Elon Musk: This simple question can help fix what’s wrong with the U.S. education system

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, speaks during the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development Conference.
Brendan Smialowski | Getty Images

Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has a problem with the way kids are being taught in the U.S. today. And he says there's a simple question that can help: "Why?"

"There are definitely some good schools out there," Musk says, keynoting this year's annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference. However, he says, "teachers do not explain why kids are being taught a subject."

"The why of things is extremely important because our brain has evolved to discard information that it thinks has no relevance," Musk says.

He calls out two main issues: asking students to memorize information or learn formulas without explaining why that's important.

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Take math, for example. "You just sort of get dumped into math," he says.

"Why are you learning math? What's the point of this?" Musk says. "I don't know why am I being asked to do these strange problems."

Musk used another example to clarify his point. For example, simply listing the tools you need to take an engine apart isn't enough to learn how to do it. You also need to try it yourself, he suggests.

By "taking the engine apart and putting it back together," he says, "you learn about wrenches and screwdrivers and all the tools that you need." As a result, "you understand the relevance."

And he's right. A 2015 study by the University of Chicago found that students' understanding of science concepts, such as angular momentum and torque, was significantly aided by physically experiencing those forces. Students got higher scores on their science quizzes all thanks to trying things out themselves.

"The why of things is very important," says Musk, especially in subjects like math, physics or economics. Solving the problem yourself is "far more engaging than teaching the tools," he adds.

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