Learning by Teaching – July 2, 2016

by Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

How does one learn by teaching? After all, you teach what you know and if you know it, you don’t need to learn it. Right?

For a certain idea of learning this is correct. Learning as facts, learning as formulae, as memorization. If I know all the kata of my school I know all the kata. If I teach them to others I don’t learn anything, I teach it. There’s giving out and receiving, I give if they’re respectful, they receive and they ought to be grateful to get it.

What are the kata? They are a set of movements that your sensei taught to you and you in turn teach to others. What do they mean? They mean what your sensei told you they mean and so you tell that to your students.

Quite straightforward I would think. Definitely cause for lamentation when you leave or lose your teacher. No more learning and, frighteningly, there may have been some bits and bobs he forgot to tell you. This way leads us out of the golden age and into the darkness where we find ourselves now. The arts declining, the giants of the past receeding like the galaxy next door. Better not forget to tell your students everything you know or you’ll fail in your duty to pass along as much as you can.

Except… wait a minute… where did sensei get all that good stuff? I know for a fact I’ve been with him longer than he was with his sensei, and even accounting for his three classes a week as opposed to my two a week, I’m still ahead. So where is he getting all this stuff to teach me? He’s my sensei so I’m not going to assume he is stupid and can’t teach as well as his sensei.

I’m going to ask him!


Yes, what’s that other definition of learning? To put unrelated concepts together in a way that creates a new idea? Something like that. And how does that happen? Questions maybe? Thoughtful consideration of relationships?

Last class one of the senior students asked a question and then apologized for asking questions but some time away from class was apparently time to reflect on the arts so… questions. Specifically questions about targeting as uchidachi, what am I hitting? In jodo the opponent is standing still and uchidachi walks toward and strikes a target. In niten, both partners are walking together. In jodo it is simple, walk to the right distance, cut to the target. But in niten? You have to target the position where shidachi is about to occupy, you take the next step and so does he, so you swing for where he is a step from now. Worse, in some kata if you do that his bokuto is through your throat, so you swing for six inches in front of the place he is about to be a step from now.

Where’s that? Should we develop some kihon to practice this? Have shidachi walk forward three steps and put his bokuto six inches in front of his head so we can touch it with the tip of our kissaki?

Really? Says sensei. You presume to add to the school? Madness, leave and never come back unless you agree never to presume again you lowly student.

Or sensei could consider the question and try to explain why we don’t need to do that kihon or, quite likely, why we haven’t been doing it all along. If sensei wants to steal the credit he will adopt a smug look and say “why we have never done that because you were not ready, now you are and we were about to do just that thing you clever boy”.

Intellectual theft or not, sensei stands a better chance of learning by answering the question rather than saying “shup up and do what I was told to do”.

You learn by teaching through the clever and sometimes not so clever questions of your clever students.

Fresh eyes on old kata.


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