21st Century Learning

Khan Lab School Thrives on Experimentation

While the classic school carnival features beanbag tosses and balloon pops, the one at Sal Khan's independent school included a makerspace booth to raise awareness for the Saltmarsh Harvest Mouse, a food stand booth raising money to donate to a local environmental non-profit and a test-your-brain booth to teach people about California endangered species.

Khan Lab School, based in Mountain View, CA and associated with the online learning pioneer's Khan Academy, opened in fall 2014 with 30 students. (The school is actually located in a space downstairs from the Academy itself.) This year it has nearly 60 students ranging in age from five to 13 years. That number is expected to grow to 95 students in the 2016-2017 school year. Within five years the school anticipates serving students ages five through 18.

And soon it may begin sharing the results of its failed and successful experiments in education with everybody else.

A typical school day at Khan Lab School, according to a blog post by one of its students, encompasses kids using Google Chromebooks to learn languages on Duolingo, sharing announcements and "getting energized" in community meetings, practicing programming lessons, setting up personal sites, studying science by taking courses on Udacity, watching videos of performers from around the world, doing self-awareness reflection and tackling independent projects (for this then-12-year-old setting up a "small scale NGO" focused on addressing community hunger).

If some observers consider it a great irony that the person who introduced the concept of free online education to the world now has his name on a physical K-12 school with annual tuition between $23,000 and $25,000, Khan himself seems undaunted. As he told NPR reporter Eric Westervelt in an interview published last week, "We view the virtual as something that can empower the physical — that if students can get lectures at their own time and pace, they can get exercises, they can have a programming platform, that doesn't mean that the classroom gets replaced; it means the classroom gets liberated."

The idea of the school is to "catalyze change more broadly," Khan added. That means everything is up for reconsideration. The school has no traditional classrooms, no bell schedules nor "grade-level peers," as a report from the Clayton Christensen Institute stated last year.

While the core school day runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the school is open to students from 8:30 to 6. Twice a day the entire community comes together to cover matters of importance to school culture. Half the day students do self-paced learning in math, reading, writing and computer science. The other half has students working in teams on hands-on projects in science and social studies. In the middle of the day, they do physical activities, gardening and mindfulness practices as part of a focus on wellness.

Students work in "main age groups," guided by certified teachers and associate teachers. At times the activities incorporate a "mix" of both the youngest and oldest students, and students jump in to tutor each other, not just old with young, but young with young.

If change seems never-ending in public schools, they have nothing on this experimental school. As Khan told Westervelt, the school reconsiders its approach to learning and operations continually. "Every six weeks, we kind of look at what worked, what didn't work, and we kind of reset it and reboot it and we try new things. So it really is in the spirit of innovation of Khan Academy."

In a reflection of what Khan Academy has done for learning — making it free and available to anyone with an Internet connection — Khan has also promised that the school would follow an open model. It intends to share what it develops and learns about instruction and learning, including curriculum, with "the rest of the planet."

While its small size and the high price of tuition will leave most Silicon Valley families out of the running to snag a spot at the Lab School, Khan is dedicated to creating a "racially and economically diverse group of learners." What it does expect is that applicants want to be active participants in their education with parents who support their children in becoming "lifelong learners."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.