Monday, October 14, 2019

Jiu Jitsu Three Minute Hack #3: Co-Teaching

Co-teaching is a concept that isn't new in the field of education, but is virtually unheard of in jiu jitsu. The idea is that two (or possibly more) teachers share the responsibility for teaching all of the students in any given class. Two instructors working in tandem confers several important benefits to our students. Different instructors have different teaching styles, which will resonate with different students. At the most fundamental level, co-teaching increases the effectiveness of BOTH teachers to the benefit of the students.

My first glimpse of the idea came when Shelly and I visited our "home" gym, San Diego Fight Club and took a class taught by Nick Oliver (for whom we know well) and Gary Padilla (for whom we had just met.) They were teaching the class together, and it was really cool (and effective) to have both of them explaining and demonstrating technique. We've been to many classes under Nick; he's an excellent teacher. But Gary's input made him even better.

Fast forward about three months.

When we started this school year (I teach high school), myself and several teachers started a co-teaching pilot program for our culturally and linguistically-diverse students (usually kids who are recent immigrants and speak little to no English.) Being the psychology dork I am, I immediately started day-dreaming about the possibilities of this co-teaching model in our bjj school. The memories of Nick and Gary seamlessly teaching that class a few months earlier was all the push I needed to give the idea a shot.

Around the same time, serendipity struck when we got a new member - Mike Gorski - a VERY experienced purple belt who has been doing jiu jitsu for twenty years. He's basically a human jiu jitsu encyclopedia who's knowledge is both incredibly deep AND broad. He has traveled far and wide, trained all over the place, and absorbed anything and everything he could from those experiences.

In short, he was the perfect co-teacher for this particular experiment. Over the last few weeks, we've been experimenting with teaching class together. While it's still in the early stages, the results have been even better than I expected. The students who have been attending these classes are already seeing HUGE leaps in their game despite the fact that the co-teaching is pretty rough right now because we're still very early in the experimental stage.

In the near future, I'll be testing four different models of co-teaching. Here are the four variations:

Supportive Co-Teaching

In this model, one teacher take the lead role and the other teacher plays a supportive role. The lead teacher does most of the instruction and the supportive teacher steps in to clarify, answer questions, and collect "data" (maybe by observing and taking notes) on what works and what doesn't work. That data will then be used to make future classes better.

One potential downside to this model is an unequal distribution of the workload. The lead teacher will end up doing most of the work. Another potential downside is unused expertise. The support teacher may have significant contributions they could make, but their supportive role limits the opportunity for them to share.

Parallel Co-Teaching

In this model, the class is divided in half and each teacher teaches their group. The teachers may swap groups at some point. In this model, both teachers get to share their expertise with students. Because the groups are smaller, there's also more opportunity to address student questions. This model also offers the cool possibility of developing a degree of intra-gym competitiveness between the two groups, which would be fun!

The potential problems with this model are time and noise. Coordinating the time needed to cover techniques may vary, which presents a challenge. Noise would be a concern if the students are in the same room, though this is easy enough to correct with respectful behavior.

Complementary Co-Teaching

In this model, both teachers play an active role in instruction. This is the model we've been playing with right now, only I framed it like Mike is the play-by-play guy and I am the color commentator (an analogy for you sports fans.) This model polls the expertise of both teachers, and gives the students two complimentary perspectives on the same material.

The negative of this system is coordination. This model takes some practice as each teacher adapts to the format. Because it requires close coordination, this model requires clearly-defined roles. This model also requires both teachers to be familiar with the techniques and concepts. 

Team Co-Teaching

In this model, teachers coordinate who does what, and teachers swap lead and support roles repeatedly throughout the class. This model requires A LOT of coordination. As such, this one's probably a bit complex unless the teachers are really familiar with each other.

The biggest down side to this model is planning - it takes a significant amount of planning to seamlessly teach a class this way.


Over the next few months, we'll be experimenting with these four models. I'm pretty stoked; co-teaching is a blast and, at least in the very early stages, shows incredible potential to make our classes significantly more effective.

If any of my readers own a school or teach at a school, give the ideas a try and let me know how it goes. I would LOVE to hear your feedback and experiences! Just shoot me an email to with the subject heading CO-TEACHING.



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Friday, October 11, 2019

Kids' Table Follow-Up

Welp, that was interesting.

In my last post, I outlined an idea Shelly and I were experimenting with regarding our kids jiu jitsu classes (the original post was published on our gym's website blog.) The idea spawned from one of our most significant issues we've had since transitioning between ourselves and Garrick, the previous owner. Originally, I planned on running the experiment for a month. However, the flaws in the idea sprang up almost immediately, which led us to the decision to shut it down.

The gist of the original issue?

We simply do not have the time or physical space to develop the kind of kids jiu jitsu program that would produce the kind of jiu jitsu students we want to produce. And we don't have a coach with the qualifications, availability, and desire to work with small children. If we had more physical space, which is a problem we'll resolve in the near future, this issue would be moot because we DO have coaches who would do an excellent job... but their availability is problematic.

But that doesn't help us today.

This was the impetus behind the "kid's table" experiment. We basically ran the kids bjj class and adult bjj class at the same time. We ran the experiment for three class periods - once last week and two days this week. The results? There were some clear successes and clear failures. Let's start with the successes.

The Good

  • The kids liked it. The feedback I received from parents was positive. The kids seemed to enjoy being part of the adult class, probably for the reason I mentioned in the original article. This fact alone assures we'll revisit the idea again in the future. 
  • Kids were exposed to higher level jiu jitsu. Jiu jitsu is a complex sport, and planting seeds of future progress early on is an excellent way to facilitate growth in the future. Psychologically, it gives kids a road map of sorts to where the future will take them.
  • Having small children in class was sort of inspiring. Watching kids be kids always makes you feel a little younger and is a powerful reminder of the importance of play.

The Bad

  • The adults were kinda "meh."As it turns out, a lot of adults go to jiu jitsu as an escape from the responsibilities of parenting and the noise of small children. Running the classes concurrently diminished the quality of the adult class.
  • The kids were exposed to a higher level of jiu jitsu. The kids were generally incapable of following the complexity of the techniques that we taught in class. They simply aren't at a stage of cognitive development that allows them to process and retain the complex steps of the adult bjj instruction. This forces the instructors to either simplify the techniques and short-change the adults, or risk sabotaging the kids' motivation to do jiu jitsu by making it too difficult. In child psychology terms, we were surpassing their optimal zone of proximal development (Thanks Vygotsky!) Further, we had little or no opportunity to differentiate the instruction in a way that wouldn't take a looooong time during class, which would once again short-change the adults.
  • The crowded mats made some activities extremely difficult. This was more of an issue with the kids than the adults. Kids need space to move, run, jump, and play. Our first attempt to fix this problem involved setting up a small mat space in an adjacent room. Those mats were too small, so we moved the kids to one end of our main mat space. Again, this proved to be too small to be effective. This is a problem that we won't be able to solve until we find a larger space.
  • The kids were really distracted by the adults. Keeping little kids on task is an art (which I personally do not possess... it's really hard work.) The adults at the other end of our mats proved to be far too distracting, which had a significant negative effect on the kids' actual learning.
  • Our kids coaches lost autonomy. This is the real deal-breaker. Because the adult class is the higher priority (way more students), the adult class drives the class. This forces the kids coach to work with and around the adults, which dramatically affects the efficacy of the kids class. 

Possible Future Ideas

It goes without saying, but we have to axe the "Thanksgiving Dinner Table" model, at least for the immediate future. Next week, we'll be re-instituting our separate kids classes and adult classes. The experiment was a net fail, but we DID learn a ton of good information we can use to tweak the idea in the near future. Here are some possible ideas:

  • Hold a "Family Class." Since all of our kids have parents who train, we could solve a lot of the issues from above without sacrificing any of the benefits by holding a weekly or bi-weekly "family class" in addition to our regular kids and adult classes. We'd develop a simple curriculum, teach it much like any other class, and have parents work with their kids. Then maybe have a snack afterward (ala Little League games.) 
  • Hold separate-but-concurrent classes with VERY limited interaction. This idea is predicated on acquiring a bigger space. Most of our problems stemmed from too much overlap between the classes, but space necessitated that. If we had more space, we could feasibly have one part of class specifically dedicated to adult/ kid interactions.
  • Implement a Big Brother/ Big Sister-esque Program. Okay this one's a little out there, but I actually got the idea from a Boys and Girls Club my kids attended for years when we lived in San Diego. Pair each child up with an older child/teen who has demonstrated the ability to serve as a role model. The role model could answer questions, show technique, model appropriate behavior in class and in the gym, etc. This could be of benefit for both the younger and older child. 


 Creative experimentation sometimes results in resounding successes. Sometimes it results in abysmal failures. That's the inherent risk of being open to innovation. This particular experiment was somewhere in the middle. Importantly, it provided valuable feedback for future experimentation. 

For coaches and gym owners who may read this, consider giving the ideas a go. If you do, contact me (Jason) at with the subject of "THANKSGIVING TABLE EXPERIMENT". This idea has some clear potential; we're just not yet in a place where it'll result in the kind of success I expect. Some of y'all may have some significant improvements or other ideas for experimentation; I'd LOVE to hear your thoughts!



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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Jiu Jitsu Three Minute Hack #2: The Kids' Table Experiment and Child Psychology

Kids' classes are always a conundrum. While it's fun and fulfilling to teach jiu jitsu to receptive kid who have a deep, intrinsic motivation to do the sport, the kids who aren't really into it are a mental and emotional drain. It's basically like teaching world geography to freshmen in a public high school. 

<looks around innocently>

In the traditional martial arts studio business model, kids classes are basically the cash cow that keeps the doors open. The formula is pretty straight-forward: Offer parents a low rates at convenient times, the parents drop their kids off for an hour or two of babysitting, and you'll tire them out with some hyped-up games you either learned from elementary school PE class or found on Youtube.
"Hey, look. Sharks and Minnows. How very creative."

While this formula is handy for lining pockets of the owner, it ignores anything and everything we know about child psychology. The result? We end up with a whole lotta kids who, as future out-of-shape adults, can say they "tried jiu jitsu for a few months when I was a kid." Basically that McDojo's kids' program ruined martial arts for them because it treated the martial arts as if it were some sort of medicine that requires stupid playground games to be palatable.

No thank you. 

We can do better. We have an entire universe of published research on the nuances of child psychology. We know what it takes to create and maintain a high level of intrinsic motivation, yet we still rely on ineffective and even damaging strategies that rely on extrinsic motivators like giving belt promotions every day that ends in "Y." 

The solution isn't complicated, it just requires a bit of knowledge about the nature of human motivation. And there's no more basic idea than "humans want what they can't have." All we need to do is make our martial art elusive. Almost every martial art teacher I've met completely ignores this very basic rule by forcing the martial art on kids. Or worse, creating an environment where parents can easily force the martial art on their kids. That's a recipe for disaster. In my two decades of teaching and coaching kids ranging from three to eighteen, I can unequivocally say this situations ends in disappointment and resentment 100% of the time. 

So how do we use this magical scarcity principle? How do we make our kid's classes more elusive?

Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Independence Day party I've ever attended had an adults table and a kids table. Most of us have probably experienced sitting at that kid's table. You're just sitting there eating your lumpy mashed potatoes and over-cooked turkey, watching the adults laughing and having fun, just waiting until the day when you were old enough to graduate to the Big Leagues. You WANTED to sit at the adult table, and the anticipation was killing you! 

So there's the answer. Set up classes like Thanksgiving dinner. Make a kid's table. Figuratively, of course. Run your kids class concurrently with your adults class. Set up a mat area away from your main mat area, and let the kids train there during the adults class. Let the kids see the adults laughing and having fun... but keep them at a distance. Maybe give them an occasional taste, but make it clear they're not ready for the adults class until they can prove they're mature enough to handle it.
So why would this model be so different? 

This model leans on a primal drive all kids have - the desire to be a grown-up. It doesn't rely on crappy "motivators" like begging, pleading, scolding, yelling, bribing, giving weekly belt promotions, or playing crab soccer. As adults, we experience hedonic adaptation when we reach adulthood and forget just how much we wanted to grow up. We forget swearing whenever we were out of earshot of adults. We forget wearing makeup as a tween (my nod to both of my female readers.) We forget taking that swig of warm beer our dad left in the can. We forget how we would do anything to be big.
The real beauty of the idea is that desire to join the adult class will only grow over time, which gives the class instructors ample options to help regulate the kids' behaviors based on the specific criteria kids need to meet to get to the adult class. Teaching kids classes often feels like herding cats. It doesn't have to be like that. Age and ability is obvious, but you could also use knowledge of rules and procedures. The kids have to know how classes are run, why they're run that way, and how to behave in those classes. Or whatever you think is important. 

Will this model work for all kids? Absolutely not. There are always going to be those kids just don't give a crap and would rather be doing interpretive dance or badminton. No model is going to work for all kids. 

Over the next month, we'll be experimenting with this format. Part of it is done for logistics, but the main reason is to try to make a better kids class experience, especially for kids who have a genuine love for jiu jitsu. The current "martial arts kids class" model ain't doing these kids any favors, so why not try to create something better?

If any of my readers give this model a try, come back and leave a comment and tell us how it went! This idea has potential, but it's very new and untested. Lots of kinks to work out. Give it a shot.


Jiu Jitsu Three Minute Hack #3: Co-Teaching

Co-teaching is a concept that isn't new in the field of education, but is virtually unheard of in jiu jitsu. The idea is that two...