How do students learn? – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido and Roukudan Jodo

More questions from my student which I probably won’t answer well, but it gives us something to chat about.

“The senior is always supposed to help the junior learn, so anytime I practise with a junior I am to ignore my own training for their sake and do my training later? Would this not require a senior class so the seniors can actually train?”

As the senior in a pair you are there to provide the flow of the kata for the junior. In a real sense this is teaching the junior, but it is not being a sensei. You are both being watched, you will both be corrected. As senior you are not expected to “teach”, just provide the kata for the junior to learn within. If you are senior enough, you are expected to tone down your own ability to just above that of the junior so that they are pushed a little bit to catch up. This is how you train to become better as opposed to training to learn an empty set of movements.

It sometimes happens that seniors get corrected while working with a junior and are annoyed that sensei is correcting them in front of a junior, especially if they have just told the junior that they ought to do it that way. Perhaps it is time for them to to go teach.

Or perhaps you already teach and the more senior instructor is now “embarassing you in front of your students”. This usually happens if the senior instructor is your instructor. Instructors not in your line will likely tell your student about your mistake instead of telling you directly. If you get it, good, if not, well, senior instructor is not your instructor so he won’t care much.

Where can seniors be corrected without them worrying about being embarassed in front of the juniors? Senior classes of course. Where can seniors be told the higher secrets? Senior classes. Where should every student above two weeks experience be, in their own opinion? Senior class. What is the reward for having to practice with juniors for months at a time? Senior class.

All of which is nonsense. I consider a senior class in our organization to be one with 5dan minimum rank. In that class the seniors aren’t going to be learning anything they don’t learn in regular class, they are going to be yelled at for practicing the techniques. They are going to be yelled at for what was recently called “kata fighting”. They are going to be yelled at for not being adaptable, flexible, opinionless, and for thinking there are secrets to be had.

My archetype senior class, the one I use as an example, was with 6dan and above, a “secret session” (we just wandered off to another room) where the hanshi talked about, wait for it, grip. You know, that thing you got taught the very first day of training? How to hold the sword. I have since shown his teaching on grip to many curious juniors and they don’t see what I’m showing. If you can’t see what I’m showing you need to go back to practicing with juniors. I teach that grip constantly, did before the secret senior class. Occasionally a senior student gets a lightbulb above his head and says “oh, I get it”. Same thing I’ve been saying for the last ten years, but they just heard it. They’ll hear it again in a few years and it will be just as brilliant, and then again.

Yes you read that right. The way a senior learns the “secret principles” is by practicing with juniors. Just a few of those secrets are: Paying attention, taking care not to hurt your partner, being just slightly better than your junior (see pay attention and don’t hurt them), learning to see their movements ahead of time, reading their mind, guiding by losing, patience, not being frustrated that you can’t “let loose”, not getting angry at your opponent.

These are the things that seniors need to learn. Juniors need to learn which foot goes in front of which foot. Nobody needs to learn the secret technique only taught to the next successor to the school. Unless you need proof that you are the next successor, but how do you use the secret technique to prove you’re the successor, you can’t show anyone. Think about what that secret technique is for, given that only you and the former headmaster know it. “And for you, brave lion, this medal of valor”.

Training is not showing the dance steps and then doing them faster and harder. Training is showing up in class and enjoying your fellow students and having a beer afterward. This is not really a matter of trickle down kata. Trickle down never works, there is friction, the money tends to stay at the top, the water tends to soak into the ground, the kata never get fully passed along and so the economy, the spring flow, the art, trickles out. For anything to grow you need constant feed-in, with the economy you need actual jobs instead of “executive assistants” being paid to read your mail, with a spring you need other streams, other springs feeding in to become a river, and with budo you need to learn how to teach yourself and how to steal good stuff from other instructors.

“If a student is supposed to take on the styles of their sensei, does it not make sense he will also take on opinions and manerisms of his sensei? If this is the case, should I not try to train as much as I can, and if teaching is not training, then why teach at all? It seems counterproductive to actually training.”

First, teaching is counterproductive to training. Fact. But at a certain point you teach because you don’t have a sensei available and because it’s the only way forward. You get really, really good at your techniques and then you get old and some youngster beats you to the punch. If you haven’t learned what you learn by teaching, you don’t get out of the way of that fast punch while counterpunching. Read any of the great martial arts teachers, they all have the same story. Note also that you are reading about a great teacher, not a great technician. Musashi said that he studied technique until he was 30 and then realized that he was just lucky, or his opponents were not very skillful. You start down this path, you have a teacher, you learn what he teaches, you get old, you get slow and weak, you no longer have a teacher but you teach, and by teaching you learn to read your students. You learn how to manage them by both physical and mental means. Next class don’t watch your sensei, listen to him, listen to how he controls the class with his voice, with what he’s saying. Watch for when a senior steps up with a challenge, they always do, and listen to how he deflects and disrupts that challenge. A teacher is, by definition, a manipulator.

We all become our parents, so a student becomes his sensei. This is not the point, it’s not the intent of training, it’s just what happens. It’s a very selfish sensei, an egotistical one, who insists his students are little clones of himself. That sensei thinks it’s a good thing when people say “your students look just like you”. “My dad wanted me to become a fisherman just like him”. I don’t require my students to call their dojo “sei do kai”, in fact I discourage that. I don’t want them to become little clones of me. I want them to be theirselves and become better than me. I learned at the bootstrap stage, here and there, catch as catch can. They had an instructor so they’d better be better than me or they are lazy, lazy, lazy.

On the other hand, I see students with great sensei complaining about their training. I had four or five chances a year, some students with full time sensei seem to show up to class four or five times a year. We sensei types gossip behind your backs and a current phrase in our discussions is “spoiled students”.

Lots of instruction available or none, regular sensei or had to teach as a beginner, I’ve seen it all and what makes a difference is the student, not the situation. Having a regular dojo schedule is only an opportunity, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at this stuff. Having to go overseas for instruction, or dragging some sensei to your country doesn’t mean you’re going to learn slowly or only a little. It’s the ability of the sponge to soak up the water and integrate it that makes the budoka.

In high school they spoon feed you the answers to the test. In University it used to be that you’d read for four years and then they’d see if you learned how to learn. One test after four years. Today University is like high school, lots of little tests all the way along, spoonfed students. The problem with lots of little tests is that you can cram. I crammed to pass tests and haven’t retained a thing. At one point I could pick up a small tooth in the woods and tell you genus and species. That point was about two hours on either side of the lab exam. The knowledge didn’t sink in, I didn’t integrate it.

I’ve studied a lot of martial arts and forgot most of their techniques. What sunk in was what I could attach to other stuff I knew, what remains is the principles, not the kata. Mostly what remains is “when someone is swinging a stick at you, don’t be there”. Trust me, that’s a good principle. Can be applied to all sorts of life situations.

“Is it not also expected that students with no equals in the class would want to train with you? Since you are the closest rank above them?”

I don’t know? Who defines them as having no equals? The implication here is that budo knowledge trickles down from above and so you can’t learn except from someone who knows more than you, or who can do the techniques better than you. In this case, once a senior in a club is close enough to the sensei to require training only from sensei he should be thinking about getting out and teaching.

Look, some students do get close enough that they aren’t learning anything from sensei and so sensei boots them out the door to teach. It happens, less often than you might think but there comes a time when you are not moving forward. So sensei sends you to someone else or he says “go teach and learn what you learn by doing that”.

Last night at class we talked briefly about a movement that changed in a jodo kata, and then changed back. (Because different sensei. That we are lucky enough to have different sensei telling us stuff is amazing, although students today take it for granted). So it changed and I instantly gave the class a reason why we now do it this way. If you do it the old way tachi can knock your jo aside with his elbow and kill you. You students took that on board and changed the technique. Now we move back to the old way and you are confused, “but if I do that he will move my jo with his elbow and kill me”. But, I said last night, we can feel his elbow and when he tries to attack we know and can shove his short ribs through his liver before he can cut us.

Which is right? Which should you believe? Neither one, figure it out for yourself, figure out which of the two gets you past your next rank exam. That’s as good a reason to do one or the other as either of the explanations I gave you. Life isn’t a kata fight, it will never conveniently move along the path of the kata. As I explained last night, when told something I hook it onto something else. When told to do this, I give myself a reason, when that is changed I change the reason so that I have an explanation of the new way. It’s fine. One or the other might work if I ever need it, or neither. Of the many reasons to do a kata a certain way, the best is “they’ll pass me if I do it this way”.

Hook movement information to rooms in your memory palace, “elbow knocks jo aside” or “ribs in liver” are simply ways to remember movement patterns. Also they give the kata some life, they are the story you are telling when you perform the kata.

Because teaching is not trickle down, you don’t need a senior to learn, you can be the senior and still learn. If the top down theory was correct, if you need to learn from someone of greater physical skill level, practicing one on one with you, no sensei would ever be very old. Old means loss of speed, movement, strength and stamina. Yet we listen to these old guys who can’t lift their arms above their shoulders. Why? Surely they can’t drag us upward by the kata?

How do students learn? They learn by teaching themselves.

Same as sensei.

Kim Taylor
June 2, 2017


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