Last week, The Learning Accelerator, a non-profit that supports the implementation of high-quality blended learning in American school districts, announced its first district-wide pilot for blended learning with the Reynoldsburg City School District in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

A critical part of The Learning Accelerator’s definition for high-quality blended learning is that the learning be mastery-based (also known as competency-based)—that is, students make progress when they master a concept, not based on time.

The CEO of The Learning Accelerator, Scott Ellis, has done a lot of thinking about how Kung Fu is a useful analogy for thinking through what mastery-based learning would look like in our K–12 schools, so I interviewed Scott to learn more.

Q: How did you get involved in Kung Fu?

A: Three years ago I started learning Kung Fu. I was signing my kids up to take classes and had always wanted to try it. When I told the instructors, they were confused: “You mean Tai Chi, right? It’s nice and slow, better for you. Kung Fu is fast, good for the kids.” In my first class a few days later I was breathing hard and my face was red. It took a while to convince them I was not going to have a heart attack. Today I am a brown belt, which means I have completed 9 of the 13 levels.

Q: What does Kung Fu have to do with public education?

A: Kung Fu offers an interesting example of a system of mastery-based learning: enabling students to learn at their own pace and advance as they master content, rather than moving forward based on time requirements.

Q: Mastery, or competency-based, learning is being explored a lot right now in American education. But it would be a significant change from the current system in which all students move at the same pace in their classes. How does it work in Kung Fu?

A: The structure of progression in Kung Fu is based on belt levels. In class, students wear a cloth belt of the color that shows their level. Students start with white belts and as they master new content and skills they are awarded new belts: yellow, green, etc., until the top level—black. To receive a new belt, a student must demonstrate mastery of several different elements: a series of moves called a “form,” a specific kick, two self-defense maneuvers, strength, flexibility, and endurance. These requirements are what, in K–12 education, would be called “standards”: what students are expected to know and be able to do. In Kung Fu a student advances when she can demonstrate that she has mastered the required content.

Q: What does that look like in a class?

A: When the class starts, students line up in order of their belt level, starting with the most advanced. Students do the 10-minute warm-up phase together: stretching, running, and basic exercises. Students also do the 20-minute technique practice together, with everyone working on the same element (e.g., kicks). Each student, however, works on the kick for her level, and the less advanced watch and learn from the more advanced. Students separate by ability level for the 20-minute forms phase. Each student takes a turn to show what she learned in the previous class and receive corrections, and then learns the next few moves of the sequence. The instructor rotates among the groups of students and returns to each group multiple times during the session. In the 10-minute physical fitness phase, the students do push-ups, sit-ups, and other exercises together.

Q: What is the role of the teacher in all this?

A: The instructor plays a central role in the learning process by serving as a role model and motivator and providing differentiated instruction. Key drivers of instructor effectiveness are their own deep knowledge of the material and their keen awareness of each student’s current stage of learning and the support each needs to move forward.

Q: How does a student demonstrate mastery and progress to the next belt?

A: Once the instructor is satisfied that a student has mastered all elements of her level, he tells the student that she is ready to take the “belt test.” Students cannot take a belt test until the instructor tells them they are ready, and they must also demonstrate that they remember all required elements of every previous level.

The belt test occurs in a separate session from a normal class. Each element is tested separately:  endurance, forms, kicks, and so forth. For each element the instructor grades the student as “excellent”, “satisfactory”, or “unsatisfactory.” If a student is graded unsatisfactory on more than two elements, then he fails the belt test. He may have to come back to another belt test session in the future, or the instructor may allow him to practice the element and then demonstrate it in the next class.

Q: How does this apply to our K–12 education system?

A: There are a number of aspects of Kung Fu that may be relevant for mastery-based learning in schools.

1) There are clear and defined standards. It is clear to students what they must know and be able to do in order to advance. The transparency is empowering and exciting for students as they see the path ahead.

2) There is a specific mechanism to demonstrate mastery. Although nothing in Kung Fu is quantitative, the instructor assesses every student’s ability to complete each element. Success or failure is binary. Instructor judgment and knowledge are essential parts of this process.

3) There is a mastery-based progression, which is driven and controlled by the student. Each student moves at her own pace. The time spent at a particular level is irrelevant. Some students attend one class per week; some attend several. Some practice at home; some don’t. Some take other classes like dance that build complementary skills and enable them to advance faster.

4) There is a combination of shared and individualized learning. Social interaction and community are fostered by the parallel portions of the classes (warm-up, technique practice, and physical fitness), while at the same time students advance at their own pace and receive focused instruction that enables them to move forward when they are ready.

5) Instruction and assessment of mastery are separated. The student learns a certain group of skills until the instructor determines they are ready to demonstrate mastery. The assessment process is separate from the learning process, though the assessment session is an opportunity to reinforce learning.

6) There is a public signaling of the level of mastery. Students wear belts that everyone can see, and students line up based on their belt level. This is a contrast to other mastery-based examples like swim classes, where students may be grouped by ability level and receive an award ribbon when they reach a new level, but the ribbon is something they take home.

7) There is public recognition of a student’s progression. When students pass a belt test, they receive their belt at their next class. When the class ends, everyone sits down, the instructor calls the student to the front and awards them their new belt. Everyone applauds.

8) Students help each other and model skills. Since activities are parallel across belts (all have kicks, forms, etc.), there are many opportunities for students to help each other. Because advanced students do common activities first, the less advanced students see multiple demonstrations of good performance—not just from instructors, but also from their peers.

9) Finally, a broader range of content is taught than is tested. Students learn things in class that are not part of the belt tests. For example, students often do sit-ups, conditioning drills, and flexibility exercises, such as forward and backward splits, that are not included in the testing process.

Q: What’s the big takeaway?

A: Examples of mastery-based progression like Kung Fu offer models that could help transform American K-12 education. As policy proposals are considered in the months ahead, it is important to examine the underlying structure of America’s education system. Most fundamentally, students should advance when they master content, not based on outdated time requirements. Although not every student in America will become a black belt in Kung Fu, every student should receive the benefits of mastery-based learning.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.