What I learned in a dojo

I firmly believe in the importance of pushing limits, and for me that usually means putting myself in the slightly uncomfortable position of learning something new. Think about it: as teachers, we often ask students to do something that is hard for them because we KNOW in our hearts that they can do it. But when was the last time you placed yourself in the position of knowing for a fact that you couldn’t do something and having someone gently nudge you towards doing it anyway?

I am certainly no expert when it comes to martial arts. I spent one term learning Aikido in a family lesson and I have so far spent one semester ferrying Darling Son #1 to lessons. Most of what follows are my observations with a large grain of salt because I am actually a total newbie to the dojo.

1. The grammar of the dojo

After the warm up, students break into groups; there are 5 lessons going on at the same time in a space no bigger than a school classroom. Every lesson is completely different and a very targeted practice. Part of the expectation is that more knowledgeable students will teach less experienced learners. Purple belts teach white belts, green belts teach yellow belts and so on. As I watch, I can see that the expectations are different for each group of learners. The inexperienced white belts have a hard time sitting on their knees for long and their patterns are imprecise, while more experienced learners have very precise patterns and are used to sitting in seiza for long periods of time.

2. Construct your own understanding

Sensei asks for a learner to come to the front and suddenly I find myself volunteered to demonstrate a new move.

“Who… me…? You know I don’t know this, right?”

We bow and before I know it I find myself thrown to the mat. Suddenly I have a very clear understanding of what my goal should be. Then Sensei breaks us into small groups for practice.

In the beginning there is a “wink, wink, good job, you got it!” vibe. Many of the newbies in my group play it very safe and we are very much about the choreography of getting the patterns right. But after a few lessons the learner is expected to actually be able to perform the pattern. With other beginners I found that we were all very tentative learners, but once I was paired with more experienced brown and black belts I found that they didn’t go quite so easy and I was thrown to the mats several times before I was finally able to bring a 230lb man to the mats. The sense of accomplishment in that was huge.

This made me think about the heterogenous and homogeneous groupings teachers  do in our classrooms. There is a time and place for both types of groupings and the value of each is completely different.

3. Freedom to fail

Sensei and the more experienced learners help students learn the patterns, the routines, the grammar of the dojo in such a way that there is freedom to fail for less experienced learners. All students have to do is repeat. There is some explicit instruction but there is definitely the motivation to learn. In every lesson there is some intrinsic motivation because learners see that this is fun and useful. There is an element of play in every lesson but there is also the underlying expectation that students must be actually “good” not just “good enough”.

I also see Darling Son against the wall discussing with a partner just how much work it will take to get to the next belt. There is extrinsic motivation: belts with increasing levels of learner expectation. This expectation is clearly expressed and visible to students at all times.

Some of the lessons I learned in the dojo can definitely be transferred to the classroom. Maybe chief among them is the value of putting myself in the shoes of my students.

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