One of my students went to a large gathering, a gasshuku (intensive training session), of practitioners of a particular style of kenjutsu. There were many groups present from all parts of the country and from the US too.
The sensei running the event broke down the kata into pieces. Basically, he isolated the various engagements found in the kata and had the students work on those isolated engagements. For example, attacker comes to cut and in this case, let’s say he makes a head cut from jodan. What do you do? Or a more complex scenario might be that the attacker cuts to waist and the defender successfully blocks it. What does the attacker do now? Pretty simple, right?
He told them to “experiment” with distance, timing, and different choices of response to the attacks coming at them or to think of options if their initial attack failed. Well, I could go into a long diatribe on what happened but suffice it to say that the short story is that they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t think “outside the box”, so to speak. They knew the one set response that the kata taught for that scenario, that specific engagement, and that was it.
My student related to me another instance from that same event. She had worked with many of the students that were there and what she found was that if the attack came at them in a slightly different manner than the way it was prescribed in the kata, they froze. They couldn’t figure it out. The kata says this. It must be like this. Well, this is not the kata.
She found out that some of these students had been practicing 5 years or more but couldn’t think it through. My student admitted to me that she was a little surprised. The students could not experiment. She told me that they were too locked into the kata.
Why couldn’t they figure it out?
You reap what you sow…
Well, these groups had been instructed by their instructors to do the kata as prescribed; no deviations, no permutations. Almost like rote-learning. Learn it exactly as instructed. I had written previously about certain learning situations so extreme that the students become like robots. This is just another variation on the same theme. Except that this time, it is not so much that the students are robotic in the execution of the technique. Instead, this article deals more with the case where students are so used to sticking assiduously to the kata that they become numb to what is really happening in the kata and what the kata means. They are robotic in their thinking. This is the case where strict adherence to kata becomes a debilitating factor. Kata in this case has become the destination rather than as a part of the journey of discovery as it is supposed to be.
In effect, this is the case where the students, through no fault of their own mind you, are instructed to do the learning as prescribed, in a strict, uncompromising manner. They are told to do the kata precisely as it is laid out. So that is what they do, being good students. The problem is that if you take them out of the kata, they have no idea what to do, because the kata is not there to provide structure for them anymore. The crutch is gone. Can you realistically expect them to stand on their own two legs, when they have never practiced doing this before? It’s not going to happen.
Doing is all about training. What do I mean? To be able to do something well takes training and practice. We all know that. To hit a ball like Tiger Woods, you need to practice. To bend it like David Beckham, you need to practice.
You want students to be able to experiment? They need to be trained to do that. If they’ve been learning by rote for years, you can’t all of a sudden expect them to be able to problem-solve. Why do I bring up problem-solving? Because experimentation is all about analysis and problem-solving.
The groups that I am referring to are all about rote learning; or rather, their instructors adhere to the rote-learning approach. The students’ job there is not to think. Their job is to do. Do it exactly like I instruct you. As your teacher, I will think. You just do it, exactly as I say. Of course, it’s not said exactly like this. It’s said nicely and disguised in phrases such as:
“Well, the reason why you do this is because … (and the answer is given)…”
“Do it this way. Yes, that’s it. See what I mean?”
“Actually it’s like this… (and the answer is given)…”
“Now when he does this, you do this.”
“Yes, you’ve almost got it right. A little more like this. There, that’s the way.”
But in all these cases, the message is clear. “I’m right. You listen to me.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. The instructor in most cases, due to decades of experience, is usually right (assuming he or she is an astute student of the style). That is not my argument. My argument is about the manner of teaching. The teacher is giving the answer; the students are not discovering the answer. There is a big difference here.
When you teach via the “I’m right, you know nothing” method, what will you get? Yes, students who will do exactly what you want, precisely and to the letter. They will perform the kata exactly as it is prescribed; no variation, no deviation. They won’t even question what they are doing. They are happy just trying to please you. Then you’ll feel like a god.
They will never question what they are doing for a few reasons. They were never taught how to think. They were never taught that they were allowed to think. To think for themselves? Isn’t that sacrilegious? They are so used being given the answers, spoon-fed the solutions, that they cannot think for themselves. Their world is not about analysis. It is about following orders, mindlessly. Their world is not about problem-solving. It is about dutifully following orders, like good little toy soldiers. And make no mistake, some students love this and crave it too. They want to be told what to do. It absolves them of any blame or need to think for themselves. It makes life easier. I don’t have to think. I want only one answer. I want to hear only one voice. Yes, sensei! Hai! Like the students of the Cobra Kai in the movie The Karate Kid.
All of a sudden… “I want you people to experiment with this piece of the kata.”
Huh? (Blank stares)
Here’s something from the world of public school teaching:
What is problem-based learning?
In problem-based learning, students are presented with a carefully selected or designed, engaging and relevant problem to solve. Students call upon prior knowledge, experience, and ingenuity to develop one or more solutions that make sense to them.
Through a whole group de-briefing strategy, students share solutions. The teacher acts as a facilitator as students explain, defend, represent, question, communicate and justify their different approaches. This helps students make connections, generalizations and grow new understanding around the concept the problem was chosen to address.
From: Transformational Practices Grades 1-12 – Problem Based Learning. Mississauga, ON: Peel District School Board.
Let’s look at this. Learning through analyzing problems, that’s essentially what it is. It is a newer, younger version of the Harvard Business School’s famous Case Method, which was all the rage in the 80s and 90s and which has subsequently been copied and incorporated into most major MBA programs since then. The Case Method basically is a problem-solving method. You are given a case (a problem) and you must solve it. To do this, you must first identify the issue and sub-issues. Then you analyze what you have and what you need to have or do to tackle the problem. Then you have to come up with viable solutions. In a nutshell, that is it.
Before the Case Method, the traditional way of teaching was teacher gives you the theory, you apply it and learn about it. Essentially, it is the banking method. The teacher gives you the answer. You are a blank slate. Or, if we want to run with the bank analogy, the teacher makes a deposit of knowledge into your empty vault (your brain). Your role is essentially a passive one. You are a receptacle into which the teacher will pour knowledge.
The Case Method was revolutionary in business schools because here was a method that didn’t give you knowledge. You had to figure things out for yourself. In business, there is no hard and fast rule that things are a certain way. Life does not follow what is theoretically proposed to happen. You need to think on your feet and figure things out. The Case Method didn’t give you knowledge like theories and abstractions. Its claim to fame was that it taught you how to think, how to analyze, how to come up with reasonable and viable solutions given the circumstances.
Wow, sounds like a great fit for teaching and learning sword-fighting. Learning how to think, learning how to analyze, how to find solutions given the circumstances.
Case #1: attacker comes to cut head straight down from jodan.
Identify the issue. How many attackers? Blade path?
Analyze situation. What stance are you in? Which foot is forward? What stance/position is he coming from? Where is your sword? How will he likely cut?
Best case solution given the circumstances. Boil it down to best 2-3 answers.
This is the Case Method. Or if you prefer the updated public school teaching version, this is the problem-based learning method.
Why is this something to consider in teaching swordfighting? Some schools of thought will argue that swordfighting is basically a problem-solution kind of exercise.
Example Number One:
What’s the problem? He’s in waki-gamae.
Analysis: He’s not aggressive. He’s waiting and hoping to counter-attack.
Solution: Ok, let’s shake his tree a bit and find out more about his intentions.
“In single combat, if the enemy takes up a rear or side attitude of the long sword so that you cannot see his intention, make a feint attack, and the enemy will show his long sword, thinking he sees your spirit. Benefitting from what you are shown, you can win with certainty.”
The Fire Book, Book of Five Rings
Example Number Two:
What’s the problem? He’s in chudan.
Analysis: We know that he’s aggressive. But he’s waiting for his chance, for our moment of lapse in concentration and the relaxing of our guard.
Solution: Ok, let’s give him an opening and tempt him.
“You might throw your body near your opponent while holding back your sword. By making bait of your body so that the opponent may strike first, you win.”
Heiho Kaden Sho
Very interesting, indeed.
Taken from this viewpoint, is learning 20 different types of cuts (a technical exercise) really that important in the grand scheme of things? Something to ponder.
A high-level teacher once said to me: yes, learning how to cut is important but more important is learning when and where to cut.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the issue at hand. You want your students to think? They must be trained and allowed to think, to explore, to question.
Some teachers are uneasy with it because they have to relinquish that god-like status, that control. Once you are a god, it is difficult to give that power up. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as they say.
Some teachers are not comfortable with their students thinking too much. They will develop too much independence and discipline will deteriorate. They may even start to question you. Some teachers are deathly afraid of this.
But I guess it’s like raising a teenager. At some point, you will need to let them grow and work things out for themselves, painful as it is. They do need to problem-solve and the sooner they learn to do it right, the better it is for them and for you as their parent. They will question you, no doubt.
As a teacher, you need to think carefully about what you want. What do you want your students to be like? Remember that they will be a testament to you, your character, and your teaching. People will form opinions about you based on what they see in your students.
The quality of the students is a testament to the quality of the teacher.
When you look at a student, you see what their teacher is like. You want a robot as your testament?
You reap what you sow…
For more information on the Harvard Business School’s Case Method, go to their website:
Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.