Meet the California grade schoolers charting their own path.
Published on 05.22.2018
Matthew Gaferson had been having trouble in math class. Like a mantra, he would repeat “I suck at math” day in and day out. His teachers pleaded with him to stop, in an effort to change his own thinking. At a parent-teacher conference later that year, Matthew was asked, “If you could have one school superpower, what would it be?” The adults expected him to say something about math, but he surprised them all: “Time management,” he said. “That was the real thing he was struggling with,” explained Orly Friedman, interim director of the Khan Lab School in Mountain View, CA.
The Khan Lab School, where Matthew is a student, is the real-world version of the Internet-famous Khan Academy, which offers anyone the chance to study a new subject at a personalized pace. With no grade levels, students here are encouraged to work at their own speed, designing their own curricula to focus on what they do best – and what they love most.
It’s all part of a system called “goal-tracking,” and, as Friedman explained, it’s very similar to the idea of Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs, championed in John Doerr’s book, Measure What Matters. “Unlike in a traditional classroom where the teacher sets the agenda and everyone is working towards a common goal, here every student has an individual set of goals,” said Friedman. It “gives them that feeling of ownership; that that they're in charge of their education.”
At Khan Lab, teachers are not in a position of authority, but rather, act as advisors who help students shape their goals in subjects like math, Spanish, or reading. They don’t purport to have all the answers, or to know how best to organize the school year. That is for each student to decide. “It used to be that I had a class, “ teacher Heather Stinnett described. “Now I feel like I have a beautiful, big group of individuals.”
Teachers are also encouraged to keep their own goal trackers, as Stinnett detailed in a blog post on the school’s website, and the school has experimented with goal-tracking to manage faculty as well. Because this method is so new, teachers often find themselves adapting as their students cheer them on. “Being vulnerable and transparent about what we’re going through makes adults far more credible in children’s eyes when coaching them through similar roadblocks,” Stinnett observed in the March 8 blog post.
Unsurprisingly, their methods have real-world consequences too. Friedman has noticed more camaraderie among students: they see that each of their peers has certain talents and challenges, and accordingly, are more predisposed to developing empathy. This leads to much less bullying. “We do see a lot fewer behavioral issues,” Friedman confirmed.
But what if you don’t live anywhere near Mountain View, and don’t have the resources to send your child to a school such as this one? Here, Friedman was optimistic: “The one thing that any school or any teacher can implement immediately is goal setting, because it's free and it is the easiest thing to do...to just shift students’ mindsets.” What’s more, goal setting can open the door to a lifelong sense of discipline that carries students into adulthood. All it takes is sitting down with your children and coming up with a set of “mini-OKRs”; asking what their big dreams are each year, and what steps they can take to make them come true.
The Khan Lab School is only 4 years old, but it’s not a stretch to imagine its students going on to fulfilling, creative careers, tackling each task they set for themselves with enthusiasm. As Friedman explains, “ultimately, we don’t know what kids are going to need to be successful. Ten years from now, the only thing we can be sure of is that they’ll need the skills to be lifelong learners.”
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