Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Time to Teach

Read an old posting on a martial arts blog, one of those at which you must be a member to make comments and I was too lazy to go through the steps necessary. Basically, the teacher was addressing the notion of what happened when you got older, and therefore weaker and slower, and how you might deal with that, if you had students who wanted to learn -- essentially -- how to be strong and fast.

Guys who want to learn that don't want to hear some old fart talking about it, they want to see him do it.

I suspect that the teacher, who is getting up there, but who is considered really good at what he does by folks who know, wanted to stir up some thought, but he didn't get any responses.

Might be other folks didn't want to jump through the hoops to be able to post, either.

So I thought I'd address this here, being the oldest guy in the room and all.

My teacher believes that there is a window in which you can teach beginners. This space is bracketed by your abilities -- what you know and how well you can do it -- and that there is both a beginning and an end to it.

The beginning is when you have enough skill to understand and demonstrate what needs to be shown first. The end? Martial artists tend to refer to this time -- whether they believe it or not -- as when your circles start to get smaller.

What I take this to mean is that as your physical abilities wane, vis a vis speed and power, your technique has to advance to replace them. If you are going to stay in the art and deal with those who are younger, stronger, and faster, you must become more efficient, based on your ability to select moves that require more skill but less speed and power. Your timing has to be better, there will be less room for error, and you can't fall back to cheating with muscle like you could when you were the fittest and strongest guy in the room. You make it work because you have a lot of time in grade, but you can't teach somebody that time in grade.

That outward block that smashed an arm off track by a foot and left a big bruise, driven by hours in the weight room every week, gives way to the soft snake block that deflects the punch just enough to barely miss. Both can work just fine. They require different abilities.

If you have been training properly, this will be coming along naturally, if the art permits it, and you'll already be thinking of easier ways to get the job done. That old work-smarter-not-harder business.

One of the problems of an art that depends largely on speed and power is that you don't have anything if you aren't fast and strong. (Or if you run into somebody who is faster and stronger.)

This is going to vary from teacher to teacher, of course, as well as the kinds of art being taught, but at some point, you will of necessity have to be moving less and doing more, and such skills are not those that can be taught easily to people without a foundation in the art.

One fine morning, you are going to wake up and be over the hill. A fit eighty-year-old simply can't run with a fit twenty- or thirty- or even fifty-year-olds. This doesn't mean you can't defeat them; it means that have to play your game -- not their game.

Doesn't mean you can't stay in as good a shape as you can manage, either. There are plenty of fifty and sixty-year-old guys who can run circles around men half their ages, but however long you stretch it out, you will eventually get to that place where you can't run with the young dogs.
The joints start to creak, the endurance fades, and gravity is always waiting.

Once your circles get small, the window for teaching beginners closes. Who you teach are the advanced students who already have the foundation and skills to do the art fairly well. They are the ones who can benefit from the instruction because they have the capability to grasp nuance that beginners simply cannot.

At this stage one of the students teaches the beginners, because they are still close enough to relate. Doesn't mean you have to stand to one side with your arms crossed nodding sagely and being the wise old master, but it also speaks to the notion that everything has its own season, and when it is passed, you can't go back to it.

Doesn't have to be all or nothing, though.

Beginners learn the simple stuff first because that's the way of things. Easy to show, easier to learn, and the circles are big, the movements broad. They can cheat it with speed or strength or stamina and get by.

As they become more adept, they can begin to learn more subtle stuff.

To those teachers who leap up and cry "Bullshit!" -- and there are some -- I simply point out that you don't take a first grader who has just just been exposed to addition and subtraction and hope to teach him the calculus necessary to work out planetary orbits. Before you can learn higher math, you kinda need some lower math.

So, the window. There is a time to teach. Before it, you don't have the ability. After it, you have, odd as it may seem, too much ability.

I was talking to a newbie once, working on a simple attack and defense sequence, when I realized that he didn't know how to make a fist. No biggie, I showed him a couple ways, we moved on. After that, I made it a point to ask newbies. You did a year in TKD? Fine, you know how to make a fist. But if you have never taken any kind of fight training, you could damage your hand worse than the guy you punch. Boxer's fracture, a limp and crooked wrist when you punch a heavy bag -- somebody needs to let you know why these are not the best ways to do it. At some point that kind of thing gets to be so automatic you don't think about it any more, and if you don't think about, you won't be able to teach it.

One window closes, but another one opens.


Stan said...

Greetings, All!

Thanks, again, Steve. I love it when people from very different systems demonstrate that "all arts" have basic similarities. (Okay, maybe that's a slight over-simplification...)

Here are two notes from my teaching primer, from jujitsu classes I have led...actually they're some of the oldest notes:

Strength is a poor substitute for proper technique. Most often, when we are “muscling a technique,” we are doing it incorrectly. Slow down and relax. Strength fades, but mastery of technique may grow through experience and experimentation. Have faith in your technique!

We begin by teaching physical techniques, then we encourage students to use their minds and then we urge them to forge their spirit. Physical, mental, spiritual, philosophical… and what may come beyond.

Any resemblance? ;~)

Thanks, Folki!

Ian SADLER said...

Hi y'all,

The last paragraph regarding the making of a fist, and a student, not quite having the skills to build the required tool, reminded me of a section in one of your books (don't ask me which one)...

A teacher is comparing Ki to Icebergs, when a pupil interrupts to ask what an iceberg is...

Did the real world influence you to write about it?


Edwin Voskamp said...

Richard Feynman kept teaching introductory physics.

Steve Perry said...

Yeah? And how fast and strong did Feynman have to be to stay ahead of Physics 101 students?

Steve Perry said...

Everything is grist for the mill.

The iceberg story was one I heard first-hand in an aikido dojo, pretty much exactly as I laid it out in whichever of the Matador books I used it in.

Dan Gambiera said...

Edwin, Dr. Feynman did, indeed teach freshman physics. And his course notes became the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics. But it's also a fact that when he taught freshman physics from those notes not one single freshman from that year declared a physics major the next year. And this is Cal Tech we're talking about.

Shady_Grady said...

Very cool Steve, and good advice. It reminds me of that line from the the Maldon piece.

Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder,
spirit the greater as our strength lessens

Edwin Voskamp said...

Todd, what is your evidence for that?

jks9199 said...

The challenge for an advanced instructor in teaching basics is often to teach BASIC basics, and not try to teach what they can do. If you can do that -- you can teach basics. That doesn't mean that it's not good to have less advanced teachers handle a lot of the basic instruction (not only is it instructive for the student -- it's instructive for the teacher, too!), since that allows the advanced teacher to focus on teaching what nobody else can.

James said...

Truer words have never been spoke.

Now, where did I put my bottle of ensure?

Steve Perry said...

Edwin is comparing apples and aardvarks and is fully aware of it.

I can tell somebody who has never ridden a bicycle how to do it, in theory. I can explain about balance and momentum, but what the kinetic feels of balance and momentum are must be felt to be truly understood.

Experience is necessary to ride the bike, and the more you have, the more likely it will become, through trial and error, efficient.

Experts who truly understand a thing can explain it simply. But explanation is not action.

Irene said...

It seems to me that teaching beginners, teaching the basics of anything is just like any other skill: if you don't use it, you lose it. If you STOP teaching beginners and focus on teaching senior students, I fully believe that you can forget how to teach beginners and will get to the point where what you teach is only comprehensible to senior students. I don't agree, however, that it is an inevitable consequence of developing your own skill. I think it's a matter of practicing and remembering how to teach it.

Also, the whole "you must get more subtle or you can't keep up with faster/stronger students" doesn't entirely hold up. Otherwise, elderly teachers would be just fine teaching novice children, or women, who don't ever develop that speed/strength advantage over the teacher. (Yes Steve, believe it or not, there are women and children who like to learn how to fight too).

Dan Gambiera said...

Edwin, a co-worker at Westinghouse Hanford who was a freshman in that class. Yes, many eventually majored in physics. But they declared late. It takes a great deal to overcome the intellectual self-assurance of a Cal Tech undergrad. Dr. Feynman managed to hit that limit.

Dojo Rat said...


I still teach beginners Tai Chi Chuan.
Every time I teach, it reinforces my understanding of the art at deeper levels.
Fortunately, some of the students are experianced enough to move on to more complex actions.
That has both inspired some beginners to see what they will be learning later, and turned some away when they see the complexity of advanced partner or weapon work.
Great post, I am much in agreement with you.

Edwin Voskamp said...

Steve, explanation and action are different. But it's not what I was meaning to convey.

Experts can teach beginners. My personal experience includes being taught basics about computer architecture by one of the architects of ENIAC, tree algorithms by Dijkstra, chess by the then #3 in the world, car control by the then ruling world champion, and on. I think all of them managed to convey of what they knew to me. It can be done.

It is a skill that can be developed, maintained, and lost.

And my first silat teacher was neither stronger nor faster than I was. I do think he taught me the basics, and, later, beyond.

Steve Perry said...

I'm not saying an old teacher *can't* give you those basic moves. I'm saying he can't give you any significant portion of his skill and ability until you are well-steeped in the system. And that at a certain physiological level of skill, going back to the ABCs when you want to write literature for the age gets difficult because you find it hard to stand in the eager three-year-old's shoes. And thus it is counter-productive.

Rather like trying to fill a teacup with a fire hose. And maybe with senior students who have more volume, it might be more like filling a wading pool. Still can't twist the nozzle wide open, but at least there is more flow.

A senior student can teach beginners basics. And being closer to those, with perhaps more useful clarity.

Even then, now and again, Guru wiill say something, and then, "Do you get it? You know what I mean?" Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't. I know that guys who have only been coming to the class for a few months or a year ain't getting it.

In the beginner's case, you are hammering steel and shaping blades; in the more senior case, you are honing edges that are already useful enough to cut. Both are necessary for the razor's sharpness, but it isn't necessary for one man do do them both.

Irene -- as a woman, you should be able to deal with the physicality of a ninety-year-old man with minimal training. (And since we don't teach children in our class, that point is moot -- even though a ten-year-old boy will, in twenty years certainly have more potential for fitness than that same ninety-year-old man.) Your physical abilities and the boy's are on the rise; mine are on the decline. Nature of the beast.

Because of your size, you have to get to better technique faster than I or Edwin because you can't cheat it. And unless your technique is much better than that of somebody who is bigger, faster, and stronger, it will be hard to defeat them. Size matters. Enough skill can get around size.

A certain amount of time in grade until you get the motions to produce useful skill is necessary. How long? I dunno.

And I'm not saying we shouldn't continue to train basics, because as we do understand more, they will come to mean more. Epiphanies just keep coming.

Edwin -- and of those teachers, which did you catch and surpass? By which I mean to say, they were able to throttle down what they were offering so you could understand it, but how much more finesse would they have been able to impart to somebody already skilledto top-rank levels in computers, chess, and car-driving?

Of the three, the driving is probably the most relevant to the discussion, though even so, not so much.

How much of that can you learn immediately, versus how much requires time in the seat with the pedals and wheel and gear shift under hand and feet, and miles of road to practice upon? You could become a pretty good driver after a few weeks or months of practice. World-class? How long?

This discussion arose from what Guru has told me about his beliefs in teaching windows. Yes, there is a certain joy to be had in starting over with beginners from scratch and watching them discover the art. Necessary for your understanding and growth as a teacher and a student yourself to do that, I believe. But past a point, you have done it, learned what you needed, and -- I suspect -- you start thinking about what you are going to leave behind.

Starting over from scratch eventually gets to a point where it's not the best use of what you have. When your circles get smaller, you can't teach that to a beginner. You might not live long enough to get him or her there. You might be able to teach it to a senior student.

Which makes more sense?

I do know that the search for equals makes you want people you can run with, and not just those with whom you can walk. You might not get that with senior students, but you surely don't get it with beginners.

Stan said...

I dunno...

Steve pointed out the need to teach someone to correctly "form a fist." I used to be surprised by the number of times I've had to teach someone to breathe!

Now, to me....THAT is the basics!

Slainte' Folki! Make it a great day!

Edwin Voskamp said...

Steve, my experience differs. I shall leave it at that.

Steve Perry said...

Well, of course, Edwin, your experience differs, it must.

I wouldn't deny your yours -- but I also wouldn't substitute yours for mine.

We both know we are right. I'm just righter than you are ...

Tim said...

A lot of truth in what Irene said -- a good teacher can teach someone to do what he does, but to teach someone to do things he doesn't do anymore (i.e., fight like a decent yellow belt) he has to practice the skill of teaching beginners. That skill can be lost, and it's near-impossible to regain.

OTOH, like Steve said, young bucks want to see it done, and have it done to them. If the teacher is too weak/slow in his age to do it in the way he's teaching them to do it, most of them are going to find him pretty uninspiring as a teacher. Young bucks are dumb like that -- they'd rather learn one half-bright trick from another young buck who can thump them than learn a whole system from the old guy who lived long enough to get decrepit. Just another way in which young'uns tend to be too dumb to learn from history. Young bucks also die a lot. Coincidence?

I think an aging teacher could teach a beginner who is willing to embrace the process and doesn't need his head thumped every ten minutes to prove to him that it works. (Note, for example, that a lot of the well-respected boxing trainers could never hang in there with the guys they're training.) But that measure of respect has to be there, or it won't work.

Steve Perry said...

Among great classical pianists, Franz Liszt is considered by most experts to be in the first rank.

If you are Franz Liszt and one of the greatest pianists of all time, teaching some kid to play scales and "Chopsticks?" Yeah, if you had the patience, you could manage it.

But -- if you only had a few years left in which you felt you could teach, it would surely be a waste of your ability.

Any decent piano teacher can teach the kid basics. If you can teach guys like, say, Rachmaninoff how to play better?

I know which way I'd go.

Tim said...

Yeah, sure. Unless it was his grandkid or something, and maybe not even then.

But "can't" is different from "ain't gonna want to bother," and both are different from "isn't actually doing it."

Your teacher's position, as I understand it, is "can't."

If one were to maintain that, for example, a given aging silat guru is not, in point of fact, presently producing students of the quality of his (ahem) now-alienated former seniors, that's one argument. And it might be a pretty easy argument to make, even in the teeth of claims that the former seniors don't have secrets X, Y and Z. What's on the floor has a way of showing.

To claim categorically that an aging teacher cannot teach beginners effectively? That's a horse of a different color, don't you think?

Stan said...

Since this thread is still spinning...

On yet another hand, I have participated in classes led by "very senior" jujitsu professors (I think that's a polite way of covering all the bases)and experienced lessons, hints and insights which were well above my understanding at that time. As my training and awareness developed, and I became better able to move, many of those lessons came back to me and helped "hone the edge" on individual techniques and my arts in general.

As an instructor, I sometimes tell students that I am "planting seeds that will take time to grow." That way, the student doesn't feel frustrated about "failing to get it" on the first pass.

Sharing basics is sometimes a nice break, because the learning curve tends to be steeper. Sharing advanced techniques is necessary to allow me to continue looking deeper into my arts and into myself.

Sorry...used too many words! (;~X)

Steve Perry said...

I think its probably more of a choice among. "Can't. Won't. Shouldn't." And maybe I'm misrepresenting what I thought I heard. Or putting more in than was intended.

I believe it comes to a point of diminishing returns. Past a certain point, you might not want to waste your remaining time on newbies.

The first part of the post speaks to the notion of growing older, and how one might adjust to deal with that and having jocks come through the door.

My contention is that if the jocks want jockery, then you give them a student who can wear them out, and don't waste your time. We now and then get physical, and as it happens, my teacher is probably in better shape than any of us. He leads by example, and I'm guessing his bench press is a lot more than mine. I know he can do leg work with a bad knee longer than I can.

But for the most part, we spend most of our time training in principles and technique and not getting into shape. You do that on your own time, our teacher says, you don't need me.

If, as some people believe, the very best practitioners of the martial arts evolve beyond technique, then going back to show somebody how to make a fist or bend their knees to stay low requires a kind of regression into a grammar that you maybe don't want to bother with.

When Guru Plinck left Bukti behind, we had a student who brought it up in class a few weeks later. Guru shook his head -- you need to forget that, he said. It'll mess you up for what we're doing now.

The student, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, persisted. He wanted to keep it up, and he drew another head shake. He didn't understand that the old stances and balance weren't the same as the new.

You speak to a passing parade, but at some point, you might want to walk along with those at the front.

Stan said...

But Steeeeeve (How do you type a whine?)...

You OWE it to your style... You HAVE to pay your dues... You SHOULD already know that.... (Yuck!)

I have found that it is nearly impossible to teach anything if your heart isn't in it...whatever the reason.

But I have heard those guilt statements before...usually from other students who's hearts weren't actually into teaching in the first place. But, they were more than happy to show off their "advanced, cool, secret, etc" stuff!

I hope this came out the way I intended. My point is that teachers teach, just like writers write. The audience may not always get, or even like, what is being offered...but that doesn't diminish the value of the lesson...teacher...or writer!

Thanks, again!

Irene said...

"if you only had a few years left in which you felt you could teach, it would surely be a waste of your ability."

I'm sure that there are some experts - in all fields- who feel that way. And to use Tim's terms "don't want to bother" does lead to "isn't" which does eventually lead to "can't" (although I disagree that it is impossible to regain that ability.

Which provides more satisfaction to a teacher: to take someone from "zero" to "good" or to take someone from "good" to "great?" I don't know about Liszt, but many of the experts I know prefer the former.

Tim said...

Not impossible, just nearly so. Hard to remember what you knew and what you didn't, and what it was like 20 years back.

I'm just arguing about what's possible. I've no quarrel at all with what a teacher, or yours in particular, decides to do with his time. He paid the dies, he can teach who he wants; fine by me. In truth, I prefer that he teach advanced students, too -- I'll probably never get a chance to train with Guru Plinck, but I may get a chance to spend some time with one of his students one day. If I do, I'll be glad he invested his time in getting them as far as they were able to go, rather than just getting an endless array of beginners from A to B.

Steve Perry said...

Irene --

I have no argument with a world-class macrame expert who is content to teach small children how to tie their shoes, and to speak to that parade as long as they wish.

But if somebody much lesser skilled can do it, wouldn't it be perhaps more satisfying to show somebody a thing only they could show them?

It would be for me.

I'm a pretty good teacher, I've done it one form or another all my life, and I'm happy to have something to pass along. But if all I did was teach the same small skill over and over, it wouldn't be enough for me.

I'm not speaking for what Guru wants or doesn't want, only what he said to me and how I interpreted it.

Other folks's mileage regarding such things can vary.

And they can write about it on their blog ...

Tim said...

paid the dues

jks9199 said...

It's important to draw a few lines, I think, along the can't vs doesn't want to line.

I don't want our chief instructor mired in teaching a newbie class. I get frustrated when I go to a seminar or clinic with him, and I see that he's got something he wants to teach -- but can't get to it because he's got to cover how to stand and step due to the 2/3 of people present who can't do that right. (Including some who should be able to!)

I was fortunate to have someone teach me at a point when he quite rightly could have refused to teach a group of beginners. (We don't generally segregate belt levels in classes, though we will occasionally have advanced clinics.) In return or in respect of that -- and because I enjoy teaching beginners! -- I teach beginners. In fact, I was rather offended when someone I know stated that they refused to teach another beginner. They'll be happy to work with suitably advanced students... but no more beginners. Just an attitude I don't like... And there is a legitimacy to Steve's comment about needing to see things done at the level it's being taught -- not far higher!

But -- like I said, I also want the senior instructors to have the freedom to teach what only they can.