We could fix a crippling flaw with education by treating school more like karate

Former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan, also a founder of the free education resource Khan Academy, pointed out a crippling flaw in the US education system during a live TED Talk in New York City on November 2.

The problem, Khan says, is that we force students to move ahead when they aren’t ready. But he has a solution.

“We shouldn’t drag everyone around at the same pace,” Khan told the audience. Instead, he says, we should take inspiration from martial arts teaching.

Suppose a student gets a 75% on a test, which is a passing grade. Khan says this means the student didn’t learn 25% of the material, yet they’re expected to move on to the next lesson with the rest of the class.

The problem with this, he says, is the next block of material builds on what the student was supposed to learn in the last lesson, and it’s usually more difficult to pick up. So a student learns only 75% of the material, we can’t expect that student to master the next section.

You can see how this effect could quickly snowball as a student works their way up through more advanced classes. If students don’t master all of algebra, for example, they will have significant knowledge gaps when trying learn calculus.

Khan says we assume they are bad at maths, or born without the “maths gene,” and so they will give up on the class.

In reality, they’re not bad at maths — they just didn’t master the foundation material, he said.

Which is why Khan argues we shouldn’t drag everyone through school at the same pace. The education system should work the same way as martial arts or mastering a musical instrument: Practice your white belt skills until they’re perfect, then move up to the yellow belt; practice the beginner piece until you nail it, then move on to the more advanced song; don’t move onto calculus if you haven’t mastered algebra and trigonometry.

A lot of research out there backs up Khan’s idea. Students that don’t move onto the next lesson until they master the first often perform better later in their education career than peers who are arbitrarily shoved along from grade to grade.

If we personalise the education experience for students instead of requiring them to move as a herd, then anyone “could become a physicist, or a cancer researcher, or a rocket scientist,” Khan said.

Provided, of course, that they put in the work required to master all of the steps.

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