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Ranks, curricula, and pedagogy, Part I

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This article is the first in a series of three articles that will cover curriculum building and its importance in the continued advancement and improvement of your students. I will use this as a foundation for the articles that follow, touching on ranking systems and finally, pedagogy and structuring and running a successful class and how to address different types of students by varying pedagogical approaches.

Let’s begin with some rough definitions of the various pedagogical documents you’ll be producing to help you organise your teaching, in order, from the top down.


A curriculum is a document that outlines the objectives, course material, pedagogical approaches and evaluation methods for any given course or courses. It can contain some or all of the above material, and is intended as a guide for both student and more importantly, the teacher. Using a university program as an example, the curriculum would delineate the individual courses a student must take, both optional and required, as well as characterise any parameters for success/passing.


The syllabus is a summary of the curriculum, often in point form, and omits much of the preliminary material. It is the document most often given to students, a.k.a. a “course outline.” You may find that a simple syllabus suits your purposes, but I would encourage you to create a curriculum, with objectives and evaluation points. This is the approach we’ll be using in this article.

Lesson plan

The lesson plan is the individual lesson outline for each individual class. It is written using the objectives from the curriculum, coupled with whatever pedagogical approach you desire for the lesson.

Building a curriculum

A curriculum is important to any pedagogical endeavour, because it defines a roadmap to achieving your objectives. You may have several curricula, depending on your needs, separated into whatever logical units suit your needs (by rank, by weapon type, martial and theoretical, etc.) Prior to setting out to develop a curriculum however, you must first ask yourself several questions:

  1. What am I going to teach?
  2. When do I teach it?
  3. Why am I teaching it?
  4. How do I teach it?

Other questions may arise peripheral to the above questions, but these four questions form the basis for detailing your curriculum, and from your curriculum syllabus, you will derive your lesson plans in an iterative process.

What am I going to teach?

This is the big question, and on the surface, the answer may seem simple : “German longsword,” or “military corkscrew, of course,” but the answer is, in truth, much more complex. Each martial system is comprised of individual components, footwork, cuts, parries, covers, etc., each of which is comprised of  more granular details. For example, given a fictional system’s footwork (let’s use military corkscrew as an exemplar, so we may focus on the pedagogy rather than the specifics of any given system), you may have: passing steps, gathered steps, lunges, cross steps, and twirls. I encourage you to make a list of each individual component of the system you want to teach – it will aid you in this process.

Example: The instructor, after reviewing the system and having identified the types of footwork, identifies the offensive actions of the system: downward diagonal cuts from both sides, a rising thrust from either side, and a corkscrew thrust up the middle.

You will soon tire of hearing this, but to be able to plan a curriculum, (or even teach it with any degree of competence) you must have at least a working knowledge of the system in question, and preferably intimate knowledge of the system and its underlying mechanics and paradigms.

To help answer the riddle of “what do I teach”, it is imperative that you set objectives. These objectives are based on (you guessed it) your knowledge of the system, and the individual components that you have already listed. Goals, or objectives, need to be precise. If you list as your objective “master the military corkscrew”, while it is laudable, it is a difficult objective to reach, objectively speaking.

Your objectives must therefore be precise, granular, observable and measurable. An unmeasurable objective is one that cannot be objectively reached, or conversely, it can be fudged.

The International Armizare Society and its member schools all use a ranking scheme to help establish their particular objectives, allowing them to differentiate pedagogy and reduce large goals into more bite-size chunks for student consumption. Whether or not you use a ranking system, you must set objectives for there to be measurable progress. More on ranks in part II of this series.

Further, the IAS uses a system of objective evaluation (and thus of defining clear, measurable and observable criteria for objectives) using a system developed by Henri Boudreault, PhD, and modified for our particular martial application. It uses the natural learning curve of a student to evaluate progress to different levels of skills acquisition: novice, intermediate, competent, proficient, mastery, and expertise. It should be noted that a student can be a novice in one area, yet be competent or better in others. Each skill is acquired and evaluated separately (a topic to be visited in more detail in part II.)

As we continue setting objectives, we now have the tools to set them precisely, with measurable and observable criteria. For instance, when defining footwork objectives, you may want a student of a given level to perform certain actions to an intermediate level.


Passing footwork: intermediate
Gathered footwork: competent

Where the next level up may find the student required to do the following:

Passing footwork: competent
Gathered footwork: competent
Lunging: intermediate

where “intermediate” is defined as:

‘has limited “situational perception”, all aspects of technique treated separately with equal importance.

  • Applies, with help, the knowledge and skills necessary to the performance of a technique.
  • Proper mechanics are more prevalent, but secondary to the performance of the technique. I.e. the student will quickly abandon proper mechanics if the situation becomes difficult.
  • Application of technique requires concentration and conscious thought.’

(Definition taken from the IAS’ Testing requirements, where you may find definitions for the remaining levels found above.)

When do I teach it?

As you set your goals (by whatever metric you choose), you begin to see the curriculum develop. We are thus answering the next question: When do I teach? At what point do I introduce techniques or principles?

Given the previous example, we know that we will introduce gathered footwork, followed by passing footwork, followed by lunging. There is an obvious progression, and this progression should be iterative. Very few students will go from novice to expertise in a few classes, or from one evaluation the the next (evaluation being the subject of part II of this series). In other words, the student continues to progress along a determined curve, continuing to practise previously gained skills, until the next evaluation point or level is reached.

Taking any particular system and then breaking it down by component and level of skill acquisition will lead naturally to curricula for every defined level (you need not use ours, there are many objective criteria for measuring success.) Once again, using a condensed fictional ranking system for the military corkscrew, one could expect to see a progression.


1st level:

Footwork (passing, gathered): intermediate
Offense (cutting diagonal down, diagonal up): novice
Defense (parry, beat): intermediate.

2nd level:

Footwork (lunge): intermediate; (passing, gathered): competent
Offense (cutting): intermediate; (thrusting): novice
Defense (parry, beat): competent; (collection in opposition): intermediate.

And so forth.

Why do I teach it?

The fictional instructor in the example above has chosen to place collections in opposition near the beginning of his curriculum. This is, of course, a judgement call. Perhaps it is fundamental to the system, or perhaps he feels it is not technically difficult, and thus fits at this level versus a counter cut, for instance. This answers the “why do I teach it ?”, or perhaps more concisely “why do I teach it at this juncture?” and is again based on an intimate knowledge of the system. Tired of me repeating this yet?

Of course, in the above example, we are creating a simple outline. A proper curriculum will define objectives, testing parameters, etc., but if you have the syllabus outline as a guide, filling in the material for a full curriculum is not difficult, if somewhat time consuming. Furthermore, the above example could arguably be preparing two curricula: a level 1 and a level 2. You can, of course, divide your curricula in any fashion you desire.

It is important to stress, however, that no student should be exposed to the entirety of any system at a beginner level, nor should complex techniques (to be determined by, you guessed it, your knowledge of the system and your judgement thereof) be taught to novices. Be realistic in setting your objectives, and you should see your students progress according to the defined goals. And yes, this process must be reviewed and refined and revisited until you iron the bugs out, or are satisfied with the results. I can honestly say that I’m not there yet, but at this juncture, it is micro-adjustments rather than large scale changes.

How do I teach?

Having built a curriculum, and simultaneously set up a construct for evaluation (bet you didn’t know you did that simultaneously), you can use the curriculum to set up lesson plans.

The lesson plan is the tool used to determine what, precisely, goes on in every class. This is where you will determine the “how do I teach” by outlining the techniques, time allotted, individual exercises, etc. It is derived directly from the curriculum for any given level of instruction, discounting one-off classes (occasionally thrown in to gauge interest or provide distraction from regular training). Following are a few tips when making your lesson plans:

  1. Set objectives for the class, and limit the number of techniques taught, especially to newer students. It is better they practise one technique to boredom, err,  perfection than it is to confuse them with a plethora of techniques they won’t recall.
  2. Plan more, but don’t overdo it. Have enough material to cover a class, plus some extra in case your time judgement is off.
  3. Allot time for each exercise. This is a guide, not set in stone. If you feel a drill is going well, let it go on. If it is going poorly, make adjustments. A good instructor uses his judgement.
  4. Training time is limited, so it is tempting to do two or three hour classes. It has been shown that the optimal training time for best retention and effect is from 45 minutes to an hour. More than this, and training loses its effect.
  5. Many groups train multiple levels of student simultaneously. This can be challenging. Part of the secret lay in providing a challenging workout for the advanced students without losing the newer ones. Some groups segregate the levels, but I find students gain more from working together. In this case, differentiate your pedagogy. Even if beginning students are being introduced to advanced techniques, they shouldn’t be evaluated at this level, nor should they be expected to perform to the advanced level. Have students rotate regularly, so they are paired with peers of different levels, offering them the opportunity to work in accompaniment roles or provide a challenge.
  6. Each class should visit the previous class’ techniques for review. Build upon previous lesson plans. The magic number for retention is 3 – have students repeat drills or techniques three classes running, you will see results. Martial training and physical skills acquisition is an iterative and repetitive process.

Curricula and lesson plans form the fundamental building blocks of any program in which you want to measure and observe progress. The psychological value of a student feeling he is making progress and being provided with proper feedback is enormous with regards to their continued training. Students without clear objectives and feedback often falter and lose interest. It is your job to provide them with a positive experience, feedback, and clear objectives as a roadmap to success.

Ranking systems and evaluation methods can form invaluable tools to aid in your endeavours, helping the student advance, and providing waypoints along your roadmap (the curricula). Part II will look at the advantages and drawbacks of ranking systems and the role of evaluation in martial training and pedagogy, as well as a tool for pedagogical differentiation to help students progress when stuck, or whose cognitive processes may be different – everybody learns differently, and evaluation tools can help both you and the student achieve your goals. Finally, part III will look at lesson plans in more detail as well as employing different pedagogical approaches to help students advance.