Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Building a House

Conversation the other day about training paradigms. The person was advocating that things are learned best starting with basic technique, then building on that into a system. As near as I can remember one quote, "The first day, sensei showed us a punch. It wasn't quite right, but he told us to practice and pay attention to form and we would do it right when we needed it. It couldn't be right, of course, because if you punch with full power, you'll stress your elbows."

If you heard something like this (as I did from my first karate sensei) I want you to put on your big boy hat and think about, because almost every single element of that thought is palpably false.

Never practice doing things "not quite right." Not quite right is wrong, and if you do enough reps at doing things wrong, you will do things wrong in a fight. We all know this.  The best training in the world doesn't always come out, especially in your first fights-- but if your training does come out, you don't want it to be wrong.

There is no universe where doing things wrong long enough will magically morph into doing things right.

Correct form and not going full power are all artifacts of punching air. You need to punch a body. A moving body. You don't have to worry about your elbows. Wrists maybe, and shoulders if you have some of the snap power generations down... thing is, the feedback for really hitting a body is kinesthetic, not visual. Who cares if rotten food is pretty on the plate?

He tried to explain again with the house metaphor. You have to build a foundation. Then the walls, then the roof. Add the windows and doors and plumbing and electrical system. Only then will you have a house. The metaphore is that you practice your techniques with special attention to form (which, IMO, is confusing the paint job with the foundation) and then you build up through combinations to tactics to strategy and only then, when it is all complete, can you fight with it.

If this was the pattern of actual teaching, there might be some validity to the metaphor. But what you will see most often is the equivalent of handing someone a hammer and showing them how to swing it. After months or years of that they might be allowed to pound actual nails into random pieces of lumber. And they are told that enough reps of that combined with with making forts under the table with blankets (sparring) makes a complete house.

The principles-based approach is to understand what a house is. List what you need to understand (structural stability, insulation, air flow, heating and safety, light) to build one appropriate for your needs (emergency shelter to high rise). And then you play and experiment with the principles and the material you have on hand or can acquire.

None of us learned to talk the way we learned martial arts. We learned to talk through immersion. We played and sang and told stories and listened. We experimented with language-- The two-year-old's "No" stage is finding out how much he or she can control the world. We learned to speak with just a third of the principles-based model and we're all pretty good at it.

We learned to write from the foundational model, and after a minimum of twelve years of formal instruction under professional teachers, a lot of people still suck at it. And even the ones who don't suck have immense insecurities. In my opinion, most of the bad writing comes from the insecurities, by the way. Trying to be "a Writer" people become stilted and artificial trying to please some long-dead third grade teacher.

One of the commenters long ago (no way I could find the post before coffee, sorry) pointed out that all animals learn through play, and only humans were stupid enough to try to turn learning into a job.  I'll go further and say that the primary effect of that form of teaching is to make the students easy to control. It serves no other function efficiently.


Unknown said...

I agree wholeheartedly. If you start teaching form before function, the results in practical application won't be pretty. I've started learning the same way, then discovered that, while my form in karate while practicing was pretty good (at least according to my 'sensei'), during my first fights, none of it resembled a real confrontation. Or is it the other way around? I was puzzled. It took me a lot of time to realize, that good looking form means practically nothing. BUT, while trying to teach people how to fight based on principles of function and effectiveness, they draw a blank. You've said it before, if you give answers, people stop thinking for themselves. But if you don't, the vast majority just say 'I can't do it, I don't know how to'. They seem unwilling to experiment and find out for themselves. No matter how I tried to encourage them, demonstrate real confrontations, tell them to experiment, they still demanded that I show them techniques. If I did, they tried to emulate the form, not the effect. Sometimes a 'student' (I don't teach regularly, don't think myself qualified) would achieve a good result, a powerful punch or the like, but would dismiss the result, because it wasn't pretty. What am I doing wrong? What am I missing?

Also, on controlling students. Any time I've tried to suggest any technique or variation of technique I thought would work better in a MA class, I got the answer which was basically: That's not the way we do things here. Does that sound familiar?

I joined a karate dojo to learn how to fight, to defend myself, but all I've learned was karate. Form and tradition yes, but little regard for actual effect or reality. Does all this make sense?

Malcolm Rivers said...

so what's the functional difference between the type of play that helps you learn and sparring and what type of play would be more effective for learning the physical skills?

Kecskeméti Balázs said...

Besides the 'house building' and 'principles' approach, there is a third approach to teaching which I like, called ceiling analysis.

The term is borrowed from computing, but it is mainly used in machine learning, so they probably borrowed the idea from human learning.

The idea is, when building something complex in a domain which we don't know enough (anything in real life), is to first build something functional as quickly as possible. The solution will most likely yield to some kind of decomposition. Then, assess objectively for each part of the solution, what is its current level of perfection, and more importantly, what is the effect on the final output. Then pick the area which gives the most improvement, and work on that intensively. Then repeat.

This partly translates to learning to fight, where the teacher periodically evaluates the student and decides which area (speed, power, mobility, awareness, technique etc.) would give the most improvement. This is a difficult one, beacuse we are not only interested in the current level of ability, but its potential to improve the overall fighting ability. How much more effective the student would fight with perfect technique, all other factors remaining the same. Or having gained a significant amount of power, all other factors remaining the same. This process is iterative, spend 6 months focusing on this, the next 6 months perhaps on something else.

What I philosophycally like about this is that the idea of correctness is replaced by the idea of effectiveness, which is less confusing.

The problem with ceiling analysis is, that, in machine learning, the evaluation step can be done objectively but in human learning, it is almost always subjective. Too often, teachers teach what they like most, not what the particular student actually needs to maximize their performance. (Interestingly, in machine learning, many people still focus on what they like, not what objectively leads to the best result.)

Another common fallacy is that we must work on our weaknesses. Not always, if our weakness has the least amount of effect on the overall result.

WING CHUN INCas said...

Great Post, I hope you do not mind I reposted it to

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

It's a bias I notice all the time, people want answers and can get very agitated when you give them tools to solve the problem and let them work it out. Why? I suspect that much is to do with as Rory says we are "educated".
"The way we do it here"In my experience that is about hierarchies, "This is the way we do it, only I/we are in a place to give it to you, you want to move up, you do what we do.
The same thing with going to a dojo teaching "style" See Rory's other posts on groups and how they maintain themselves.

Kecs "Too often, teachers teach what they like most, not what the particular student actually needs to maximize their performance."
That is not the problem with the method, as you say it happens in the other aspects, the method is only as good as the person applying it.
Real "teachers" are rare, however there are plenty who use the name, while not being up to the job, whether they are aware of their short comings or not.

Scott said...

It makes a lot of sense when you realize that the pressure to make martial arts into a modern scientific subject is an artifact of the early 20th Century. Before that it wasn't a distinct subject, it was part of theatrical training and ritual training.
Originally all the forms were empty. They were the basis for improvising and adding other elements. It was just a look, a structure, a rhythm, and momentum--nothing else.
Applications, functions, techniques and intent (yi) are all things that were added to make it "learnable." Big mistake.
So actually the foundation metaphor works, the forms are the foundation, as long as the space above it is empty, you can build anything you want there.
For actors entering the 20th Century, "teaching" martial arts and spiritual self-cultivation were the ways out of a dying way of life as a "mean person," a member of a degraded caste from birth.
--Also, Japan and China are a little different, in Japan some sword and barehanded fighting were part of the ritual culture of the castle, it had to make the transition to pure ritual as national heritage and/or sport.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The European Historical Combat Guild said...

Scott, one can see the same attitudes and ideas in Western MA and from the historical sources too, one realises that the same flaws and the same... smoke and mirrors... were applied to this all over. The up side... another sign that we aren't that different from each other...