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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

March 21, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Ecology? Hamlet? Who cares? Millions of kids clicking online

Screen shot of a

Screen shot of a YouTube CrashCourse on ancient Mesopotamia

When a lesson in biology or A.P. World History gets more than a million page views, it behooves anyone interested in education to find out what’s so compelling.

Such statistics are standard for CrashCourse, a YouTube channel hugely popular with high school students and, by extension, their curious parents. As of this month, CrashCourse has earned more than 1.4 million subscribers and attracted 82 million video views since it first aired on YouTube in 2011.

What makes John Green’s lessons on the agricultural revolution or ancient Mesopotamia so much more interesting than traditional history lectures? Memorable examples that convey emotion and use animation to illustrate key concepts, say students.

Put another way: CrashCourse is reminiscent of classic “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes, but for big kids. Students often use it to augment their understanding of in-school classes, which is likely why acclaimed non-profit tutoring center Khan Academy posts the Greens’ 10-minute lectures on its own site.

During most segments, presenter John Green (also a best-selling author of Young Adult novels) intersperses lessons written by his own former teacher at Indian Springs School in Alabama with illustrations that diagram the concepts at issue. Green is geeky, energetic and funny – exactly what a high school student might envision if fashioning her ideal instructor.

Here’s a sample, from his description of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers: “Violent, unpredictable and difficult to navigate,” Green begins. “Oh, Tigris–Euphrates, how you remind me of my college girlfriend.”

Beyond the jokes, CrashCourse also offers lessons on biology, economics and ecology (the science episodes are narrated by Green’s brother, Hank). Every concept is delivered rapid-fire, with lots of highs and lows, as if the Greens, too, are discovering their wonder. Nothing sounds as if they’ve imparted the same knowledge for 20 years, a familiar refrain among high school students complaining about uninspired instruction.

As one sophomore from Vashon Island High School put it: “A lot of teachers talk in monotone. It doesn’t even sound like they’re excited about what they’re teaching.” But the Greens distill lessons down to their essence — minus any distractions. “They show you the parts that matter. It’s the same way you retain stuff when books are turned into movies.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: CrashCourse, online learning, YouTube

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