Last fall, I spoke with one of my former English teachers about her work with Khan Lab School, the experimental Bay Area campus founded using the philosophy of Salman Khan. I have finally read Khan’s book The One World Schoolhouse, which describes the main problems with the American education system, the potential solutions Khan himself has drawn from the success of Khan Academy, and his vision for the future of K-12 and higher education. While I have some reservations about the proposals from the book and hope I can eventually tour Khan Lab School itself, I respect how clearly Khan explains the drawbacks of the traditional assembly-line model of education and the logic behind his proposed alternatives. Whether or not his One World Schoolhouse will become reality over the next few decades seems beside the point: Khan helps us articulate which parts of our education system cause so much frustration among students and educators alike and challenges our fundamental assumptions about the structure, methods, and objectives of the classroom.
Khan lists multiple problems with conventional schools, but most of his criticisms stem from four root causes: classes usually involve lectures where the instructor summarizes material and the students listen passively, every student must learn the material at the same pace or change “tracks” (accelerated, standard, or remedial), schools organize all content into disconnected subjects, and school and state assessments accept less than mastery for passing grades. Khan cites literature from education researchers showing that most students can only process fifteen-twenty minutes of lecture before they lose focus and asks why instructors dedicate most of their time towards delivering content instead of hosting discussions, helping students solve relevant problems, and producing self-directed projects. He similarly asks why schools must partition material using time rather than mastery and compellingly argues that the pace of learning does not always correlate with its depth and durability; students who spend more time becoming comfortable with new content may have more potential than their faster peers. Indeed, Khan recognizes that students will often have different paces for different concepts, and the student who quickly grasps fractions may still have difficulty with geometry. Khan also criticizes the separation of knowledge into subjects, which not only breaks down the logical connections between literature and history, calculus and physics, biology and probability, but also prevents students from learning the complex problem-solving skills required for the twenty-first-century workforce.
Khan correspondingly promotes flipped courses where students watch lectures outside of the classroom at their own pace and work on exercises and projects during school with assistance from their teachers. These classes, Khan claims, should require mastery from their students (he uses the heuristic of correctly answering ten consecutive questions without making any mistakes) before they let their students move on to other subjects but does not rigidly prescribe the order for each lesson. Khan believes self-directed learning can address some of the most significant problems with American students: if students choose the subjects they study and the projects where they apply what they have learned, then they will hopefully assume direct ownership over their own educations, practice critical-thinking, and become familiar with interdisciplinary collaboration. While this framework may seem unrealistic, Khan provides evidence of its success from the pilot programs he has conducted with the nonprofit Peninsula Bridge and the Los Altos school district. Khan shows that his Los Altos pilot improved the percentage of students who placed at or above grade level for Math from 91% to 96% and improved the average scores of students from “lower-level” classes around 106% (Khan 167-8). Despite the relatively small sample-size of the pilot program, the results are undeniably promising, particularly for the unfortunate students who are placed into remedial programs and slowly left behind.
Khan himself has removed grade-levels altogether from Khan Lab School and has started to realize his vision with classes where students choose their own programs of study and devote much of their time towards synthetic projects instead of conventional exams. The Khan Lab School tracks the progress of its students using levels of academic independence rather than ages, and the curriculum includes English, Math, Computer Programming, Science, World Languages, and Wellness. Khan Lab School extends the increasingly popular system of portfolio-based learning into primary education, letting students become active problem-solvers instead of passive recipients of facts and equations. Of course, Khan Lab School still has some hurdles it must overcome for its current and future students if it hopes to become a model for other public and private schools. First, how seamlessly will students from Khan Lab School transition into other institutions for high-school and college? Will admissions committees accept portfolios instead of traditional grades for former Khan Lab students, and how can other teachers account for the individualized knowledge of these students? How can underfunded and overtaxed public schools adopt the methods of the Khan Lab School, and how would specific districts retrain their teachers and restructure their previous curriculums? What, if anything, should we save from our current school-system? Khan Lab School exists to answer many of these questions, and fear of potential failures cannot excuse the lack of experimentation responsible for the current state of American education. I wish Khan, my English teacher, and the rest of the Khan Lab and Khan Academy staff the best of luck.