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Mountain View Voice: Khan Academy's school goes back to the future

Thursday, October 8, 2015

This story originally appeared in Mountain View Voice.

Online education company's experimental private school brings back the one room schoolhouse – with a twist.

A student builds a hologram at Khan Lab School on Oct. 6, 2015. Photo by Michelle Le.For years, Khan Academy has challenged the status quo in education, vowing to create a world-class education available to anyone through its free online lessons.

Now the nonprofit is going one step further, to see just how well the philosophy espoused by Khan Academy's founder, Sal Khan, can work in a real classroom setting.

Next door to Khan Academy in Mountain View is the highly experimental Khan Lab School, where dozens of students between ages 5 and 13 have been trying out a new classroom model where individualized learning and mastery of subjects are paramount, and students spend as much as half their day working on "passion" projects of their own making.

It's also a school where letter grades on assignments and quizzes, as well as the concept of "fourth grade" or "seventh grade" are abandoned in favor of a more fluid model, where students can collaborate with one another based on their level of school work, rather than their age.

Unlike Khan Academy, Khan Lab School charges tuition: $22,000 annually.

It started 13 months ago as a small-scale experimental school, with about 30 students -- mostly friends and family of Sal Khan, according to the school director, Orly Friedman -- and seven staff members. The class includes a large central room full of tables and chairs, with break-out rooms along the sides for group work and quiet reading and studying.

The enrollment has grown to nearly 60, and is expected to reach the maximum capacity of 95 once high school students are added to the mix next year.

At the school's very first open house on Monday, Khan told prospective parents that it was always his goal, even before designing Khan Academy, to create a school that challenged the typical educational model. Though it may seem ironic that it harkens back to the one-room schoolhouse model of the 19th century, there are a few key distinctions. The Khan Lab School has overwhelming amounts of data for tracking student progress, and plenty of online and hands-on resources to teach just about any level of any subject.

The vision for the school was laid out three years ago in Khan's book, "The One World Schoolhouse," where he wrote that a student's education shouldn't have to be bound to the "tyranny" of lectures and one-size-fits-all curriculum that's all too common, and that an updated version of the one-room schoolhouse is one of the ways to break the mold.

"It feels like the time is right to put these ideas into practice," Khan told the parents.

Former Mountain View Whisman School District board president Chris Chiang, who is now the academic director for the middle school-aged students at the Khan Lab School, said the differentiated instruction is being put to use. Students in the same age group are mastering mathematics at their own pace, for example, ranging from fourth-grade math to geometry. Student progress is logged into a database and carefully monitored, which shows how long students worked on activities and how many "mastery components" they've achieved in different subjects.

"It's the idea that students can be sitting next to each other and working on a completely different grade level," Chiang said.

Students play chess at Khan Lab School. Photo by Michelle Le.During the first half of the school day students work on their core skills, which includes writing, math, reading and computer programming. Chiang said students as young as 9 and 10 are designing their own programs, graphics and video games at the school, and that the added tech-savvy component of the basic curriculum has been a positive addition to the Khan Lab School.

Friedman said a number of students have been using Lightbot, an educational video game designed to introduce kids to the concepts and principles in computer programming. Friedman said the puzzles in the game really stretch how well students understand new concepts, which plays right into the so-called growth mindset that preaches that struggling aids the learning process.

"Watching them struggle through those puzzles, you know that's good for their brains," Friedman said.

When one parent asked how all of this translates into a compelling college application, Khan stressed that it is a top priority for students coming out of Khan Lab School to be competitive when applying for college. School staff still have to work out all the details on how to reach that point, but he said students with a compelling portfolio of work and strong standardized test results will have a good shot at some of the best schools in the world.

"For the elite private schools, this is exactly what they're looking for," Khan said.

Some parents also expressed concerns about the amount of time students spend sitting in front of computers throughout the school day. After all, the school has a strong computer science component, and although it is separate from Khan Academy, it does use online resources including Khan Academy, Udacity, Duolingo and other digital learning tools.

Chiang said that many of the projects are completely offline and involve plenty of hands-on work from students working in groups. In one project, students built a boat by building individual components in separate rooms at the school. The only catch was that each room represented a different country with a different language, and each room had to communicate with one another using translation techniques.

The project teaches students about the nature of multicultural business networks, Chiang said, and how well the students communicated will determine just how wet they'll get when they take the boat out for a spin.

Other parents wondered what the physical activity is like at such a small-scale school, with a modest-sized lot outside for outdoor activities. Khan admitted that there is no organized school football or soccer team, nor do they expect to have a sports program that rivals a normal school in the next three to four years. But the founding families of the high school-aged children joining the school will be part of the conversation on how to expand the sports program at the Khan Lab School.

Orly Friedman interviews a prospective student at Khan Lab School, who later enrolled for 2016-17. Photo by Michelle Le.Besides ditching grade levels, the school sets itself apart by having a year-round school schedule, with only a few weeks of summer break, as well as no assigned homework. Khan explained to parents that the second half of the day is open-ended and gives students a big window to get independent work done. That way, he said, students can focus on family-related activities at home instead of worrying about school.

With that freedom comes an expectation of student autonomy, but the school does accommodate students who need more structured oversight. School staff groups students based on their level of independence to make sure students looking for a little more structure from their teacher aren't lacking the guidance they need to thrive.

Being an experimental school, things are going to change a lot based on feedback. School staff gets together every six weeks to talk about what's working and what's not, Chiang said, and make changes that could radically change class formats.

"In three to four months, things can look way different," Chiang said.

In order to make that work, Khan stressed that they want families who are willing to be part of the experiment and are willing to try different things year to year to see what works in the class environment. He likened the school to a start-up company, "in the best and the worst sense of the word."

Sangeeta Dedatta is president of the school's newly-created parent association, and said one of the main concerns of parents going into the school was whether their kids were motivated enough to work without a more structured curriculum and class day.

One of the main selling points of the school, Dedatta said, was the idea that her kids could learn at the pace that works best for them on an individual level.

"It was important to allow our kids to grow at their own level," she said.

The overarching goal of the school, Khan said, is to develop new practices and new ways of teaching that could ultimately be adopted elsewhere in public, private and charter schools. He said it's likely that one day that Khan Lab School will be used to develop content on Khan Academy, and that the school could catalyze big changes in the world of education.