Sal Khan Has A Bold Suggestion For Educators: Teach For Mastery, Not Test Scores

An idea that could actually reclaim lost potential.

Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a completely free website that allows children and adults to learn or brush up on scores of academic subjects, ranging from the sciences to math, to the humanities and linguistic arts. Whether you want to redeem your high school years by finally learning algebra or prepare yourself for a standardized test, the Khan Academy can help you do it at absolutely no cost.

Behind Khan's website and videos is an ethic; an ideal, a reimagining of what education could – and perhaps should – mean in the 21st century.


Think about what school was like for you.

For most people, primary education — whether public or private — revolves around state-mandated academic standards that must be met in a number of subjects and are quantified through testing

The cycle looks something like this:

• Listen to the teacher describe and demonstrate a skill set.

• Practice the skill set in the classroom and at home (homework).

• Move on to another skill set requiring knowledge of the previous skills.

• Practice as before.

• Be tested on it, get a grade that represents a percentage of what you've retained ... and move on to next skill sets.

That seems like a solid model of education and, to some extent, it is ... if you're programming robots and not a classroom full of say, 14-year-olds who'd rather be doing anything besides learning algebra. Some students will eventually fall behind.

In a TED Talk, Khan describes how the system starts to break down.

"... Even though the test identified gaps in our knowledge, I didn't know 25 percent of the material. Even the A student, what was the 5 percent they didn't know?

"Even though we've identified the gaps, the whole class will then move on to the next subject, probably a more advanced subject that's going to build on those gaps. It might be logarithms or negative exponents. And that process continues, and you immediately start to realize how strange this is. I didn't know 25 percent of the more foundational thing, and now I'm being pushed to the more advanced thing. And this will continue for months, years, all the way until at some point, I might be in an algebra class or trigonometry class and I hit a wall. And it's not because algebra is fundamentally difficult or because the student isn't bright. It's because I'm seeing an equation and they're dealing with exponents, and that 30 percent that I didn't know is showing up. And then I start to disengage."

If you've ever fallen behind in a class, you know how demoralizing that can be.

Khan, however, proposes a solution.

Fill in the gaps. Master the concepts. 

Then move on.

If that sounds absurdly logical, that's because it's how we really learn anything. You master crawling before you master walking. As a baby, you weren't expected to do some crawling for a week, then start walking around because, well, you crawled last week. You'd fall on your face if you were. After some point, you'd more than likely think, "I'm just going to stick to crawling. I'm not really a 'walking' person." If that sounds strange, replace "walking" with your least favorite school subject.

Well, that's what happens. 

When it comes to new skill sets, we are, in a sense, infants. 

Khan offers this analogy. "It's the way you learn a musical instrument: you practice the basic piece over and over again, and only when you've mastered it, you go on to the more advanced one."

Some critics will claim that it's unfeasible to give every student his or her own track. Khan disagrees.

"We have the tools to do it," Khan says in his TED Talk. "Students see an explanation at their own time and pace? There's on-demand video for that. They need practice? They need feedback? There's adaptive exercises readily available for students."

And if you think about it, it's absolutely true. The generation of children who are entering Kindergarten this year will already be more technologically savvy than any that came before them, having been exposed since birth to technologically rich environments. Consider how ubiquitous tools like iPads and laptops are in classrooms now, and you'll have a mere glimpse of what the future looks like.

Khan continues, describing how — when students master concepts and learn at their own pace — "all sorts of neat things happen. One, the students can actually master the concepts, but they're also building their growth mindset, they're building grit, perseverance, they're taking agency over their learning. And all sorts of beautiful things can start to happen in the actual classroom. Instead of it being focused on the lecture, students can interact with each other. They can get deeper mastery over the material. They can go into simulations, Socratic dialogue."

Think about that for a minute. An educational system based on mastery and not test scores. 

Watch Sal Khan's TED Talk in the video below and tell us what you think:

(H/T: TED Talks)

Cover image via  Feel good studio / Shutterstock.


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