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Mountain View Voice: Khan Academy's experimental school is thriving

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Originally published in Mountain View Voice. Read the full article here.

Dominic Liechti, Executive Director of Khan Lab School, at the first Term Exhibition of 2016. Behind him is Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy.
Dominic Liechti, Executive Director of Khan Lab School, at the first Term Exhibition of 2016. Behind him is Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. 

Earlier this year, 12-year-old Ana Zeiger did what many middle school-aged students fantasize about: she stopped attending middle school and joined an experimental private school without homework or letter grades or all-day direct instruction. She left Crittenden Middle School to join Khan Lab School, Khan Academy's startup-style private school in Mountain View, and she said she had no problem getting used to it.

"I knew what I was getting into, and I was really excited for it," Ana said. "I've learned so much in the last few months."

Ana is one of nearly 100 students to join the founding families of Khan Lab School, which started two years ago in the heart of Mountain View. The private school has tinkered with, deconstructed and re-shaped the traditional educational model, offering families a chance to take part in a highly experimental school model. Since its founding, the school has drawn the attention of educational leaders across the globe, many of whom have stopped by for a tour.

The school has grown quickly, doubling in size to 60 students during its second year and growing to [95] students at the start of the school year in September. School officials say they don't plan on slowing down either, and aim to bring enrollment up to 400 students in the coming years.

Khan Lab School is the brainchild of Khan Academy's founder, Sal Khan, who became a prominent figure in the education world after launching Khan Academy in 2006 with the goal of providing a "free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere." The courses on Khan Academy depart from the traditional education model in many ways, focusing on conceptual understanding and mastery of content rather than giving students a letter grade and moving them on to the next class.

In an ambitious effort to take these ideas offline and into a real classroom setting, Khan launched Khan Lab School in September 2014. The school has no grades, no homework, and dissolves grade levels into five "Independence Levels" for children ages 5 to 15. Schedules are fluid throughout the day and include time for both direct instruction as well as independent "goal" time for personal work. Students even set goals for themselves each year, giving them a chance to excel in fields that interest them.

The school also ditches a summer break in favor of a 12-month school year, and hosts a extended-day period that ends at 6 p.m. Even during the latter parts of the day, most of the students stick around and stay busy working on classroom activities, according to Kat Clark, the school's marketing and communication manager.

Ana, who has been at the school for only a few months, has already taken part in a major project that explores the idea of cultures and systems – which branches off into a plethora of topics including math, art, science and humanities that are interconnected. Students were tasked with creating their own country that would vie to be the next location for the Olympic games, and Ana and her group had to come up with a system of governance, an economic structure and a list of strong, compelling reasons why it should be the country of choice.

At a parent-student exhibition event last week, a panel of judges, including Sal Khan and school staff, agreed that Ana's group had made the best argument for hosting the Olympics in their country.

Mikki McMillion, the lead teacher for the oldest students at Khan Lab School, said the Olympics project is part of what the school calls "concept-based learning," a spin-off of project-based learning, with the goal of teaching students what it means to be a global citizen. The contest from last week is really just for fun, she said, but it's still a good opportunity to learn about teamwork and competing with one another while still being supportive.

Ana's father, Roni Zeiger, said he's been really impressed with the school so far, and said he was drawn to the Khan Lab School after seeing how much students are given a say in their own education. Students feel involved in the lesson plans and are given leverage to set their own goals each year, he said, a stark contrast to a more rigid, top-down public school system. A typical school week might have 12 hours of direct instruction and eight hours of project-based learning activities, with the all of the remaining hours devoted entirely to independent goal time.

"It's a really student-centered approach," Zeiger said. "Students are trusted in their pursuit of their learning goals."