Teaching strategies for everything to make sense inside and outside of the dojo

Make your karate students more passionate by helping them build connections and understanding why they do, what they do.

After 10 + years practicing karate, what would you like your karate students to be able to do and know?

What understanding should they develop about karate, martial arts, kata, or kumite?

Would you like your karate students to get only facts, that doesn’t mean anything outside of the dojo? Or, instead, develop conceptual understanding and ability to apply the same knowledge in different contexts? 

Unfortunately, many coaches focus merely on what is going on in the gym. What happens in the dojo stays in the dojo. 

We can help our karate students to connect the activities and information shared in the dojo with the real-life situation and develop necessary skills to have a fulfilled life in and outside the dojo.

Working as a Physical Education teacher

I have been working as a Physical Education teacher for some time. Beforehand, I competed in kata for many years as part of the Macedonia National Karate Team. I also thought karate together with my mother in our karate club by in Macedonia. And the only way I knew how to do that was by using the typical approach of “monkey see, monkey do.” You do, your students repeat. A typical explicit teaching style, and it works. This is how a was thought; I do not believe there is anything wrong with that. It allows learning, and if you are persistent and have a good teacher, you will get a dissent knowledge and understanding how things work in karate.

However, whatever you learn, will be just the tip of the iceberg. This is a result of a lack of questioning and engaging in any critical thinking processes, and usually adopting someone else’s believes.

Therefore, if someone else shows you something or tells you that something can be done differently, you discard that information and keep doing things the “right” way. The way your sensei showed you.  As a result, you never grow, and you stay at the same level for years.

Swallow your Ego and give more ownership to the students

Explicit teaching was the only way of teaching I was familiar with until I got a job as a PE teacher and move to China. The good thing about being abroad is you meet people with different backgrounds, teaching styles and ideas, and most of all, willingness to share their knowledge with others. EGO free approach. At least among PE teachers.

Throughout my journey, I started realizing that Physical Education is more than just kicking, running, throwing, and playing games. Besides fun, and helping kids to be physically active and become physically literate individuals, it is about understanding WHY are we doing something, and HOW it is related to us and our well-being. It is about giving more ownership to the students, which allows them to question themselves, explore and build their own believes. That’s what karate practice should look like as well.

 

What is your experience?

Let me ask you something.

As a karate student, have you ever paused and asked yourself:

  • WHY is this the way it is?
  • How is this related to my general/overall health?
  • Why does the karate coach keep telling me I need to get lower in my zenkutsu dachi (even though your knees hurt)?
  • Is there another practical application (bunkai) of this element or it has to be the way the sensei showed?

What if there is a way to use karate not only for teaching karate but as a tool to help a student gain knowledge and better understanding how their bodies work and what they can do to have a healthy lifestyle?

The sad thing is to see kids, teens or adult spending years and years of training karate, focusing on getting their black belt, 1st, 2nd, 3rd Dan, but still not having any idea what to do when it comes to making healthy choices. Physical or mental.

This is a result of being focused on the final result (black belt or a medal from a world championship), instead of focusing on the journey and your experience. The latter is possible only by changing your role from being a “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” This is possible by introducing inquiry-based teaching/coaching. And questioning is the primary tool of this type of teaching.

Inquiry-based teaching approach

Questioning is a powerful thing that initiates critical thinking and engagement into a high-level thinking process. As a result, the student will start making connections between different concepts found in various contexts. This way, everything will begin to have a meaning to your students, which will increase their engagement and motivation.

Many of my friends spent years training karate, competing, winning medals, being successful, but at the end, they still have no idea how their body works and what they need to do to take care of it.

As Kelly Starrett says:

“ALL HUMAN BEINGS SHOULD BE ABLE TO PERFORM BASIC MAINTENANCE ON THEMSELVES.”

The only thing these people got from their 15+ year experience in karate is a few blocks and kicks and few katas. On top of this, we should not forget the injuries that still bother them.

Do you want your students to end up like this?

If the answer is NO, keep reading.

 

Creating a student-centered and inquiry-based environment 

Create an inquiry-based environment. An environment that helps students to find meaning and gain a better understanding of why they do what they do, and how is this related to them, their way of expression, health, everyday life. This is achieved by developing conceptual understanding through the introduction of different Key Concepts such as Form, Change, Connection, Reflection, etc.

Look at the Key Concepts is your guide. They are the primary tool that promotes meaning and understanding through inquiry.

The key concepts are abstract, which creates an opportunity for the students to engage in critical thinking and come out with their ideas.

 

So, what exactly you need to do and how do you use these so-called Key Concepts.  

Let’s try to build one so-called UNIT (looking form a perspective of a PE teacher) of Karate.

A Unit can represent a teaching block of 6-8 weeks period where you focus on specific aspect during your karate. e.g., learning a new kata, technique, preparing for belt exam, competition, etc.

Step one 

Choose a Key Concept you would like to explore.

Appropriate Key Concepts for karate might be:

Form (What is it like?)– The understanding that everything has a structure with recognizable features that can be observed, identified, described and categorized (Kris Stewart, IB Coordinator)

Causation (Why is it like it is?)– The understanding that things do not just happen, that there are causal relationships at work, and that actions have consequences. (Kris Stewart, IB Coordinator)

Change (How is it changing?)– The understanding that change is the process of movement from one state to another. It is universal and inevitable. (Kris Stewart, IB Coordinator)

Connection (How is it connected to other things?)– the understanding that we live in a world of interacting systems in which the actions of any individual element affect others. (Kris Stewart, IB Coordinator)

Reflection (How do we know?)– The understanding that there are different ways of knowing and that it is essential to reflect on our conclusion, to consider our methods of reasoning, and the quality and the reliability of the evidence we have considered. (Kris Stewart, IB Coordinator)

Now let’s choose a KEY CONCEPT. We can start with FORM (The understanding that everything has a form with recognizable features that can be observed, identified, described, and categorized). 

In a karate context, we can talk about the form and features of different stances, blocks, and punches. We can even talk about different karate styles and their characteristics.

 

The role of the Key Concept

The Key Concept will help you and your students to start thinking BIGGER and DEEPER. By doing this, the students will develop their meaning and understanding by engaging into thinking process an avoid being just a passive observer and do what the sensei tells them to do without questions and trying to understand why they do what they do.

As a karate coach, you need to be prepared to be challenged and willing to answer the question posed by your students. But first, you need to build an environment where questions are VALUED and WELCOMED, instead of avoided and considering a way of showing disrespect. So, you will have to swallow up your EGO. In the end, Ego is your enemy.

 

Step two

After choosing a Key Concept, it is time to create a question related to the KEY CONCEPT. It should be a broad, open-ended question that requires investigation, discussion, and full and considered response.

REMEMBER, YOU ARE NOT THE ONE WHO ALWAYS TELLS WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS WRONG AND HOW THINGS SHOULD BE. LET THE STUDNETS COME UP WITH THEIR CONCLUSION AND BELIEVE. YOU SIMPLY NEED TO GUIDE THEM.

The Key Question allows everyone to engage in exploration and critical thinking processes. Your student will start to think and become active participants instead of mealy be observers.

Possible questions for FORM:

  • What is this movement like? What is the difference between kumite and kata movement? Why? 
  • What different stances do we have in karate that you are familiar with? What blocks and punches can you make using various body parts? 
  • What is the optimal length for a stance? 
  • What are the basic rules in karate/kumite/kata/ bunkai performance? 

You can take the FORM as a Key Concept when working with beginners, who have just started to explore karate. You want to give them the freedom to think and develop their personal beliefs and point of view. So instead of telling them that their zenkutsu dachi is too long, or their feet are in a wrong position, making them lose balance, you help them figure it out by questioning. Why do you think to lose balance? Why do you have a hard time moving from one to another stance? Do you think you can change something to make it easier?

Here is some great advice regarding moving in zencutsu dachi.

Step three 

Go further by choosing Related Concept.  If the Key Concept provides you a broad picture of what are we focusing one, the related concept is here to help get more knowledge and specific understanding for the area of exploration. And in this case, is FORM.

What Related Concept you choose depends on the studnets age and their previous experience. So with your little ones, you might select “Flexibility” as Related Concept and try to connect it with the Form.

Questions to pose to make your students think and get familiar with the importance of flexibility and how it relates to their form could be:

  • How flexibility helps us have better stances? How does it affect the way I move? (good position of your feet, lower/more rooted stance, feel comfortable, etc.)
  • What stance is the most challenging for me, and why?
  • How is flexibility related to my kicks? Which kick depends on flexibility the most?
  • How is flexibility important to my health? (Injury prevention)

Through this process, students find meaning in stretching exercises. The same can be done with almost everything.

Reflect

All this is accompanied by process of constant reflection. The process is a cycle guided by the teacher and covers the following steps:

  • Tunning in – What do you know about this technique/kata? What questions do you have? What do you need to know? How does it make you feel? What experiences of this have you already had? What other techniques/katas are similar to this?
  • Finding out – How can you improve at these techniques/kata/bunkai? What strategies will help you to succeed in this fight against this opponent? Who can help you to grow?
  • Sorting out – Which questions have you already answered? What new questions do you have? What has helped improve your technique? What is not helpful? How is your skill changing/growing?
  • Going further – How can you help your team members perform better? (kata team) What can you do to improve your understanding even more? How might you stretch/challenge yourself further?
  • Reflecting – What have you learned about this kata/technique? Why is it important? How do you feel about your improvement? What have you learned about yourself?
  • Taking action – What have I learned that I could use in other techniques/katas/situations? What was your highlight for this technique/activity/kata?

The above reflective process can happen on a smaller scale (one or two weeks) while exploring different ideas related to the Key Concept or bigger scale (one or two months) and used for transition from one into another Key Concept (Karate Unit).

Wrapping up

Have in mind that it takes time and effort to make changes and make your students comfortable to engage and participate in any discussion and be open towards sharing thoughts and experiences. Keep to the explicit way of teaching, and slowly start making your practices students-centered where each student will take ownership of the learning process and develop conceptual understanding able to put in in different contexts.

If you find this compelling, stay tuned. This post is only an introduction. In the following posts, I will share the strategies and tools you can use during your practice.

If you have any specific question feel free to post in the comments, and I will be happy to answer for you.

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