Martial Arts and the Myth of Learning Styles

Posted in martial arts, teaching, training with tags , , , , on March 11, 2011 by serpentstaff

When last year I read of a study that debunked key popular beliefs about “learning styles,” I thought, “Yes! I knew it!”

These beliefs were, and no doubt still are, very widely and deeply held: that there are distinct styles, or modalities, of learning (visual, auditory/verbal, tactile/kinesthetic); that individuals have preferred learning styles; that they learn and perform better when they are working in their preferred style.

The study found no evidence to support the claim that a student’s preferred learning style yielded better learning or performance; found some solid evidence that it did not; and found some evidence that better learning and performance could be correlated with engaging the style most closely matched to the material being learned.

“Basic research on human learning and memory, especially research on human metacognition … has demonstrated that our intuitions and beliefs about how we learn are often wrong in serious ways.”
— Harold Pashler et al, in “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence”

That point about matching the learning style to the material being taught – it seems obvious, doesn’t it? Certainly to a martial arts instructor—someone teaching a physical/kinesthetic skill, where there is never going to be a substitute for kinesthetic instruction and practice. There may be more than one way to present material (and a good instructor will use many different ways), but where physical arts are concerned, it’s always going to come down to sustained focus on physical practice.

Learning-styles theory has occasionally entered the dojo in the form of a student or parent asserting he or she favors a particular learning style, therefore the instructor is going to have to accommodate that style. As a traditionalist, I look askance at students coming to the dojo telling the instructor what he or she is going to have to do. However, these students/parents are not acting out of arrogance or malice; they deserve our courtesy, and in most cases one can simply nod and smile. Tactile/kinesthetic learner? You’re in luck! Visual learner? Welcome to an art where watching others demonstrate is a key part of the process.

Auditory/verbal learner? Yes, we do use words, descriptions, explanations and sounds here. It’s part of the whole mosaic of skills and approaches we use in martial arts, where you are going to have a chance to improve all your modalities – and work to stretch your boundaries, rather than clinging to them.

But, verbal learner, if you mean (as some do, it turns out) that you must constantly speak, repeat, restate, ask, question, argue and generally narrate your way aloud through class, it’s going to be a problem. It’s something you’re going to have to learn to control and overcome. It is contrary to fundamental etiquette – and for good reason: It disrupts your classmates practice. It disrupts your own practice (these self-declared “verbal learners” will repeatedly interrupt themselves in the midst of physical skills they were performing just fine, never letting themselves complete a single drill!). And it runs counter to one of the most important goals of our practice, which is to train the body to move instinctively when under dire threat, free from the slowing intervention of verbal/discursive thought.

Years of experience have led me to believe that these talkers don’t exemplify a learning style so much as a coping mechanism: They are expressing the discomfort everyone feels when they lack confidence in learning new things. As instructors, we owe them some compassion and help, just as we should have compassion for physically awkward students struggling to learn graceful moves, or shy students struggling to step up and be loud. But all these students must be pushed to work it through and overcome.

If there’s one thing every martial arts instructor sees time and again, it’s that people are far more capable than they themselves believe. Think how many students come in stating that they can only do this, won’t be able to do that, won’t be any good at sparring, will never be strong enough to really defend themselves. We know how wrong they are; and again, often they’re just expressing fear or discomfort, trying to take some control over an uncertain venture. We don’t give up guiding and pushing our students toward the things they resist, because we know they can exceed their self-imposed limits. Just as we push them to overcome the weak areas in their physical skills, we can push them to overcome their (perceived) learning-styles limitations. Everyone benefits from being pushed in every direction and modality, including (perhaps especially) in those modalities where they most struggle. Seeing this again and again is why I was not surprised to read that the theory of learning-style preferences doesn’t hold up.

Let’s look again at what’s being said about learning styles.

It’s not that they don’t exist (although some do argue that position). At a minimum, they exist as concepts that facilitate talk about teaching and learning. They’re as real, in this case, as the sensory modalities through which people take in information. And if an instructor uses these concepts to be more creative about teaching, to come up with new ideas and drills, to engage students in new and different ways – that’s great! That’s what good teaching is all about.

It’s not that people don’t have preferences about how they learn. I’d guess that most people will express a preference, if given some means to choose. But that preference has little or no bearing on how well they will learn, which is our proper concern as teachers. Their preference is only a self-perceived measure of comfort; and comfort – while it can certainly be considered – has never been a top priority in martial arts training. On the contrary, we should expect to be pushing students through discomfort much of the time. In any case, the last thing good instructors should do is limit what they present to a student, based on a preconceived construct or stereotype. Instead, we must push our students in every way, and pay special attention to what actually works.

If you’re interested in further reading, here are some links:

A general/popular article from the Washington Post;

A blog post that talks about the issues and includes other links;

And the original study.

First post of the new year…

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training on January 2, 2011 by serpentstaff

I resolve to write some new blog posts this year.

There’s plenty to write about; just can’t always find the time, in between all the other things I resolve to get done.

Happy New Year, blogosphere!
Cekongfan

A Question of Respect

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on September 27, 2010 by serpentstaff

I’ve decided to post a question, because I’ve been too busy to write a good post in quite some time, and this trend might continue. It’s on one of my favorite subjects: Respect- what it is, what it means. Here’s the question:

Who shows greater respect for a superior–
1) a person who keeps quiet when he disagrees with important statements or decisions; or,
2) one who speaks up for what he believes is right?

[Note: I originally said “speaks up to defend an opposing view” — see comments.]

By ‘important,’ I mean to suggest issues or matters of principle that most people would consider worth speaking up about under ordinary circumstances. But in an authoritarian, hierarchical organization like a dojo or martial arts association, circumstances aren’t always ordinary.

Context matters, of course. I’m not talking about disagreeing with a superior when they are teaching class, because I think it’s clear in that context: Respect always requires keeping quiet unless called upon, and approaching the disagreement, if it’s really necessary, by asking polite questions, perhaps after class.

Let’s limit it to things like policy decisions or personnel matters, at the dojo or larger organizational level. If the boss makes an official statement or decides to implement a policy you believe is badly mistaken, is it respectful to speak up or to keep quiet? What if the boss has made it clear they don’t really care for advice?

I look forward to your thoughts.

Can you teach what you don’t understand?

Posted in martial arts, teaching with tags , , , on May 2, 2010 by serpentstaff

I was put in mind of this question when I read some comments a colleague had made about board-breaking. Breaking boards is unquestionably an exercise in physics. But my colleague, through his remarks, revealed that he didn’t quite understand the physics involved. Now, he is an excellent martial artist and a fine instructor. Furthermore, if students followed the practical instructions he was stressing at the time, they’d probably be helped in their chances of breaking their boards. The only problem would come if they relied on his underlying explanation when taking a physics test. And if they were taking a physics test, they would most likely have already figured out his mistake… No harm done?

In fact, the physics of board-breaking is an area where many good instructors have gaps in understanding. Everyone throws around “F=ma” and talks about acceleration, usually with the idea of ‘acceleration’ as ‘picking up speed,’ and ‘mass’ as ‘how much you weigh.’ Technically, these ideas don’t offer a complete, accurate account of what’s going on, but if you can get your students’ techniques to pick up a lot of speed and make effective use of their body mass on the way to striking a board in the right place with the right surface — you’ll have helped them succeed.

At the same time, too much technical knowledge can get in the way. Some of the most unhelpful instructors I’ve known, with respect to board-breaking, have been engineers. They’ve known their basic physics, and have insisted on principles that would apply if a rigid steel battering ram were being driven on a horizontal plane into a board. If you’re talking about getting a human body part to crash optimally through a stack of wood, things are more complicated than that. Biomechanics are involved — bones, muscles, joints rotating various ways, varying degrees of flexibility and strength. A human body kicking is not a battering ram on a straight path, and if you try to get it to act like one, you can really cramp its power. The non-engineer, without preconceived ideas, may do better in helping the student generate more force through an excellent technique suited to that student’s body.

Even a biomechanical engineer with all the right knowledge and understanding (if there is such a person) might not have anything over the non-engineer instructor, where teaching martial arts is concerned. That is, they might be able to describe what happened after the fact, but they might not have any advantage in getting the student to perform better. Martial movements exist only in their performance; they are learned through repetition and feel. The martial artist need not understand the underlying physics in order to embody it, and teachers or coaches just might not need any of that understanding to do their jobs. Lacking the understanding, they can still make effective use of terms and concepts, more or less as metaphors to help students imagine what they need to do.

Another idea that’s often used in martial arts instruction, but just as often (I’m willing to bet) not understood, is the concept of ‘ki’ or ‘chi.’ There are those who don’t believe in the first place that it’s something “real,” but even the fervent believers are hard pressed to explain it. Yet (I’d argue) it’s used very effectively by many instructors to help their students improve technique. Through exercises in visualization (like “the unbendable arm”), and exhortations that may be more metaphorical than anything else (“relax; use your chi!” “flow your ki;” “use ki, not muscle!”), instructors manage to get students to reserve energy, move easily, and generate effortless power in their techniques. One could argue that they are getting students to “flow their ki,” whether or not that’s something either party really comprehends.

But what do you think, readers? Can you teach what you don’t understand?

The Art of Dodging Bullets

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, training with tags , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2010 by serpentstaff

My first martial art was taekwondo, but the senior student in the club was enamored with aikido. He talked about it all the time, regaling us with tales of elderly masters who could subdue multiple attackers without striking a blow, and best of all – who could dodge bullets. One story had it that an aikido master was working for the U.S. special forces in Vietnam as “the little old man in the shack” – the guy the new recruit is supposed to kill as his first assignment. Of course, the recruit would empty his gun without managing to hit the old man, who would quickly disarm him.

I had some doubts about this story. For one thing, if you had such a valuable asset – an old man who could dodge bullets and might be able to teach others to do the same – why would you repeatedly put him at risk of some lunk getting off a lucky shot (or an unlucky ricochet)? But our classmate insisted he knew someone who had been through this training. And we were at least willing to be in awe of the idea. We wanted this martial arts journey on which we had embarked to hold the promise of remarkable things.

At the time, though, we were content with our training. Nonviolence and bullet-dodging might be appealing ideas to the mind, but body and spirit wanted to kick hard, punch hard, sweat hard, and face off with opponents doing the same. Aikido went on the to-do list, under “eventually.”

Twelve years later, I did join an aikido dojo. By then I was a little less ignorant. I’d figured out that the story my classmate told was probably just a scene from a Remo Williams novel, or the movie based on it, with Joel Grey as the Asian master. [Here is the trailer, and another funny clip.] I had also learned that Morihei Ueshiba, aikido’s founder, did reportedly claim experiences of avoiding gunmen’s bullets. But I held no fantasies of attaining such a skill. By this time I knew martial arts would be a lifetime pursuit, and I simply wanted to get better at it.

While attending a seminar, I’d seen a demonstration in which the aikido instructors performed with such a relaxed air of grace, power and control – I thought it was worth exploring, so I joined their dojo. I was training actively in karate and had no intention of giving that up. So it was karate on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and aikido on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. I managed to keep up this schedule for a few fine years. During that time, I encountered all the standard questions one hears on forums and from skeptics:

Does that aikido stuff really work? Doesn’t it depend on compliant attackers? As attacker, or uke, aren’t you just practicing giving up?
When they go to throw you, wouldn’t you just let go and clock ‘em?

To which I replied, Yeah, sometimes I wanted to…but that isn’t really the point.

To me, the point was that I had joined this practice to learn something, not to prove something. I wanted that quality of movement the instructors seemed to embody – relaxed, in control of themselves, in control of their partners. It made sense to adopt their training methods in order to obtain it, and I did so, even when it was difficult or annoying. Perhaps this was made easier by my karate practice, which included armbars and throws. I saw aikido not as a source of new techniques, but a means to improve my other art. Right or wrong, it helped me to empty my cup, and I was rewarded. I gained better posture, better footwork, an ease of movement and flow that I had been lacking. I gained tremendously in my ability to work with partners through intense exchanges. I began to lose the tight shoulders and general rigidity so many “hard stylists” suffer from. I must say that aikido as a method of practice served me very well.

Over time, my understanding of ukemi evolved, and that’s the real topic of this post. Ukemi – the art of falling, or the art of receiving an attack, – is the job of uke, the person who initiates an exchange by attacking, and takes the fall when nage applies a technique. Does uke need to be compliant in order for nage’s technique to work? One thing is certain: Uke needs to cooperate in order for nage to learn. Sophisticated wrist locks and throws are not mastered in a day. Partners must work together to feel how to make techniques succeed. Resistant ukes frustrate learning and encourage nage to force it, or muscle through the technique. Look around; you’ll see plenty of that – but good technique is not about reducing it to brawn. By resisting, uke also puts himself at risk of injury, both by making his joints rigid… and by pissing off his partner!

As a beginner, I took these as reasons enough to “go along,” and I did think of it to some extent as “going along.” This was a “throw-centric” view of training – that its purpose was to master techniques (throws, locks, and pins). Ukemi was a necessary evil, since someone had to be thrown, locked or pinned. Uke learns how to take falls without getting hurt, in order to serve as nage’s practice dummy. Uke complies so nage can learn, but it’s agreed they’ll become less compliant at more advanced levels.

I later came to see other values in staying committed to the attack and connected with nage – i.e., not just letting go & “clocking ‘em.” It’s a good and often intense education in maintaining balance, flexibility and control under duress. You learn to continue your attack from positions where others would be sprawled on the pavement. It also teaches you to feel the process of nage’s technique, to sense weaknesses and openings. It’s aikido’s version of “sticky hands.” Also, in many cases, disconnecting from nage simply means nage clocks you first! So it’s important not to think simplistically about this kind of practice.

But I got a whole new take on ukemi after I took a few years off from aikido, then returned to a different dojo. The head instructor was a real hard-ass, and there was something different about the ukemi. The students went at it with an energy and aggression I hadn’t seen before, bending and spinning this way and that, taking the fall only at the last resort, instantly up, and back on the attack. Instruction in ukemi was much more detailed and exact than I’d previously encountered. Clearly, this wasn’t just about getting thrown without getting hurt.

The throws, locks and pins were similar to what I’d practiced before, but when students were demonstrating, chances are your eyes would be on the ukemi rather than the technique – it was so dynamic. A big surprise to me was that advanced training seemed mostly to consist of individuals being thrown for minutes at a time by the head instructor. The throws weren’t necessarily flashy, but he really drove home the point of staying connected so that nage couldn’t smack you – proving the point with bloody noses and black eyes on ukes who slipped up.

I had the thought one day, watching some of the best students in advanced class: These guys would be very hard to hit. Like trying to smack a mosquito buzzing around your head. Then it dawned on me: These are the guys who are learning to dodge bullets! Figurative bullets, maybe, but impressive just the same. Another thought followed: There’s no real distinction between uke and nage. When uke initiates by attacking, nage receives the attack, and so functions as uke. The job, for nage, is to protect oneself from being struck or thrown, and succeeding there, to transform the attack into a strike or throw of one’s own. Now the same job falls to uke, who in advanced training will always take an opening to counter (and so become thrower again). My thinking had come full circle:

Ukemi isn’t a necessary evil so you can practice techniques; techniques are the necessary evil, so you can practice ukemi. And it made sense, at least to this karateka’s mind, that the techniques of aikido could not be its essence, since after all they’re held in common with jujitsu and all its descendants. The essence must be in the ukemi; that’s what makes it the art of dodging bullets.

I Lost a Student With “Too Much Philosophy”

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on April 9, 2010 by serpentstaff

This was quite a few years ago already. And while the student in question did not use that exact phrase, I don’t think he’d disagree. But let me give the background.

As you’ll know if you have read other parts of this blog, I do have a strong sense of a philosophy underlying traditional training, and I try to teach in accordance with it. I am also respectful of the style/organization of which I’m a member, and I ask my students to meet that organization’s requirements in terms of learning a code of ethics and certain other tenets.

Yet I almost never talk about philosophy during class, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I believe the important philosophy is embedded in the practice. Further, I don’t think a student needs to know or embrace any particular philosophy, so long as they meet the practical requirements of working out in my dojo. If they can do that, I believe, the philosophy will seep in through their pores. If it doesn’t — their loss.

Those requirements include such basics as showing courtesy and respect to instructor and students, following the rules and rituals handed down by the tradition of our style (they’re not excessive), doing what you’re asked to do during the workout to the best of your ability, keeping talk and questions to an absolute minimum during the workout (but questioning as much as you like outside class), cultivating focus and concentration… Really, that’s about it. Train with intensity if not reverence; develop a respect for what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should talk more often and more clearly about philosophy to my students — usually when I see people “not getting it” — and I’ll resolve to do so. But it tends to go by the wayside because, frankly, we’re too busy training.

The exception happens when there are students in class who aren’t working hard, who are disrupting training or in other ways going against dojo practice. Sometimes I will bring the class around while they’re catching their breath, and talk about philosophy a bit, directing it toward whatever the problem may be. Even then, it’s only after trying a simple, direct approach with the students, such as asking them to “train, don’t talk,” or reminding them about etiquette — or having an assistant instructor remind them.

Now, back to that lost student. He had some experience in another art before he joined my school, and like many people who join a new school or style, he had trouble letting go of old ways. This is understandable. However, this fellow — give him credit — was enthusiastic, wanted to earn rank, and even — after a year or so — announced his plan to get a black belt and teach within our style. So after a good long year, I pressed him harder to begin using our terminology, bring his techniques to our standards as best he could, and make an effort to perform drills as I asked for them instead of as he might have done them at his old school. And I pressed him, as I pressed everyone, to work out with his partners instead of talking and instructing his way through class.

One evening when far too much talk was going on, when this fellow in particular was resisting corrections on a drill and instructing his partner in how he would have done it at his old school, I called the class around and asked whether everyone knew the story of the empty cup (that old standby for traditional martial artists). Many did not know it, so I told the story. When I reached the punch line, “If you want to learn anything new you must empty your cup,” there was a loud, derisive snort from the fellow in question.

I admit I was surprised. I’d expect polite disinterest, polite interest, puzzlement or understanding, nodding or furrowing of brow, perhaps a question — but derision? The story is about having an open mind, about not drowning out new input with your own noise. One can read it as shallowly or deeply as one likes, but it hardly seems controversial.

Within a couple of weeks, his bad back started acting up, and he took time off. Time passed; I received an email explaining that he had decided not to come back, that he felt he was being pressured to live some sort of “martial arts lifestyle” that he didn’t agree with, with this whole “empty cup” thing. He also cited having been asked to memorize the style’s code of conduct (a simple test requirement), which he felt wasn’t very creative, and he should have been asked to write his own code. (Ironically, he could have done just that if he’d stayed till 2nd kyu, when we begin asking students to write papers for rank tests.)

It was hard for me to resist arguing, but I had to let it go. Those of us who believe in the value of what we teach and how we teach it — we “Zen evangelists” — believe everyone would be better off if they learned our favorite lessons. But often we must accept that those who seemingly need the lessons most, may be least likely to stay around and get them. There’s no forcing it; we’re dealing with free North American adults. And after all, perhaps the lesson was for me.

Two Principles

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, training with tags , , , , , , on January 18, 2010 by serpentstaff

Off to a bit of a slow start this year, but now that I’m back online I’m posting a couple of quotes I came across over the holidays:

“If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful.” ~Inazo Nitobe

“Do not be negligent, even in trifling matters.”
~Miyamoto Musashi

Nitobe’s statement, from his 1899 book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, comes when he notes some Europeans disparage Japan’s “elaborate discipline of politeness,” dismissing elaborate ceremony as trivial. On the contrary (according to Nitobe), elaborate ceremony develops out of long efforts to find the best way to achieve a result. He specifically mentions the tea ceremony, but it seems to me he could equally be talking about certain aspects of traditional martial arts practice:

“To a novice it looks tedious. But one soon discovers that the way prescribed is, after all, the most saving of time and labor; in other words, the most economical use of force…”

In traditional training (if all goes well) we find that the rituals and discipline, the exercises that sometimes seem far removed from practical application, combine to condition mind and body to move and react in the most economical and effective way. This is a foundational goal of training—one that is broader and deeper than learning an arsenal of practical techniques; and the practitioner who achieves it will perform better at that arsenal than the one who tosses ritual and discipline aside. That, at least, is the traditionalist’s theory. In addition, we might find that our traditional exercises actually move mind and body toward the goal in the most economical and graceful fashion.

But there is more to love about that first quotation. For one thing, it expresses a wonderful attitude toward pursuit of excellence. That’s probably what drew me to it at the turn of the year, when we can’t resist resolving to do better going forward. It’s an attitude of striving for perfection—perfectionism in the best sense, not the overbearing neurotic sense. It also seems to me to express an idea at the heart of both science and art: Science strives for economy and elegance in both the means of discovery and the explanation of it. Art reaches for the same things in immediate expression.

Now to the Musashi quote. I came across it on the Nintai Budo blog; it’s the eighth of Musashi’s nine precepts for those who would follow in his Way. Interestingly, when I pulled out my two different editions of the Book of Five Rings, they offered slightly different translations of this precept. One said, “Pay attention even to trifles.” The other said, “Be careful even in small matters.” A quick search online found yet another version: “Study the details.”

Translation is an interesting sport. You can see how the choice of words draws in or omits different shades of meaning. The translators’ choices no doubt reflect their judgments about the meaning of the document as a whole. The reader’s attitude brings shades of meaning, too, and I stumbled on the Nintai blog while thinking about Nitobe and the pursuit of the “best way.” Therefore, I related the ideas, and went through a train of thought something like this:

Don’t be sloppy, even in small matters.

No detail is so small as to be unimportant.

No matter is too minor to deserve full attention and the best possible effort.

Principles to live by.