Piloting the Future of Education

By Jessamyn Lau 

In a past life I was a Montessori Directress. The founder of the Montessori Method was Maria Montessori, who designed her education methodology for the children of Rome’s slums. A lot of the Montessori method revolves around children being their own teachers, and becoming self-directed learners. The directress (teacher) prepares an environment where the students can go at their own pace and collaboratively learn/teach one another. The directress observes the children, what work they are drawn to, keeps a log of their progress in each area of learning, and at times steers or encourages a child to try something they haven’t before or that might be an appropriate challenging next step. The directress is not occupying the position of primary vehicle of knowledge. She directs the learning and progress of the class or individuals as a coach or guide.

This morning we visited Covington School in Los Altos. It’s not a school we’d typically visit, as the kids there seem to have every opportunity and support that they might need. However, a very interesting pilot project is taking place in their 7th grade classrooms, and our friends at Innosight Institute invited us to go with them to see this exciting experiment in action.

In November 2010 Covington’s 7th grade Maths class began integrating the materials and learning platform of the Khan Academy in to their curriculum. The students utilise school Macs to log on to the Khan Academy learning platform to practice mathematical exercises at their own pace, in the areas they most need to currently be focusing on. Each child sees a ‘constellation’ of their current accomplishments in topics they have mastered, the ones they are currently working on, and also the topics that are suggested as their next areas to work through. They choose how to navigate their own learning. They set their own goals for each week and they see their progress and achievement at the end of each day and week. Each child works at their own pace during their ‘Khan Goals’ and ‘Khan Challenge’ time.

Where is the teacher in all this? Observing the whole class directly in the classroom, observing each child’s progress individually on the online teachers dashboard, and spending time with each child one-on-one reinforcing concepts that the teacher, through the dashboard report, can see they have been struggling with as they’ve worked through exercises. The environment is prepared for every child to direct their own learning at their own pace. Children struggling with a certain concept can spend the time they need to master it, without the whole class knowing they are repeating concepts. Children who excel in particular areas can learn and practice at an accelerated pace, without feeling self conscious or having to sit through disengaging reinforcement of things simple to them. Teachers no longer teach to the middle or bottom of the class, get an accurate picture of where each child’s strengths, struggles and enthusiasm lie (many children go home and log on to the Khan platform to continue doing exercises and challenges they enjoy and decide they want to master), and they get time to work one-on-one with each child every week.

I’m pretty sure Maria Montessori would be impressed with the use of today’s technological advances to reinforce the key principle of self-directed learning, and the development of a solution that has the potential to serve children in almost any circumstance, background or geography. It’s an exciting project because of the extremely broad potential for application and the fairly low barrier to adoption for schools, teachers, families and after-school programs in practically any part of the world.

My current understanding and ability to explain this pilot is nascent. For more info check out the blog that the Khan Academy, the teachers, AND students are using to share their experience.