Years before he started the online education platform Khan Academy—whose free tutorial videos have been viewed on YouTube more than 700 million times and whose runaway success has earned its founder the title “the world’s best-known teacher”—Salman Khan was a chronic class skipper as an undergraduate at MIT.
“It’s part of the ceremony of going to college, of showing up at these lectures because that seems to be what everyone is doing,” Khan told NPR in 2012. “But I’ve actually found that the students that are most productive are the ones that use that time to go do something else.”
Founded in 2006 after math tutorial videos Khan had recorded for his 13-year-old cousin started accumulating thousands of views, Khan Academy is founded on the idea that instruction is best served online. “You can pause,” Khan said. “If there’s a word you don’t understand, you can look it up on the Internet. You can ask a friend…. No need to be embarrassed and raise your hand in the middle of class and stop everyone’s learning. You can go review that material, and you don’t have to take notes because it’s always there.”
Thus it surprised some when Khan Academy announced two years ago its plans to open an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar school. If lessons live online, what lives in the classroom?
“We view the virtual as something that can empower the physical—that if students can get lectures at their own time and pace, they can get exercises, they can have a programming platform,” Khan said, discussing the Khan Lab School’s first year. “That doesn’t mean that the classroom gets replaced; it means the classroom gets liberated.”
Khan founded the mixed-age, year-round Lab School to test what that liberation looks like. Students set their own weekly academic goals, which they use Khan Academy and other self-directed educational software to achieve. In the afternoons, they work on larger, real-world projects such as redesigning the school’s library. Eight-week segments are devoted to different overarching themes.
“The students do mastery-based, personalized learning for the first half of the day. We have a lot of focus on meta-cognitive skills like entrepreneurship and creativity,” Khan said. “The second half of the day—and they’re here until 6 o’clock—they’re building stuff. They’re making things.”
The curriculum is also quantified through software data and student self-assessment. Khan shares this analysis with parents, as well as local public and private schools, in an attempt to move his methods into the broader educational system. It also fosters an environment in which educational experimentation reigns supreme.
“It’s an engineering mentality,” Khan told Wired. “You start with a solid baseline, but then you’re always willing to observe, measure, and iterate, and through these improvements you come up with something amazing.”