Monday, October 20, 2014

What If...

Minnesota was a big experience with a lot of learning. I'll debrief it when the lessons have had some time to settle.

In the meantime, Jaime Clubb from the UK sent me a review copy of his book, "Mordred's Victory" I'm about halfway through. I knew Jaime from the now-defunct Cyberkwoon website. It was the place I went to ask questions about Chinese arts, and where I first met Mauricio, Theo, Ffab, Dave Jamieson, Steve Pascoe and a few other valuable friends.

 Jaime is someone I know on line only, and he's struck me as a good thinker, good writer. He's grown up with the RBSD movement in the UK.

There's a section in his book about teaching RBSD to kids. I don't teach kids, they don't need to know the things in my head and _if_ they can grasp the concept, they pretty much aren't kids anymore. But that's my perspective, not the truth. And one of his chapters talks about kids asking "why."

I haven't finished the chapter. I wanted to get this written before I finished Jaime's thoughts. Really good insight is often too influential, and when I'm around a good writer or a good instructor with good insights, like all humans I have a tendency to follow instead of think for myself. So a few paragraphs triggered a thought process and I want to get it down before I finish.

So, hat tip to Jaime for making me think.

If you have kids, you know some of the stages. The "no" stage and the "mine" stage. And the why stage. The why stage can be infuriating and there is always a sneaky suspicion that the kid is playing a game, pulling you to the end of your rope: Why is the sky blue? "Because the gasses in the atmosphere absorb more yellow and red light?" Why? "All substances reflect and absorb different electromagnetic wavelengths differently." If I'm very, very lucky here, the kid will switch from the "why" to the "what question: "Whats electromagnetic?"

The kid asking why is NOT trying to punk you out, not trying to dominate you, not trying to humiliate you with how shallow your knowledge really is. The kid doesn't know and desperately wants to know. More than that, kids want to understand, and you can't understand jack shit with just surface knowledge. So they push deeper, and "why" is a question that pushes deeper. If you can honestly track why to the source, you will find the principles that underly everything you do. The principles of the physical art that you study or the principles of your own ethics. All same/same. You just have to keep asking the question and answer honestly.

It's not the "what if" game. Every instructor knows the "what if monkey." For every situation or technique, there's the, "What if he counter attacks with the right hand?" "What if he has a knife concealed in his boot?" "What if he has a friend?" "What if the guy attacking you is a midget with a BJJ background?" "What if you're suddenly attacked by 37 ninjas?"

Because it follows a similar pattern (the same question repeated over and over, always based on the last answer) and because both patterns can be annoying and because both patterns inevitably lead beyond your ability to answer* it is possible to see these as related. But they aren't They absolutely aren't.

The questioning of "why" uses the wisdom of a child to get deeper, to understand things, to get the principles out in the open. The questioning of "what if" makes things more technical, more about the surface. If you understand a deep why, you can use that understanding in a thousand different situations. If you get a great answer on a what if question, you have one thing that you can only use in one ridiculously specific situation.

* Inevitably. All "what if" questions eventually grow into situations that can't be handled. And all why questions eventually dig down to physics so esoteric that no one knows the real answer. Our knowledge is limited, own that.


Anonymous said...

Asking why 5 or 6 times is standard practice in all industrial root cause analysis. However, few people have the balls to actually follow the practice and ask 5 times because they are afraid to start a monkey dance (my theory on why.) But if you don't ask why and you don't challenge the thinking and even more dangerous the culture then things have no chance of improving. Sit at your desk and be a good little monkey or scream like a howler monkey i am going to channel my inner 2 year old and drive them all batty...who's in?

Eric Parsons said...

Great post! Gotta love the "why" stage. Sometimes I think I answer more questions on a single trip driving my boys to judo class than I did during my five years teaching at a community college. :)


Josh Kruschke said...


Erik Kondo said...

Intelligence and imagination go hand in hand. A smart person “sees” possibilities that others don’t - both problems and solutions. For example, “What if instead of doing it this way, we try to do it this way?”

On the other hand, “What if…” is also a tool of the not-so-bright. When a teacher is explaining how to do something in a certain situation, and the student interrupts with “What if …”, many times the student is not exhibiting deep insight. The student is looking for an answer, not a solution.

What many students don’t understand is that the purpose of teaching is to provide students with the ability to find solutions for themselves. Effective teaching does not provide answers which are then regurgitated by the student. In the real world, there are few answers, but many solutions.

When students who are looking for answers encounter a teacher that believes that he or she has all the answers, effective learning is unlikely to occur.