Old School, New School: Mastery-Based Learning

2019-05-23 21:44:09 GMT

By Beatrice, a guest blogger who is a junior in high school

The high school I attend in Silicon Valley requires all juniors to spend one week participating in an internship or shadow week. I was lucky to be able to spend my week at Khan Academy.  During my shadow week, I learned how Khan Academy reaches people all over the world who are driven to deepen their education. It was also a chance to attend communications team meetings, learn about the testimonial process, and understand how press release requests are handled. Throughout the week, I also realized that Khan Academy, Khan Lab School and the Waldorf school that I attend share the belief that students understand concepts best through mastery-based learning—an educational pedagogy that allows students to learn at a pace that is suitable to them.


At first glance, it might seem surprising that an online learning experience like Khan Academy, a startup like Khan Lab School, and a Waldorf school that has roots in a philosophy that goes back nearly 100 years would have anything in common. (Waldorf schools are based on the teaching principles of Rudolf Steiner and were founded in the early 20th century.) Noticing the common thread of mastery came as a complete surprise during my shadow week. While there are many differences among the three organizations, mastery-based learning is an approach they share.  

At Khan Academy, over 200 team members are dedicated to providing learners all over the world with a free, world class education. Students, whether they are in classrooms or working independently, can go as fast or as slow as they want, and mastery is central to the way students learn and advance their understanding of Khan Academy subjects.

At Khan Lab School, mastery-based learning frequently occurs in blended or project-based environments. This approach advances the idea that students working in a self-paced setting will fully master concepts and skills. In many schools, the time students spent learning is constant and the level of content mastery varies. The opposite is true at Khan Lab School.  The amount of time it takes to learn something can be variable and everyone eventually achieves a mastery level understanding of each subject area. I also learned that students use Khan Academy at Khan Lab School, especially for math and computer science.

At Waldorf, mastery is neither blended or online, and our use of technology in high school classes is lower than at other schools. The Waldorf philosophy is based on the idea that a student’s natural desire to learn is unleashed in an environment where they are seen, feel safe, and have an opportunity to undertake hands-on work. I feel that the interdisciplinary and multimodal approach combined with the ability to resubmit work until it is mastered has given me agency over my learning, critical thinking skills, and a sense of empathy. At Waldorf, I have learned that it is not the academic skills that matter most but rather the ability to learn how to learn. Interestingly, Khan Lab School has a similar philosophy.

During my shadow week at Khan Academy, I learned that there are many different facets to the operational side of an educational organization. Shadowing Barb and Rachel from Khan Academy’s communications team gave me a feel for what they’re trying to get across to students, teachers, districts, and the wider world. One way they do this is by communicating with the media and arranging interviews for Sal, Khan Academy’s founder, and other members of the Khan Academy team. I enjoyed having a front row seat to this one area of Khan Academy.  

One last thing I’d like to share is that Khan Academy reaches 18 million learners a month in 190 countries in over 30 languages as a nonprofit. I personally know of many students who would not be able to use Khan Academy if they had to pay a subscription fee. During my shadow week, I encountered even more students around the world whose lives have been changed significantly by Khan Academy. Because it is a nonprofit, Khan Academy depends on donations from individuals to help sustain the work they are doing now and the work they need to do in the future. For me, it has been heartening to learn how individuals have been impacted around the world through access to Khan Academy. Onward!

About  Beatrice:

Beatrice is an 11th grade student at a Waldorf school in Silicon Valley. Prior to moving to California she attended public school in New York.

About Khan Academy:

Khan Academy is a 501©(3) nonprofit organization that relies on support from people like you. Please donate today.