Physical Training Jan 2010
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From the Teacher's Corner:
Needs and Learning

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

Case Study

John (not actually his real name), a single male of 30 years, joined our school to learn how to brandish a sword, as all students do. We had different sorts of classes then, catering to different clientele. We had a class full of males, young and middle-aged. We had a class solely for females and they were all young females at that time. We also had classes that were mixed, both in terms of age and gender.

We noticed eventually that John always preferred to work with the females. We steered him into trying the male class, which we thought he might enjoy since he would be working with other males. He tolerated the male class but clearly did not enjoy it as much.

A little bit of information about John. John likes to talk. But in the male class, he did talk but did not get much response from the other males, especially the older males.

He asked to join the female class. Since he wasn’t fitting in with the males, we reluctantly agreed. The females did not like this at all. They would prefer an all-female class but occasionally we had males in the class. It’s not that they didn’t like males in the class, they didn’t mind if it was necessary. But they didn’t like him in particular. They thought he was a little creepy.

Sometimes, I would be teaching and when I made a particular point, he would jump in and tell the students that he had a similar experience and proceed to tell them all about it. On another occasion, a senior student would demonstrate a technique and John would blurt out “Oh, I’ve seen that one.” In an almost exact scenario, another student at another time was showing a special technique to some junior students and John would remark, “Oh, I know that one.”

On a different occasion, we had a guest instructor come in to hold a workshop on jujutsu techniques. We were all taught a simple technique for disarming and subduing an attacker. Simple but effective. And of course, the instructor asked the students to practice this technique repetitively, alternating the roles of attacker and defender. Apparently already bored with this, John pulled one of the female students aside and proceeded to show her how an “arm bar” was done like they do in MMA, deciding that this was a much more effective and flashy routine. Fortunately, I noticed this and told him to stop immediately before he injured her. All of the other students had no problem following the instructor’s directions and were enjoying the workshop and having fun as a whole group practicing this wonderful art with their classmates. Why not John?

What to make of the curious case of John??

An interesting conundrum.

I did not know what to make of this strange behaviour and this strange situation until I stumbled upon an article talking about post-secondary education and why college students performed so poorly in their first year of studies. The author proceeded to argue that poor performance could be explained if we looked at an old theory on learning that focused on the needs of the learner as a motivating force determining whether or not successful learning will take place.

This author looked at Abraham Maslow’s famous concept of a “hierarchy of needs”.

In a nutshell, Maslow postulated that humans have 5 basic needs:
  1. Physiological needs: needs for survival such as food, water, breathing, sex. In other words, basic physical needs.
  2. Safety needs: Once basic physical needs are taken care of, then the individual seeks security, in many senses. For example, personal security (predictable, orderly world), financial security (employment, job security), health and well-being (body, morality).
  3. Social needs: need for a sense of belonging and acceptance (friendships, relationships with large social groups, teams, and organizations, and small social connections like peers, mentors, family), need to love and be loved (intimacy).
  4. Esteem needs: a need to be respected and to have self-esteem and self-respect. To be valued. Maslow posited two versions of esteem needs, a lower version and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The higher one is the need for self-esteem, strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom.
  5. Self-actualization need: striving to realize one’s full potential, to become what one is capable of becoming.

Very interesting. I had first encountered Maslow’s theory in my first-year undergraduate course in Psychology. I had forgotten it since. But it is funny that reading that article brought me back to looking again at Maslow after all these years.

So why am I bringing up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in this discussion? Well, Maslow’s theory talks essentially about motivation. Humans are motivated by their needs. Needs motivate human beings to take action. If there is no need, there is no action.

What does this have to do with learning swordsmanship, and ultimately how does this inform our teaching?

Let’s go back to the case of John, our mysterious student. Let’s look at the facts:
  • he prefers to work with females or join an all-female class
  • he did not “fit in” in the all-male class
  • he didn’t get any reaction from the males
  • he says “Oh, I know that one” (even when he doesn’t)
  • he says “Oh, I’ve seen that one” (whether he has or not is not clear)
  • when the teacher makes a teaching point, he wants to tell others a story of how he had a similar experience
  • he wants to show others (or teach others) techniques

I think if we look at John’s case in light of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I think it’s safe to assume that the lower level needs like physiological and security needs are not the issue. And I do not think this is a case of a problem with achieving self-actualization. That leaves social needs and esteem needs.

While social needs typically engender a need to fit in with social groups, our student John is having problems with males, his own peer group. The males don’t listen to him or think he’s talking nonsense. They dismiss him as a “big talker” and ignore him or argue with him if he is too outlandish. The females are too polite to argue with him directly and also too inexperienced to take him on confidently. He can say what he wants to say in the female class with no fear of reprisal. An interesting social dynamic. Social needs have to do with feelings of acceptance and belonging. If he wants to belong, especially with the male peer group, he is going about it the wrong way. I don’t think it is about social needs.

This leads us to see John’s case as one involving esteem needs, the need to be respected. Like the theory said, esteem needs encompass the need to gain the respect of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, or attention. His statements of “Oh, I know that one” and “Oh, I’ve seen that one” could be viewed now as cries for attention, for recognition, perhaps a desire to be recognized as knowledgeable in some way. I am no psychoanalyst but in light of this theory, John’s case did not seem so mysterious now.

Is a theory like this useful for us? It is, in a few ways.

It is helpful for dojo administrators. If we understand the student’s motivation for joining, if we know what he needs, we know how to service that need.

Maslow’s theory is likewise helpful for teachers. If we know what he seeks, we know how to keep him motivated to learn. And that is half the battle…

The more we learn about man's natural tendencies, the easier it will be to tell him how to be good, how to be happy, how to be fruitful, how to respect himself, how to love, how to fulfill his highest potentialities. The thing to do seems to be to find out what one really is, deep down inside…”

Abraham Maslow
Toward a Psychology of Health (1956)

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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