A dozen years ago Sal Khan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology–trained engineer with a knack for explaining math and science, used an internet drawing tool to tutor his 12-year-old cousin — half a continent away — in algebra.
His friendly voice and colorful, moving sketches worked for her, and later — when he posted videos on YouTube — attracted a global audience in the tens of millions.
Now Khan is tackling something perhaps even harder: reimagining how children are taught in bricks-and-mortar schools.
The private Khan Lab School in Mountain View, California, is the testing ground for the Khan Academy’s unorthodox approach. Ninety-five kids ages 5 to 14 spend 9½ hours a day and a longer school year setting their own goals and learning at their own pace. There are no grades or homework, but lots of group projects, time spent on laptops and small group and one-on-one sessions with teachers.
It’s not quite a one-room schoolhouse, as some have called it. Younger and older pupils are separated in two big rooms, with breakout spaces where students work on projects and get personal guidance from instructors.
“We have no kids struggling. They’re thriving” and moving at their own pace as they learn subject content and life skills such as teamwork, resilience and perseverance, says the school’s head, Dominic Liechti.
Junaid Qurashi says his two daughters “love going to school … to the point that we worry why kids come home so pleased. Are they really learning things?” he told Voice of America.
“You get to choose what you learn,” said 9-year-old Holly Thompson. “It’s not just a teacher hands you a worksheet and tells you what to do. You get to set your own goals.”
The school provides “narrative feedback” on students’ performance, not numerical or letter grades, says Liechti. “When they master the content, they move on to the next skills set.”
There are benchmarks. Students regularly take a standardized national test.
This fall the school will start a ninth grade, and Liechti says it aspires to award International Baccalaureate diplomas.
Liechti, who is Swiss, says the school hopes to train other teachers to bring personalized learning to their classrooms, schools and districts.
Befitting its heritage, the school also plans to make videos on its approach.
All photos provided by Khan Lab School.