Showing posts with label teaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teaching. Show all posts

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Yes, Virginia, There Is Sexism In Budo


Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. doing Shinto Hatakage Ryu. (Photo copyright 2018 Deborah Klens-Bigman)
 
This is a guest post by Deborah Klens-Bigman, PhD. and Jun Shihan in Shinto Hatakage Ryu. A martial arts practitioner and teacher for more than thirty years, she has seen a great deal of the budo world, and experienced its good and bad. We as budoka are not perfect, and this seems like a good time to consider one area where the budo world could improve. Budo has never been a male-only practice, as can be seen most clearly in the number of women who've led, and lead, martial ryuha in Japan. Klens-Bigman Sensei is addressing an issue that should be of concern to everyone in budo.


First, I would like to point out that most of my teachers in my 30-plus years of training have been men - good, talented men.  And the vast, vast majority of my colleagues in budo are also men - honorable people I am pleased to associate with. But sexism in budo needs to be addressed; and I feel the need to address it very specifically, and right now.

The public discourse of the past two years has allowed for what pundits refer to as "tribalism" to come out into the light.  I think it is too early to know yet whether this is a good thing (what comes into the light can be confronted, and refuted), or a bad thing (normalizing behavior that many of us had hoped no longer existed).  All the while there have been some voices all-too-quietly pointing out that misogyny is ever present for all to see, regardless of “tribe.” Perhaps it is its perpetual "there-ness" that allows misogyny to be continuously overlooked, or disregarded.  Or, just perhaps, no one is very comfortable discussing it, so no one does.



Since I was a little kid sneaking out of the children's library into the grownup sections for further adventure, I was interested in hand weapons.  Not guns, but swords, knives, glaives, spears, battle axes, bows, maces - if you could hold it in your hand and wield it at someone, I was ON IT - at least in the bookly sense.  I lugged home books on arms & armor that were almost as big as I was. When I was traveling with my parents, nothing thrilled me more than climbing around castle ruins or forts, or (the best) going to a real medieval armory.  

My parents thought I might become a historian.  

Through all of this fascination, it never occurred to me for a single moment that my interest was weird or should be circumscribed in any way.  That is, until I decided to actually do something about it.

I tried fencing, which I enjoyed, but I was not happy with the competitive aspect of it (there was no historical fencing available like you can find now).  Likewise, I was not happy with the theatrical fencing I encountered in college; not just because it was fake, but because there really was no opportunity to take part in fight scenes featuring women.  I decided fight choreography was a waste of time.

When I first encountered iaido, I was very fortunate that my teacher, an Osaka native, had three daughters.  He had no problem whatsoever with training me. There have been few times in my life when I felt that I really found something important.  This was one of them.

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Jun Shihan, Shinto Hatakage Ryu (photo copyright 2018 Deborah Klens-Bigman)

Unfortunately, my sempai did not agree.  My first few months of practice, one of them told me that it was "not proper" for women to study Japanese swordsmanship.  I decided that was silly. My Japanese teacher was perfectly happy with me being in the dojo. However, this sempai arranged for me to miss a demo that my teacher wanted me to take part in.  Everyone else was there. The experience was mortifying. It was designed to make me quit. That was the first time I realized that not everyone had the same attitude when it came to women training in budo.

I should point out that most of the resistance to my practicing swordsmanship came from a number of my American sempai.  During my many training trips to Japan, I rarely encountered the feeling of being excluded. But more about that later.

I didn't quit.  I was stubborn. I kept going to okeiko.  I volunteered to organize demos (a job no one wanted) partly so I could not be left out again.  I trained hard. I watched. I listened. I learned. And I put up with a lot.

Budo training for women involves more than just wanting to improve your skills and develop your personality.  It involves enduring.  Enduring sempai who, instead of being willing to help you, try to hinder you, because something about being an onnakenshi just doesn't feel right to them.  It's walking into a seminar where you are the only woman (hint: You have to walk in like you own the place).  If no one knows you, it's getting the puzzled look as the guys try to figure out whose wife/girlfriend or (after awhile) mom you are.  It's also enduring looks at the inevitable banquet when wives and girlfriends eye you with suspicion because you are there by yourself.  It's being told you are "gender non-conforming," and that's supposed to be a compliment. 

 I'd like to say the situation improves for women who teach, but it does not.  I've had men walk into my okeiko and immediately look to one of my male students as the teacher, because it's not possible that could be me.  I've taught seminars and offered correction to a male student who ignored me while taking the same correction from another man. I've encountered fellow budo teachers who implied I should be teaching women, or children, but not men.  Sadly, I gave a demo once and had a woman in the audience ask if there are "any restrictions for women" in learning budo.  Because she assumed that there are.

Klens-Bigman Sensei leading class (photo copyright 2018 Deborah Klens-Bigman)

 And it's rare, but it happens - someone being just a little too rough as a training partner, landing a tsuki in jodo with the intention of knocking you down, or knocking the wind out of you, at least.  Or, as a senior student, having a sempai publicly humiliate you in front of the whole dojo, because you "just don't know your place" (and having the kohai silently agree with him). The fact that I was correct in that situation was meaningless.  

One wonders why we bother.  Indeed, I have wondered, from time to time, why I bother.

There are a lot of reasons for persisting.  For one thing, not all budoka behave in the ways I have mentioned (though more of them do than I'd like).  Just like the guys, there is the fun of learning new things and gaining new skill and confidence. And I have been to seminars in Japan where I am not the only woman; indeed, where several of the women have menkyo and everyone treats me as though I have the same potential.  As I said, while I can't say that I never encountered male hostility in Japan, I can say that, generally speaking, when it comes to okeiko, people have treated me like any other student.  And most of the groups I have trained with are at least 1/3 female.

And that is all women want.  We want to be just like everyone else.  We want to be taught. We want to learn.  We don't want to be hit on. We aren't looking for dates.  We want to be taken seriously. And we want our expertise to be recognized.

Now and then, a young woman comes to the dojo, with a look in her eyes like I had so long ago.  It's my job (and my pleasure) to make her feel welcome. To help her understand that yes, you can do this.  I will help you.

And there are good memories, like the time my teacher gave me a bear hug after a class (in front of the sempai!) and said, "You're doing VERY WELL."  

I do this to keep my teacher's faith in me.  I do it for myself. And yeah, I do it for women.

Deborah Klens-Bigman doing Shinto Muso Ryu. (photo copyright 2018 Deborah Klens-Bigman)

 








Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Teachers Who Can't Share


I run into people all the time who sincerely believe that training in another art or with another teacher is a terrible and disloyal thing to do. I also bump up against teachers who tell their students they should never train with anyone else, and that their art is the best so they shouldn’t try anything else.  

To me, this is pure foolishness and unrestrained ego. No art is 100% complete and perfectly prepared for every possible turn of events. Even the great sogo budo that were born in Japan’s Warring States period (circa 1467 - 1603) and include a range of armed and unarmed skills,  - even techniques for fighting while in armor or street clothes - don’t have or even attempt to have a kata for every conceivable situation.

I think back to the great martial artists of the last few hundred years in Japan, and I can’t think of any who trained exclusively with one teacher.  Even now, I can’t think of any arts that expect and demand 100% exclusivity all the time. I know of arts, such as Kashima Shinryu, that ask beginning students not to train in other arts without getting their teacher’s permission, but this is more about making sure students learn good fundamentals without getting them mixed up and messed up by training in systems with different - or worse - conflicting principles. Even then, they don’t insist that a student train only with one teacher.  Once the student reaches sufficient proficiency with the fundamentals, training in other systems is not forbidden. 

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/budo-bum-anthology#/


Historically, I look at teachers like Kano Jigoro, Ueshiba Morihei, and Kuni’i Zenya, and the subsequent  development of their own systems. None of these teachers and developers could have achieved anything close to what they did without training under multiple teachers in multiple systems.  Kano Jigoro received licensing in two different koryu jujutsu systems before he founded Kodokan Judo. Even after founding the Kodokan, he continued to train and learn from other systems, most notably adding instruction from Fuse Ryu to strengthen the Kodokan’s groundwork.

Ueshiba Morihei studied a lot of stuff. He studied judo in a dojo his father established with a teacher brought in for the job. He studied jukenjutsu in the military. He learned a chunk of Yagyu Shingan Ryu.  Even after he had mastered Daito Ryu and founded Aikido, he continued to study and learn, taking keppan with Kashima Shinto Ryu.

Kuni’i Zenya was the soke of Kashima Shinryu. However, he was sent to train in Maniwa Nen Ryu as well. He took what he learned from Maniwa Nen Ryu and used it to refine Kashima Shinryu (don’t let anyone tell you that koryu budo never change.  They are like rivers. They continue as the same river.  The Nile at its headwaters is very different from the Nile as it enters Egypt, and even more different as it passes through the delta into the sea.) Kuni’i Sensei would not have become anywhere near the martial artist he did without exposure to more than one system.

I look at my teachers, and none of them has been exclusionary in the own practice or in their expectations of their students, so I suppose I am prejudiced in favor of being open with students because that is a notable element of my background. I started my budo journey in Kodokan Judo, and my teacher there encouraged his students to take advantage of any training opportunities in the area. Almost as soon as we knew the etiquette well enough to not make any major faux pas Earl started suggesting visits to another local judo dojo to train on days we didn’t have keiko at our dojo. I got over to the dojo at the YMCA fairly often, got extra keiko and a different set of critiques on my technique.

My sword teacher, Kiyama HIroshi Shihan, may well be the poster child for cross training. He has 7th dans in kendo, iaido and jodo, as well as decades of koryu iai and jo practice. He also has dan ranks in Shito Ryu karate, jukendo, and judo.  There may well be other stuff that’s just never come up.  

Matsuda Shihan, my jodo teacher, has a license in Kukishin Ryu as well as in Shinto Muso Ryu,  plus he has dan ranks in iai and karate to go with his 8th dan in jodo. He actively told me to go train with a senior jodo teacher he had great respect for.  He said I should take any chance I got to train with this man.

So my background definitely predisposes me to be in favor of being open with my training. My teachers have always been open to me learning from others.  There are limits of course.  If I’m doing iai with Kiyama Sensei, I would never object to anything because some other teacher I had seen did it differently from Kiyama Sensei’s way. I have too much respect for my teachers to insult them like that. Kiyama Sensei was a senior teacher before I was born. I can’t imagine that I’m going to come up with anything that he hasn’t seen dozens of times already.

Matsuda Sensei is perfectly open with my questions about things I’ve seen or heard from other teachers. He’s happy to talk about these things in the right time and place.  During his lesson is clearly not that place. If we are doing free practice, or outside the dojo, that’s the time and place.

All of these experiences with my own teachers make me suspicious of teachers who won’t ever let their students train with anyone else. In such a situation, who gains? I don’t see any great benefit for the students, or for the teacher. I can see the point of limiting the outside training of beginning students who are just starting to get control of their own bodies. I can understand teachers who don’t want students to confuse themselves and slow down their development by mixing their learning with multiple instructors giving them potentially conflicting advice. This is a temporary situation, though. Once a student has a firm enough foundation, they can train with other people, even take up additional martial arts without damage to the art they started with.

Not allowing students to train with anyone else is a red flag to me. This is not the early Tokugawa Era with people wandering around challenging each other to duels with live blades or even wooden substitutes. People aren’t in danger of losing their government stipend or even dying if they lose a challenge match. We aren’t protecting our techniques and strategies in order to to give us an advantage when we have to fight our next duel.

This is the 28th year of the reign of the Heisei Emperor, or the early 21st Century to much of the rest of the world. Duels don’t happen that often these days. This is the age of YouTube after all. There aren’t many secrets left. Almost everything can be found somewhere on the internet with the minimal effort of a Google search.

When I hear of a teacher who won’t let students train with anyone else, I always wonder what their reasoning is. And then I wonder if the problem isn’t with the students, but with the teacher. I’ve never been able to come up with a valid reason for limiting students’ training myself. I have  seen a number of reasons that reflect poorly on such teachers though.

There are teachers who are quite capable martial artists, but who are also insecure human beings. I can see how an insecure teacher would worry about students liking another teacher better.  Telling them not to train with anyone else is a simple way to make sure they don’t discover someone they like training with more. It doesn’t solve the problem of students leaving, but it may slow them down, and maybe it makes the insecure teacher feel a little more in control.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who had an overabundance of confidence and no actual skills. They tell great stories, often about how they trained in Japan or China with secretive masters. Their descriptions of the awesome secrets they learned and how powerful their skills are can be truly amazing. Their only concern is that if their students train with other people, they might realize that all their teacher has to offer them are some great stories, and no real skills. These folks have a genuine concern. If anyone were to check with folks in Japan or China or wherever they say the trained, their teachers would be even more mysterious, because no one could find them. In this age of Facebook, it takes about 15 minutes to find experts living anywhere in the world who can check on things like this. Best for these teachers if their students never talk with other martial artists, and definitely don’t let them train with other folks. Students figure out pretty fast that what they’ve been taught is empty sound and fury when they are repeatedly knocked on their rear ends by strangers.

Teachers are humans too, with all the possibility of the angelic and the risk of the demonic. The vast majority of teachers strive to be the best example they can be in the dojo, and lead students to higher levels of being, not just higher black belt ranks. There are others who are there only for what they can get out of it, whether that is the satisfaction of lording their rank over others, having people show them respect and excessive deference, or just collecting a lot of money from students every month without having to give anything more than the illusion of teaching something.

Even when a teacher has a lot to offer students, if they are so insecure, or so into controlling others, that they can’t bear to see their students get some training from someone else from time to time, they are crippled as teachers. Someone like this will feel threatened when a student gets good enough to be a teacher herself. Their own fears and insecurities will hobble them and prevent them from giving students their best teaching. Behind every decision and every interaction will be the fear that students will leave.

I can’t recommend that anyone train with a teacher who can’t stand to see them train in some other art or with another teacher if a good opportunity arises. For me, cross training is essential to understanding my primary art. Training with a good teacher is essential to learning an art deeply. I can’t see how a teacher crippled by insecurity or mad with the need to control others can be a good teacher for anyone. If a teacher says you should never train with anyone else, that should be a loud warning signal to find a different teacher.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp





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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Joy Of Being A Student



I attended a marvelous seminar over the weekend.  I’m not always a fan of seminars, but this was fabulous. There were two high level teachers, and nothing was required of me but that I be a willing student open to learning.  It is a role I don’t get to play as often as I would like.  I’ve been doing budo long enough that more often than not, I’m one of the senior people in the dojo.  I spend more time teaching students than I do as a student.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. I just happen to love learning even more. The longer I do budo though, the opportunities to be a pure student become more and more rare.  This annual seminar in Guelph is one of the best for me. The seminar was led by to two 8th dans from Japan.

The students were divided into two groups by rank. Those of us who hold higher ranks for North America (nothing exceptionally high in Japan) were training together. Nobody had to do anything but try and understand the level Morimoto Shihan was attempting to pull us up to.

I trained with people of similar skill, and with whom I shared the joy of trying to figure out the subtleties of Morimoto Shihan’s technique.  All of us are fairly experienced at Kendo Federation jodo, but he kept doing things that we could hardly imagine. Little motions with the jo that made the sword go whipping out of our hands with maki otoshi, or slight adjustments of the striking point in hiki otoshi uchi.

I love trying to work out what a teacher is doing. Just focus on the problem and go after it without any other worries. Being able to go into training and just open myself up for whatever the teacher has to offer. There is a term in Japanese that describes the ideal state of mind for a learner, shoshinsha 初心者。It’s a wonderfully descriptive term that is often translated as “beginner’s mind.”  The characters for “mind” and “person,” kokoro and mono 者、 are pretty straightforward. “Sho”  is a little more unusual. It’s the same character as in shodan 初段, which is usually incorrectly translated as “1st degree black belt.” In shodan, the “sho” is more like “beginning” as is “beginning step.”  In shoshinsha, the feeling is even more subtle.  It’s not just beginner, but it strongly harkens to the meaning of as a stand alone word, when it is read as “ubu” and has connotations of “artless; innocent; naive; unsophisticated.”

I wish I could always suspend my preconceptions and my prior learning and my ego so I could stand before any teacher as an artless, innocent, unsophisticated student absorbing the lesson without first filtering it through my preconceptions.. All too many times I drag all my preconceptions about what an art is and how it should be practiced with me.  I assume that my experience means that I know something of value, and my ego insists on putting its spin on everything. My ego wants to make everything complex and sophisticated.

It’s so much better when I can let go of my ego and be a beginner again. Morimoto Shihan is so much better than I that my ego looked around and said “I’ve got nothing to offer here. Call me when you’re dealing with someone who’s down in our league.” With my ego checked out, I could relax and make any mistakes I could find to make and not feel the least bit ashamed.  I completely blew the transition in one kata, and it didn’t bother me at all. I just thought “Wow, he is really smooth. I’m going to need a lot more practice to be able to keep up with him.” None of the usual excuses or rationalizations came flying to the front of my mind. It was perfectly clear to me and my ego that I was completely outclassed and that what training with Morimoto Shihan calls for is a whole lot more practice on my part.

In my college judo days our club motto was “Mada heta desuまだ下手です, or“still inept” as we liked to translate it. At this seminar I could say I am “mada heta desu” without any self-consciousness and without any false humility.  This was a wonderful and freeing feeling. I could see how little I know, and how far I have to go before I can start to believe I know anything about this art I claim to study.


http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp


As we progress along the path of budo, we pick up ideas, knowledge and habits. Budo is a journey down a path that extends further than we can travel in a lifetime. There are endless discoveries to be made. The irony is that more we “learn” and the more we “know” the slower our progress becomes. The more “knowledge” and “skill” we accumulate, the heavier the pack of our learning becomes. The more we are burdened by what we already know, the more difficult it becomes to move forward, the easier it becomes to be satisfied with wherever we are along the path.

The tragedy of this is, if we can just let go of what we already know, we can move forward along the path of budo very quickly. Letting go of what we already know requires uncurling our grasp upon hard earned gems of knowledge, skill and understanding. Having reached one level in jodo, it’s been difficult for me to recognize that the skills, techniques and understanding that have gotten me this far will not get me to the next level. The ranking system in Japan is not based on degrees of black belt, though even the Japanese will ask if you have a kuro obi or “black belt.” It’s based on the idea of steps, and the steps seem to have been borrowed from the ten steps on the Bodhisattva path in Buddhism.  The first step is just the starting step, the shodan 初段。

The final stage, the tenth step, is perfection in the path. To be a tenth dan implies perfection. That no one can be perfect is the reason the major budo organizations in Japan rarely (or never in some cases) award a tenth dan. No one is perfect. If we can’t let go of the learning and skills we’ve acquired, there is no way to move beyond our current level.  Invariably, whatever it has taken to get to my current level, will act as a dead weight holding me back from getting to the next level until I let go of it, let go of what I “know.”
 
Buddhism makes that point that our attachments are the cause of our suffering. Budo has taught me that our attachments are also the cause of our inability to improve and advance. Any time I become attached to a technique, a way of doing something, or a way of conceptualizing a principle, I stop progressing. It’s only when I look at something and wonder “What’s a better way of doing this?” that I start moving forward again. Just because what I am doing works better than my students technique, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a method superior to the one I’m using.

That can be a tough pill to swallow. My ego really seems to believe my technique is already fabulous. When I start listening to my ego, I find it difficult to hear more reasoned, more experienced voices that could teach me something. If find it difficult to hear my teachers telling me what I need to do to improve, when I’m busying listening to me ego tell me how great I am.

A more useful outlook than dwelling on what we “know” is those t-shirts from my judo club days at Western Michigan University that say まだへたです mada heta desu. “Still inept.” No matter how good you are, there is always something more to learn. I try to remember that and ignore my ego so I can return to that wonderful state of being a clean slate for whatever the teachers have to share with me.

I find that when I can keep in mind that I’m “still inept” and just learn from the teachers without letting my ego talk, training is a joyous experience filled with discovery. Purely being a student, open to everything and making new discoveries with nearly every step is as wonderful an experience as any I can think of. I’m grateful to Morimoto Shihan and Tsubaki Shihan for a wonderful weekend of learning and discovery.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Martial Arts Instructors Should Learn To Teach



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.

http://www.budogu.com/dealoftheday.asp

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.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Going To Seminars

Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014



I hosted a budo seminar last weekend. It was attended by a small, focused group of experienced budoka from a range of disciplines. Seminars can range from very good to OK to a complete waste of time and money.  This  was close to my ideal of what a good seminar should be.

Budo is a physical activity that is exceptionally personal. At lower levels a lot can be learned from just seeing techniques demonstrated. Students can pick up movements and concepts from teachers even if they don’t experience what is being done. At higher levels though techniques become progressively more subtle and difficult to perceive the important aspects of what is happening.

There are lots of reasons for attending seminars. Most of them don’t have a lot to do with improving your skills. That doesn’t make them bad reasons, they just don’t have much with to do with getting better.

One reason that has motivated me to go to seminars even when I was unlikely to get anything else out of the seminar is just to see someone great. In Hindi, the act of going to see a great teacher or expression of divine is called darshan, This seems like an appropriate way to describe going to a seminar with the primary goal of seeing a great exponent of an art I study. The great practitioners and teachers have transcendent skill and technique. It’s a privilege just to be able to see them express their skill in person.  I’ve been to a few seminars for this reason, and a couple of times I’ve had the great good fortune to feel these teachers’ skills personally. The lasting memories from these experiences are ongoing inspiration for me. I’ve had the opportunity to see and feel people who are the best in the world at a few seminars.

Sometimes I go to seminars just for the social fun. I know the seminar is unlikely to offer me anything special in the way of new insights or ideas, but the opportunity to hang out with a crowd of other brain-addled budoka can be irresistable. On these occasions the training is an afterthought, and can even get in the way of the real point of the trip, talking with old friends and new ones. Being able to freely talk with people who share my passion is rare and wonderful.

Some of the other reasons for attending seminars besides developing your own skills are less exciting. For those of us who belong to one of the big budo organizations that use dan tests administered by panels of judges, there are a couple of useful reasons to go to the seminar. Organizational standards are set by committees, and I’ve yet to see a committee that could sit down, look at the existing standards and say “Yup, those guys last year did a great job. We can’t improve on what they’ve done, so let’s leave it alone and go get a drink.” Never happens. Which means that if you are testing, you need to go to the organization seminar and find out how they are doing things this year. Not a particularly inspiring reason to go to a seminar, but if you need to grade, you’d better do it. Go, find out what the judges are supposed to be looking for, and then do it.

On the flip side of seeing what the organization is asking for this year, those big, organization sponsored seminars are usually lead by the same folks who sit on the grading panel. That makes them a chance to be seen by the judges and let them get familiar with you and your skills. Judges are human after all, and if they have seen you practice and are familiar with your skill level, you increase you chances of passing when the test comes around. And there is always the chance that you might catch a personal comment or two during the seminar.

I know people go to seminars for the wrong reasons as well. I don’t enjoy dealing with people like this, but they are always a risk at an open seminar. These are the people who show up to show off. The want everyone to see how good they are. Every moment on the mat is a chance for them to  display the wonder of their technique so the rest of us can appreciate their greatness and tell them how awesome they are. They drive me nuts because you can count on them to not pay attention to what the instructor is trying to teach. Instead they will do every technique the way they like so their partner can feel the clear superiority of their technique and everyone else can see how good they are.  

Worse, the show-offs are there to prove how good they are to every one of their training partners. Anything the teacher asks that might present them with difficulty or challenge is ignored in favor of the way they already do things. I hope that Sensei sees them and intervenes if they do have trouble with a technique, because their response will almost always be to crank up the raw force to make their partner react, even if they can’t do the technique. Forget about trying to figure out the lesson being taught and figuring out how to apply it. They aren’t at the seminar for that. Show-offs are there so everyone can see how great they are, and if their partner won’t cooperate by falling down easily, they will drive their uke down with raw force.  

That makes these people even more dangerous than absolute beginners. Beginners are liable to substitute strength for the technique they don’t yet have, but that’s a stage everyone goes through. After you’ve been through it, you usually have enough skill to protect yourself from the mistakes of beginners. Show-offs though have some technique, but when that isn’t quite enough, they amp up the strength as well, which is a lot more dangerous than the innocent pushing and pulling of beginners. Watch out for show-offs.

Over the years, I’ve been to lots more seminars than I can clearly remember. What I’ve learned is that I don’t enjoy the really big seminars for anything other than socializing. Once the floor gets crowded, real learning and exploration is often lost in crush of fellow budoka and the effort to not get hurt. Anytime people are getting thrown around in a crowded room, or sticks are being swung without lots of space, I spend most of my time making sure I and those around me aren’t getting hurt, and relatively little time focused on improving my skills. I’m not big on organizational seminars either, though I recognized their necessity and function, they aren’t the seminars are really enjoy and get the most out of.

That’s why when I planned my own budo gathering a few weeks ago, I tried to implement all the features I’ve found most enjoyable and which contribute the most to a great learning experience.

One of the most important features of a really great seminar for me is that it be relatively small. This is tricky unless you have a wealthy sponsor, because seminars cost money to run and teachers deserve to be properly compensated for their time and effort in sharing their understanding. Ideally, I like seminars that are around 20-25 people. There are a number of reasons for that size. First, it means that the instructor will be able to work with everyone multiple times throughout the seminar. She won’t be stuck at the front of the room demonstrating something and then having to helplessly watch as the crowd tries to replicate it.

With a small seminar, the teacher can provide hands on corrections to everyone there many times. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Budo is an inherently personal activity that is learned directly from the teacher, whether it is koryu budo where the teacher is expected to act as uke for the students trying their techniques, or a training paradigm like aikido, where students are expected to learn by feeling their teachers’ techniques. Either way, without that direct, one-to-one experience, it’s nearly impossible to truly understand the higher levels of the art. Small seminars give teachers the chance to share one-on-one throughout the day.

On the flip side at small seminars, students not only get to work with the teacher, but they get to train with everyone in attendance and be part of many different responses and explorations of what the teacher is offering. I like to get to know my training partners. In a small seminar, you can do that. When I go to big seminars, I find that I either end up working with the same 2 or 3 partners the whole time, or I never work with the same person twice. I enjoy working with different people, but I also like getting to know people. Small seminars let me do both easily.

A few things I like at any seminar are a focus on a limited number of key points, having time to make notes between lessons, and having a little review at the end of each session to reemphasize the lessons ideas covered. These are all things I learned when I was teaching school as full time occupation.

It’s important to keep the major points being covered and emphasized to no more than 5, and I think 3 is even better. There’s a good reason for this. Our brains can only hold that many ideas at one time without dropping the others.  As soon as we go over 5 individual points, our brains start dropping stuff, and it becomes difficult to hold onto anything. A good seminar focuses on just a few key points or principles and approaches them from a variety of directions and means. We all learn differently, so approaching a principle from a variety of angles gives all the participants a chance to examine the lesson from a perspective that’s best for them.

The other advantage to staying focused on few keeps points and attacking them from different angles is that students can gain a better, more complete grasp of the points. I’ve been to classes and seminars where the teacher introduced a dozen or more important points. I got nothing out of these experiences because the were so many points that I never had a chance to get a firm handle on any of them, and there were so many different ideas presented that I had trouble even remembering what had been presented, much less any details.

I’ve also learned to appreciate breaks spaced so I can make useful notes. An hour of focused learning is about all I can handle and hold before my mind needs a break to absorb what’s happening.  Everyone is different, but I find that for me, a five or ten minute break every hour to make some notes and mentally organize what I’ve been learning is helpful. The note making process helps me organize and anchor what I’ve learned, and gives me some references for use later when I’m practicing.

A good seminar doesn’t happen just by having a nice venue and a skillful person leading it. It takes planning, preparation and an instructor who is not only a skilled practitioner but also a skilled teacher. Seminars that are too crowded make it difficult to learn. Teachers who throw too many points and principles at participants do them a disservice, since we can only hold so much information before it all starts to spill out of our heads. A modest sized seminar, with a teacher who focuses on just a few key points, and gives me time to make some useful notes is a wonderful thing.