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BiT Television: When Children Take Control of Education

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Bulgarian news channel BiT Television highlighted Khan Lab School’s model of Independence Levels in a 2017 TV segment. They spoke with Head of Lower School, Orly Friedman, about how KLS encourages students to take ownership of their education and become lifelong learners. To learn more about what BiT had to say, read the full story below or watch the full news segment with English subtitles.

AUTHOR: Desislava Mikova
CAMERA: Dimitrina Ivanova
EDITOR: Georgi Pavlov

Transcript of news segment:

The school of the future will have nothing to do with the school of today. The need for change inspires the revolutionary and super successful project of the American Salman Khan. His Khan Academy – the website with tens of thousands of video lessons for students of different ages – is one of the most progressive creations of the last decade. Recently, it has also been thriving in an offline environment: in a laboratory school in California.

“The idea for the school came from Sal's book, The One World Schoolhouse,” said Orly Friedman, Head of Lower School. “In the last quarter of the book, he lays out his vision for what future schools might look like. He also happened to have a school-aged child of his own, and he decided it was time to put this vision into action. The school opened in 2013 with 32 students, and today around 100 children ages 5 to 14 go there.”

KLS parents choose the innovative school for various reasons. “Some students come because they were really advanced in a subject and felt like they were being held back at their school,” said Friedman. “We have other students who come for the opposite reason – because they were actually struggling and wanted to spend more time in a certain subject area, but maybe they were very talented in something else.”

“Other students come to us because they're really passionate about a certain topic and they want to be able to spend time on that during the school day,” she continued. “And we have opportunities for that. We have other students who've come to us because their parents think that they're too good at following the rules and they need to be in a little bit more of an open-ended creative environment.”

The students plunge into a creative environment from the very beginning. During the first term of the year, the lessons for the youngest were entirely devoted to arts and culture.

Independence-Based Learning Structure

“The whole Lower School – that's Independence Levels 1 through 4 right now – are focusing on the idea of relationships throughout the year,” said Friedman. “Each term we think about it through a different lens. Each Independence Level also has an additional concept that they're thinking about which relates to relationships. So for Independence Level 1, our youngest group, they are putting on a production of Peter and the Wolf. They're talking this whole term about ensembles and how orchestras and other musical ensembles work together to make a beautiful sound or a beautiful production.”

“So they're putting together Peter and the Wolf and also reimagining a new ending,” she added. “They're doing the music, the costumes, the set, all of that. And that's a group project.”

Independence Levels are the basis of the Khan Lab School model. They take the place of traditional grade levels and adjust the learning process to the individual needs of the students.

“Independence Levels are determined by categories like time management, goal management, motivation, and focus,” explained Friedman. “They determine how much structure and support the student needs to be able to learn at their own pace. We start with students who are five years old, and those students of course need a lot of structure and guidance before they can be expected to work on their own.”

Project-Based Learning

Instead of learning different subjects separately, the students work on projects. In the process, they acquire knowledge from diverse fields and instantly put it to practice.

“The projects are done in these Independence Level groups, and the projects are also scaffolded; so in our lowest Independence Levels, students all do the same project. They all work together as a group and it's totally defined by the teacher,” said Friedman. “But as students move up in their Independence Level, they start choosing who's in their group. They start choosing what the deliverable for the project actually looks like and, eventually, what question they're asking in the first place to get the project started.”

For example, in the fall of 2016, a group of students studied graffiti. Their project examined the boundaries between art and vandalism. They interviewed graffiti artists, photographed street art, and finally everyone came up with their own tags.

Another example is the students in the Middle School, who are working on a project inspired by the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“They had to choose a country that had never hosted the Olympics and then totally reimagine it,” said Friedman. “So the teams had to keep the same physical layout of the country, but they could change the natural resources and the major cities. They just designed it from scratch – the political system, etc. They're going to make pitches to their parents and to other teachers in the school as to why their country should be the one to host. After the selection is made, the entire group is going to have to go along with that decision for the rest of the year and the next projects will move off of that.”

Goal Setting

As it has become the norm, the academic year at Khan Lab School has nothing to do with the academic year at other schools. The schedule is tailored through the extended school year and the extended school day.

“We're open all 12 months of the year,” explained Friedman. “We're not open every day, we do have 10 weeks off, but the 10 weeks are spread pretty evenly throughout the school year. The idea behind that isn't that we think students need to be at school every day of the year, but when you have a personalized model, you can actually be much more flexible with kids and families in terms of when they go on vacation or when they take off for other reasons. The one thing they do miss out on are the projects, but oftentimes students can also supplement those projects wherever they are. So we had a couple of girls who were in Pakistan for a few weeks and they kept a video blog while they were there and reported back to our students. It was a learning experience for everyone.”

“Everything the students do at the school is based on goals they've set for themselves,” Friedman said. “Sometimes those goals can be accomplished within the 9:00 to 4:00 time, but oftentimes, especially as the students move up to higher academic levels and set more rigorous goals, they need more time than that 9:00 to 4:00 block, and so they'll use the extended day to continue working on those goals. By leaving the school open and having staff that are still there to support student learning, they can finish most of their work. That way, when they get home, they can just be at home and relax with their family.”


The teachers at Khan Lab School believe that students are capable of much greater accomplishments than society expects. And yet – how do they make sure kids don't set goals which are too easy or too hard?

“The main accountability mechanism we have is the Advisor,” Friedman said. “Every student has an Advisor who they meet with once a week for 30 minutes to check in on their goals to make sure that their goals are appropriate. Like you said – not too easy, not too hard.”

“Everyone’s a teacher, everyone’s a student”

At the lab school, everyone is a student, but everyone is a teacher too. The school is not only an institution, but a community.

“Our students have opportunities to teach their peers,” said Friedman. “They can sign up to teach something they're passionate about. We also have an open learning space, so students can see what other children are working on and ask for help from their peers anytime.”

Teachers also are encouraged to get back in the role of students. “We have something called a Lifelong Learning Stipend that our teachers get so that they can learn anything they want. It's specifically not for professional development. It's for things like learning a new language or maybe taking an art class, so our teachers get to be in the position of a student again and remember what that's like and what's effective for them. They also share that passion with our students so that our students see them continuing to learn.”

Orly Friedman is the principal of the Lower School at Khan Lab School. She got into teaching through practice. Her most memorable experience was at the Shanti Bhavan School in Southern India. It provides education for kids from the “untouchable” caste, who are practically excluded from social life.

“Since then I've been able to see the progress that that first class has made [at Shanti Bhavan],” she explained. “When I was there, the oldest students were in the eighth grade, but they've since graduated from high school or from college, and now have jobs at places like Goldman Sachs and Mahindra & Mahindra – top firms in India. So that was a really tangible example for me of how education can transform lives and really end the cycle of poverty.”

Future of Education

Salman Khan's philosophy teaches that 21st century education should focus on values like empathy, meaning, self-motivation and creativity. Only in this way will students be prepared to take part in positive changes on a global scale.

“I think training students to become lifelong learners and giving them ownership over their learning is more important now than it ever has been before,” Friedman says. “Our school is located in Mountain View, California, which is also where Google is headquartered. So, on a daily basis, our students see self-driving cars coming through the parking lot. And if you think about it, Uber was started in 2011, and by 2021, it's expected that we'll have self-driving cars on the road. Which means the profession of being an Uber driver actually came into existence and may become obsolete in less time than it takes to get a kindergarten to twelfth grade education. If our students are going to keep up, the most important thing we can do is teach them to take ownership of their education.”

A Universal Model of Education

Khan Lab School's innovative model is already showing promising results. In Friedman's opinion, it can easily be implemented in other schools and other educational systems.

“One goal of our school model – we are a lab school, which means we're testing out new ideas,” explained Friedman. “We do try a lot of things – sometimes it's technology, sometimes it's tools, sometimes it's a staffing model, but anything we implement and make core to our model is something that we think we can scale and be implemented by public schools. The things that are really core to what we do actually don't cost anything if you think about it: students setting their own goals, teachers having close relationships and advising students, grouping students by Independence Level – any school could implement that today. Technology definitely makes it a smoother and easier experience in a lot of ways, but you don't even need technology to do that. So a lot of the practices that we're really focusing on are free and intended to be scalable.”

Well, this particular school probably looks exactly like the school of the future.


The interview with Orly Friedman took place in October 2016, while she was a speaker at the Teach For All Global Conference in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. This conference explored the theme of “Reimagining Education” through dynamic workshops and discussions. View the original BiT post in Bulgarian.