Girl studying on her bed

“We’ve 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, where 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 the 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’d 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?

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.