only.  And there is no language instruction, Spanish or English – English being the one thing we do feel pretty responsible for leading the teaching from at home.  But the subjects they do cover are in detail and depth, the Computer Science section has recently been updated and extremely positively reviewed (although we feel our eldest is still a bit young for writing her own apps, the resources are there when she wants them and go way beyond anything being taught in high schools in UK or Spain).

I really feel that for bilingual kids particularly, having a problem or concept explained in both the languages their brains work in can be really advantageous – I wish my brain were bilingual, it never will be, but from what I can understand from my children it seems to create sometimes quite independent brain and thought patterns.  If they can be taught an idea twice, once to each pathway in their amazing dual-core brains, they have a much greater chance of internalising it and being able to use it effectively in the longer term.  We are also using Khan videos for things which, I am assured, are perfectly well understood in the classroom… but, for revision, watching a new explanation in English can bring new insights or just a new way of thinking about it and looking at it. This can only help.

Around the world the Khan Academy is being used in classrooms traditional and original in lots of interesting ways, but for us it’s a fantastic resource for the “but I just don’t get it!” moments.  It’s a non-profit organisation, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and many others.  The videos aren’t flashy, with basic and crude production values, just some guy explaining it and working out equations in front of you on a board (with full transcript accompanying).  It won’t help your kids in Spain learn Spanish, or c. medi – all the humanities and test prep are very US oriented.  But the cool thing about maths and science is that the underlying principles don’t vary, and you can use this fantastic free resource to help your kids get the most out of their education wherever it takes place.

Have you tried Khan Academy, or have you got any other great tips and tricks to help your English-speaking kids be successful in Spanish education? Please comment and let us know!

  • Lindsay InSpain

    Thank you for putting into words what im sure many are thinking! My Spanish is good, but my daughters maths just seems backwards, or maybe I just remember it wrong 🙂 Anyway, Im going to check out the academy right now, thank you!…

  • Yolanda Solo

    I can not get my head around the way they do divisions here, but my son speeds through long division without the need of a calculator. I did resort to Khan Academy at first though, or rather I sent HIM to look at Khan Academy. Great concept, and extremely useful.

  • Matthew Hirtes

    As the English father of three bilingual children living in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the way they do maths here confuses the hell out of me. Thanks for the tip about Khan Academy. We’re now all looking forward to paying a visit.

  • John Wolfendale

    What a great resource – thanks

  • Casslar

    Thanks for all the lovely comments, and completely agree about the way even basic primary arithmetic is taught and set out in Spain – upside down, back to front, and somehow far more complicated than it needs to be. And as soon as they leave school they will never, ever attempt anything but the most basic sums without the calculator on every device within arms reach… Oh well I guess it’s developing their brains in new and interesting ways!

  • Diana Berryman

    We haven’t tried it yet but will do after that great write up!!

  • Rachel Webb

    Oh, I remember it well. When my eldest first came to me with simple multiplications I just couldn´t understand what, why or how they were doing it that way! So much more complicated than the way I do/did it.
    But no good showing the kids that they need to get to grips with the Spanish way. The Khan Academy sounds great, if only I´d had that 10 years ago! Still all is calm now, only one left in ESO and my help is no help at that stage of maths Spanish or English.
    A great little maths quote my son had this year from a new teacher to the school ¨If you´re English you are 50% more likely to get a job here.´
    !?!? Agree?

    • Casslar

      Hmm I hope his teacher is right… certainly bilingualism is a big advantage in the job market, more so than anything beyond basic numeracy I dare say (for most jobs). Supposedly languages and maths use similar brain pathways so hopefully we are actually helping our kids with their maths by immersing them in Spanish!
      Just doesnt seem that way when you look at a page full of long division that seems to have been turned inside out.

  • Lex Thoonen

    Good stuff!

  • Christopher Gamble

    I like this as it supports what I’ve been saying to my children’s mother and adds weight to this, thanks.

  • Maxine Raynor

    Didn’t know about this, so was very interested in the article. Have always found it impossible to help my kids with divisions (seem to be back-to-front in Spain) but on the other hand I think it’s great that my 13-year-old still doesn’t use a calculator (or, indeed, need one).

    • Casslar

      Yes our 12 year old was quite shocked to hear that kids in the English school were allowed to ‘cheat’ at homework and use their calculators!