Seeing, Saying, Structure and Solutions
By Shaun Banfield
Being good at karate does not make one a good instructor. They are entirely different skills. Just because a level of proficiency in any skill, or art has been achieved, this does not mean one has the ability to support others in achieving. The teaching is a skill of its own.
Conversely, there is also an unfortunate, yet all too often perpetuated myth that those that ‘Cannot do, teach!’ In my experience of working in the educational field, and within karate, I can guarantee that the ‘outstanding’ teachers are those that have mastered the art of teaching, and not just the subject of delivery.
I have often discussed, both in literarily and conversational capacities, the danger of assuming the role at the fore of the class, merely because a dan grade is wrapped at the waist. Trips to any local sports centre reveal the presence of a newly anointed black belt plunged into the depths of teaching, often to the neglect of their own development. Unfortunately however, the students that turn up and pay their fee are often the guinea pigs of this virgin instructor, about to start to learn the craft of teaching. I was one of these virgins.
When I gained by nidan, I took over a local dojo whose instructor had recently left the association. I knew nothing about teaching, other than what I had gleaned from watching others, and from what I had learned by trial and error in assisting someone else. But here I was, thrown before a class of fee paying enthusiasts (thankfully all of which knew far less than me). Don’t get me wrong, at this point in my karate career, I had been training for almost thirteen years, but in the grand scheme of things, I knew very little. I certainly knew little about teaching.
I knew little about teaching until I started to follow Sensei Dave Hazard, the man I consider to be the finest instructor I have ever encountered. This article does not intent to be a critique of others’ teaching ability however, and the introductory comments merely aim to note the dim prospects my teaching career once held and the tapestry of errors I would make early on due to a lack of understanding of effective pedagogy.
To discuss all of the mistakes I have made through my teaching career thus far would take too long. I can guarantee that if there is a mistake to have been made, I will have made it at some point. Instead I figure I should talk about the four ‘focus’ areas of my teaching that I have spent years concentrating on to improve as a teacher, and to give my students a more efficient training experience.
Seeing - refining my ‘eye’
Some people instinctively have a good ‘eye’ for the details. English teacher friends of mine are able to scan work, and identify all errors without taxing themselves too exhaustively. I, however, have worked at this skill. As with essay marking, developing an ‘eye’ for the correct and incorrect is essential.
In referring to the ‘eye’, I am not talking about the ability to know the different between incorrect and correct. This is very easy, and even a laymen can do this. Being able to identify where, in the course of the technique, the error is occurring is another complex challenge in itself.
Correcting students’ errors at the end of their technique is quite simple. Spotting, for example, a rear foot in zenkutsu-dachi at the wrong angle is easy, and we have all been in classes where an instructor corrects the error after the fact. This, I must add, is a perfectly legitimate correction strategy as with sufficient reminders, positive habits get created. Being able to see where, in the course of the technique, this error originated however is much harder.
Consider a technique in terms of A-B (A being the start of the technique, and B being the end product). Correcting only the B section is like mopping up the urine after the dog has already urinated. It must be done, but if this is all you do, the dog will never learn not to urinate inside the house. Therefore, asking the student to correct the rear foot after the rear foot has been incorrectly planted teaches the student;
a) that an error has occurred (so they get know the physical feeling of correct and incorrect)
b) and the correct angle that the foot should be in.
This does not identify where the error originated. Most students don’t step in zenkutsu-dachi with the foot at the correct angle (at each stage of the movement) and then upon arrival at B stick their foot out to a 90° angle. Instead, a series of small errors throughout the step accumulate to produce the final incorrect 90° foot angle. Developing your ‘eye’ so you can watch a student’s movement and identify the source of the error, enables you to help them correct the habit. This is one feature of my training that has dramatically improved my teaching quality.
Saying – drumming up a reaction
Voice - My voice is one of my most important tools in my toolbox. Working in the classroom in school, I spent years learning how to use my voice to inspire a reaction from the class. If I want them to wake up, and get motivated, I will increase the volume and adapt the tone accordingly. If I want honed attention to the learning points, I may get quieter and more emphatic on certain words. In the dojo setting, if the class are being lazy or lacklustre, I will work them up and stir an emotional response in hopes of enthusing them. The style of voice I employ is inextricably connected to the objective. If I want to praise, criticise, motivate, or calm; the voice style is tailored to its purpose.
Use of praise & criticism – In the educational environment, terms endlessly cascade from the government – terms such as ‘positive reinforcement’, using terminology that often detracts from a strategy’s simplicity. Put simply, praise is a powerful tool. Used too often, and its impact can be non-existent. Similarly, shout at a dog all day long, and it will eventually not even notice the shouting. The same applies to praise. Praise endlessly and it will have no impact and it will go un-noticed. Use it to create a ‘reaction’, and don’t just praise for ‘praising sake’. Let the pupil know when they have genuinely done something well. Conversely, withhold the praise when the student hasn’t been as successful; instead offering constructive advice. Criticism and praise are used to suit each individual and their unique needs. Some pupils will only meet their potential when they have the confidence to believe they can do so. Praise in this sense is essential. An absolute absence of criticism means no improvements can be made. Balancing these is invaluable to me.
Structure – making everything worthwhile
The structure of your lesson is essential. I am not suggesting instructors spend days on end, planning lessons to the Nth degree. This issue is an entire article in itself, but I shall skim the surface and expand further in a future article.
I feel too many instructors teach, for teaching’s sake. They turn up, drill the class (which most certainly, without question, has its place) and leave, without a clear ‘objective’ in mind. They see the class as starting at A, work the class to exhaustion, then leave once B has been met.
In such cases, instructors can drill their class for months on end, but development is often limited. As Emma Robins discussed in her article ‘The Role of Soft Targets’ (http://theshotokanway.com/theroleofsofttargets.html) pupils need targets to meet, not only to ensure their progression, but to ensure they are kept engaged and interested.
The model I like to use is illustrated in the image below.
A is the starting point, and B is the objective. This objective may be to improve a technique, enhance the application of a technique, or to develop a sequence from a kata. The opportunities are endless. Having a clear outcome is essential however.
Like too many instructors however, I used to have my objective but had no idea how to get there. The image above illustrates that you can get to B via a range of possible avenues depending on the students’ problems that get encountered along the way. An instructor should be adaptable and react to the problems/mistakes within the class. For example;
I turn up at my dojo, wanting to cover the Yoko-keage/Uraken-uchi sequence of Heian Nidan with my Kyu class. This sequence stands out in the kata with some of my pupils as the weakest part of the kata, so it required attention. This is point A and B represents the improvement of the sequence. The stray lines from the main trunk of the image represent the possible lines for improvement, e.g.
- 1 – To improve the half-step from the kokustu-dachi
- 2 – To improve the Yoko-keage
- 3 - To improve the Uraken-uchi
- 4 – To improve the Yoko-keage’s recovery, and Shuto-uke.
There are, of course, so many other possible areas for improvement, but I have only noted a few possibilities. Pupils may have errors in one or all of these areas, but I try and tailor the lesson to meet the needs of the class. Therefore, you can reach your objective via a range of avenue, so I try and remain flexible and adaptable to the students’ needs.
Solutions – polish up the brass
This is perhaps the area I have spent the most amount of my time. As discussed in the previous subheadings, once you have identified your pupils’ areas for improvement, you need to find solutions to fixing them.
Sometimes telling them to fix something is enough. Tell students enough times that they aren’t pulling their hand to their hip enough and they will eventually fix the issue. There are times however when problems are so inherently embedded that simply telling the student to fix them, isn’t enough. Therefore, once you have identified where the students’ issue originates in a movement or technique, effective solutions need to be generated.
When I say solutions, I mean I had to design exercises that would help pupils fully correct the problem in isolation. An example is illustrated below:
[The Problem: The front knee movies forward, back, side-to-side during hip rotation]
Here the partner’s belt is firmly looped around the karateka’s lead knee, and the held parallel to the ground behind. Then, as the karateka rotates from hanmi-shomen etc, the partner holding the belt behind can give feedback to the partner as to whether the knee is moving forward, back, and/or side to side as the partner will be able to feel the movement via the belt.
Now, becoming familiar with the feeling of the movement is important as you are able to recognise what is right and what is wrong. Furthermore, the body responds to known feelings, so once familiar, and practiced with frequency, this can help make the movement a part of ‘muscle memory’, and instinctively natural without a thought process.
We know an unstable front knee is both unhealthy for the knee joint (depending on the way it is moving), and is not conducive to effective power creation. Therefore, with pupils that have this error, I use this exercise.
Students in my class, like my own karate, have a multitude of errors that I would love to fix. Effective exercise and drill-based tools such as this above can prove to be very useful.
It is essential, in conclusion, that I stress here the value of non-feedback training also. There are times when students do not need to think, but should simply do. They should work hard, sweat and build spirit. I have simply given some suggestions for the times when I do want my students to think.
Teaching has been one of the most rewarding parts of my karate career. I derive immense pleasure from watching my students improve and develop, occasionally take trophies, travel through the grades, but most of all – to love every second of it all. These parts of my teaching are the parts I have devoted the most attention. Please do not get me wrong, there are so many areas that I haven’t discussed but these are just a few areas of specific importance to me. May I also comment that there are also many areas I am yet to be happy with, but as with everything karate…I am in a constant strive for improvement.
Good luck with your teaching!