GUEST AUTHOR: David Light is a third dan in Shotokan karate and a member of the International Shotokan Karate Federation (www.iskf.com) and is the instructor at the Two Rivers Shotokan Karate Club in Glenwood Springs, Co. (www.trskc.com). David trains under Sensei Yutaka Yaguchi in Denver, Co. and is a member of the ISKF instructor Trainee Institute.
The student/ teacher relationship in a dojo, or what ever your style calls the training hall, is not the same as a typical classroom. The differences between eastern and western cultures are clearest for those who train martial arts when we learn about dojo etiquette. As I watched my students take a grading exam I was anxious not only for them but for myself as their teacher. Have I prepared them properly? Will they be able to do what the examiner asks if the drills are not ones I have used in class? Do they have the confidence to go on with intensity if they make a mistake? All this questioning made me think about not only my abilities as a teacher but also the differences I would have with my Japanese counterparts.
I tell new students that once in the dojo, they are in Japan. The rules of etiquette are very clear for beginners. No talking, No questions until I ask for questions, do what I say and nothing else until commanded. Commanded is the proper word, for a martial arts instructor must be in command of the class. What we do is potentially lethal and the training atmosphere must be focused and safe. As we progress and training gets more advanced, the rules are pretty much the same with a little more wiggle room for higher ranks. Now this may be a result of some westernization here in the U.S. Western education encourages questioning as a way to develop critical thinking, especially with young adults and older. One Japanese instructor once told the story about coming to the U.S. to teach at a University and was so frustrated with student’s questions, the first phrase he learned in English was, “Shut up and do it!” He has since adapted to western method of education without sacrificing true dojo spirit.
Karate is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Self discovery is the core of Zen learning. Students in a traditional Japanese dojo in the past would not be told that their rising block is too low; they would instead get a whack on the head with a shinai and find out for themselves what was wrong with the technique. Zen style training taught by the first Japanese instructors in the U.S. didn’t go over very well and dojos didn’t grow beyond the few who were willing to subject themselves to this type of training. Repetitive kata training exposes the idea of self discovery. As you train your favorite kata over a period of years, your teacher may correct technique without much explanation. The kata will reveal itself to you as you continue on with practice. My first Sensei spoke of “little epiphanies” in training as one progressed. Now we get some explanation of the whys and wherefores of waza (technique). Constant repetition and self discovery are still necessary to fully understand your art and to the attainment mushin. Just knowing theory will not enable you to react without thinking. Robin Rielly, 8th dan ISKF, states in his book, ” The Secrets of Shotokan Karate”, …todays training is not better or worse, just different.
Giving too much verbal explanation is something with which I struggle. I didn’t start karate training until I was 40 years old and was perfectly willing to accept the discipline of the dojo. But as an instructor I found myself explaining too much about a technique, especially to kids. They “zone out” and lose concentration, which is hard enough to maintain. At times I still fall into that pattern but have become more conscious of my ramblings. As class size grows it becomes more necessary to keep the energy level up and not have students suffer for lack doing.
Self discovery puts more responsibility on the students for their growth in their art. I have discussions with martial arts students who complain about not receiving good “real world” application of what they are learning. Is it the teacher who isn’t giving them a way to figure this out or is the student expecting too much verbal explanation? A student must use his/her mind as well as body when training. In the dojo we do repetition to make good technique without thought. We build muscle memory, groove the nuero-muscular pathways, and become accurate and controlled. Often bunkai is demonstrated so we know why we do these things. Now we come back to my concerns about being a good teacher and serving my students well. Can I show them the waza, call out drills, and try to correct any errors or bad technique? I can’t do it for them. When I train and don’t put my best effort into it unless my Sensei is watching, I’m the one who is cheated, not the teacher. Training should be a daily endeavor that increases in importance as we progress. Self training is a good time to focus on the questions of why; what’s the point of this technique; why does Sensei tell us to do it this way. Try the waza out with a training partner, work with a senpai before or after class. As an instructor, I can give you the tools, you must use them.
There is a concept in zen related arts; shu, ha, ri. Shu is obedience, to the tradition. At this stage we follow exactly what is taught. Ha is divergence, from the tradition. Now we begin to make the waza our own, we adapt it to better fit our own body. Ri is transcendence, beyond the tradition. At very high rank, we go beyond waza to the spirit and philosophy. Without self discovery Shu, ha, ri is not possible. In the training hall we are faithful to our Sensei’s teaching and make the necessary effort to find out for ourselves what the teaching really means, not just in general but for ourselves. When a student can make that art their own, spiritual growth continues beyond the physical.
As students we get out there and sweat. We must also engage our brains. Do the waza over and over and feel what works and be alert enough to recognize when those little epiphanies come. As teachers we must give our students the tools to make good technique and let them make it their own. Sometimes we find a little explanation goes a long way and we more often need to shut up and do it.
Imagine the most boring class you had in high school or college. The teacher’s droning probably made you itchy to escape the intellectual prison they called a classroom.
Now imagine the best class you had in high school or college. The impact of that instructor has probably lasted well beyond your school days.
Teaching a martial art is a rare gift and responsibility, one that has an amazing amount of freedom. In the public education system there are layers of governing boards and protocols to funnel what can be taught and how it can be transmitted. In the martial arts world, the possibilities are much more varied.
Sure, most martial art organizations have criteria for what it takes to advance in ranking…but are there guidelines for how that knowledge should be transmitted? Unlikely.
It’s possible of course to try and perfectly mimic your instructor’s style, but that’s rarely attainable (or even desirable). Personal experience, talent level, intellectual capacity, and philosophical beliefs will flavor everything you do in a unique way.
Therefore it’s wise to examine your own teaching methods and decide for yourself how you might best help your students. Consider the following three strategies for imparting a martial art:
Being a full-on dictator is bad…but sometimes dictating is good! Dictating refers to the act of instructing students in a very specific and structured manner. The teacher tells the student where to step, where to block, how to balance, what degree angle to turn, etc etc. Dictating is a powerful tool, especially in the early phases of a young martial artist’s career as he/she tries desperately to adjust to the rigors of training.
The weakness of dictation is a lack of creativity. Students are so busy trying to fit into the structure of class while avoiding technical mistakes that they rarely engage in critical thinking. Toying with technique, trial and error, and big-picture contemplation is not on the to-do checklist.
Of course, giving specific advice has been around since one caveman taught another how to sharpen a stick; there’s no question regarding the value of detail transmission. However, modern teaching has taken dictation to a high extreme, resulting in formalized classes filled with one-way information and strict regimentation. A lot of that can be attributed to military influence.
When military men first arrived in eastern countries and learned martial arts, they often integrated the material they learned with the military methods they had been molded in. They did so for purely practical reasons. The stakes were/are very high in military and law enforcement work. Following orders with precision saves lives while creating higher probability of success for an entire unit.
The west wasn’t alone in their military intentions; eastern countries like Japan and even Okinawa began teaching martial arts in larger group settings for the purpose of crafting young men into resilient, obedient soldiers. Strong dictation was a natural evolution of teaching style.
WAIT AND SEE
Perhaps the diametric opposite of dictating is the ‘wait and see’ approach. W&S involves demonstrating technique, kata, etc while offering no breakdown or explanation. The instructor performs and the students must watch and gather what they can. Discussion is not a big part of W&S.
W&S has been the method of choice for centuries in many of the eastern koryu arts. Due to the influence of Confucianism, eastern philosophy enforces the idea of quiet obedience and attendance when being instructed. W&S does not require the instructor to hold a student’s hand through every detail.
The strength of W&S lies in it’s focus and range of possibilities. When learning in W&S style there is no spoon feeding of information, and going on mental ‘cruise control’ is a very quick way to fall behind and eventually wash out. Furthermore, interpretation of what a student sees an instructor do can be highly varied. Since there is no specific guidance, the student is left to his/her own experience and critical thinking in order to determine how to achieve the same skill level as the instructor. W&S also has the benefit of being able to transcend language barrier.
The weakness of W&S lies in it’s roadblocks and time frame. If a student gets stuck and lacks understanding, they can find themselves in ‘learning quicksand’. Even if they do eventually struggle their way through a problem, it may have taken years longer than was needed. A few pieces of wisdom from an experienced instructor could have reframed perspective and fixed a wayward path, but with W&S there can be a lack of active course correction.
Another weakness of W&S is organizational. When an instructor allows students to interpret the art for themselves, each student will naturally come to different conclusions. When the senior instructor is not present, or has passed away, the result is chaotic and often results in massive splintering among students.
Nudging is perhaps a middle ground of the previous two methods and involves monitoring a student’s progress noninvasively, interjecting from time to time in order to enhance growth and understanding.
A nudge is not as concrete as dictation; if the instructor fixes the angle of a student’s stance, that is a dictated correction. If on the other hand he/she asks the student why the angle of a stance might be better increased or decreased, that is a nudge toward understanding.
Nudging is a powerful tool, especially when instructing higher level students. Advanced martial artists can become stagnant and bored if they only receive dictated training year after year. That is why challenging them to draw their own conclusions and guiding them to their own level of higher understanding is so essential.
The problem with nudging is twofold: difficulty and structure. Students can become impatient and annoyed with a teacher who nudges all the time because they feel a simple straight answer would be a quicker solution to their needs. Furthermore, teaching in a nudge style can be extremely tricky. It’s very easy to fall into a ‘false philosopher’ mode where the instructor simply projects student’s questions back onto them without providing any real insight. For example:
“Sensei, what does this technique mean? I can’t put it to any good use.”
“My student, what do you think it means? Once you know that, you’ll have your answer.”
This exchange sounds wise and zen-like, but it doesn’t provide any nudging.
The other difficulty is in structure. Instructors must navigate the complicated tapestry of tradition and ego. In some ways, it is an instructor’s duty to pass along a style exactly as it was handed to him/her (best done through dictation). Meanwhile, the more students look exactly like the instructor, the better pleased the instructor will be due to subtle ego (since I know what I am doing, the students should look like me!). Thus, nudging requires a careful relaxing of those rules in order to let students find their own path to higher effectiveness.
How does an instructor maintain the integrity of a tradition while helping students explore their own path? That’s the difficulty in nudging.
A Proper Mixture
I don’t believe any one of the methods above is superior to the others. In fact, I think most good instructors find a mixture of all three with plenty of other tactics mixed in. A skilled instructor will observe what each individual needs on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis. In fact, teaching strategy can change in mid-class (or even mid-sentence).
The key, I think, is to recognize the tools available as a teacher and use them to their highest effect. Knowing when to take the reigns and when to loosen them is critical in helping students achieve that rare but essential goal of self actualization. Only then can a martial art start to grow into ikigai.
Our first question revolves around a very classic problem in traditional arts – do people actually use kata during sparring?
Part of the inefficient, ritualized stereotype that goes along with traditional arts stems directly from this issue. Furthermore, when watching sparring at any tournament or even online you are likely to see a grand total of zero exchanges that look like kata.
Check out my perspective on the matter:
The cut-to video utilized in the video above is from a previous post entitled Exploring the Value of Nai Hanchi. Check out the full post if you are interested in a more specific study of this kata/application/combat type question.
Hope you enjoyed it, and check out question 2 – What Kind of Grappling Is In Karate?