What's So Innovative About Salman Khan's One-Room Schoolhouse?

column | PK-12 School Models

What's So Innovative About Salman Khan's One-Room Schoolhouse?

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Jan 6, 2016

What's So Innovative About Salman Khan's One-Room Schoolhouse?

Sal Khan may spend a lot of time drawing on blackboards, but he isn’t your everyday school founder. He’s the face and voice of Khan Academy, an online platform that offers free videos and activities to millions all over the world. In fact, learners have completed over 3.8 billion exercise problems on the platform. Khan’s keynoted conferences like CUE and been featured on The Colbert Report and CNN.

But in addition to his many accolades, he’s now added the title of cofounder of the Khan Lab School (KLS), a brick-and-mortar private school housed on the first floor of the headquarters of Khan Academy in Mountain View, CA. Fifty-eight kids, ranging in age from 5 to 13, currently attend the school.

Founded in 2014, the Lab School and its story has slowly been gaining recognition—mostly told through Sal Khan’s voice. In October of 2015, WIRED Magazine took readers inside the largely empty and open space to hear about his attempt to reinvent the classroom. NPR recently conducted an interview with Sal Khan on his “Montessori 2.0” model.

But what do the teachers and students actually think of the school? Can students really make progress in a one-room schoolhouse?

Inside the School

The one-room schoolhouse may have opened in 2014, but Khan was dreaming about it long before that. “Even before Khan Academy, when I used to daydream with my friends, I thought, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do this career long enough until I can somehow start a school,’” Khan told EdSurge in an interview. In his 2013 book “The One World Schoolhouse,” Khan offered the world a small glimpse into some of what would eventually be the Lab School’s cornerstones: human interactivity, technology, creative projects.

Unlike Khan Academy, the Khan Lab School is not free. Tuition for students in “Lower School” (equivalent to grades K to 5) runs $23,000 a year; the fee bumps up to $25,000 for older students.

Grouped by “independence level” (from low to high) rather than grades, KLS students spend their days not in classes, but working on projects and meeting with advisory groups—cohorts sorted by age—all in one giant open space with approximately ten teachers and administrators.

A majority of the day consists of “labs” where students focus on core content areas like literacy, computer science and math. They learn skills in a variety of ways, from meeting with a teacher for a “pop-up class” to working on Chromebooks with Lexia, LightSail or—you guessed it—Khan Academy. Wellness blocks, focusing on mindfulness and meditation, are sporadic throughout the day.

When some quiet time is needed, students can use the various rooms adjacent to the school’s central space to work on studio projects, oftentimes associated with a schoolwide theme. One recent project, for example, asked students to ponder the question, “How do we express ourselves?”

With projects, there are no grades—only rubrics. Students decide when, where and how they learn. According to School Director Orly Friedman, “We want kids to think of themselves as co-owners. We use the kids a lot when we’re problem solving.”

Problem solving, like in math class? No, she’s not just talking about that. She’s talking about the school itself, which is attempting to always operate under a flexible design. According to the KLS pamphlet, the school is dedicated to “research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education,” with “processes and strategies for studying and sharing lessons learned regarding new educational practices.” What does that look like?

Some Things Are Working...

When speaking with a number of teachers and students, it’s apparent that the Khan system is testing a number of different instructional practices to see what sticks, such as different literacy tools or shifting amounts of time dedicated to social studies throughout the day. According to teacher Christopher Chiang, who previously taught in a Catholic school system, the startup mentality that’s come with working at KLS is a welcome change from his former positions.

“When you teach, you possibly have one iteration cycle a year—but we have six terms a year [each six to eight weeks]” to shake things up, Chiang says. “The experimentation has been exciting!”

His colleague, Heather Stinnett finds the atmosphere more welcoming than the Florida public school system from where she hailed, where the teacher evaluation system was based on all teachers doing the exact same thing every day. “Many public systems are becoming so scripted that they squeeze out innovation entirely,” she says. For her, KLS has a “commitment to innovation and experimentation as a practice rather than an occasional treat.”

In order to preserve a level of comfort with experimentation, KLS’s administration has focused on developing a strong—yet informal—culture, specifically by treating students and teachers as collaborators. Students call teachers by their first names, for example. Teacher Dianne Hurvitz reports that KLS’s has “family groups,” where six to eight kids with mixed ages are grouped together for lunch set-up, clean-up and morning meetings.

Most students seem to enjoy the atmosphere. Hazuri, an 11-year-old student, took a minute away from her website project to share: “I like working with little kids—if you set a good example, they’ll copy you. And we kind of treat teachers like friends—but no talking back.”

...But Not Everything is Perfect

Flexibility and experimentation comes at the price of consistency and predictability, and the teachers and students don’t shy away from sharing their frustrations.

First, there’s the workload. When both teachers and students have to constantly adapt to new tools or schedules or instructional practices, there’s physical and mental time and effort that goes into preparing for that change.

“I think we've all had moments of, ‘Ok, keep your cool, things are changing,’” Hurvitz says. “It's just a balance that we haven't necessarily nailed down yet. We are a lab and we're trying out different things, but sometimes it gets to be too much.”

Chiang echoes this sentiment when discussing “planning time,” a segment of time that most schools and districts embed into the day for educators and administrators to collaborate and prep for the next day’s lessons. KLS has struggled with it, according to Chiang:

“Planning time is the single largest challenge, as is finding time as a community to meet and make changes. I think the biggest difference between our school and a public school is our scheduling challenges of protecting time for educators to plan ahead.”

Talk to the students, and it doesn’t seem so likely that they’re “used to” to be experimented on—or that they like it.

Mary, a ten-year-old student, shares that she’s not always happy to see her schedule shifting. “It changes a lot. We don’t get to stay with one schedule. We changed the schedule two times this terms alone. Some of the other schedules, I miss—I liked them!” she says.

Who’s Benefitting More—The Students, or Khan Academy Employees?

Given KLS’ high profile, any success—or failure—will be magnified. Teacher Jeremy Young thinks that the notoriety can have its pros—“We have a lot of connections to getting things done, like talking to Google about creating a Maker curriculum,” he said. But “the pressure to get it right is high,” he says. “Working [at Khan’s Lab School] doesn't come with the complete freedom of being unknown.”

One question is whether the school is meant to be a classroom or a place for Khan Academy employees to use kids as guinea pigs, testing how well they like or don't like new KA tools and features.

School leader Friedman shares that KLS has a mentor program where each student is paired with a Khan Academy employee to engage in projects on the Khan Academy platform. For example, Friedman reports that Cameron Christensen, a Khan Academy content fellow, spends an hour every day with the kids introducing them to new math content.

Does this relationship have mutual benefits? Overall, students do appear to enjoy the mentorships, as the relationship is a two-way street. Mary, the 10-year-old mentioned above, lights up when she talks about the cooking project she’s working on with her mentor Esther Cho, a former classroom teacher. “We’re making a video—it’s gonna go on Khan Academy!” Mary said.

And what about Sal? According to Khan, his interest in opening a school “had nothing to do with technology.”

The Question of “True” Innovation

A number of comments left on coverage of KLS question whether the school is doing anything truly different. “Homeschooling or, in this case, the more elaborate Khan Lab School, simply leverages the advantages of affluence; it doesn’t reinvent the school,” reads one anonymous comment on a WIRED article. But the KLS educators and students don’t see it that way. Operating as a private school, Chiang says, allows his team “the luxury to take more risks.” Hurvitz argues that true originality is impossible for anyone.

“Honestly, it's hard for any school to say they're doing something original,” she admits. “At KLS, we're just a different mix of ingredients.”

The question now is whether that mix of ingredients will spread to other states and countries. When asked whether he plans on spreading the school to other cities, Khan is cagey. But there is one thing he’s willing to admit: he’s not doing anything new.

“A lot of these ideas are not my ideas—they’re old ideas that people surfaced to me and the Khan Academy team that just came together... It’s about seeing if we can figure out a combination of online tools and what’s happening in the physical world.”

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