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WIRED: The Tech Elite's Quest to Reinvent School in Its Own Image

Monday, October 26, 2015

This story originally appeared in WIRED, a monthly magazine focused on emerging technologies.

Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy and Khan Lab School. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen for WIRED. A student checks work on an iPad and students organize books in the library. Benjamin Rasmussen for WIRED. Students challenging each other to a game of chess (left). Headphones and a voice level system (right). Benjamin Rasmussen for WIRED.

Salman Khan sits at the head of a conference table, surrounded by about a dozen children, talking about Hitler. It’s late June, nine months into the first year at Khan Lab School, Khan’s educational R&D lab in Mountain View. At most schools, the students would be counting down the minutes until their summer vacation. But the Lab School eschews most of the traditional trappings of US education, including summer break. So the kids here don’t seem particularly fidgety. Or at least not any more fidgety than your standard group of 9- to 12-year-olds sitting in a warm room analyzing the decline of the Weimar Republic.

Khan himself is the famed creator of Khan Academy, the online juggernaut that provides thousands of hours of free video tutorials and exercises to anyone with an Internet connection. Plenty of big-brained tech types—including the likes of Bill Gates, Ann and John Doerr, and Walter Isaacson—have hailed Khan Academy as a breakthrough: world-class teaching unencumbered by space and time, an agile system that lets students learn at their own pace, the most compelling case yet for how technology might revolutionize education around the globe. Khan, an MIT grad and former hedge funder, has become a Silicon Valley celebrity, feted on 60 Minutes, at TED, and in the pages of WIRED. “The world’s best-known teacher,” he has been called. “A true pioneer.” “One of our heroes.”

But a few years ago, Khan began arguing that videos weren’t enough. They were supplementing traditional education, when the entire system needed to be rethought. He wrote a book called The One World Schoolhouse that spelled out his vision, one in which schools abandon outdated practices—like homework, daily schedules composed of distinct 50-minute periods, grades, and classes organized by age—and embrace radical new methods to prepare students for the post-industrial world. Khan argued that the traditional lockstep approach to education, in which students all learn the same material on the same schedule, is anachronistic and crude; kids who are capable of learning faster are compelled to slow down, while others are forced to move on before mastering a subject, dooming them to a lifetime of incomprehension. Instead of inspiring students to think creatively, classes are filled with soul-killing lectures and emphasize conformity and obedience over passion and individuality. “The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs,” Khan wrote. “It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information.”

Khan was hardly the first to level this critique. Reformers from John Dewey to Carleton Washburne had made similar arguments for more than a century. But Khan suggested that the digital revolution might finally enable a new model of education, more flexible, inspiring, and affordable than the current system. He proposed a school in which kids work at their own pace, picking up core skills via software like Khan Academy, with teachers tracking their progress and helping out as needed. Most of the day would be spent on creative projects, with kids working together across age groups. And the whole place would be suffused with a spirit of experimentation, with teachers testing out new ideas and collecting data to measure their efficacy. Khan admits today that many of those ideas were “theoretical” and “utopian.” But while those adjectives might seem like drawbacks in traditional education circles, they are irresistible to tech types with a penchant for philanthropy, some of whom eagerly fronted $1 million to help Khan build his dream school.

For decades now, technologists have been attempting to reinvent the school system. But at least so far, most of these efforts have run afoul of the rigid bureaucracies, parental anxieties, and political minefields that define much of the US education debate. InBloom, a system for collecting and tracking student data, shuttered in the face of parental protests; Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million investment in Newark’s public school system evaporated without leaving much of a trace; and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s ambitious plan to give every student an iPad broke down amid finger-pointing. In a country where even textbook purchases, to say nothing of tougher math standards, can spark national screamfests, the idea that the US would sanely and thoughtfully reengineer its approach to education seems naive at best. Then again, it’s hard to fault parents and educators for their conservatism. Innovation is an inherently risky endeavor. The tech industry fetishizes failure—the millions of eggs that must be broken on the way to making a unicorn omelet. That may be fine for business models or user interfaces, but not so great when those eggs are your kids.

iPad storage and library check-out system. Benjamin Rasmussen for WIRED. A student works on a LEGO project. Benjamin Rasmussen for WIRED. A student shucks corn that was grown in the school garden (left). Students tend to the garden (right). Benjamin Rasmussen for WIRED.

So now, instead of massive top-down attempts to cram innovation into the public school system, some tech-minded parents and entrepreneurs are building their own alternatives. Home schooling has become a trend in the tech community; it’s “off the charts” at Google, Khan says. When it came time to educate his own children, Elon Musk hired a local teacher and built a 20-person school without grades or age-based cohorts. Zuckerberg and the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz participated in a $100 million funding round for AltSchool, a software-driven private school franchise founded by a Google alum. Facebook has partnered with a network of charter schools to build pedagogical software, one of a wave of new California schools using technology to make classroom education more flexible and individualized. “The Bay Area is the destination for educators who want to see early signs of what these new school models could look like,” says Brian Greenberg, CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund, a nonprofit that has backed the Lab School and other new schools.

This may come across as the educational equivalent of on-demand laundry delivery—privilege couched in the language of disruption. And there’s certainly nothing new about well-off kids receiving expensive, bespoke education while the rest of the country wrestles with the unforgiving economics of public schooling. Khan acknowledges that for now, most of the students at his school come from relatively wealthy tech-industry families, but he says that his annual tuition of $22,000 is much less than many private schools, especially considering that the school offers year-round classes and optional extended days. (He eventually aims to bring the tuition down to the amount public schools spend annually to educate each student. It’s also worth mentioning here that the Lab School is in the process of obtaining not-for-profit status, like Khan Academy.)

Students at KLS are encouraged to think creatively and work in teams. More to the point, his goal isn’t just to build one fancy school but to develop and test a new model of learning that can be exported to other schools around the country and the world. His team is diligently recording and tracking every student’s progress and sharing the findings with their parents and the staff, an open source approach to educational innovation. In this view, the Lab School kids are guinea pigs, the eggs in the omelet, willingly subjecting themselves to new ideas that have never been tried before, then adapting and adjusting and trying again.

“This is a lab for establishing new theories that could affect the rest of the planet,” Khan says. “The whole point is to catalyze change.”

The students of Khan Lab School are back from lunch, standing in a circle, trading public accolades. “I have a shout-out for Mary, because when no one would take me to the bathroom, Mary did,” one student announces. “It showed conscientiousness and social intelligence.” Another student adds, “I have a shout-out for Mishal for being a really good sport about going inside and about not eating with everyone else. It showed social intelligence, self-regulation, self-awareness, and conscientiousness.” After each compliment, the entire student body waves their fingers and chants “faaaantastic!”

It’s the kind of Kumbaya moment that could easily occur in squishy-minded, confidence-boosting schoolrooms across the country, with one difference: Orly Friedman, the school’s director, asks the students to add every remark to a Google form that tracks who delivered the praise, who received it, and which specific traits they called out. Over time, she says, she will have a detailed analysis of her students’ character development.

This is a pretty good snapshot of the Lab School’s overall approach to education—a touchy-feely surface that masks a rigorous fealty to tracking data about every dimension of a student’s scholastic and social progress. Every week, students set their own academic goals—the level of math they hope to master, the amount of time they plan to dedicate to reading, and so on. Over the course of the week, they use Khan Academy and other self-directed educational software to try to accomplish those goals. Their headway is charted so that teachers can identify where they are struggling and offer assistance. The afternoons are usually given over to broad, real-world projects—during my visit, one group of students was charged with redesigning the classroom’s library, a task that led them to draw maps, study taxonomy, and research barcode-scanning apps. The class also picks an overall theme to explore over the course of eight weeks. Last term’s theme, “endangered species,” culminated in a carnival in which the students designed games based on their favorite threatened animals. Unlike many progressive schools, the Lab School is a firm believer in standardized testing—students are evaluated three times a year, the better to measure their progress and make sure the school is living up to expectations. “It’s not acceptable for even one student in this school to not grow as expected,” Khan says, “and hopefully all of them are growing two to three times as expected.”

Students play with a lizard they found in the garden. Benjamin Rasmussen for WIRED.
Students play with a lizard they found in the garden. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen for WIRED.

Khan has fantasized about starting a school like this ever since he was an undergrad. Indeed, even before Khan Academy became an international phenomenon—it now reaches 31 million students a month in some 190 countries in 36-plus languages—he began exploring meatspace brand extensions. In 2009, before he left his hedge fund job to devote himself full time to Khan Academy, he used his vacation time to run a summer camp for middle-school-aged kids, in which the campers mentored one another and worked together on big projects like building robots. In 2010, he began a pilot program with the Los Altos, California, school district. Instead of delivering lectures, five teachers had their students use Khan Academy to learn math at their own pace, then tracked their progress on a special dashboard.

Over the years, Khan had occasionally pursued the idea of starting a school, but any time he spoke to anyone about it, he came away discouraged. Real estate in Mountain View was prohibitively expensive, and the liability insurance alone presented a massive headache—to say nothing of all the usual bureaucratic hurdles from local government. But in the summer of 2013, Khan began to consider education options for his then 4-year-old son. That same year, Khan ran his first summer camp for younger kids, and at the end of it one of the parents begged him to start a school. “It was like, OK, if we’re ever going to start a school and we want our own kids to be in it, it’s now or never,” he says. “Everyone will tell you that starting a school’s a crazy thing, don’t even try. And we were like, well, let’s at least try.”

Khan initially figured he would start a homeschooling cooperative with about 10 families, but when he brought the idea up to the Khan Academy board, several members encouraged him to think bigger. “The vision of Khan Academy isn’t the website, it’s the book, it’s The One World Schoolhouse,” says Dan Benton, a board member who was among the school’s loudest proponents. “We haven’t demonstrated all the other elements of Sal’s dream, and I think the school gives us that opportunity.”

Khan’s startup mentality meant building the school extremely fast—and courting disaster at every step. They signed up 30 kids for the initial cohort, mostly from families who worked at Khan Academy or knew someone who did, but warned them to have backup plans in case the whole thing fell apart. They didn’t have a space built to code for the school until August, weeks before they were due to open. (Google eventually leased them a couple of floors in a company-owned office park.) They had to push back the start date by two weeks. Meanwhile, Khan was remodeling his house, and his wife had just given birth to their third child. “Honestly, I like to multitask, but there were nights when I did not sleep,” Khan says. “I would get up and wander the streets. ‘What am I doing?’”

But it all ended up coming together. “I probably used some of my capital,” Khan says. The city of Mountain View granted permission for them to open a school in a space zoned for offices. He hired a couple of other teachers who already used Khan Academy, were fans of The One World Schoolhouse, and were eager to explore a new approach to education. On September 15, the school opened for its first day of class with 30 students.

One of the tenets of the Lab School is that kids should play an active role in designing their own education. This means that a lot of the school day is spent discussing the school itself. While I was there, kids put in hours designing new storage space to stow their backpacks, devising a new meal system, and figuring out how to incorporate the new classmates that would be arriving in the fall, when the school doubles in size to 60 and welcomes more middle-school-aged students. They often sounded more like tech entrepreneurs than elementary students, talking about things like “rapid prototyping” and “design thinking.” On more than one occasion, I heard them begging to spend more time on math and reading.

Project-based learning
To understand the challenges and opportunities of global collaboration, the students were given the mission to build a boat that could carry four of their classmates across a lake. The students were split into three teams to represent one of three nations. Each nation (Japan, Spain, Germany) was responsible for building one third of the boat. The students were then sequestered into one of three rooms, which they could not leave. They completed all designing, coordinating, and troubleshooting in the country’s language by using Google Translate, Trello, and Slack. No English was allowed. The only time the teams met was when it was time to join together the three sections of the boat. 

The beginning of the summer term was also a chance to take a sober look at the year to date. Over the year, Friedman had sat with students and recorded how much time they were spending on various activities. After looking at the data, the Lab School team realized that students weren’t focusing enough on social studies. They also felt that they needed to do a better job grouping students by levels of independence, not just academic level, so Friedman had devised a new set of criteria to measure things like time management, self-knowledge, and focus. They were also revisiting the reading software their students were using and were about to start a trial in which different groups of students were put on three different programs to see which one was most effective.

By this point, the kids were probably used to being experimented on. The Lab School has thrown its doors open to outsiders, letting them test out their new ideas or products on a captive group of students. While I was there, a couple of UX designers from Khan Academy came down to see how some of the kids responded to a reorganization of the homepage. The stools and tables were donated by a furniture company, which in exchange gets to observe how the students interact with them. Mallory Dwinal, who is starting a new school in the Bay Area, has tested out some sample lessons on the students. “It’s an engineering mentality,” Khan says. “You start with a solid baseline, but then you’re always willing to observe, measure, and iterate, and through those improvements you come up with something amazing. It worked for the car industry, computers, software. Can we do that with the school?”

The point here isn’t just to build a better school but to refine a model that other educators can build on—to change education across the country and the world. That’s why Khan is setting up the Center for Learning Innovation, a network to enable similar-minded schools to share their projects and findings. But ultimately, most of Khan’s supporters say, the best way to promote this new style of learning is to create a great school with amazing results that parents, teachers, and administrators will naturally want to emulate. “Convincing schools to make a change like this is difficult,” Benton says. “The only way to do it is to prove it.”

Sal Khan with students from the Lab School. Indeed, not everything is working, and the school can fall prey to some of the devastating setbacks that befall any fast-moving startup. In July, shortly after my visit, an award-winning teacher Khan had recruited from Virginia submitted his resignation—a surprise to Khan and the rest of the team. “This really is a laboratory, and like Thomas Edison or anyone else, we’re going to have some failures,” says Christopher Chiang, a recent hire who was already slated to build out the Lab’s middle school program. “I joined Sal not because he has all the answers, and not because I have all the answers, but because somebody needs to try this and learn what the mistakes are.”

But most of the parents I spoke with—many of them with ties to the tech industry—were happy with the move-fast-and-break-things approach to education. In fact, they said they were most drawn to the idea that everything wouldn’t be perfect, that their kids would be able to experience the school as it’s being born and refined and tweaked. “My daughter is not naturally experimental or risk-taking,” says Sangeeta De Datta. “They’re throwing everything against the wall here, and that fosters her ability to go out and explore other things.”

I suggested to Khan’s team that, by those criteria, the school might become less attractive over time, as the team gets a better sense of what’s working and loses some of its spirit of startup experimentation. But they insisted that the process would never conclude. The experimentalism isn’t just a means to an end—an attempt to discover the perfect school. The experimentalism is the end. “They’ve done a great job of building a culture that says, ‘We’re here to innovate, and if something isn’t working, it’s your job to say so,’” Dwinal says. “It turns a liability of innovation into an incredible gift for students. They’re teaching them how to work in the 21st century workplace.” In other words, sometimes you don’t break eggs to make a perfect omelet. Sometimes, the whole point is just breaking the eggs.