Archive for the teaching Category

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!

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?

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.

(Not) How to Choose a Dojo

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching with tags , on September 1, 2009 by serpentstaff

Someone once asked me whether I’d write a guide to choosing a dojo, to go along with a training manual I was working on. I thought about it, but decided the answer was “no.”

It’s not that I don’t have ideas and opinions on the subject; I have those on all subjects, and generally am more than happy to express them and try to persuade people to my point of view. At the same time, I want to leave plenty of room for others to have their differing points of view. This particular subject is one that has a strong element of personal preference embedded in it, which (I believe) needs to be respected.

I’ve read quite a few such guides, some written as chapters in longer books or training manuals, others presented on dojo websites. They are always colored by author bias. (I suppose everything is—but this subject more so than average.) Either they’re biased toward particular martial arts styles and approaches, or they succumb to stereotypes. The ones on dojo sites often list a lot of detailed questions to ask and requirements to meet—plainly tailored to match what you’d find at their school. Click to another site, and you’ll get a different and equally persuasive list of specs.

Some of them include questions to ask a prospective instructor, interview-style. These smack of someone having been asked to come up with a list of questions, for the sake of having a list of questions. I’ve been “interviewed” in this fashion a few times by prospective students or their parents. I am of course happy to answer whatever they’d like to ask, and I’ll do so thoroughly and with good humor—but sometimes it feels odd, contrived. As though they are challenging me to come up with the “right” answers—the ones prescribed by whomever wrote their list. I often think how easily they could answer their own questions by observing or participating in a class or two and listening to what I say to my students, instead of by testing my verbal facility one-on-one.

Indeed the people who will do best in these “interviews” will be the silver-tongued among us, and those who have studied what the marketing consultants say. And I wouldn’t say that makes them the best instructors. There are excellent instructors who are not silver-tongued, and who don’t subscribe to marketing consultants. They just believe in what they’re doing, and act on good instincts—which they might or might not be able to articulate.

I once read a parents’ guide in which the author suggested short, stocky kids should be directed to judo, while thin kids with long legs should be encouraged to try taekwondo. Okay, there’s some stereotyping for you. I know plenty of tall, skinny folks who excel at judo, as well as chunky people who can kick you in the side of the head without blinking. Whatever basis there may be for stereotypes, they should not be used as directives. Kids should get to find out what their passion is, regardless of body type. So should adults.

Martial arts devotees can have strong opinions about how a dojo should be run (and I notice the strongest opinions often come from people with little or no experience running their own schools). Their advice of course bends to their pre-formed opinions. Some hate the idea that money should be charged for classes at all; they’ll lump all commercial schools together as questionable. People who adhere to strict, traditional “white gi” backgrounds will sometimes suggest that any school wearing any colors or patches must be full of phonies. But these stereotypes don’t hold up, either. Just apply a little vigilance about money, and pay some attention to what’s actually being taught and learned at the school. That should tell you what you need to know.

Some assert that a head instructor should be at least a 3rd degree black belt, and perhaps over a certain age. Now, I was just a shodan in what became my primary art when I started my own school. And while I certainly know a lot more now than I did then—about teaching, running a school and everything else—if I had to choose between younger me and present-day me as an instructor, the choice would not be clear at all. Younger me was energetic, creative and not so set in my ways. Either choice could be a good choice.

The question of “McDojos” gets a lot of attention. I admit, the first time I heard the term it cracked me up; I loved it. Likewise the term “bullshido.” For “McDojo” especially, I think there’s a colloquial understanding: It will be a school using inferior ingredients to turn out large quantities of mediocre product for profit. But when it comes to specifics—describing to a non-martial artist what exactly that would mean in a specific case—stereotypes and author bias come pouring back in. It’s just not that clear. Things quickly get snarky, to use another popular term. One particularly snarky piece I just read asserts that any school not basing its training mainly on hard-contact sparring is probably a McDojo. Any school that uses one-steps or board breaking is probably a McDojo. Any school with lots of students is probably one. And so on. Ridiculous.

Another great term is “Faux-Jo,” which I encountered in Matthew Apsokardu’s eBook, The Student’s Guide to Surviving a Traditional Dojo. –And by the way, I think he did a great job on the book, on the whole. It’s well worth a read by people starting out in a traditional art. It’s a good “orientation tour,” and I especially like all the material about mindset and attitude. –But back to our subject: I think the brief Faux-Jo section suffers from the same problems as most McDojo discussions: It relies on the personal opinions of a martial arts insider, and doesn’t bring any clarity to a newcomer or outsider. What does “excessive” mean, when it comes to belt ranks and certificates? (For example, we give out a certificate of rank at each promotion; is that “excessive?”) Does my colleague have a Faux-Jo because he lets the demo team wear colored gis with a special patch? Does my friend who holds hard-earned rank in several styles have to keep those ranks secret so he won’t be seen as having “many belts in different styles and few real credentials?” Are my brown belt assistant instructors to be seen as “teachers from accelerated ‘teacher programs’?”

I suspect Matthew and I would probably be in agreement about which dojos out there are really Faux-Jos. I know exactly what he means by all his bullet points. But that’s because I’m a martial arts veteran with experience of these things. They don’t have that much meaning for someone who doesn’t come to the discussion with a lot of knowledge, and opinions already formed. The best illustration of this is his final bullet point: “no feeling of cheesiness” versus “strong cheese vibe.” I laughed at this one, but think about it: “Cheesy” doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t already have an opinion about what it should mean. It’s mainly just snark, I’m afraid.

Instead of snark, what we need for “how to choose a dojo” is respectful clarity, with room for different points of view. I don’t know that it can be done. There are few clear-cut cases. The quality of a dojo isn’t easily captured by superficial things, and what’s under the surface must be experienced to be known. In the end, the best advice is the least advice, in my opinion. Maybe what we really need is a guide to choosing a guide to how to choose a dojo.

Training Ahead of Rank

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by serpentstaff

Traditional martial arts typically follow a curriculum within which students are expected to pass a test on one set of forms and techniques before beginning to learn the next. Instructors can be quite strict about this, with students getting in trouble (whatever that might mean in a particular school) for trying to study ahead of rank, or for teaching techniques to their juniors ahead of rank.

Let’s all admit that a graduated curriculum makes a lot of sense. It’s as obvious as “crawl before you walk; walk before you run.” In some cases, it just comes down to the fact that you can’t learn everything at once, so some things need to wait. Your instructors, or their instructors before them, have made decisions about what to practice and when, based on reasonable principles. Different instructors might apply different principles, but when you sign on with one, you should expect to go along with their decisions.

Still, questions come up. Westerners want to learn cool stuff, and they want to do it now. They often feel they’re capable of taking on more, or at least trying to do more, than they’re offered in a traditional class. They see others practicing interesting things; they feel they can just copy them, or try to join in. They tire of repeating what they feel they’ve already mastered. This can be magnified by the fact that traditional schools often have time-in-rank requirements. A student may feel they’ve got something down by the end of the first month, but they’re looking at two more months minimum of repetitive practice before they’ll start on a new set of techniques.

There are many ways to look at this problem; I’ll mention three. Number Three is the one that interests me right now, so let me get One and Two out of the way:

First (and most obviously to a traditional instructor), students are not the best judges of what they have and haven’t mastered. Whether they feel it or not, they truly need all that repetition before moving up. And good students need to accept outside guidance on their readiness to approach new material. If they cannot respect their instructor’s judgment on that basic decision, they should either look for a new instructor—which they’re always free to do—or engage in some self-examination on their need to rebel.

Secondly, traditional training is not primarily about collecting cool techniques. And it’s not about superficial competence. It’s about physical practice as a path toward true mastery—deep mastery—which happens to require endless patience and humility to achieve. Beginners understandably use a superficial yardstick to measure themselves; they don’t know any better. Traditional training asks them to take a deeper approach, meet higher standards. That is what will enable students, ultimately, to master all those cool techniques—if they choose to stick it out. So the enforced waiting, the required patience, the endless repetition of basics—these are not incidental to training, they’re central to it. In fact they’re the heart of the program.

Now let’s try a third way of looking at it. Often, students really can take on more than the strict curriculum offers. True, they haven’t yet mastered their basics—but they won’t master anything for years! Meanwhile, their enthusiasm compels them to watch advanced class, then go off trying things with each other behind the gym. As bad as this may be for safety and good technique, it keeps up spirits and shows dedication. Most of all, it’s human nature—unavoidable. The real enthusiasts will be out there no matter what, and they are the future of our schools and styles. As instructors, we must warn sternly against it, pound home our lessons about patience and humility, and then perhaps turn a blind eye. After all, as I’ve said before, we all did it; we’ve all been there. And haven’t we turned out just fine?

Keep in mind I’m not talking about children, but capable adults. Nor am I suggesting we should turn a blind eye if people are doing things that are unsafe or causing injury. But a bit of “training ahead of rank” can be a very healthy thing among good students who are keeping up their traditional basics in class.

I suspect most styles nowadays build some of this in—for example, through camps and seminars where advanced topics are open to all. My style does this. And now we come to what prompted me to write this piece. Not long ago I had occasion to watch two different students practicing kata they learned ahead of rank. Both cases made me wonder whether this is such a good idea. One student was struggling to remember the sequence, but he couldn’t even perform the basic movements adequately (an advanced weapons kata). The other remembered the complex sequence admirably well—but performed the movements very, very awkwardly (in this case, empty hand). Each of them asked for my help, and I just wanted to say “Go back and work on the kata for your rank.”

I have taught some of these special seminars. Should I have barred such students from the class? I did impose a minimum limit on rank, but rank was not the best predictor of how a person did. The best predictor, interestingly enough, was how dedicated the student was to mastering the building blocks, as opposed to memorizing the whole kata. The best students set about drilling the basic movements, and put a low value on trying to learn the whole sequence by seminar’s end. The worst students set their sights on memorizing the sequence, figuring (I suppose) to get better at the movements by practicing the kata over time. They did badly, and, ironically, the others were more likely to get the sequence down by the end—all the while vowing to drill the component basics and not the kata for the upcoming year, before trying to learn it again.

There we have it: Humility and patience, and dedication to drilling the basics— The virtues we teach when we bar students from training ahead of rank are what make students better at training ahead of rank. More evidence in favor of the traditional approach to training, and a free lesson in making all-ranks seminars more effective.

How does your school handle training ahead of rank?