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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Teaching and Ritual

Rory Miller's latest post touched on a couple of interesting things. One is the need for play. Another is the need for students to be willing and able to question their teachers. A third is about the way we judge teachers. All of it is worth thinking about.

One of the first things I tell all of my private clients is "ask me questions. Don't leave this session scratching your head, wondering why I said something, or why I do things a certain way. If something I say doesn't make sense to you, tell me." I give the same speech to new students at Sityodtong. Occasionally, I give it again to students who have been there for a while, usually after everyone has demonstrated that they have no idea how they're supposed to be doing the drill, despite having sworn up and down that they have no questions.

I think a lot of that comes from the ritual; I hate ritual, but classes at Sityodtong have them. I understand why we have them, but they still bug me. Or rather, they bug me when the ritual overtakes people's common sense.

For example; we Wai (bow) every time we start and end class. That doesn't really bug me, because it doesn't impact my teaching. It's a cultural thing that we've imported from Thailand, but that's fine. If nothing else, it serves as a time marker, a way to signal that class has started or ended. That's useful, and, in theory, shouldn't impact anyone's learning.

On the other side; whenever a teacher finishes explaining a drill, technique, or whatever, we always finish with a two-part question. The first is "are there any questions?". If there aren't, we then say "Does everyone get that?" To which the students dutifully reply "KA-PUM" (or "KA" for the ladies), and everyone goes about their training.

The problem with the ritual is that students get so focused on following the steps that they forget to ask questions. So they wander off and start doing the wrong drill, or stand around talking to their partner trying to figure out what they're supposed to do, and basically wasting their time. I don't mean that in a pejorative way, it's just a fact. If they had asked the question, they, could have gotten it answered, and would be training with their partner instead of fumbling around.

Interestingly, my morning classes have experienced a lot less of this. I think part of that is that I stopped doing the whole ritual thing, and part of it is the group. Most of the people who come to the morning classes are a little older, a little more secure in themselves, and a lot more willing to just say "I have no idea what the hell you're talking about." It's really cool. I love those classes.

Which, as I think about it, is something that I don't think occurs to students. I cannot speak for every trainer, but personally, I love it when people ask questions. The more deep and challenging the question, the more I like it. I like it because it forces me to grow as a teacher and student. A lot of the ideas about timing, power generation, and other conceptual stuff that I've been playing with have become a lot more developed because of questions people ask me.

Do people occasionally ask stupid or disrespectful questions? Sure. The former more than the latter, these days. (Or at least, they save the disrespectful ones for private conversations). Sometimes the stupid ones are understandable. Sometimes they really are stupid, but need to be answered anyway. The disrespectful ones bug me more. If you don't think I'm qualified to be teaching you, you probably shouldn't be in my class. Pretty simple stuff.

I appreciate the power and utility of ritual, and why it exists in many combat sport and martial art gyms. At the same time, I've seen ritual used to turn people into unthinking drones, and that bugs the hell out of me. Perform all ritual you want, but when you have questions, you should be able to ask them. If you can't, you're in the wrong place.

This post completely wandered from where I thought it would start (I was initially thinking about the differences between good teachers and good fighters), but that's the way of this thing.

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