Khan Academy, Khan Lab School, and the Future of Education

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.

4 thoughts on “Khan Academy, Khan Lab School, and the Future of Education

  1. Khan’s system looks like an excellent one. Does he address year-round schools at all? Summer breaks are outdated. Breaks are needed, but that needs to be revised along with our education system.

    Our present system is so flawed that it needs to be completely overhauled before we will start to see success. The main problem I see is that our current system is so entrenched that there will be huge resistance if any major change is even mentioned. That resistance to change had brought us bad ideas like No Child Left Behind and Common Core.

    I see other problems in the implementation of Khan’s system, but I do hope that it or something similar will be the future of education in America.

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    • Khan actually does propose that schools should remove summer vacation because it prevents students from retaining the content they learned throughout the school-year and often leads towards months of intellectual atrophy (many students, he correctly observes, do not read or even exercise during the summer). Khan Lab School uses multiple, shorter breaks over the course of the year instead of summer vacation, and his book advocates letting students take their own vacation time much like they would at work. I also completely agree with your point about the resistance of the education system towards new and often proven alternatives to the status quo. Public and private schools alike have become so preoccupied with standardized test scores and the associated federal funds that even schools with the willingness and capacity to innovate have almost no incentive to do so. Hopefully government officials and local administrators start moving towards some of the proposals Khan advocates, and I certainly believe flipped classrooms and portfolio-based assessments are meaningful steps that instructors could probably attempt without direct support from their districts. Only time will tell, I suppose, but there’s some cause for optimism given the recent success of the Khan Academy, Coursera, and other edtech organizations.

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      • I hoped he would address the need to drop the summer vacation and the reasons you listed here are right. I love the idea of students taking more control of their own education ( corresponding appropriately with age).

        There are things instructors can do without direct support. Our education is so outdated that it’s a wonder learning even takes place. I hope there are those in our government and other places of influence who are aware of Khan’s proposals.

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