Creating the schools of the future

What we’re learning at Khan Lab High School

Over the past few decades, technology has transformed many industries and revolutionized our lives. While education has been slow to keep up, the pandemic has accelerated the discussion. This is due both to the increased reliance on technology-enabled learning and the separation of students from physical schools.

Long before COVID-19, Salman Khan, a MIT-trained mathematician and former Oracle employee, began challenging ineffective learning approaches. First, he set out to help his cousins learn math, and soon he was tutoring other people’s cousins, neighbors and friends. In 2005, the Bay Area resident began testing and implementing new ways of learning, building a video-based education platform with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone. The platform, Khan Academy, now reaches 70+ million people in 190 countries and 40 languages.

Khan Academy also has grown to include partnerships with Bay Area public schools, the open-access tutoring community, and most recently a physical school, located in Mountain View that serves over 230 K-12 students.

Khan Lab School was founded in 2014. Its pedagogy comes largely out of Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse, which argues for mastery-based, student-centered learning as well as a departure from traditional letter grades. While many schools have become pressure cookers, due to competitive college admissions, Khan Lab School is taking a different approach.

Students who choose the school, and the high school program in particular, have said no to grades and yes to learning that is both autonomous and collaborative. Students are not chasing A grades or piling on AP courses. The school doesn’t have them. Instead, they are required to deeply understand course content and encouraged to pursue personal passions and student-designed projects. For example, one student who excelled in mathematics designed and taught a multivariable calculus course to his peers. Another student, studying music, wrote and scored a full-length musical called “Down by the Bay.”

In June, Khan Lab High School graduated its first senior class of nine students. Graduates are now settling in at MIT, Northeastern, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Harvey Mudd, UC Berkeley and the universities of Michigan and Texas at Austin — in other words, some of the most selective colleges in the country.

They did this not with endless hours of testing and homework, but by applying what they are learning in the classroom to the real world. One student, who is studying Spanish and is interested in child development, interned with the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula to help teach English language learners. Another student studying computer science spent hundreds of hours outside the classroom writing thousands of lines of code to develop an “autonomous peer review program” that will allow users to have their grammar and syntax analyzed anonymously. While these projects were supported by Khan Lab School teachers, they were student-initiated, designed and executed.

These self-directed students exemplify the kind of innovation that our education system needs. Some of it is technologically-driven. Some of it is student-driven. Some of it is driven by applied internships and projects that transcend traditional classrooms. But little of it looks like the K-12 education of 100 years ago, where learning has been confined by time and place.

Brennan Barnard is the director of college counseling at Khan Lab High School and co-author of The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.

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