Passion Projects and Peer Feedback: A Recipe for Work That Matters

Key Points

  • By starting with broad questions in Seminar, learners begin to operate through the lens of asking driving questions.

  • The academic opportunities at Khan World School uniquely meet students where they are at and provides a tailored approach to each students educational journey.

A student works on their pneumatic vs hydraulic efficiency experiment1
A student works on their pneumatic vs hydraulic efficiency experiment1

Last year, we reflected on the first year of Khan World School (KWS) and their innovative approach to rethinking school. In that post, we highlighted the six core areas where the dedicated KWS team was most focused on progressing: onboarding, scale, purpose, student profile, artificial intelligence and accelerated college. A new semester is underway and, along with radically expanded grade bands, is evolving rapidly in multiple of these selected areas. 

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Student Experience

True to their stated goals of focusing on purpose and student profiles, KWS students are gaining a variety of skills outside of core content areas to grow into both thriving students and humans. Through Seminar, students engage in real-world discussions that develop their critical thinking skills. The students may be presented with a question like: Is college worth it? Is climate change a bad thing? Are U.S. elections fair? Will people live to be 150 years old or more? Should we pause AI development? They will then work together to reason and address challenges, develop solutions and better articulate their ideas on the subject. 

Along their learning journey, students focus on specific passion projects, developing their research and creativity skills. “We encourage choice and voice as much as possible. For example, in all humanities courses (and many STEM) students can self-design projects to demonstrate mastery,” said Jessica Jaeger, Khan World School Guide Manager and Humanities Guide at ASU Preparatory Academy. KWS allows students to exemplify their skills and knowledge in any way they choose, but are still expected to reason through their thinking when answering questions, they are assessed on their processing as well as their accuracy. 

Jaeger continued, “The parents are noticing that through projects and Seminar, students are building transferable skills. Employers can teach job-specific skills, but [at KWS] we’re helping equip them with some of the more durable skills.” 

At KWS, particularly at the high school level, oftentimes the feedback cycle is peer-to-peer rather than facilitator-to-student. This helps form a close cohort of students while also getting them comfortable with content and expertise, editing and much more. One 6th grade student reflected on the agenctic model by sharing “We DEFINITELY have a choice in what we dive deeper into here! For example: book talks. We can read any book we like as long as it’s not a baby book. ANY BOOK! Do you know how many books there are in the whole world?”

Student Projects

These passion projects have yielded impressive results. One student shared “I really like the mastery projects because you can do ANY IDEA YOU CAN IMAGINE!” Through co-authorship and intentional rubrics, the students are given just enough information to get started and just enough flexibility to follow their curiosities wherever they may take them. For example, one student leveraged their love of video games to explore Ancient Mesopotamia through the game Sumerians. Their critical question revolved around the historical accuracy of the game. Unprompted by the facilitating staff, this student sent an email to Dr. Irving Finkle, a scholar at the British Museum and asked questions about the game and how it compared to research on Mesopotamia. In another history project, this one at the middle school level, a 6th grader completed a humanities inquiry project that centered on the building techniques of Roman Aqueducts. They then used this lens to investigate the water system of their city. 

Image of a slide from the Sumerian project presentation.

This work is not limited to History class, however. It also applies to Science. Some labs are structured, but when they aren’t, students are encouraged to “Design Your Own Science Lab.” This has resulted in some of the following questions and corresponding projects: 

High School

  • What is the effectiveness of a linearly progressed strength training program?
  • What is the effectiveness of special moves in chess?
  • What was the effectiveness of COVID-19 protocols on public health outcomes (using an ASU simulation)?
  • What is the correlation between the mass of an organism and the size of its genome?
  • Do PEMF frequencies affect plant growth?
  • What is the effectiveness of UV phone sanitizers?
  • What is the effect of exercise on sleep quality?
  • How efficient are different rowing strokes?

Middle School

  • Does a PCle 4.0 slot actually make a huge difference over a PCle 3.0 slot when compared to desktop and gaming functionality?
  • Which sports drink actually contains the most electrolytes when measured by a multimeter?
  • Is a pneumatic system or a hydraulic system more efficient?
  • Which colored light will cause the least amount of bacterial growth in an agar plate
  • Does the density of a liquid change how fast something sinks?
  • In randomized samples would people prefer photos that have an increased amount of saturation?

Additionally, a high school student in Art Independent Study has been experimenting with a variety of mediums and painting techniques.

Student Art Project

In addition to core content projects and assignments, the KWS model provides learners with the flexibility to pursue additional passion projects outside of school. Some examples include competitive gymnastics, world champion chess, national robotics competitions, theater and a student who worked on developing an app for pregnant women in rural India that would help them track their pregnancy including when they should be visiting a doctor.

Image of the pregnancy app in the app store.

What’s Next

Khan World School is a free virtual public school option that operates as a private school in other locations. It is now enrolling for the 24-25 school year.  Interested applicants should submit their application online and select their interest in the Khan World School program. Applicants can expect to submit the following materials:

  • Current transcript
  • Most recent standardized test scores in math and ELA
  • Letter of reference
  • Student interest video essay

Interested in learning more? Check out this conversation with Sal Khan and Amy McGrath on the Khan World School.

Nate McClennen

Nate McClennen is the Vice President of Strategy & Innovation at Getting Smart. Previously, Nate served as Head of Innovation at the Teton Science Schools, a nationally-renowned leader in place-based education, and is a member of the Board of Directors for the Rural Schools Collaborative. He is also the co-author of the Power of Place.

Mason Pashia

Mason is the Creative Director at Getting Smart. He is an advocate for arts education, strategy, design thinking and poetry.

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