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What does the future of education look like?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

“I believe that ownership and relationship are the keys to success in learning. This means that the role of the teacher is changing, and teachers need to relinquish some of their control in order to build students’ independence. One way that we are encouraging this at Khan Lab School is by changing the way we group students: rather than separating students by age, we group them by level of independence.”

Originally published in Forum Mag on September 28, 2017.

 Dominic Liechti, Executive Director & President at Khan Lab School in Mountain View, CaliforniaDominic Liechti is the Executive Director & President of the Board at Khan Lab School, an independent school associated with Khan Academy. Prior to joining KLS, Dominic was the Managing Director of the German American International School in Menlo Park, California, and he was previously the Principal at an inner-city junior high in Zurich. For six years prior to his headship, Dominic was a classroom teacher. He holds his teaching credential from the College of Education in Bern; his M.A. in School and Education Management from Zurich University of Teacher Education; and his M.B.A. from the International Institute for Management Development (IMD).

Millions of people around the world use Khan Academy, an educational website that provides thousands of hours of free online learning. With its founding partners including Google and Bill Gates, Khan Academy’s supporters now range from Oracle, Hyatt, and Comcast to the Law School Admission Council and The Walt Disney Company. Lesser known is Khan Lab School, KA’s brick-and-mortar counterpart, which is quickly gaining steam in the heart of Silicon Valley. Each month, dozens of educators, administrators, and edtech employees flock to Mountain View, California to see Khan Lab School in action. Since opening its doors in September 2014, the school has quadrupled in size, and KLS will welcome its first cohort of high school students in the fall of 2017. To better understand the KLS model of education, we interviewed Dominic Liechti, Executive Director & President.

Why do you feel education needs to change?

According to the World Economic Forum, the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning will transform labor markets, leading to a net loss of over 5 million jobs by 2020. The good news is, there will also be a lot of new jobs created, but this workforce needs a totally new skill set in order to navigate through this fourth industrial revolution. That said, the challenge is twofold. Essentially, we have moved through three different ages: the Agricultural Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information Age. If you have read A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, you may be familiar with the idea that we should now be in the Conceptual Age – but we’re not, at least when it comes to the education industry. We are still structuring the classroom as if students will grow up to work in the Information Age, as if they only need logic and accumulation of content and their left brain to succeed; in reality, globalization and automation require a more creative workforce with character strengths and cognitive skills such as empathy, synthesis, and critical thinking encompassing design and meaning. Because of this, it’s not only meaningful but also strategic to provide students with a less passive education experience.

Students work together during at a Khan Academy mentor event

How do you make schooling less passive?

I believe that ownership and relationship are the keys to success in learning. This means that the role of the teacher is changing, and teachers need to relinquish some of their control in order to build students’ independence. One way that we are encouraging this at Khan Lab School is by changing the way we group students: rather than separating students by age, we group them by level of independence. And rather than promoting students to the next grade level after a set amount of time, students can transition to the next Independence Level at two different times each year after demonstrating that they are prepared. The simplest way to think about it is that students can’t passively move through the system: they need to take an active stance toward their education in order to move to where they want to be. In addition, the Independence Levels are decoupled from academic levels, and academic levels are self-paced. For example, a student could be above average in math and computer science, above average in writing, and have below average work habits; rather than placing him in below average math, computer science, or writing, he is able to move forward in subject areas at his own pace while working to improve his time management skills, self-regulation skills, etc., within his Independence Level. Since Independence Level transitions happen more than once each year, academic transitions happen all of the time, and most students stay in an Independence Level for more than one year, students do not feel as stigmatized when they need to progress at a different pace. All of the groups are mixed-age groups.

What are some of the other structures that look different at Khan Lab School?

Goal-setting is another large part of what makes us different and fosters student agency. Students meet one-on-one with their Independence Level Advisors each week to set, manage, and reflect on goals, which we have found to be a great way to foster both ownership and relationship. We do this within a document that we call the Goal Tracker. Instead of report cards with letter grades, students are held responsible for keeping track of their mastery progress, and they are required to regularly discuss their goals and areas for improvement. They are also required to present their projects (connected to conceptual understandings) to an audience of friends and family members at the end of each term – we call this Term Exhibition, and it happens five times per year. These project experiences are a great way to hone the character strengths and cognitive skills in real-life context. In addition, our team is working on new ways for students to demonstrate mastery through both portfolios and transcripts. Students have interdisciplinary project-based learning for about two hours each school day, and their self-paced Goal Time increases each year as students gain independence. Due to the focus on student agency, our students are accelerating quickly; therefore, during the last two years of high school, we’ll provide the opportunity for students to intern at various firms to extend their experiential learning outside of the school. Recently, our middle school students interned for two weeks at a large biotech accelerator in San Francisco, where they interacted with various startups and were exposed to a real science lab. We also have an extended day, meaning many students arrive at 8:30 and leave at 6:00 p.m. The core school day is currently 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. From 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., we offer a variety of electives such as art, sports, robotics, dance, and music classes. We avoid assigning homework, unless a student chooses to use time after school to work on personal goals, and we do everything we can to cultivate intrinsic motivation.

What is the role of technology? A student works on his goals during Goal Time

The most visible role of technology at KLS is our use of blended learning. Our students work independently for between 25% and 40% of the time each week, as defined by their Independence Level. We call this Goal Time in elementary and middle school and Ownership Time in the high school, and during this time, we leverage digital learning tools like Khan Academy so that each student can move at his or her own pace. During Goal Time, when students work independently on their goals, you will see the majority of children working on their personal devices while one student is meeting with the Advisor and other students are working in small groups with Content Specialists. They are not using computers for the sake of using computers – they are using computers as a tool to learn independently, and as a means to free up teachers to be mentors, tutors, and coaches to the students who need support. Hot off the press, in collaboration with innovative edtech startups, we are building a Learning Relationship Management (LRM) software encompassing a Learning Record System (LRS), which aggregates and visualizes the student data such as Engagement, Mastered Skills, and Activity from all the different digital learning apps. This interactive, dynamic analytics and data visualization tool will further help us to humanize the classroom.

What are next steps you would recommend for someone interested in this model of education?

I would encourage people to visit our website and follow us online to keep up with what we are learning and sharing. If you are in the area, please sign up for an Educator Tour on our website. I would also encourage you to read Sal Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse, in which he presents his vision for the future of education. Khan Lab School is based in large part on the ideas put forward in that book, especially mastery-based learning.


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