Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Way We Teach and Learn Jiu Jitsu is Kinda Dumb

Pretty much every jiu jitsu program I've observed uses the same teaching methods and sequencing, and they go something like this:

The instructor begins the class with some sort of warm-up, then shows some technique which may or may not be part of a larger curriculum, the technique is drilled, and finally students do some live rolling.

This methodology is repeated class after class, week after week, month after month, and year after year. Sometimes new activities will be added in for a little variety, but the same general format is always followed. We generally accept this because it's the way it's always been done. And it's likely the way we learned, so we have a degree of false confidence in the efficacy of the methodology.

But what if there's a better way?

In the world of professional education, teachers are always experimenting with new ideas (or revisiting old ideas), tweaking their methods, and always striving to do the greatest good for the widest swath of students who come through our classroom. This results in a slew of empirically-confirmed teaching methods (which we call "pedagogy") that teachers employ in the classroom. Over my twenty years in education, I've become intimately familiar with this system. It works fairly well for most students (which is impressive considering how many kids genuinely hate going to school), but is absolutely fabulous for the kids who are motivated to learn.

We don't do that too much in the jits world, though. I've encountered a VERY small number of people who seriously consider HOW they teach, but the vast majority of us are way more concerned about WHAT we teach. We just keep doing what's always been done while taking very few pedagological risks. The sad part? It's not all that hard to make some really simple tweaks to our teaching that could make a huge impact on student learning. Here are a few ideas:

  1.  Give students access to video of whatever we're teaching that class. A short, simple three minute video explaining the concept or technique we're teaching that students could view before class will help the student prepare for learning the concept or technique in class. Viewing the same video after class will also help reinforce the points made in class. This is especially important if there are a fair number of details involved. 
  2. Get a white board. Write your daily goals and agenda on the board for students to see before and during class. We learn significantly faster when we know what we're learning and why we're learning it. We also retain the information better. We also learn better when we know what to expect. It gives training a very specific purpose. I've been doing this in my psychology classes for years, and it makes a significant positive difference. 
  3. Tailoring teaching to individual students. We all learn in different ways. Some of us learn better by seeing. Some learn better by hearing. Some learn better by doing. And so on. This isn't nearly as hard as it may seem. Just pay attention to which people in your classes seem to "get it." Whatever you normally do is working for them. Now pay attention to the students who are struggling. Have a conversation with them about their experiences in school. What kinds of classes did they like most? What did their teachers do that worked well? How about their experiences outside of school when they learned other stuff? These kinds of discussions can reveal a great deal of insight to HOW they learn best. Once you're armed with that knowledge, start implementing it in your teaching. In education, we call this idea "differentiation."
  4. Add in a little variety. Pablo Celnik (2016), in a Current Biology article, described research where his team was able to reduce the time required to learn a physical motor skill by half when compared to simply repeating a task again and again (like we do when drilling a technique.) All they did was slightly modify the task. In jiu jitsu, this could be accomplished by implementing ideas like my "embracing limitations" games
  5. Show videos of experts doing the technique or demonstrating the concept in competition. Watching different people doing a technique successfully is an old sport psychology trick. Given the prevalence of jiu jitsu videos online, this should be easy. 
  6. Speaking of sport psychology... implement visuo-motor behavior rehearsal. This is just a fancy way of combining progressive relaxation with imagery, which is picturing doing a specific technique in your mind repeatedly. 
  7. Have students teach the material back to you. According to the "level of processing" hypothesis, the "deeper" we process information, the better we learn it. While this topic could be an entire blog post itself, the gist of the idea is that the more you have to think about something, the better you learn it. One of the best ways to get our students to "think" about jiu jitsu is to have them teach jiu jitsu. The reason is pretty simple - teaching material forces you to consider how others will perceive it, which forces you to really break down and contemplate the material.
  8. Use inquiry-based instruction. Inquiry-based instruction is all about triggering curiosity in your students. It works like this - the instructor guides students to develop questions about something they're interested in learning. The students then research it and present what they learned. The instructor then guides the students to reflect on what they learned and the process they used (the latter is to develop ever-more efficient methods of inquiry.) For an endeavor like jiu jitsu, this concept would be gold.
  9. Use cooperative learning to solve problems. Cooperative learning involves dividing the class into small groups, giving each group a little part of the total knowledge you want to teach, then letting the groups put it all together by teaching each other. Like #7 on the list, this forces deep processing AND collaboration (which results in deeper social bonds.)
  10. Give accurate, timely feedback. I was lucky in that I cut my jiu jitsu teeth by working with my coach in very small groups during sparsely-attended morning classes. That gave me the opportunity to ask a ton of questions AND get constant, immediate feedback. I've noticed, though, that few instructors deliberately give feedback to their students on a routine basis beyond what they're doing correctly or incorrectly with whatever technique is being taught. Something as simple as giving monthly feedback on a student's strengths and weaknesses could be incredibly valuable to their progress.
These ten items are far from an exhaustive list of all the things we can do to help our students learn more efficiently. We should look at our teaching methodologies in the same way we look at our jiu jitsu game - it's something we should always work to improve. Not only will it make us better instructors, but it will help our students become better jiu jitsu practitioners. 


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