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The teaching circle

The Teaching Circle

The Teaching Circle in Martial Arts

Much of what I’m going to put down in writing below is likely in the “obvious” category for many of you reading this. Much of it, through the failings attributed to human nature, also fits into the “oft neglected” category, because despite having the knowledge, it doesn’t always carry over into practise – something I am most certainly guilty of on occasion. In the interest of helping some of our more fledgling instructors, and reminding some of our more experienced instructors, I’m going to lay down a few fundamentals, or “ABCs” of teaching martial arts, and despite the title of the article, they apply to teaching any subject matter.

Moving directly to the subject of this article, one can observe that there are several steps involved in teaching any subject. These can be summarised as follows:

  1. Set goals
  2. Plan and prepare
  3. Execute
  4. Assess and correct
  5. Revise and repeat

Reviewing these steps, a pattern emerges. This pattern reflects the fact that learning (and thus teaching) is an iterative process. We teach, assess, review, revise, correct, teach, correct, review, revise, etc. Until the desired result has been achieved. Again, this happens on a micro level and a macro level, and is fundamental to the learning process.

Let’s address the first step: setting goals. In order to properly plan classes with progression and have an objective against which to assess, you must set goals. These goals can be at the curriculum level (“macro” goals), or at the lesson or even drill level (“micro” goals.) Macro goals generally refer to a course outline (a curriculum or syllabus – see my article on building a curriculum), while micro goals generally means each individual lesson or class should have goals, terminating in a lesson plan.

As a side note – a lesson and a class need not be one and the same – a class may be composed of several lessons, or a single lesson may take several classes. Returning to the subject at hand, goals can also be specific to particular students, and adapted to their particular needs. Once these goals are set, you get into the second step in teaching: planning.

Yes, unfortunately, you need to plan. We touched upon this above, but we’ll get a bit more in-depth here, all while keeping it simple – the goal of the article is only to go over the fundamental aspects of teaching, and more specifically, teaching martial arts.

Don’t simply plan, but focus your planning on attaining your stated goals. Planning, like setting goals, runs the gamut from creating a curriculum and syllabus (around your “macro” goals), to planning lessons and drills to attain your and your students’ goals. Keep in mind these goals are not always in alignment. One thing I have often struggled with is my desire to teach a historical martial art that is as close to my interpretation as I can make it, but I have (and have had) students whose only interest is to play with swords and don’t give a whit for the historical aspect. As these goals do not always align, I have to remind myself that it need not be a point of contention or frustration, that I can still try to meet my goal of promoting my vision of the Art, while respecting my students’ goals and needs.

However, I digress. As you plan that drill you’re going to have them do – does it help attain the stated goal(s), either short or long term? A good lesson plan need not be lengthy in terms of preparation time, but it should cover what you want the class is to do in the time allotted. I always plan more, and rarely manage to fit everything into a given class, which in the end is good, since it can carry over into the next class and form the basis for your next lesson plan. Better to have too  much than not enough material!

As for the preparation aspect of planning, remember to bring or set out or fabricate, beg, borrow or buy any special equipment or items you may need for a class. You planned a learning game for the warm-up? Does it require some special item? Better have planned that!

This brings me to share some personal experience in how I prepare and plan. I often employ a particular method I use to help my students progress, and I incorporate it into my lesson plans. I use themes in my lesson plans – linked objectives – and try to do three or four classes along the same themes. Remember that teaching physical skills (and teaching in general) is about repetition (for retention) and progression (for improvement). The first class of the series, I’ll visit a part of the given theme (ex.: collection on the blade), beginning with a few basic drills. The following week, class will begin with a review of the previous one, after which we will either work on drill variants (with pressure or resistance), or progress to a similarly themed technique or set of techniques based on similar  principles (collections using posta di finestra, for instance.) Students then see the links and similarities, have performed repetition, and are using that accrued knowledge to transfer skills to other situations. Incidentally, the putting into practise of your lesson plan is the “execution” part of the circle, also known as “teaching”. An entire series of articles could be devoted to this subject alone, but it is outside the scope of this article, so I’ll just sum it up as “teach your prepared lesson plan.”

As you do this, and augment the difficulty level and do repetitions, it is a good idea to introduce one new variable at a time, and only correct one error in execution at a time. If you practise cuts, focus on one aspect: e.g. : footwork. Once the footwork is acceptable (depending on the level of the student), correct the grip. When you do this, the footwork will most certainly need to be adjusted anew – this is to be expected. Correct the footwork gradually, once the grip is correct, then correct the trajectory of the cut, which will again throw off the other aspects the student was working on. Note that the previous example is just that – an example, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the method or proper order of teaching.

The previous paragraph introduced the idea of assessment, however tangentially. As you correct students, you are doing so based on an assessment of their ability, as compared to whatever the set goals may be. You are, in fact, making an assessment. Formal and informal assessments are part and parcel of teaching, and you do so on a regular basis, whether you realise it or not. Use these assessments to provide feedback to students on how they are performing or progressing. Providing clear feedback to students based on these assessments is key to motivating students and allowing them to progress. See our article on evaluation for more on the subject. This example in the previous paragraph is a perfect example of teaching as an iterative process, and can form a small loop within the larger circle as you assess, correct, assess, correct, and the process continues.

The teaching circle
The teaching circle

Once you have made these assessments, you must then revise your goals, often by setting new ones, and planning to achieve the desired results. You have come full circle. The pretty graphic below largely summarises the process of teaching physical skills (or any skill, for that matter). This graphic represents the steps we enumerated at the beginning of the article, in a compact and visual form (visual aids being another tool in your instructor toolbox.)

To end, if you’d like more information on pedagogy or evaluation in general, please visit our other articles on curriculum, ranks and pedagogy.