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Freedom To Explore: 2 Schools Where The Students Call The Shots

Chris Kindred for NPR

An 8-year-old named Ben is sitting quietly by himself in a bean bag in a classroom in Mountain View, Calif. He's writing in his journal, an assignment he created himself.

"This one was, 'What I Wish We Would Have More Of,' " Ben says, reading to me from his notebook. "I hope we have more field trips." He stops and looks up. "I have more entries, but I don't want to share them."

That's cool; it's your journal, Ben.

I ask him, What is it you like about your school?

"You can move at your own pace," he says. "You don't have to be with everyone else. I like that."

About an hour away, in Oakland, an eighth-grader named Khalil is finishing a small speaker and audio recorder he's building.

"This is just a spring coil, so I'm going to solder right now," he explains, unpacking a small soldering iron. He's also an expert with a glue gun, a needle and thread, and basic welding and power tools. "I just love making. Exploring different things. I can be creative, do what I want," Khalil says. "It really helps me calm down."

Two very different schools. Two very different classrooms, both exploring the idea that children like Ben and Khalil learn best through firsthand exploration — choosing their own assignments and working at their own pace.

Students high-five and share a laugh at the Khan Lab School.
/ Courtesy of Khan Lab School
Courtesy of Khan Lab School
Students high-five and share a laugh at the Khan Lab School.

Both of these schools are considered cutting-edge, but learning by doing, of course, is a very old concept.

The Socratic methodof inquiry advocates direct, experiential learning. Plato wrote that the best way for students to learn his dialectic method was by using and practicing it.

Aristotle, too, wrote about the value of personal experience and its connection to perception and memory.

Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori designed her schools in large part around the value of self-directed learning; the power of young people to learn from each other and their surroundings.

And, of course, the 20th century American philosopher John Dewey made the case that students aren't passive, empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. The deepest learning, he argued, happened when inquiry was guided by the students' interest. Education "is a process of living and not a preparation for future living" Dewey famously wrote.

So, if these concepts are ancient, vital and powerful, why haven't they found their rightful place in mainstream education? Why haven't more schools embraced those ideals in the classroom?

To see how these concepts could be applied, we took a close look at the schools that Ben and Khalil attend.

Both schools place student-directed inquiry at the center of teaching and learning. They've made big breaks from the whiteboard, lecture, sit-at-the-desk pedagogic model that still dominates American classrooms.

Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, sits in the main room of his laboratory school in Silicon Valley.
Sami Yenigun / NPR
Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, sits in the main room of his laboratory school in Silicon Valley.

Ben is a student at the experimental Khan Lab School, a private school founded by Sal Khan, a pioneer of online education through his Khan Academy.

And, Khalil goes to the progressive maker program at the public Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland.

While both are at the forefront of student-centered learning, they have very different student populations. Lighthouse serves an economically and ethnically diverse community. The Khan Lab School serves mainly higher-income families living and working in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Yet, each in its own way, these schools believe in these old ideas about student self-agency, project-based inquiry and the value of learning by doing.

And in the process, they've created classrooms that are challenging, interesting and, very often, fun.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Sami Yenigun is the Executive Producer of NPR's All Things Considered and the Consider This podcast. Yenigun works with hosts, editors, and producers to plan and execute the editorial vision of NPR's flagship afternoon newsmagazine and evening podcast. He comes to this role after serving as a Supervising Editor on All Things Considered, where he helped launch Consider This and oversaw the growth of the newsmagazine on new platforms.