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Khan Lab School: From a Student’s Perspective

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Student's Perspective

(Published in Issue 13 of Pioneering: Education Reimagined)

When I was six, I started school at my local public K-5 school. I was interested in cursive. I was curious and excited to learn it. But, when I asked my teacher if she could teach it to me, she replied that they don’t teach cursive at that school until third grade, and I would have to wait two years, despite my deep interest. So instead of getting to learn what I was curious about, everyday I had to continue working on the same worksheets as everyone else in the class. This process drained me of all my curiosity and excitement to be at school and learn. I was pretty miserable at that school. While my experience in first grade may be common in most schools, I could never imagine it happening at my current school, the Khan Lab School (KLS). At my former school, I felt as though my education was going to be decided by other people, but at KLS, I feel that my interests and skills matter. I think KLS perfectly demonstrates the five elements of learner-centered education from Education Reimagined: learner agency; open-walled; personalized, relevant, and contextualized; socially embedded; and competency-based. One of my projects in particular is a great example. Last Spring, my family went on vacation in Costa Rica, and while we were there, we spent an entire day introducing Khan Academy to students and teachers at a local school. I was so inspired by our volunteer work that, when we came back, I decided that my next project at school would be focused on this experience. I chose to create a video to inspire people to dedicate a day of their vacation to volunteer in a local community.  

This is what the five elements look like at KLS:

1. Learner Agency

At KLS, our important focus on learner agency is what makes us unique. One of the biggest ways we build agency is by learning to set our own goals. Students at my level of independence have a lot responsibility in setting our own goals, with just a bit of guidance from our teachers, which is the opposite of traditional school. We create our own work schedule and deadlines, based on our goals. We also get to select or create most of the projects we work on.

For my video project, for example, I created the timeline of when I wanted to complete things; there were no due-dates set by the teachers. I also helped plan all of the meetings with my mentors. Like I said, we choose our own projects, so this project wasn’t forced by my parents, teachers, or mentors. I chose to do the project myself and was responsible for its completion.

2. Open-Walled

Two of the ways that learning at KLS is open-walled include making time for fieldtrips and making students’ work portable.

Instead of being confined to the small, single roomed building of our school, KLS students take frequent field trips outside of school to see the world in action. We learn first hand about all kinds of things, like wetlands, farms, landfills, transportation, technology, animals, and more.

Because we can do a lot of our work online, it makes it easy to work on our goals outside of school. When I went to Costa Rica with my family, I was able to continue to make progress on my school work, such as in math using Khan Academy, Spanish using Duolingo, and a group project using email, Google docs, and Google chat.

3. Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized

At KLS, we are encouraged to learn what is interesting and challenging for us. For instance, if I were six years old at Khan Lab School and I was interested in learning cursive, I would be able to immediately set goals towards learning it, regardless of what my classmates were learning.

For my video project, I set goals personalized to my skills and ability. At the beginning of the project, I knew very little about creating and editing videos. But, I was really curious, and I knew I could access the help I needed to learn those skills. What made this project so interesting to me was that I was creating a real video to inspire real people to give back to the world.

4. Competency-Based

There is no question about KLS being competency-based. We go skill by skill and don’t rush to the next thing until we fully understand a topic. Everyone goes at their own pace. For example, I have classmates older than I am at a lower math level than I am and students a year or two younger than I am who have more developed writing skills.

While I was working on my video project, my two mentors taught me the skills I would need to make the video, step by step. We started at the very beginning. First, they taught me video and movie vocabulary, then how to videotape, then they showed me tools I would need for the video, then they taught me how to edit the video cleanly. I watched some of the videos that one of my mentors made to see some of the techniques he used. We even went to an iMovie class at the local Apple store to make sure I fully understood making movies and videos. After all this prep work, I felt prepared to make the video.

5. Socially Embedded

At KLS, we often work with people inside and outside of the school. For example, inside the school, we ask peers for help with work first, before we go to the teachers. Also, the older students mentor the younger students every week in math, reading, cooking, and gardening. As a result, all of the students—from five- to fourteen-years-old—have very close relationships and feel like one family. A couple of ways that we work with people outside the school include: bringing outside scientists to the school every so often to teach the younger students science skills, and the older students having mentors from Khan Academy to learn professional skills and for help with projects and goals.

While working on my project, I communicated and built relationships with many people outside KLS. Not only did I work with the students and teachers at the school in Costa Rica that my family visited, but I also worked very closely over many weeks with my mentors at Khan Academy.

As I planned the project with the help of my mentors, we wanted to make sure that lots of people would see the video. We contacted the organization Give a Day Global, which connects international travelers with one-day volunteer opportunities. I coordinated with Kerry Rodgers, the founder of Give A Day Global, who was interested in placing the video on her website. I even interviewed one of her volunteers for the video. I am really proud that my video is now on Give a Day Global, and I hope it inspires many people to give back to communities when they travel internationally.

At KLS, I have learned that if something is exciting and challenging, I will learn it well and not forget it. I know that if I try really hard, I can get an amazing amount of work done by myself. I think that if people give me and other students a chance, we can take responsibility for our own education successfully. And I really, truly believe that as Khan Academy says, “You can learn anything.” After experiencing both types of learning, at a traditional school and at KLS, I believe that the more successful schools will be like the one I go to now. Being able to learn at your own pace, collaborate with peers, and take charge of your own learning can help even the most struggling students succeed. I wish that every student could experience a learner-centered school like KLS. Here is a link to my video, and a link to a blog post that I wrote about the project.