Reality Check: The Joy of Mastery

In a talk on mastery, Sal Khan discusses the difficulty inherent in an educational process that pushes people to learn new material before they’ve mastered fundamentals.

Mastery of learning is an appropriate topic for Khan. He’s the founder of, a website that provides lots and lots of opportunity to practice math and science.

Khan questions how we’d view house construction if we treated it the way we treat achievement in school. Is it OK for an inspector to declare a foundation 75% correct and say, “It passed! Carry on.”?

We know that the foundation needs to be 100% or the whole construction will eventually come tumbling down!

Where else is mastery critical?

Think about safety training. You are about to operate a dangerous piece of equipment. Your trainer says, “You learned about 60%. That’s a pass; you won’t lose more than 2 fingers. Start work!”

That’s ridiculous, but it seems to happen in school. With the best of intentions (I’m assuming) students are moved along, regardless of their level of understanding. As they progress, they understand less and fall further and further behind.

Take Tiffany, who misunderstood some math foundations in her early years. Yet she’s been moved along, year after year, to more complicated topics.

Having never mastered the fundamentals, she has no hope of understanding the more complex. She used to try, but now that she’s been puzzled for so long, her attention wanders. She can’t stay focused. She drops out.

But look at Tiffany outside of school. She’s an artist! She researches materials and scenes. She masters different media. She develops skills. She has no problem with concentration. And, she has fun!

What’s the risk here? That someone with influence concludes, “Tiffany needs to be creative; she doesn’t have a math brain.”

Tiffany may never realize that math is a skill she could master. Without that realization, her choices and opportunities are now limited.

Think about when learning is fun. You find a new hobby: photography, gardening, wine-making. You learn about it. You get excited. You practice what you learn. You look things up. You keep learning.

Wouldn’t it be great if we were that excited about what we “have” to learn?

What’s the difference? With a hobby, we get to control for ourselves when we are ready to move on to more complicated things. That is, we can practice and achieve mastery.

But when learning is mandatory, what can we control?

In this example, we may not be able to control the school, the teacher, or the curriculum. We can, however, control whether we look up additional information or choose to spend time practicing. And, we can control our own persistence.

It’s important to recognize that mastery takes time and practise. It may seem unfair when someone else catches on easily. But you can’t control that, so make your choices about what you can control. When you have an interest, access to information, and persistence, you can learn a lot!

While the idea applies anywhere, I’ve chosen math for this example because it’s often perceived as difficult to master. If math or science happens to be a struggle for you or someone you know, look up  It’s free, a great resource, and provides lots of opportunity to practice. It can be time-consuming, but mastery takes time.

Is mastery important to you? What holds you, or others, back from mastery?

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