Let’s face an unpleasant truth. Most martial arts instructors are lousy teachers. They may be great martial artists, but few of them know anything about the art and science of teaching. Teaching is not about how much you know or how much you can do. It is what you can transmit to your student and help them to learn, do, and keep improving.
When I’m looking for a teacher, I’m not looking for someone who is an incredibly skilled and gifted martial artist. Those are great things, but they don’t have much relation to the person’s skill as a teacher. If the best thing I can say about a teacher is that “They really know their stuff,” stay away from that class. A great teacher might only be a few steps ahead of me, but they can get me to learn, grasp and internalize what I need to know to improve. A lousy teacher may be the most knowledgeable, skilled person in the world, but that doesn’t do me any good because they can’t transmit what they know.
The old saw “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” is a lot of hogwash. Teaching is a skill all it’s own. Just being skilled at the subject you want to teach isn’t nearly enough. Because teaching is a job like any other, you get the same range of skills and professionalism as you find in any other career. There are a few great ones, a lot of competent people doing a good job, and few lousy ones. Unfortunately, we’ve all had an experience with lousy teachers when we were in school. That should motivate those of us who teach budo to avoid making similar mistakes.
Good teaching takes work. The classic approach of the martial arts teacher showing up, demonstrating something, and then counting off the number of reps as the students repeat the techniques over and over is not the best way to teach. We should know that from having done mindlessly repetitive drills when we were in school. Although it’s said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something, that practice must be deep, mindful and correct. Good teachers are engaged with students during practice, correcting them where they need it. As my Dad says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” Students learn what they practice. If they practice technique wrong, it will stay wrong.
I’m not the world’s best teacher, but I know some great teachers, and I try to learn from them. One thing that has rubbed off on me is that our brains have certain limits, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s part of the teacher’s job to keep those in mind when we are teaching. The art of teaching may not be something we can master, but we can certainly use the science of teaching and learning to give our students the best teaching possible.
There are some basic things that we can keep in mind, regardless of the particular pedagogy that goes with our martial arts system.
Class size matters. We know this. Research on learning and education is pretty clear. If we try to make our classes too big, we take away from the students in a myriad ways. It’s tough to see what’s going on in a big group unless you’re right in front of the teacher. There is no way the teacher can give each student the attention necessary to be sure that the students are correctly grasping the points being taught. Just because there is space in the room doesn’t mean you have to fill it with students. Don’t put more students in a room than you can effectively teach and instruct.
This next point is one I am constantly working on. Just as we can put more students in a room than we can effectively teach, we can put more lessons in a class than students can absorb. Our minds have a working memory capacity of 3 to 5 items. That’s it. If we try to teach more than that in one session, the students will not be able to hold on to the lessons. Once we get past our personal limit of about 4 main points, we start dropping things because our minds just can’t hold onto all of them. For me, this means that when I work with students, I can’t overload them with all the many important points in a technique or kata on the same day. It also means that I shouldn’t try to teach too many things in one lesson. To be most effective, I have make sure I pick just a couple of main points that I want to everyone to focus on for the day.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on koshi. If I want my students to retain the important points about koshi, I can’t go off and start working on how they use their arms when swinging the weapon or spend a bunch of time on metsuke. I have to stay focused the lesson. If I start throwing other points at my students, they won’t be able to remember any of the lessons later. I try to keep my lesson and corrections centered around 3 principle points for any class. For example, when we’re doing koshi, I work on proper alignment, driving the koshi with the leg, and driving the upper body from the koshi. That’s all. I work at biting my tongue and not correcting any other issues I might see. Those are for another day.
The same is true when I critique kata. Working memory is limited to 3 to 5 items. So I only make 4 comments. That way the student can hold on to the corrections long enough to get to their notebook and write something down. There is no point in giving a huge list of corrections when we know someone can only hold about 4 points in their head. If we overload someone, there is a good chance they won’t remember anything.
Once I’ve introduced a point, I make sure to give students enough time to explore it and try applying it in their technique or kata. That way they can practice and I can see if they really understood the point. If I didn’t get the idea across as well as I want (which is usually the case), then I can give the students some more help with the same point. I don’t go on to the next point until the first one seems pretty solidly understood.
One way to help students get what I’m teaching, and keep it, is to make them retrieve it. When I teach a structured class, I stick to that limit of 3-5 items. I also don’t fill the entire class time. At the end of the class I have the students review what I’ve taught so they are actively thinking about and remembering what we did. I want my students to remember and apply the lessons I’m teaching. If I just run through the lesson, I don’t know what they’ve gotten. By having the students remember what I taught and show it to me at the end of practice, I help them remember and retain the lessons, so they can continue practicing the lesson at home. It’s also a check for me. If the students don’t remember what I taught, or they don’t really understand it, that means I didn’t do a very good job of teaching it.
Every time I teach a class, I’m not only teaching the students. I’m also practicing being a more effective teacher. Not every martial artist is a teacher. That’s fine. But if you are teaching, your students deserve the best you can give them. By learning and applying some fundamental knowledge about how people learn, you can give your students much more. And if you really want to learn how to teach budo skills well, find a music or art teacher and learn how they teach skills to their students. They know the science of teaching complex skills like nobody else.
Special thanks to fine art teacher and martial artist Rick Frye for suggestions and editing assistance.