Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, March 22, 2013

You have to teach it first

Higa Seiko sensei demonstrating
a technique from Seipai
Is that a problem? Yeah, well, it might be. Now I'm just thinking about teaching Goju-Ryu, for instance, but if you're going to teach it, you need to think about which techniques to teach, and when you're going to teach them. Then there's the problem of what constitutes a technique. That may sound like a silly question, but if a particular sequence in kata involves a number of different movements, where do you break it down? This may not have tremendous implications for kata movement but what about bunkai? How you separate movements in kata may affect how you interpret techniques. What looks like uraken may really be a forearm strike or even an elbow, and yet they may look almost identical when you see the kata performed.

Once you separate the different parts of the movement, you put in artificial pauses or gaps. The sole purpose of the pauses is simply to make it easier to teach, but the pauses may get in the way of understanding how the techniques are supposed to be used. But it's hard to teach a beginner the fluid movement that may be required to execute techniques against an opponent, not to mention one who is attacking with any speed. And yet we teach kata in such a stylized and punctuated manner--as if the important point is to drag the performance out or make sure the judges at a tournament see every nuanced movement.

Once you have the techniques, it's hard to resist giving them names--mawashi-uke, down block, front kick--and it doesn't matter what language you use. Again, the names make it easier to teach. But the problem with names is that the names predispose us to seeing the techniques in a particular way. The names may even mislead us as to their function. The other problem is that when we name the techniques, we tend to homogenize them--for example, we tend to see all of the mawashi-uke techniques as the same, functioning in the same way. It happens with stances too. Stances are much more fluid (and purposeful), but the conformity we use in teaching kata--and this would seem to apply to stances and stepping as well--makes it easier to teach, and especially easier to teach large groups. Maybe that's the problem--the teaching of large groups, the popularization of karate in the 20th century.

Miyagi Chojun sensei overseeing
a large group of students
Then there's built in ambiguity. It's easy to see how ambiguity could be a problem. For example: Suppose the cat stance (neko-ashi-dachi if you're going to name it) is not really a stance at all but merely a teaching indicator. Suppose it was only meant to remind the student that every time there is a cat stance in kata, it indicates where one could kick, either with the knee or the foot. Here's the irony: By suggesting that you could use either one by only showing the cat stance--because if a kick with the foot is shown then a kick with the knee is not and vice-versa--it leaves this particular technique open to interpreting it as no kick at all; as some literalists might put it,  it's a cat stance and it's used to move forward and back, for example. So in order to teach the idea that a technique could be used in more ways than one, the opposite idea is actually conveyed; that the technique is neither a kick with the foot nor a kick with the knee. Again, the fact that we're trying to teach it gets in the way, or to be fair the teaching methodology gets in the way.

I don't know whether any of this was intentional on the part of the old teachers. I tend to think they were doing their best trying to convey something that is difficult to convey. I know it's certainly difficult to put into words. Sometimes I think that the only words one should hear in the dojo are the words that I so often heard in Gibo Seki sensei's dojo whenever we asked any questions: "Kori wa, ko desho?" And then, of course, you'd have to do it.


  1. In most cases, a teacher teaches a student either: 1) what the teacher learned, or 2) what the student needs.

    Which is better? Well, IMO, only the 2nd option even really discusses the "skills of teaching", per se.

    I can certainly envision many of the "problems" I perceive in the martial arts simply related to a lack of "teaching" skills on the part of many teachers.

    I actually feel that while the onus in any communication is on the part of both the sender and receiver, in a teaching situation, the teacher actually carries more of the burden of putting out the material, testing the air to see if the material has been understood, and then RESHAPING the lesson if it has not.

    That is all lost on a system or people that deal in personal revelation on the student's part over the course of many years...

    I guess I'm just really a fan of explicit teaching methodologies, even as it relates to traditional martial arts.

    Best Regards,


  2. We sometimes discuss this, the limitations of training methodologies, but aside from that...clear communication still may not equate to understanding; due to individual learning/ cognitive abilities people simply learn differently.

    As a generic starting point, the least cluttered approach may simply be...'watch and do'?

  3. Russ, Thanks for the comment, though I'm not sure what you mean by "personal revelation on the student's part." I've been thinking about this a lot because of the way things are transmitted--partly through expectations, but also from what people see on the internet or read in books. Gedan-uke, for example. I don't believe that technique is used in any of the classical kata the way you see it used in videos on the internet or books or even in training subject two-person drills such as the Shorei-kan Gekisai sets. And yet when it is practiced during the "basics" part of most classes, it is still referred to as a block.

  4. Narda, Thanks for the comment. It's always nice to know there are people out there. I enjoyed your provocative hypothetical forum post on a system that was totally explained from day one. The responses were quite surprising.

    I know you know the problems I'm referring to because I've had these same discussions with Bill.

  5. Giles,

    I'm referring to the practice of "teaching" an art by teaching motions/kata to students and expecting them to eventually "understand" the art's principles and applications primarily by self-study.

    No other form of modern educational environment (to my knowledge) works the same way.

    Obviously, I'm not a fan of this "revealed" or "discovery-based" approach to teaching martial arts.

    I prefer a more explicit approach. :)

    Best Regards,


  6. Well, after giving it some thought, I disagree. I'm solidly on the side of martial arts FOR self-improvement, which is inherently an inside-out/reflective process.

    As for efficacy, I'm certain the old-timers had the same problems as today - in that people were liars, cheats and unfaithful. Taking, without acknowledging. Of course they'd hide things.

  7. Hey Russ, I agree. I'm not a fan of it either, and yet it seems pretty widespread. So much of the bunkai I see out there seems to contradict very basic and rather obvious martial principles. I think teaching kata without bunkai and the principles that are inherent in a particular kata is a meaningless exercise. But this too is not without problems. And one of the main ones may be a student's expectations the moment they walk into a karate dojo.

  8. I think the truth is we don't teach at all, it seems what actually happens is we practice and share the rest seems to be a rather personal experience...

  9. Now that I beginning to teach again, I take to sides, one is to reveal the principles and the other is to teach the proper technique, I will see the results and adapt from that