The Silicon Valley school where pupils set the agenda

12th February 2016 at 00:00
salman khan
Khan Academy vision sees ‘advisers’ help children grouped by independence organise their own learning

The self-driving cars that quietly whir past the Khan Lab School are far from the only unusual thing about this Silicon Valley experiment in education.

Students who study here are not grouped by their age or their academic ability, but instead by their “independence levels”.

Rather than the traditional idea of teachers, there are “advisers”, and the pupils are allowed to decide for themselves if they need to do homework.

This is the future of schooling as envisaged by the founder of the Khan Academy. Salman Khan, the hedge fund analyst-turned-global internet teacher who popularised flipped learning, has decided to move his ideas from the virtual world into a bricks and mortar school near San Francisco, in the heartland of the technology industry.


Any time, anywhere

The Khan Lab School (KLS) opened just over a year ago in a Bay Area business park owned by Google – hence the self-driving cars. It is the entrepreneur’s attempt to create an institution where educational content can be accessed at any time, anywhere.

“We live in this new context. Why do you need to go to a physical school for a set amount of time when you can get all the content you need alone in a closet at home?” Orly Friedman, school director at KLS, tells TES.

But rather than getting rid of the idea of a school altogether, the KLS team has decided to radically alter it. “We think that there are a lot of good reasons for going to school,” Ms Friedman continues. “But [the Khan approach] does mean that the day looks very different – the role of the teacher changes, the schedule, the physical space changes. So we’re just figuring out how to optimise all of those pieces with this new programme.”

It is a programme that the parents of the school’s 58 five- to 13-year-old pupils are fully signed up to. A high proportion work in the tech industry and they are prepared to pay the $22,000 (£15,300) annual fees because they believe in Mr Khan’s vision of 21st-century education spelled out in his book The One World Schoolhouse.

A key principle is that children should be grouped not by age but by their ability to work independently (see box, right).

“We have developed a rubric, which we use to measure their different independence levels. But because our school is mastery-based, we separate our independence level from academic ability,” Ms Friedman explains.

The role of teachers, or “advisers”, is to give as little or as much structure to a student’s day as they need. The students set themselves termly goals in agreement with their adviser, and they work independently through their goals each week.

Mikki McMillion, a former mainstream teacher, says that becoming a KLS adviser was a “huge leap of faith”.

“I actually feel like a teacher here – before, I was a grade-giver,” she says. “When that becomes the sole end goal for a school it becomes a different environment. Here we’re interested in the whole child.”

The school is open from 9am to 4pm all year round, to be “flexible” for parents and students, with an optional “extended day” until 6pm.

In the morning children learn four core skills: reading, writing, maths and computer science. “The students are working at their own pace through that content and working on goals that they set for themselves,” Ms Friedman says.

Younger pupils have more teacher direction but older students decide how much time they spend on any given subject.

“If, by the end of the week, a student meets their teacher and they haven’t worked through all of their goals, they won’t get in trouble,” Ms Friedman says. “It just means they won’t have learned as fast and that’s too bad.”

The school also teaches its pupils “wellness”, she adds, focusing on both “inner wellness” and “outer wellness”.

“Outer wellness is more like your traditional physical education and inner wellness is a combination of music, mindfulness. In the future, we’d like to do nutrition, psychology, human development, that kind of thing,” the school director adds.

For most of the afternoon, the students have “studio time” – a mix of hands-on work and personalised learning – where they are able to collaborate on projects.


Extended education

Then comes the extended day. It offers a chance to expose students to subjects that they don’t have time for during formal school hours, such as art or robotics.

“We don’t assign any additional homework. Because students are setting goals for themselves, they figure out how much work they need to be doing on a daily basis, which means sometimes they might need to do work after school in the extended day,” Ms Friedman says.

The whole KLS philosophy is based around ensuring pupils are “college ready”, and next year, it plans to take that idea to its logical conclusion by opening a senior high school. The option to open publicly funded Khan schools is also being considered.

“We would love to see this happen as a charter school,” Ms Friedman says. “There are certain constraints, such as the year-round opening, but I think eventually we will be able to overcome that.”


Independence of mind

How Khan Lab School (KLS) groups pupils:

Pupils’ independence levels are assessed during conversations with their teachers, who judge how well they can set themselves goals and then work independently to achieve them.

KLS says that as many aspects of independence level are developmental, there is some correlation between independence groups and age.

This means that no pupil grouping spans more than three years in age difference.

If parents and their child find the advisory group that they are placed in is too emotionally challenging, the KLS team will make allowances and place the child in a group closer to their age.

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