Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Teaching on the Fly

As mentioned, some of the seminars in the UK were shorter than I like, shorter than my standard lesson plans. On arrival, I didn't always know how many people would be there, the backgrounds of the students (how many force professionals versus experienced martial artists versus beginners, etc.) what the facility was like or what equipment was available.  Traveling, I can rarely carry the amount or type of equipment that I like, so I'm dependent on what can be provided.

Teaching on the fly is a challenge, and I enjoy it.

Some tips.

Make a lesson plan. Don't expect anything to go according to the plan, but plan anyway. I don't remember who said it, but "plans are generally useless, planning is essential." It's a good exercise, it allows you to put thoughts in a logical way. Don't fall in love with the plan-- at one venue I had a tight 'essential elements of self-protection' plan but the students wanted restraint & control. Know your stuff well enough to switch and improvise.

Keep the end-user in mind. That's the students. You are teaching not just to the students but for the students. Not for your ego, not for your pocketbook. If they need something different than you planned, their needs trump your preferences, at least in my philosophy.

There are three elements (probably more) that determine what is possible to teach.

#1: The student base. You have to be able to size them up quickly. Watch and listen. I start with the one-step drill because you can see how well they follow instructions, get a good gauge of any training artifacts or bad training habits that are endemic, find the blindspots... and it engages them immediately.

If there is a wide range of students, your drills should be designed such that beginners and advanced practitioners, pros and hobbyists all will get good value. Their goal is to learn and improve. Once you understand the core of your own skills, you can set the game so that each person can learn what they need. That's one of the differences between teaching techniques and principles, or teaching subject matter and students.

#2: The equipment. Some things can't be taught without the proper equipment. You can't do scenarios properly without armor. Some of the academic stuff (like violence dynamics or force law) are damnably difficult without a white board. I wouldn't try teaching ConCom without a projector, too easy to go off on tangents. Power generation requires firm kicking shields and, ideally, telephone books.

That said, there are other things that don't require equipment-- learning to move a body; or leverage; or targeting. There's more than enough information to fill a day even if you don't have the right equipment. Just don't fool yourself into believing that anything is good enough or complete enough. Targeting is cool, but good targeting with poor power generation is likely to fail.

#3: The facility. My least favorite place to play is a nice, clean, flat place with good lighting and padded floors. It's excellent for some things, but difficult for others. It's hard to do environmental fighting in a dojo. You can usually break off small groups to the office and the restroom, so not impossible. But I like having stairs and access to a few parked cars that are already scuffed and dented as well. In general, you want to do your rolling on mats, but a couple of times a year (or at my seminars) I want people rolling on asphalt, concrete or hardwood floors. I want them to remember that in the real world, stuff is dirty and it hurts.

You can teach body mechanics almost anywhere, but the combination of exploiting momentum and "gifts"is hard to teach in a pristine, flat, uncluttered world.

You also have to evaluate things for safety. Boots are good. If you wear boots you should practice in boots. Mats are good, they make learning to take falls easier. Mats and boots together can result in some really horrific knee and leg injuries. That's bad.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Alone Time

This is alone time. It might not seem like it to you. It’s crowded. It’s loud.
The table across from me are a bunch of overweight guys with glasses talking about being great fighters and women. A very few couples, I don’t think this is a date kind of place. I’m sitting in a corner, typing away, sipping something local and watching.
It’s alone time. No one knows me, no one has any reason to watch me. Typing on a laptop is unusual but non-threatening. To the few who notice at all, I’m a nondescript guy in a corner, typing. Probably some kind of struggling attorney, maybe a journalist. Those that peg the accent will take me as a tourist at first, but other things won’t add up and, again, the very few that think of me at all will assume I’m here on business.
I’m an extreme introvert. Which doesn’t mean I don’t like people. Not saying I do like people, just saying introvert means something else.
It means I find them exhausting.
But not this. Right here, right now, I am separate and watching, even in a crowd. I’m clocking potential threats and potential prey, noting patterns of movement and interaction. It’s the most restful time I’ve had in two weeks.
I love what I do, don’t get me wrong. If I didn’t love teaching, I would do something else. But three weeks, constantly on stage, constantly a center of attention... it drains me.
And so I steal an hour, maybe ninety minutes to be gloriously alone in a crowd. It will refresh me, and I will hit the stage again tomorrow with renewed vigor, fresh.

Written a few days ago, in a pub. Very refreshing and the last of the class is winding down. It's been intense, good, powerful. Tomorrow night, a train to Scotland. Friends and fine whisky. Then a long plane ride and a few hours in the arms of my one true love.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Easy Teaching is not Easy Learning

Going to be writing about teaching for a few posts, I suspect.

Traveling seminars are usually weekends, and it makes sense to batch them, like three UK weekends over 16 days (plus travel time, and maybe a day to reset the internal clock). But that leaves the weekdays as big sinks of unused time. Garry and Dan decided to remedy that this trip. Dan scheduled things at St. Andrew's and it seems some college students can handle an all-day seminar during regular class times (imagine my old man voice saying, "Kids these days!") Not a problem.

Garry's were evening classes, so working people could make them. Three hour slots in London, Gate's Head, Wirral, Doncaster and four hours (later today) in Coventry.

Most of my lesson plans center around eight hours. It's the minimum to get a taste of the pieces, in my opinion. Almost everything in those eight hours is centered on understanding the question (What will I face? What are the elements of attack?) and gathering information-- how to see and evaluate not only what the threat is doing but your own trained mechanical inefficiencies. A second eight hours can go into the mechanics of efficient brawling. But at three hours something must be left out, and it must be made clear how incomplete the training is AND that can be hard when the attendees have never had that type of information in that volume before. Things can feel more complete than they can possibly actually be.

Anyway, how to train is often on my mind. But given a new problem, you learn new things.

One thought right away, and this feeds back to my secret intention with the Joint Locks video:
The best way for teaching is almost never the best way for learning.

It's an endemic belief in bureaucracies that training must be consistent and measurable. It is far more important to be able to objectively evaluate a student in a skillset than whether that skillset works. That's how bureaucracies measure 'fair' and bedamned to those who wind up bleeding.

It's not just soulless organizations, either. It's a staple of martial arts instruction as well. Any kind of force skill will be applied in a chaotic situation. It will be messy. Everything affects every other thing. Your ability to play in the margins, to use the chaos and mess is a big part of your survival skill. But it's hard to train, and for the ego-bound instructors, the prospective of losing to a student (and if you teach them to think sideways, you will lose sometimes) is a huge threat. It's hard to teach, so many instructors teach the easy stuff, not the good stuff.

And the way of teaching. The easy way of teaching is to break things down into manageable chunks. If I can pick out the eight steps to that wristlock, I can teach those eight steps. I can tell whether the student is doing each of those eight steps correctly. I can correct the student, which makes me feel like a teacher. And in the end, the student only has to remember those eight steps (and we're all good at remembering sequences, right?) and apply them and everything will be fine...

But it won't, because the student will need to access the memory part of the brain, which is slow and nearly useless in a force incident. The student will hesitate because that's what being constantly corrected makes people do. The ritual of the eight steps, consciously or not, sets an expectation for a very specific set-up that the bad guy may not be willing to provide. And it's not eight steps to success but eight chances for failure, since if any of the steps fail, they all do.

Some of the keys, and I'm a long way from finding them all:

  • Getting the information in the right level of detail to actually use. Nothing to memorize, but not so vague as to be useless
  • Match the skill to the correct part of the brain. Fighting has to be noncognitive, so there's no point in getting intellectual about it. Get intellectual about perfecting your training, though.
  • Teaching in the right modality. And testing, too. Fighting is inherently kinesthetic, not visual. We knock people down, we don't impress people unconscious.
  • Make it fun. Force is an inherently unfun subject, but all animals learn through play, everyone moves more efficiently when relaxed, and people learn better and to a deeper level of the brain when they enjoy the process.
  • Play. Related to above, but there is no way to script a complex answer to an unknown problem. The only way to get good at any complex skill intended for a chaotic environment is to play. And there's a lot in this, because the game has to be very well designed to teach the right things, and the student must be carefully prepped not to read too much into it.
  • Whatever you teach must agree with the student's world. The wording on this is tough. Generally, assume that your students are intelligent adults with their own experience of the world. So if you say or teach something that contradicts their knowledge of the world, they will either doubt the rest of what you say (which is bad) or they will reject their own experience (which is much worse.)
Enough for now. Time to go to Coventry.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Not on Hold, Just... Busy

It's hard to write when you are either working or trying to sleep.
This is my life now (and this is not a complaint, but an explanation and apology to the regular readers):

Up relatively late. Most times I have to catch a plane, the plane seems to leave at 0600, which means I have to be at the airport between 0400-0430, which means awake at 0300 at the latest. So the late start is a blessing...

But after a delay for mechanical problems which misses a connection  and another delay on the made-up connection I find myself at the destination somewhere around 25 hours awake and eight hours off from my biological clock... screw it, too tired to do the math. Commit to staying awake until at least 2100 local time so that I don't screw up my sleep schedule too bad. In order to stay awake, no writing or reading. I'd fall asleep. Walk. See a few friends. Walk. Have a wee dram. Walk. Keep moving.

Back to the flat around 2100, as planned. To sleep. Snap awake after three hours. (The one actual side-effect of my history is that, until very recently, I couldn't sleep more than four hours at a time.) Up, stretch, read, sudoku. After two hours I can sleep. Sleep until almost noon. Cool.

Wander the town (I love walking In Edinburgh, but also Montreal, Athens, SF, many others) with a friend, see more friends, eat and back to the flat to sleep. Snap awake after four hours. Still exhausted but only doze fitfully after that.

Get up, get coffee, try to find wifi and contact home. No-go. Find food. Catch ride to venue. Teach for 8+ hours. Talk and socialize and answer questions for another two. Dinner with the group. Back to flat. Go for another long walk. Realize that on a Sunday, breakfast, wifi and coffee will be harder to find. Hit a grocery store so at least breakfast won't be a problem in the morning.

Get up. Ride was barely on time yesterday, so go down right on time only to find that he felt guilty about not being early and has been waiting. To venue. Eight hours of teaching, plus talks,  dinner, etc. Things wind up so late that, with a friendly native guide, I have to work out the bus system to get back to the flat.  Next morning is free, but have to teach evening classes, and in that morning break, finally get a chance to blog.

Classes. Up late answering questions. Up early either to teach or to travel. Repeat.

This is not a complaint. Raf gathered a fantastic group at Edinburgh. Dan and Maya let me teach and connect with some of the next generation at St. Andrew's. The last three days in Swindon have been incredibly high energy, with plenty of bruises and learning for all.  I finally got to meet Stuart Williams and the lovely Louise in person. A gorgeous woman in the Edinburgh airport (they do tastings at the Duty Free there) gave me a dram of Glenlivet Distiller's Reserve. Ruins and good food and great conversation... Going forward, Garry has set up a slate of people to meet. Hoping to see Iain and Al again and maybe meet Geoff.

It's an awesome life, but sometimes a bit too busy for writing.