Physical Training Dec 2008
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Technique or Values Based Grading Systems

copyright © 2008 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

Recently it was suggested to me that gradings should be based more on values, on such things as character and quality than on technical ability.

This is a complex topic and right off the bat I need to say that you will seldom find a grading system based solely on either technique or character.

To examine this we need to consider both large and small organizations and for the sake of simplicity I will assign a single grading panel type to each of these.

First let's make clear what I mean by technical evaluation and values based evaluation. Any evaluation implies a progress, a movement toward a defined goal. There must also be someone or some group to establish these goals.

Technical Progress

Technical progress in an art would be an improvement in the physical movements of that art, an increase in fighting skill, or perhaps the accumulation of techniques (kata). It is something that one can see and test empirically, you can jump so high, you can break so many boards, you can memorize so many movement patterns. One can also look objectively at how many mistakes one makes in the movement patterns, whether or not one breaks a bone while breaking boards, that sort of thing. It becomes somewhat more subjective when you start to look at how well one does a movement, how well one punches rather than how many punches one can throw at a bag per minute, hang time for a jump, the timing of a pause and look while turning from one imaginary opponent to another.

It seems fairly obvious to me that the vast majority of people coming into the martial arts are at a low physical skill level for a particular art, and that over time they will improve. As a result, technical skills are fairly easy to quantify, one can set goals for each test level, and one can standardize these skills to a certain ideal. The movements must look like this video, or these instructors, the pause positions or end positions must be so high and at such and such an angle according to this verbal instruction or that written manual.

Values-based Progress

Values based progress would imply that one becomes a better human being. This is, of course, the ultimate goal of most martial arts (pure fighting effectiveness tends to imply a sport rather than a martial art, or rather this is the criteria upon which many people separate combat sport from martial art).

What are these values? We must find some which can show progress. It is entirely possible that a student could arrive at the dojo who is enlightened, who may even have inka from a master. This student obviously can't progress along the path to enlightenment since he's already there.

I'm tripping myself up. Both technique and, let's say, enlightenment could be said to be different in a different art. I have actually heard it said that the enlightenment you achieve in the martial arts is different than the enlightenment you achieve in a Zen temple. I have no personal experience with this and know of no way to test the theory except by achieving enlightenment in both and doing a personal comparison. I do know that one will find differences in physical technique in different arts. While one can say that a punch is a punch is a punch, it isn't. The shape of the fist, the timing of the punch, the shape of the body as the fist moves through the air can be changed. The force of impact and the direction of that force into a target may be similar at the end of the technique, but the journey from point to point can vary.

Regardless, let us assume that what we are talking about in either technique or values based evaluation is some goal that is set by the leaders of the art. You join an organization and you accept that those at the top will establish the goals you must reach while being evaluated during the course of your training.

Good, now let's return to values. What can we progress in and what can we test? Well we can test enlightenment for sure, priests have done this for years. Is this practical or indeed tested in the martial arts? Not usually, those sorts of things are tested in more religious venues like Buddhist temples.

One can certainly test if Joe is a "nice guy" as defined by the examiner(s). Absolutely one can test if Joe contributes to the organization, if Joe attends class regularly, if he tries really hard, if he treats those above him with respect and those below him with kindness and dignity. All these things can even be measured. One can have a gold star for each class attended, one can count random acts of kindness, one can collect signatures testifying to hours of community service and all these can be set onto an escalating scale so that as one rises in rank one's monetary contributions to a local charity would also have to increase.

While I know some groups who require their kids to do their homework before they're allowed to start training and other such things, this is not how it is done in any martial art I've been involved with. It is done simply by the examiner deciding whether or not Joe is a better person today than he was last year, and awarding him his next grade. There is no real attempt to quantify or otherwise justify the criteria, with the possible exception of requiring a certain number of hours of attendance at class and to have one's school fees paid up.

Application of the Criteria

How does one apply either technical or value-based evaluations in the "real world"?

First let's consider your typical koryu type art if we can say there is such a thing. For the example we assume this is an art with very few members, a single undisputed head of the school, and students who are either direct students of the headmaster or students of students. Now lets also assign a single examiner to this school since it's the most likely place we'll find that situation.

The examiner can certainly use technical criteria, but it's equally likely that he could use a purely values derived criteria to award rank to his students. This examiner, OK let's make him the headmaster, will know each and every one of his students and will know what type of person they are. He will know if they are good for the art or not, if they are kind to their parents, and if they have paid their dues that month. During a formal ceremony, or perhaps just over tea in the dojo office one day, he will hand the student a license of some sort. If it's at a formal ceremony the student may perform a demonstration of his skills.

Now let's look at a large organization, with hundreds or even thousands of members, and a grading panel system which has several senior members from different dojo. This is a good description of the kendo federations but also fits many other multi-region, or even multi-national level organizations. We'll assign the technique-based evaluation to this organization. In this case the students will gather in a large group, and a panel of several higher-level examiners will watch them perform the art. The panel will pass or fail them on their performance that day. They will pass according to whether or not they met the expected criteria, and these criteria will have been published or otherwise distributed to the students.


Back to our values based group, the headmaster and his students. What happens when this group grows, when it breaks into several different dojo in a scattered area? I suppose the headmaster must start traveling to all the different dojo, or he must require all the students to visit the home school regularly so he can know and understand all the students to make a good assessment of their character. Eventually this becomes impossible so the headmaster must either sever his students off, making them responsible for the promotion of their own students, or he must simply accept the recommendation of his students and award rank based on their advice.

That can all be worked out eventually but there are more problems with the values based testing. It really comes down to whose values we're talking about. The following terms describe real people who I have known at the top of their particular martial arts groups. Vein, pompous, paranoid, fraudulant, voyeur, petty, childish, adulterous, predatory, conniving, selfish and shallow. I could go on all day but I think the point is obvious, unless you have a good person at the top of the pile you will likely not have a good judge of character. What can result is cronyism, toadyism, nepotism and a bunch of other isms that aren't particularly good at improving the character of the students.

What about the students? I have experienced cases myself where I was convinced that students were becoming better people, learning how to live in the present and look to the future, only to be slapped in the face with the realization that they hadn't changed at all. They had simply been quiet for a couple of years and my own faith in human nature had led me to believe they had changed. It's enough to make you cynical.

The biggest problem, really, with trying to use values as a grading criteria is simply that it's hard to tell if a student has become a better person through the martial arts, through just getting older (and thus more life experience) or was already a good person when they walked through the door. If it's one of the last two then handing out grades becomes a giving of gold stars for attendence. Not that that's a bad thing at all.

We turn now to our large organization and the problems associated with such groups. Is it too impersonal? Is it too reliant on outward technical skills? We did say above that one of the goals of the martial arts is to produce a better human being, how can we judge or reward character and character development if all we look at is whether or not a student can demonstrate a skill at a proper level on one particular day?

What about people who physically can't do the techniques? Those with physical or learning disabilities? Is it fair that someone who learns more slowly has to wait years longer to obtain the grade than someone who has great body coordination? What about age, how high can an old man jump without breaking a bone when he lands? Wouldn't it be better to judge people on their effort rather than on their achievement?

Which System is Best?

Wrong question really, I think we should rather ask which will work. A values based examination criteria almost requires a small group to work, you simply cannot judge the character of someone you have never seen, and sitting on a national grading panel will quickly reveal just how many strangers can join an organization during a year or two. For a values based exam criteria to work in this case we would need to rely on the dojo instructors to keep anyone not qualified for the rank out of the grading. In other words, pass everyone because their instructor put them up for the grade and if we don't pass them we are insulting the instructor. This is where we get the expression "mailing it in", after all if you know you're going to pass if you're allowed to test, what's the point of the test?

If the grade examination is based on objective physical technique, and if the pass or fail is determined at the grading itself, not on what the student does in class every day, then instructors can put students forward to grade, have those students fail, and not be insulted. It's what you did "on the day" not what you can do that is tested, and anyone can have a bad day.

So there's our two systems, values based and technique based. We use one for big groups and one for individual dojo and hope for the best... well perhaps we don't need to go that far.

It Isn't Either Or

Neither one of these systems exist in a pure form, it isn't either or.

In a techniques based grading system, how he handles failure says a lot about the character of our student Joe. How he responds to being asked to grade, how he responds to criticism of his technique, to being asked to demonstrate, tells volumes about his character.

Students who resist grading are often prideful and afraid of failure in equal measure. Those who constantly devalue their own physical skills may be needy and seeking comfort or reassurance. Those who complain about failure may be arrogant and conceited, they may be resistant to change, inflexible of thought or prideful.

In a values based system, well let's just ask whether any headmaster in his right mind would promote anyone who couldn't to the techniques to some minimal level of skill.

It's also my experience that a person of good character won't pay much attention to gradings at all, they aren't overly keen to grade and get rank, and they don't make a big fuss about the purity of not grading and getting rank. They will simply grade when told, say thank you if they pass and not get upset when they fail.

More than these inherent assumptions though, there is the matter of changing requirements as you go up the ladder of rank.

It is impossible for an examiner in a large organization to know everyone new who comes into the group, at the lowest rank that he will examine he will, almost by definition, be seeing all new faces except for those in his own dojo. This situation changes as these new students stay in the art and progress up the ladder. New faces become familiar, seminars are attended, events are hosted, and the students become known to the senior examiners. Eventually these students begin to come into positions of power and responsibility. The technical skills in the art have been well established by grades passed earlier in their career, now the seniors start looking for more, they start looking at the students as replacements for themselves at the top of the pile. Does character come into the equation? I leave it to you to decide.

In the values driven system, while we may give junior ranks for effort, attendance and being a nice Joe, the considerations must begin to include technique as the students get closer to the top of the ladder and start to assume teaching and perhaps examination responsibilities.

Ultimately, no matter what criteria we base our examinations upon, the lessons of the martial arts are taught through the techniques. If we didn't teach how to be a better person through the techniques, we would be something else, a temple, a philosophical school, a new-age cult.

Without considering and grading at least partly upon technique, the nicest guy in the world, or the best administrator, may rise to the top but still be despised because he can't perform the art.

Without considering and grading at least partially upon character the art may be left to the leadership of a great technician who is a complete jerk.

My conclusion is that while it may appear to a beginner that gradings are based only on technique or only on character, both are inherent in any grading system and it just takes a bit of time to see that.

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Physical Training Dec 2008