Martial Arts: The Model Classroom?

February 11, 2008 on 2:55 pm | In education, martial arts | 5 Comments

For ten years I have run Taekwondo programs for students and faculty at the schools where I have worked. While I have long believed that martial arts training can be incredibly valuable for children and adults alike, some of my conversations at and since Educon have gotten me thinking about how the dojang (training hall) can be a model for the academic classroom.

“Model?” I hear you exclaim incredulously, “Isn’t martial arts training about as far from progressive education as possible, with its culture of blind obedience and drill-till-you-drop mentality?”

Actually, I don’t think it is.

First of all, just as in the academic realm, there are obviously good martial arts schools and not-so-good martial arts schools. When taught well, Taekwondo, which roughly translates from Korean as “the Way of Hand and Foot,” is about more than learning how to kick and punch. As the name suggests, training should be a journey to find the Way, a personal path to self-improvement and deeper meaning. Ultimately, martial arts training is about facing personal challenges, striving to overcome them with persistence and discipline, and learning from the lessons of experience.

Isn’t this really the goal of any good education?

As far as the question of blind obedience, this is an issue I address regularly with new students. I usually begin by talking about the custom of bowing, a particularly difficult concept for fiercely independent Westerners. The exchange generally looks something like this:

“Why do we all have to bow to you?”

“You don’t.”

“What do you mean? We start and end every class by bowing to you.”

“No, we start and end every class by bowing to each other.”

I go on to talk about the respect, responsibility, and trust that the bowing represents and communicates. Student bows to teacher in respect and to show that she is putting her trust in her teacher’s hands; teacher bows to student in respect and to accept responsibility for the trust that has been given him.

Isn’t that the relationship forged in any good classroom, albeit normally less explicitly?

Bowing inevitably leads to questions about why students address me as Sabumnim or the English equivalent, “Master,” and why all blackbelts are addressed as Sir or Madam. While these concerns give me the opportunity to talk about some of the history, traditions, and rituals of Taekwondo, more importantly they allow us to discuss the importance of checking the ego at the door and entering the dojang with an open mind – important prerequisites for any kind of learning.

We remove our shoes as a symbolic way to leave the concerns of the day-to-day world outside the dojang. We bow as we enter the training hall to show respect to the culture and traditions of Taekwondo. We address instructors and senior students with ritualized titles that express respect and acknowledge the rank of those more experienced than we. There is a very clear hierarchy in Taekwondo, but it is one based on the straight-forward criterion of seniority and represented by the color of the belt tied around your waist. It’s a culture that cultivates humility while still valuing and acknowledging individual achievement.

As for the question of drill, traditional martial arts are certainly filled with repetitive practice, but I would argue that the nature of this type of training differs markedly from the mindless rote learning that can be found in too many academic classrooms. Memorizing facts and figures doesn’t build skills, except maybe the skill to memorize. What’s to be learned by doing the same math problem – or even the same type of math problem – again and again? Doing the same blocks, strikes, and kicks over and over, however, is an essential part of Taekwondo training. So, how does it differ?

The performing of the physical technique is only the first level of learning. First a student learns the movement. As she continues to practice the technique, she comes to understand the body mechanics that allow her to generate maximum speed and power. After many hours of doing the same technique, the student no longer needs to think consciously about the movement; it becomes programmed into her body. The mind is freed to consider the appropriate tactics and strategies that make use of the technique. After many years of training, that same technique can become a means to release the mind entirely, a moving meditation where nothing exists except for the moment when mind, body, and spirit converge at a single point in time and space.

Okay, whoa, isn’t this whole mind/body/spirit thing getting just a little too esoteric?

Maybe. But I recently read the mission statement of a school whose stated goal is to educate the “head, hand, and heart.” What’s the difference?

Other aspects of Taekwondo training make it a compelling model for education. Key concepts of good teaching and learning are embodied in the martial arts: mastery learning, personalized instruction, peer coaching, regular feedback and assessment, and the application of skills in realistic settings.

There’s no class curve in the dojang. You work on a technique until you can do it to the instructor’s satisfaction, then you are tested on it (notice that you’re not tested on it until you’ve proven in class that you can do it), and then you continue to work on it even as you go on to learn new techniques. Throughout this process, you get regular, specific, personalized feedback and instruction, both from the instructor and from more experienced fellow students. As you progress, you also become responsible for helping less experienced students with their learning. On top of all this, you regularly have the opportunity to apply what you have learned in various realistic contexts, such as controlled sparring. Squaring off against a more experienced partner is a powerful opportunity for self-assessment.

As the teacher, my ultimate goal is for all of my students to be better than I am. To borrow an image from the 1970s television series Kung Fu, my hope is that they grow to surpass me and “snatch the pebble from my hand.” But I make it very clear from the start that I will not make it easy for them. My responsibility is to push them to do the best they can, to help them find something inside themselves that they didn’t know was there. I train along side my students because there’s no better way I know to teach focus, discipline, hard work, integrity, passion, self-control, and indomitable spirit than to model those behaviors day in and day out.

I think it’s valuable for students to see teachers struggle to solve a problem or push their own personal limits or try things they know they can’t do. Some martial arts teachers – and dare I say classroom teachers – try to cultivate a sense of awe or mystique about themselves. I’d much rather that my students see me as human, as a person who can’t do anything they’re not capable of doing if they’re willing to train long enough and hard enough to achieve it.

Once while we paused during a challenging workout, a student clearly had something on her mind. When I asked her what was wrong, she looked down and mumbled, “Nothing, sir.” When I pressed her, she finally blurted out, “The problem is, sir, we can’t even complain when you work us this hard because you do everything with us.”

They say misery loves company, but I’d say learning loves company even more.


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  1. This doesn’t sound crazy at all!

    The classic example of constructivist learning was the Samba School – written about by Seymour Papert in his book Mindstorms. He wrote about finding models of social learning that illustrated a collaborative learning environment that would support children learning programming and doing long-term projects using complex technology.

    The schools are traditions in Brazil to prepare for the Carnival. He noted that in the Samba school, the same activities were shared by novices and experts in a social atmosphere. Everyone is learning, it is not a separate “activity”. There are times for serious teaching as veterans share what they know with children, but these times are short and focused on doing something. There is no syllabus or curriculum, what is taught is what is necessary for the whole group to succeed.

    You might like this speech Dr. Papert gave in 1975 about this topic.

    Comment by Sylvia Martinez — February 13, 2008 #

  2. Bill,

    It’s interesting that many people see martial arts as fighting; I think I have come to see it more and more as a spiritual discipline. I value the reassurance of hierarchy, the joy of peer teaching, the experience of all of us as learners. I don’t feel the analogy’s a stretch. Perhaps I am showing my non-euro-western colors here. I love the parallels you have drawn. They are clear and push the reader to broaden our mind.

    I was confused by this and wondered what you meant:
    I’d much rather that my students see me as human, as a person who can’t do anything they’re not capable of doing if they’re willing to train long enough and hard enough to achieve it.

    Persistence and mastery are not, I believe, what we currently are training for. I think we tend to teach kids to reach for the next brass ring and once there allow them (and ourselves) to disregard foundation. When you speak of memorization, I would underscore that we do not insist on retention or even help our kids to make connections. Sometimes this may be because we teach things are are irrelevant and not grounded in real life experiences. Sometimes I think it’s because it feels too overwhelming, or no one did this for us.

    I have many more thoughts on this subject, but an even greater number of assignments that await grading :-)


    Comment by Imani — February 14, 2008 #

  3. When you train, you want to look good. You want to hit hard and perfect every time. You want to throw for ippon every time. You want to score a knock out or submission every time. Every technique you throw must its mark. Just like that parent- you want everything to go smoothly with out any hiccups or mistakes. As in life: “what you want and what you got, aren’t exactly the same thing.”

    Comment by The Arts Of Fight — August 17, 2008 #

  4. I agree with your statement that it is better to see a teacher as a human not as a mystical higher power. You have a certain amount of respect for someone who you see struggle as much as you do for something. Terrific write up.

    Comment by Chuck — October 6, 2008 #

  5. Billito!!!!

    Was looking for u in Facebook. Mom and I are in New York April 25th to April 30th. ¿Nos podemos ver?

    Comment by Rocio Gayarre — April 19, 2010 #

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