Kung Fu: Mastery-Based Progression in Action

Voices from the Field   19 May 2016
By Scott Ellis

Back in 2013, founding CEO of The Learning Accelerator (TLA) Scott Ellis reflected on the strong parallels between competency-based education and Kung Fu. Today, his observations still ring as true as ever. And, to top it all off—Scott has since earned his black belt!


About three years ago, I started learning Kung Fu. There is a studio in our neighborhood, and I was signing my kids up to take classes. I had always wanted to try martial arts but never had a chance when I was young. So I signed up! When I told the instructors I wanted to take Kung Fu along with my kids, they were confused: “You want to take Tai Chi, right? It’s nice and slow. Maybe better for you. Kung Fu is fast; good for the kids.” It took some explaining, but I finally convinced them that I really wanted to do Kung Fu. In my first class a few days later, I was breathing hard, sweating, and my face was very red—so, they kept coming up to me and saying, “Please, sit down. Rest. Have a cup of water.” It took more explaining, but I finally convinced them I was not going to have a heart attack in my first class.

Nearly three years later I am a brown belt, which means I have completed 9 of the 13 levels on the path to becoming a black belt, the top level. I have really enjoyed the process, and it has helped me stay in shape and increase my flexibility. But there has been another unexpected benefit for me as well, something that has helped me in my work in education: Kung Fu offers an interesting example of a system of mastery-based progression that highlights some themes that may apply to traditional K-12 classrooms.


Kung Fu offers an interesting example of a system of mastery-based progression that highlights some themes that may apply to traditional K-12 classrooms.


A key element of innovation being explored today in American education is “mastery-based progression” or “competency-based learning”: how to enable students to learn at their own pace and advance as they master content, rather than just moving forward based on established time requirements in courses and grades. This would be a significant change from the current education system, in which students get As and Bs and all move at the same pace in their classes. As I have been taking Kung Fu, it has helped me get a more detailed understanding of how a mastery-based progression structure might work in the classroom. Kung Fu is entirely based on this structure, and so I have found it a helpful analogy that offers some interesting insights that could be applied more broadly.

Structure of Mastery-Based Progression

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. At the completion of a student’s first class, they are awarded their white belt. As they master new content and skills, they are awarded new belts: yellow, green, purple, etc. until the top level of black belt. (Note: The sequence of belts is a bit more complex than this, and there are multiple levels of black belts—but the key points are the same.) In order 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. Some levels require an additional maneuver, like a one-handed cartwheel or front-sweeping kick. For example, a student who is a white belt is required to successfully complete the following to receive a yellow belt:

Form: Master the form “Cha Phase 1”—a series of basic turns, punches, and kicks that takes about 45 seconds to complete

Kick: Execute a knee kick correctly (kick straight forward up to the level of your waist) and break a 1” thick balsa wooden board within 3 tries

Self-defense: If an assailant grabs one wrist from the front, be able to break out of it using a side circular movement; if an assailant grabs both wrists from the front, be able to break out of it using simultaneous circular movements with both arms

Strength: Do 10 push-ups in a row

Flexibility: Do a side-to-side split effectively and hold it for several seconds

Endurance: Hold a stance with knees deeply bent, back straight, and palms straight forward for 30 seconds

A student who is a yellow belt is required to complete the next level of skills in each category to earn a green belt: They must master a more advanced form, use more challenging kicks and self-defense maneuvers, and do 15 push-ups. Higher levels incorporate weapons, like a staff or sword into the forms.

These requirements are what, in K-12 education, would be called the standards: what students are expected to learn. In order to advance to the next level (the next set of topics to learn), they must demonstrate that they have mastered the current level. It does not matter how long a student has been at a particular level, and this does not affect whether they are ready to move forward. All that matters is whether they can demonstrate that they have mastered the required content.


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 kind of support they need to move forward.


The Teaching and Learning Process

Classes consist of up to 12 students at a time with one instructor, though sometimes a second instructor joins for large groups. Classes are usually grouped by ability level, spanning 2-3 belts. For example, there may be a class that is for white, yellow, and green belts together, with children ages 4 to 12. Teen and adult classes may group all ability levels together. When I started my first class, I was a white belt, and there were some high school students who were very advanced—brown and red belts. Classes last an hour and are divided into four phases: 1) warm up; 2) technique practice; 3) forms; and 4) physical fitness. When the class starts, students line up in order of their belt level, starting with the most advanced.

The warm-up phase lasts about 10 minutes and is done by all students together: stretching, running, and then a series of basic moves. The moves are usually the same for all students, and the instructor often tells the less-advanced students to watch the more-advanced ones who do the moves first.

The technique practice lasts about 20 minutes and is also done by all students together, with everyone working on the same element (e.g., practicing kicks). However, each student will work on the their level’s kick. A white belt will work on a knee kick (kicking up to waist level), while a yellow belt will practice a front kick (kicking straight forward as high as they can), and a green belt will practice a jump-outside kick (a kick where they get a running start, jump, and spin clockwise in the air as they kick). All students are receiving instruction on the same element, working in parallel. For example, all students might form one line and then take turns kicking the punching bag 5 times with guidance from the instructor. They then go to the back of the line and watch the other students do the same thing.

The forms phase lasts about 20 minutes and has students separated by ability level. White belts work on Cha Phase 1, showing the instructor what they have learned in previous classes—receiving adjustments or corrections—and then learning the next few moves of the sequence. After a few minutes, the instructor will move on to the yellow belts, who are working on the next form (Cha Phase 2), while the white belts independently practice what they just learned. The instructor will rotate among the different groups, usually coming back to each group 3-4 times during the session to help them improve what they have already learned and master new moves. Students who have learned their entire form will learn the self-defense moves for their level.

The physical fitness phase lasts about 10 minutes and is done by the class together—again back in line based on ability level. Students will do push-ups, sit-ups, and other strength/conditioning exercises together. Then, the class ends.

The instructor plays a central role in the learning process. In the warm-up and physical fitness phases, they lead the class as a single group and serve as role model and motivator—they often need to encourage students to stretch further or finish that last push-up. In technique practice and forms, they provide differentiated instruction, assessing where each student is in their learning and specifically targeting instruction to help them master the next skill. 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 kind of support they need to move forward.

Demonstrating Mastery

Over time, students will master all of the elements required for their level: form, kick, self-defense, etc. During the forms phase of class, they can show this to the instructor. Once the instructor is satisfied that the student has mastered all elements, he will tell the student they are ready to take the “belt test.” Students cannot take a belt test until the instructor tells them they are ready. A key requirement for being ready to take a belt test for a particular level is to remember all required elements of every previous level as well.

The belt test is a separate session, unrelated to a class session. All students who are ready to take the test for their level come to the session—it is not separated by ability level. Like the instruction sessions, it lasts about an hour and is divided into a few phases. For the first 10 minutes, the primary instructor gets everyone registered and prepares the assessment sheets for each student (to track their performance), and students work with a second instructor to be sure they remember all the elements they will need to demonstrate. There is then a 5-minute warm-up phase with light stretching and jogging. Then, the test begins.

Each element is tested separately. First, all students take the endurance test, in which they hold their stance. Everyone starts at the same time, but white belts can stop and sit down after 30 seconds, yellow belts after 45 seconds, green belts after 60 seconds, and so on. Next, students must all demonstrate their kicks—each executing the kick for their level several times. Then, students demonstrate their forms. For this part of the test, students are often asked to demonstrate previous forms as well, so they must not only show they have mastered the new form but also that they remember what they have learned before. At the end of the test, students must show that they can use the self-defense maneuvers for their level against an example assailant (an instructor), and then they have three attempts to break a board in half using the kick for their level.

For each of these elements, the master instructor grades the student as “excellent,” “satisfactory,” or “unsatisfactory.” If they are graded “unsatisfactory” on more than two elements, they fail the belt test. They may have to come back to another belt test session in the future, or the instructor may enable them to practice the element and then demonstrate it in the next class. Nearly all students pass the belt tests, and that is the objective: Students are not allowed to take the test until they have demonstrated to the instructor during the regular class session that they are ready.

Kung Fu as an Analog for K-12 Education

There are a number of aspects of the instruction, progression, and testing process for Kung Fu that may be relevant for innovation in K-12 education and efforts to create and implement mastery-based progression in schools.

1. Clear and defined standards: It is very clear to students what they must learn in order to advance. This is defined and documented.

2. Specific mechanism to demonstrate mastery: Although nothing in Kung Fu is quantitative, the instructor assesses every student’s ability to complete each of the elements. There is a binary success/failure for a belt test and specific milestones of progression. Instructor judgment and knowledge are essential parts of this process.

3. Mastery-based progression, driven and controlled by the student: Every student moves at their own pace. Age and time spent at a particular level are irrelevant. Some students attend one class per week; some attend several. Some practice at home; some don’t. Some are very flexible already or even take other classes (like dance) that build complementary skills and enable them to advance faster.

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

5. Separation of instruction and assessment of mastery: The student develops a certain set 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 itself serves as a rigorous workout and an opportunity to reinforce what has been learned.

6. Public signaling of 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. Public recognition of progression: When students pass a belt test, they receive their belt at the end of their next class session. When the class is ready to end, everyone sits down. The instructor calls the student to the front and awards them their new belt in front of everyone, and everyone applauds for them.

8. Students helping each other and modeling skills: Since many activities are parallel across belts (all have kicks, self-defense maneuvers, etc.) and the more-advanced students have mastered content that less-advanced students are working on, there are many opportunities for students to help each other. Since more-advanced students do common activities first, less-advanced students get multiple demonstrations of what good performance looks like—not just from teachers but also from their peers.

9. Broader range of content is taught: There are other things taught in class that are not part of the tests to move to higher belt levels. For example, students often do sit-ups and other conditioning exercises or other types of flexibility exercises (e.g., forward and backward splits) that are not included in the testing process.

10. Incremental opportunities to supplement instruction with technology: While the mastery-based component is very clear in this Kung Fu class structure, student learning could be further enhanced by adding an alternative, personalized, technology-enabled approach for students to learn. For example, videos of each form, kick, self-defense maneuver, etc. that are fully aligned with the class sessions and tests could supplement in-person instruction and enable students to learn at the place, time, and pace of their choosing. This would further enhance the ability of students to move forward at their own pace and truly control their learning process.

Scott also discussed these parallels in an interview with Michael Horn, originally published in Forbes.com, August 2013. 

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