“We’ve Always Known That One-on-One is the Best Way to Learn”


khan Weve Always Known That One on One is the Best Way to Learn“…but we’ve never been able to figure out how to do it.”

Until now.

So says Salman Khan, the lovable math nerd behind the much celebrated Khan Academy, in which students teach themselves math and other subjects via online videos, then work with their teachers individually on the bits they’re struggling with.  Khan Academy has attracted lots of attention, including a $1.5 million investment from Bill Gates’ foundation. You can read more about it in this Wired magazine article, “How Khan Academy is Changing the Rules of Education.”

I love Khan’s venture, because it goes to the heart of the way people actually learn — by working, on their own, on problems just out of their reach. According to research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has famously studied expert performers in a variety of fields in order to understand how people get to be great at what they do, “serious study alone” is a key predictor of talent and expertise.

When I interviewed Ericsson for my book, he explained why. It’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in something he calls “Deliberate Practice.” In Deliberate Practice, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Deliberate Practice is best conducted on one’s own because it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. In an ideal world you’ll also have the guidance of a coach or teacher, so you don’t get stuck.

Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class — you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

Group work has its place in education too, of course. That’s how students learn to share, explore, and debate ideas. But lately we’ve become too enamored with group learning, so I’m pleased to see signs of balance.

What do you think of Khan’s work? How do you (or your kids/students) like to learn?


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  1. Danielle on 02.08.2011 at 07:38 (Reply)

    Mr. Khan’s method is exactly the kind of method used at an adult education school I went to between 1993-1994 to upgrade my secretarial skills.

    We studied 3 subjects at a time, had one mini course per week to ask our regular teacher all the questions we needed to, and had 4 to 6 weeks to learn all 3 subject matters to get ready for the test. We were given ‘how-to’ manuals to learn with on our own. Some of the study halls had the usual seating formation to teach us to study alone, whereas other study halls had a 5-seat star architecture to force us to also learn to work by teams, sitting close to each other. We picked the study hall of our choice. If we needed help from a teacher, we had to put our name on the board and they very deliberately switched teachers every day as well as switching their schedule from morning to afternoon and vice-versa to recreate the atmosphere of a real office. If you had trouble with a subject matter and you had a long time to wait to see a teacher, it forced you to ask one of your classmates for help. In return, you helped that same classmate with another subject that he/she had trouble with but that you were comfortable with, thus learning to work as a team and learning to give and take.

    New groups of students were brought in every 3 months. When they had trouble with the subject matter that we had already learned and had been tested on, these students would ask us for help, thus learning to work in teams. This gave us the added benefit of reviewing our subject matter and remembering it longer and increasing our self-confidence. It’s a fabulous method, one that basically rebuilt my confidence as a person and as an employee. This course lasted a year and the passing grade was 90% minimum.

    This learning method responsibilized the students. We were fully 100% responsible for our success or lack of. It was up to each one of us to be the best that we could be, no one else was going to take us by the hand and pull us towards the finish line. We had to motivate ourselves. Some did. Some didn’t. In my group, only 5 of us passed all tests the first time around without having to take a make-up test. I’m happy to say I am one of these 5. This system prevented the students from riding on someone else’s coat tail. The only person to kick you in the pants was YOU!

    Now, that’s my kind of school. It’s the best way to learn. To this day, I still learn that way. I always rifle through the bookstore to find ‘how-to’ learning manuals regardless of the subject matter. I’ve learned to use the 2007 software this way during the past nine months. And think of the transportation time you save learning comfortably seated in your living room. No snow… no slush… you plan your own schedule… need I say more.

  2. Christy on 02.08.2011 at 13:04 (Reply)

    It sounds kind of delightful and kind of like it wouldn’t work with everyone’s learning style. There’s not one best way to learn, after all.
    I have found that I learn best by being directly taught and then given space to practice on my own. I love college and postgraduate-level lectures, particularly ones where there’s freedom to interact if you desire (I was always a talkative-in-class introvert). I want someone to teach me what they know.
    But I also love one-on-one instruction and then freedom to pursue the subject myself. My job is like that. I’m part of a programming team led by my mother, and all of us except her are still in the early learning stages. We get together a few times a week, she teaches us how to do something, and then she sets us off to do it. Particularly with me, as I’m the most advanced in the team, she’ll give me a task to do and then let me do it. She’s always around and available for when I get stuck, but she doesn’t stick her nose in until I actually ask for help. This is practically ideal and definitely reflects this most interesting article, though maybe in an upside down manner.
    The parts I don’t much like are when I have to work with someone else and “collaborate,” which usually means me doing it while being forced to have another person watching. I hate team projects. Hate them.

  3. Luna on 02.08.2011 at 15:42 (Reply)

    Ah and the best way to teach one on one!

  4. Matthew on 03.08.2011 at 20:50 (Reply)

    I agree this is a nice development and a wonderful application for the web that illustrates the power of the technology. Suddenly it becomes affordable to give something closer to one-on-one instruction to anyone motivated enough to seek it out. My sister works in a non-profit learning center as a tutor and I plan to let her know about the site.

    I think, maybe especially with mathematics and sciences, but really with all disciplines, one must work through problems with close attention and no distraction from others. Having a computer-based format that can help make educational topics more engaging, even perhaps addictive, is a good way to take advantage of the power of video games to engage the mind.

    It reminds me of how I learned to type - via a cute little game called Mastertype that I played a lot on the Apple IIe, where I had to defend a spaceship from encroaching words by typing them. Suddenly it became imperative to learn the longer words!

  5. Brittany on 05.08.2011 at 22:38 (Reply)

    I think it’s good that Salman Khan has started this one-on-one Academy to help students learn math. People learn in different ways and it’s nice to see a different method of teaching being used rather than just the regular group teaching.

  6. Kim on 19.04.2014 at 08:17 (Reply)

    I home educate three boys. One is an introvert. One has had many learning difficulties. The youngest is unschooled but taught himself to read and do math. They are all so different and have such individual needs. Learning about them and what they need from me has been the biggest challenge of all. My introvert needs to do his independent work alone in his room before joining the rest of us for group lessons like science, Bible study or geography. Reading your Quiet book has helped me understand him so much more. He’s in therapy at 11 because he doesn’t understand quite how to handle all the pressure put on him from his brothers and friends. He gets physical because he doesn’t know what to say or do when he’s over stimulated. We found a wonderful therapist who recognized his introversion and is helping him realize his strengths and is giving him coping mechanisms. I’m hoping to launch him successfully and confidentially into the world loving himself but understanding his strengths and weaknesses. Your book and talk have helped me so much in this area and I thank you.

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