Khan Lab School (Part 2)

The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs….It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information.

Salman Khan, The One World Classroom (2012)


From Francis Parker to John Dewey to Ella Flagg Young, to Vito Perrone to Deborah Meier to Theodore Sizer, complaints about the “old classroom model” have echoed through university lecture halls, academic monographs, oodles of conferences and, now, in education blogs. Criticism of existing public schools has spawned generation after generation of reformers looking for ways to alter the dominant “factory model,” “assembly line,” or “batch processing” way of schooling over the past 150 years.

Their target has been the historic structure of the age-graded public school with its  buildings divided into hallways lined with box-like classrooms where teachers distribute slices of curriculum grade-by-grade using whole and small-group instruction, homework, tests daily. The regime ends in June with either students being promoted to the next grade or being retained in the grade for another year.

Imported from Prussia in the late 1840s, that generation of reformers touted it as an innovation that was superior to the one-room schoolhouse. And it was. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the age-graded public school took in millions of immigrants from western, eastern, and southern Europe. These immigrants became Americanized through schooling and the workplace.

But there were critics of the age-graded school then and now. In 1902, John Dewey warned educators that “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child … really controls the whole system.” That “machinery of instruction” is what David Tyack and I called the “grammar of schooling” in Tinkering toward Utopia.

So Salman Khan joins a queue of reformers targeting the “old classroom model” in starting a brand new school unlike traditional public schools. There is a direct line from John Dewey’s Lab School (1896-1904) to progressive public and private schools in the 1920s to small “free” schools popping up in the mid-1960s, the small schools movement in the 1990s and now currently micro-schools gussied up with new technologies . The lineage is anchored in the quest to create settings where students learn from one another regardless of age, pursue their intellectual curiosity and passions at their pace, and where knowledgeable and skilled teachers  guide students to reach their individual potential.

Consider micro-schools. The one-room schoolhouse of yesteryear is the model for micro-schools. Small—anywhere from 25 to 150 students of mixed ages–with a few teachers committed to integrated content and skills such as multi-subject projects on climate change, answering big questions on why countries go to war, producing a newspaper, and connecting daily to the world outside of the school. Learning is active occurring in small groups and independent (a.k.a. “personalized learning”).

Dispensing with grade levels, traditional pedagogy, tests geared to state curriculum standards, and using space and furniture differently than in regular schools. Micro-schools vary in their origin–public (charters, school-within-a-school to free standing ones) and private. Most, however, are largely private and charge tuition in the tens of thousands dollars (see here, here, and here).  They also vary in their challenge to the “grammar of schooling” ranging from individually paced mastery-based learning to wholly project-based and experiential programs–some schools even combining these features.

New York and San Francisco-based Alt/Schools, for example, are privately-funded micro-schools that charge tuition and create schools with different systems unlike those found in nearly all public schools. No “machinery of instruction” in Alt/Schools (see here, here, and here). The policy Nirvana of “going to scale,” that is, creating more Alt/Schools and lowering the cost of schooling per student, however, has stumbled.

Is the Khan Lab School also a micro-school? Yes it is.

KLS is a Lab School in the tradition of challenging the dominant “grammar of instruction” in public schools going back to the first one operated by John Dewey (and later wife, Alice) at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.




The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets.  Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change. Highly touted at the time as the premier challenge to traditional public schooling, conflicts between the University’s leadership and the Deweys led to their departure in 1904 (see here and here)

While KLS is not affiliated with any university as was Dewey’s Laboratory School–it is an extension of private, non-profit Khan Academy–KLS remains committed to both “research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education” and, at the same time, putting into practice the ideas of its founder.

The tradition of challenging the dominant structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” continues to this day with micro-schools in Silicon Valley and elsewhere illustrating anew that such reforms to the traditional “machinery of instruction” have resided, for the most part, in private schools where tuition runs high and students bring many economic and social advantages school. In a profound way, the high cost of these private schools and the resources available to their founders in experienced teachers, aides, technologies, space, and materials show clearly the prior conditions necessary not only to operate such schools in public venues but also what is needed to contest the prevailing “grammar of schooling.”




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6 responses to “Khan Lab School (Part 2)

  1. I love reading about these “new” school models. Some of the ideas are great and would make major changes in the how much children retain from there education. On the practical side it will never happen for one major reason and several minor reasons. The major reason will always be $$$. I see two big ones there; remodeling buildings and professional development. A “minor” impediment would be “that is not the way I was taught” by both teachers and parents. Hopefully good PD would reduce the response from teachers but I bet not by a whole lot. Teachers are a pretty stubborn group over big changes. Many of these “new” models also assume the students would cooperate by wanting to learn and by making classroom management a minor issue. I have been in too many classrooms where the reverse is true. One good thing about age grouping (and maybe the only good thing) is that it has no bias; racially, sexually, income based, family/domestic situation or whatever. I am willing to bet the ability grouping would have some heavy biases. I doubt it would not take much to show low income would consistently be in the low ability levels, not because of true ability but because of home support and other non-school related issues.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Garth, for taking the time to comment on the Khan Lab School and its applicability to other public and private schools.

  2. Rachel

    It’s interesting how similar the KLS is to the Dewey model. I wonder how the emphasis on tech changes the Deweys’ focus on experiential learning. Does access to the internet mean that students have access to more experiences (via programming, internet, etc.)? Or does it mean that students spend time in front of the computers instead of “experiencing”? I think I’m leaning toward the former.
    gflint’s point about inequality is important. I wonder what kids from poor communities would choose to do with their time at school if they had a choice. Montessori’s work was not with privilaged kids at all, and she found that they were self-motivated to do the things they saw as important (reading, yes, but also pouring liquids from a pitcher without spilling…). In adult education, we often talk about how important it is for students to be able to see how the current task will move the students closer to their goals. I wonder if children are really so different?

    • larrycuban

      Your questions and wonderings, Rachel, would be great for researchers to answer. Thank you for comment.

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