Institute of Martial Arts & Sciences

Promoting professionalism and quality in the martial arts worldwide

Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn (Excerpt from the current edition of our journal)

March 10, 2016

Learning to teach and teaching to learn.
(Excerpt from the current edition of our journal)

The human being is an amazing creature, even though when compared to other species we appear to be rather weak and feeble: We have no thick fur to protect us from the extremes of climate nor sharp teeth or claws with which to defend ourselves. Yet despite all of these seeming shortcomings and disadvantages we have somehow managed to become the dominant species here on Earth.

This apparently impossible outcome has been achieved thanks to our ability to reason, think and understand. Our intelligence in other words. It is our superior intelligence that provides us with an ability to problem-solve that is far in advance of any other life-form on the planet. Whenever we are faced with some obstacle or difficulty we will begin working out the most efficient way to overcome it, be that climbing a mountain, crossing a sea or even defending ourselves against the elements and other living creatures who might want to do us harm. The human being occupies literally all types of environments from the very hot to the very cold and from the deepest jungle to the snow capped mountain ranges. We are clever and have learned to adapt and exploit anything and everything in order to survive.

Another important human trait is that once we have found a way of doing something well, then we naturally want to share this information with others in order to help them. This process of sharing useful information with each other is otherwise known as teaching and learning, and while this trait exists in many other species, it is particularly prevalent in human beings and consequently, the better we are at these the more successful we shall be at finding out new information and passing on what we know to others.

Why teaching and learning is important

In many ways teaching and learning are the very bedrock of our species, because as humans we are quintessentially the learning animal: We begin learning the moment we open our eyes at birth and continue to learn throughout our existence right up to the point of our death. We literally never stop learning. Indeed, so ingrained is the learning process within us that we simply couldn’t stop learning even if we wanted to! Inevitably the accumulation of all this data throughout our lives would be next to useless if we didn’t share at least some of what we have learnt with others. Therefore it could be said that we are born teachers as well as born learners. Sadly though, this is rarely the case.

Whereas the ability to learn is inherent in all of us, the ability to teach effectively is a far rarer gift indeed, and we need to work upon it if we are to get good at it. This includes all teachers, teaching assistants, lecturers, trainers, coaches and instructors. In short: anyone and everyone who is engaged in helping other people to learn something. This of course includes martial arts instructors who can tend to exert a hugely positive influence upon the lives of their students in a number of profound, meaningful and long-lasting ways.

As Prof. Buckler himself points out: “We tend to teach the way we, ourselves, have been taught“. He goes on to to say that just because we were taught in such a way does not necessarily make it the right way or the best way or even a good way. We need to open ourselves up to this important concept and to remember our past training experiences with a clear vision rather than looking back at them fondly through rose-tinted spectacles. While respect is important we can sometimes end up making the error of imbuing our instructors with almost divine attributes, causing us to firmly believe that they are/were completely beyond any reproach, being faultless and omnipotent. This of course was not true and in some cases was very far from the truth.

I would even venture so far as to say that we contemporary instructors have managed to get where we are not just because of our teachers but (at least sometimes) actually in spite of them! It is largely thanks to our own tenacity, determination and downright stubbornness that we eventually managed to learn what we so wanted to learn. Back then many of us would not even recognise certain bad practices or, if we did, then we expected them as we were learning a martial art and so had to put up with that kind of thing. It was expected. It was tradition!! We were solid, dependable and devoted students. We were the few (the very few) who kept turning up to training no matter how many injuries we saw or even incurred ourselves. We did not give up and trained hard and long until eventually we became instructors ourselves.

Please do not misconstrue what I am getting at here. I know that I owe a great debt of gratitude to all my teachers. But I also now know that they were very far from being the best teachers on Earth! Some of them almost seemed to dislike the process intensely, seeing it as a chore. Others spoke a completely different language and so would resort to pulling, punching and kicking you into the right position before yelling loudly once again and moving on to the next move. Some (thank goodness) did a very fine job. They were patient and considerate and recapped a lot on what they had taught to ensure you went away having learned something and looking forward to the next class rather than limping away feeling as though you were wasting the instructors time (still not going to give up though! still going to turn up for the next painful session. after all: it must just be my own fault. It cant possibly be my instructor!).

In many ways and for many reasons this was not the fault of these instructors. Superb technicians that they no doubt are or were, they were not trained instructors in any way shape or form. They had not been taught to teach what they knew in the same manner as they had been taught to perform their technical skills at such a high level of competence. The two are very different you see. Knowing what you know and teaching what you know. And we need to appreciate this fact, accept it, and then move forward from there.

Like a lot of you reading this I spend some time on social media almost every day and I have recently noticed a certain post that is making the rounds at the moment concerning what it means to be a black belt in the martial arts (It is entitled The Sensei ). It uses words to the effect that out of every five thousand people who take up martial arts only one will eventually earn the coveted black belt. (I have been unable to ascertain exactly where this pearl of statistical wisdom actually comes from but it should still suffice in helping me illustrate my point)

This has proven to be a very popular post with lots of said black belts absolutely lapping up this statement as it helps to make them feel special and proud of who they are and what they have managed to accomplish, so they click “ like“ and “share“ before actually thinking about what that statement is actually saying. One single solitary person out of five thousand?! Yes of course some of these would simply give up because they couldn’t be bothered anymore or have found something else to occupy them. Others would perhaps be unable to continue due to having to move away or because of work commitments, etc. But that would still leave a large percentage that have quit because of bad practice. This means that a lot of potentially good martial artists that have been put off training (and perhaps all martial arts forever) by instructors with a bad attitude and little (if any) proper training in how to teach, mentor and coach others.

Yet another point to consider is how many of these 4999 came from difficult or underprivileged backgrounds. How many had some form of behavioural or emotional problems (ADHD for example) How many had some form of physical impairment (mobility/sight, etc) or had a type of learning difficulty (autism/downs etc)?

We go on about “Sport for All“ and “Equality and Diversity“ but, when it comes down to it, precious few martial arts instructors possess any formal training in scientific teaching methods as applied to mainstream students let alone any of those who have some special training needs such as those mentioned above. Is this still acceptable in our modern society? Are we not supposed to be serving the local communities we live/work/train/teach in? I, like a lot of you, would love to see martial arts included as part of the school curriculum but what are the chances of this ever happening as long as these bad habits and poor practices persist?

In my time I have been fortunate enough to teach martial arts in several schools, both special and mainstream, and I am normally (but not always) invited to do this by the PE teacher who is a well trained, qualified professional who will initially scrutinise me like a hawk during the first few sessions in order to ensure that the children are safe and I am capable of doing the job properly. Luckily, I know the ropes when it comes to teaching and so can speak the same language as these PE colleagues, but I also know for a fact that a lot of martial arts instructors could not do this. This is truly a sad state of affairs as the martial arts have so very much to offer the education system. but as long as we cling to this negative attitude of not bothering to undergo training in modern methodologies, and refusing to work upon refining our teaching ability simply because we think we already “know it all“ this will never happen. Nor should it! Because a school is certainly no place for an unprofessional amateur with no formal training or qualifications and a bad attitude towards learning to teach in the proper way.

By adjusting the way we think about ourselves, what we do and the way that we do it, we can really accomplish so much more. We can begin to demonstrate our commitment towards good practice by constantly striving to improve how we instruct our students in precisely the same way as we strive to become more proficient at our technical skills. Once the education professionals can see this happening then, and only then, do we stand a chance of seeing martial arts instructors being invited into more schools, so enhancing and enriching the rest of the curriculum.

Outside of the education system such training will still assist us in keeping our clubs and classes open wherever and whenever we have them by helping us become a much better instructor. An instructor who not only recruits new students but retains the existing ones, and cares and prepares for them all, making them feel both welcome and wanted and helping them to achieve their goals and develop as strong individuals.

I love the martial arts and sciences (and I really do mean all of them!) Yes I might have my own preferences but, whenever I see someone execute a technique or a kata well then I am filled with the same sense of awe and appreciation as when I witness any other beautiful thing, be that a painting or sculpture, listening to a particular piece of music or visiting a magnificent old building or hearing a moving poem. The martial arts move me in a very deep and emotional way. And I feel incredibly passionate about all of them. To me, they are no less priceless as treasures of human culture and society than any other work of art. Some are very ancient and enable us to reach out and touch the past. Other aspects (including Police Defensive Tactics and Military Close Combat) are modern and innovative and lend us a fleeting glimpse of where our tradition is headed (and it would seem to be a very bright future indeed!). They are at once exciting and deadly, demanding and beautiful, and they deserve to not only survive but thrive so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come. But. this can only ever happen if we teach the next generation of instructors properly and to do this we first need to be properly trained ourselves. It all begins and ends with us. I know we can do it but we all must want to do it.

Clicking the “like“ button for something like the Facebook post mentioned above simply because we do not actually take the time to think about what the statement is actually saying is, in my humble opinion, completely ridiculous. 1 person out of 5000? If a teacher at any school/college/university had anywhere near such an appalling drop out rate then they would be fired on the spot and the education establishment would get someone else in to do the job that knew what they were doing!

Give all of this a bit of thought please. Our students deserve it, our martial arts deserve it and you, yourself deserve it.

The IMAS Instructors College has been formed to help all of us answer this urgent need for proper training in teaching and learning. it offers a suite of courses that lead to recognised and worthwhile qualifications and will not only to get you into the game but to put you ahead of the game. These are in no way “niche“ courses only open to a certain style or system, they are for everybody! In this way they help us to fulfill one of the primary aims of the institute: To bring all styles and systems together under one common, all encompassing umbrella in the spirit of mutual trust, respect and cooperation. It will aid in bringing us all together and this is so important because together we are so much stronger and can accomplish so much more. All you have to do is get involved and we can all start changing things for the better. Get involved. Get your other instructors involved. and we can finally begin to move the martial arts up to the next level.