Posts tagged ‘education’

Read this book.

The Underground History of American Education, by John Taylor gatto.

You don’t of course have to agree with it. Personally I felt like it was putting into words a lot of things I had felt for a long time. You don’t even have to buy it; the entire text is online (I personally prefer real books, and this has driven my highlighter very nearly dry) My overall impression was that Gatto thoroughly supported most of his points, often with quotes of people expressing their desire to do exactly what he is accusing them of. Even if your views differ, the grand sweep of history, psychology, religion, economics, and of course schooling will probably give you at least a few new perspectives on things.

Of course, maybe there won’t be so much new material for some people. I freely admit to squandering my college education, and not making very much of elementary, either. Of course that is precisely the point of the book – the purpose of the school system is to dull minds, not to sharpen them. It took five or six years away from schooling before I started to really thirst for knowledge.

The book covers so much ground that I can’t hope to do it justice here. One of the basic premises is that there are a number of different ways that the world can operate. Through the interaction of various different processes, the dominant world view has become safety and science. This gives us the wonders of industrial society, all our medicines, our computers, SUVs, TVs and movies. The price is tight, stifling, hierarchic control. One of the major tools used to promote this world view is the mandatory school system, which turns the great majority of people into predictable, interchangeable parts accustomed to being told what to do.

The opposite world view is total freedom and self-responsibility – which entails a healthy dose of risk. This is the world view that America was founded on. The transformation into it’s opposite view has been a slow and ponderous process; so slow that very few people noticed what was happening.


Another martial arts test, another essay…


Herein I shall present a definition of teaching in my own words. I shall then examine the necessary implications of this definition. An examination shall be made of the necessary conditions for the establishment of the teacher-student relationship, and the process of teaching that results.

A definition of teaching

While a person may learn from an accidental or passive event, one who sets out to engage in a field of endeavor, such as martial arts, may be considered an active participant in the learning process. Likewise, while learning may occur from passive sources, such as books, the term teach implies to me an active participant, the teacher. We thus have (at least) two active participants, engaged in a process which I shall describe as the transmittal of knowledge or skills. The full definitions is thus:

Transmittal of knowledge or skills from teacher to student.

There exists a number of implications of this definition. One is that the teacher has something the student does not. Furthermore, the student must have some motivation to seek this education, and the teacher must have some motivation to give it. Finally, a process must occur by which the desired skills or knowledge is transmitted. We shall examine each of these points in detail.

The teacher has something the student does not

Implicit in the student-teacher relationship is that the student has something to gain from the relationship, which can be obtained from the teacher. If the student were superior, their roles would be reversed. Indeed, if their experience and interpretations of it were precisely equal, not only would there be no student-teacher relationship, the two people would likely have nothing to talk about. In the more likely case of equal, but unique experience, two people may have a lively discussion, but the roles of teacher and student would change so often that they would not be meaningful labels.

The teacher as student

Even in the typical case where the teacher is very knowledgeable in the domain of interest and the student is not, the teacher (or, at least, a good teacher) will be open to related experience of the student that may help him integrate the new material. The student may also be skilled in another domain that synergizes with the material at hand. In many cases the nominal teacher will learn something new about his own area of expertise, or the least a new way of presenting it that may assist other students.

In fact, every lesson is another experiment in the process of teaching itself. By trying various methods and observing their effects, the teacher is continually a student of being a better teacher.

Meanwhile, the very fact that the teacher possesses some skill or knowledge now sought by the student carries with it the implication that the teacher once had to learn the material himself. Most typically this will be from being a student himself, in which case he may have also learned some lessons in teaching from observation. Unless the teacher plans on a finite relationship with the student, he must be continually learning himself, in order to maintain his position as having greater experience than the student.

Secondary lessons

The role of teacher usually carries with it a position of authority. It is very often the case that young children are being instructed by older adults. This offers an opportunity to provide implicit or explicit lessons in areas of habits or morality – and carries with it the great responsibility to do so wisely and ethically. Some lessons are of direct relevance to the task at hand, such as paying attention, thinking critically, and applying oneself to the task at hand. Others are simply virtues that the teacher wishes to see in all his fellow human beings – honesty, integrity, perseverance, and so on.

The student has some motivation to receive it

The student has some reason for taking on that role. This is almost so implicit that it could easily escape statement. Yet understanding these motivations can help us be better teachers.

It is easily observed that some students take more interest in their studies than others. For these enthusiastic students, it may be advisable to be cautious with change – the appear to love what we are doing. Observation of what these students respond to can still be useful in determining techniques that do work.

The less enthusiastic students are often on our minds, however. Here it can be vitally important to pay attention to where their interest waxes and wanes. It is also useful to look out for secondary motivations that might be brought into play.

Student Motivations

An experienced teacher might be able to list many motivations, in ever more precise categories. Here I will survey only a few of the more obvious ones. They range from noble goals such as self-improvement and curiosity, to others such as fear or duty.

Perhaps one of the most common reasons for engaging in the martial arts is self improvement. Frequently cited benefits include exercise (an industry in itself), safety, coordination, and self confidence. Students motivated by self improvement may be dedicated but not excited – they know that the material is good for them, but may not be totally interested in the material for it’s own sake.

Students motivated by curiosity, or subject interest, may come in with high energy in the beginning. Some of them may become Dis-enchanted after seeing how reality compares to the movies, or how much work is involved. Others are beginning a life-long career in martial arts.

Some students may be motivated by fear of or duty to parents or peers. In this case finding a more positive motivation will be critical to the students success and enjoyment. Failing that, the best thing for the student may be improving his confidence enough to stand up for himself.

The teacher has some motivation to give it.

Another basic but easily overlooked fact is that the teacher must have some motivation to take on that role. As with the teacher knowing the student’s motivation, the student may find it useful to understand the teacher’s motivation for teaching. Perhaps more importantly, a teacher should understand his own motivations to make the best of the experience.

Teacher motivations

The motivations for teachers cover a similar breadth and set of subjects as those for students. These once gain range from noble ambitions such as self improvement and charity to less well regarded reasons such as compulsion and profit.

The teacher may be teaching to learn. By covering basic material again, he is reviewing the foundational principals of his discipline, which form the basis of everything else. Finding where students have trouble also encourages the teacher to look for clearer or more powerful ways of explaining the material. A possible peril is that such a teacher will see each student as a puzzle to solve, but not have genuine empathy for his struggle with the material.

Many people say they teach simply because they love to teach. These people may enjoy the student teacher interaction itself. Or they may believe that the future lies with the next generation, who must be properly prepared to take the wheel when their time comes. These are the teachers that are most likely to put the student first and genuinely work for his success.

Much as with students, various forms of compulsion may bring one into teaching. Teaching hours are a requirement for advanced degrees. A martial arts instructor may order or ask advanced students to help the school. These teachers are most likely to put forth minimal effort.

A related motivation may be money, either for survival, as with a public school teacher, or with an eye to profit, as with a martial arts school. Thankfully charitable motivations are often present in the survival case, and profit minded teachers at least have an interest in the student’s satisfaction.

A process must occur by which the desired skills or knowledge are transmitted

Finally, the actual teaching must occur. The knowledge or skills sought by the student are transferred by some process from the teacher. Here, we attempt to come to a cursory understanding of this process. I propose to break it down into a basic teaching method (or combination of methods) augmented with any number teaching or learning technologies (habits, lesson plans, student profiles, and so on.)

Teaching methods

By teaching method I mean the most basic and broad scale format of the instruction. Different teaching methods may or may not be more or less effective in general; this is beyond the scope of this essay. What is quite likely that is that different methods are more or less suited to individual students and teachers. I shall examine two classes of methods, those lead by the teacher, and those led by the student.

Teacher led

These methods have the instructor as the primary active participant. The students may be anywhere from totally passive to only becoming active when requested by the instructor. Relative to the student led methods, these are better suited to high student to teacher ratios.

Lecture is one of the most time honored methods of academic instruction. Also one of the most infamous, with a reputation for causing drowsiness. Indeed, very little of lecture is lost by reading a book – the student is very nearly passive, with the exception of possible question opportunities. Thankfully, in the martial arts very little of our material lends itself to this format. Still, it is a valuable tool for certain concepts that cannot be easily demonstrated.

The method of question and answer was popularized as dialectic by the Greek philosophers. In this method the teacher questions the student and elicits a response, thereby coming to know where the student’s strengths and weaknesses are. With continued questions and proposals, the teacher leads the student to the desired goal in the student’s own time, and by the student’s own understanding. Thus, the student will hopefully understand not only the final conclusion, but the method to reach it, as well as the critical thinking used to solve similar problems. In the martial arts, this method may be more useful in the advanced ranks for concept building, rather than in the basic classes where we primarily build skills.

Example and imitation is an immensely relevant method to a skill based discipline such as the martial arts. The instructor provides an example, and the student, through observation and practice, attempts to come closer to the instructor’s perfect (or at least better) example. Mixed well with attempt and critique (described below) it can create an effective feedback loop.

Student led

These methods have the student as the primary driver behind the teaching process. Rather than the teacher’s pushing the knowledge to the students, the students pull his particular areas of interest from the teachers. These methods work best with only one student at a time, and in complex disciplines may even support multiple specialized teachers, such as with our weapons curriculum.

In attempt and critique, the student creates a performance of the material. The instructor then provides a critique of where the student’s strengths and weaknesses with the material lie. This methods combines well other methods such as teacher led question and answer, where the teacher requests and attempt, example and imitation, where the critique takes the form of correct example, and student led question and answer, where the student requests a critique.

In student led question and answer, the student takes primary responsibility for his own education, and the teacher places himself at the student’s disposal as a primary tool for the student to reach his goal. Of course, the teacher will often suggest interesting tangents and further directions even when the student doesn’t specifically request them.

Teaching technologies

Teaching technologies is a catch all term for a dizzying array different educational aids. Given the vast breadth of the subject I shall only touch upon it. Included under this term are habits, lesson plans, and student profiles, as well as learning technologies employed by the students. By technologies I mean various techniques, or in short, teachers knowing how to teach, and students knowing how to learn.

Under techniques that are true teaching, or teacher’s, technologies, are such ideas as multiple intelligences and cyclical lesson plans. In many cases the jury is still out as to whether different technologies are effective. It is the task of the teacher to consider the options and discover which combination of technologies work well with his style, students, and material.

Students who know how to learn may utilize some of the techniques as teachers – such as knowing ones own multiple intelligence profile to focus on the most effective learning methods. Others fall under the subject of study habits, building up personal discipline to effectively learn the material. As with teacher’s technologies, each student must discover for himself which ones are most effective.


I have presented a definition of teaching in my own words: the transmittal of knowledge of skills from teacher to student. I have then examined the apparent consequences of this statement. There exist a teacher and a student, each of which have some motivation to enter their respective roles. The teacher has something which the student does not. Finally, a process must occur by which the desired material is transferred to the student.