Thursday, February 24, 2011

Training to learn

Doing is easy, learning is hard. 

In the martial arts, the teaching structure can too easily convince the student that how they are taught is how they should learn.  The act of participating can be confused with the act of learning.

The Shorin-ryu practitioner, Pat Nakata highlights this issue in a recent post on Charles Goodin's blog, where he talks of the difference between training, and training to "get it right".  How we are taught or shown something is not necessarily the best way for us to learn it, or to learn from it.  Learning is ultimately intrinsic to the individual, and not something that can be delivered by anyone else.  I see this in my own profession of secondary education; in a classroom, students can all too easily fall into the trap of thinking that if they copy something down, they are learning.  It comes as a rude shock to their system when they find in an exam or applied situation that all they learned to do by copying, was how to copy!  Modern teaching is as much about teaching students how to learn as it is about curriculum delivery.

Learning, for me, is the combined comprehension, retention, understanding and application of information in both standard and novel forms.   Until a learner can use something, and create or synthesise with it, they cannot be truly said to have learnt it. 

Learning is a complex set of skills that usually need to be taught (learned?) and practised until they become automatic and innate.  I find the following some of the more important and applicable skills in becoming an effective learner:

  • Reworking information.  Whether it be a written passage, or a physical skill, finding a different way to put the same thing.  For instance, going home after a training session and trying to write a description of the new technique or kata that was covered in as much detail as possible.  Or, if having practised something on the right-hand side only, practise it on the left-hand side.  A corollary of this approach is to find new ways to rework old or familiar material:  do a kata in reverse order, practise throws with the eyes closed,  spar southpaw instead of orthodox.

  • Break things down to build them up.  In any complex piece of information or experience, there are many things going on.  Being able to separate out the different components allows the learner to identify those components that are functioning well, or are already understood, and those that need more work.

  • Finding the "essence".  What is the ultimate aim of the exercise?  What is expected to be learnt from it?  Identifying that gives the learner a sound starting point.  This "essence" in karate, incidentally, may change for the same exercise depending on the level of the person asking the question, or may be only one of several "essences".  This is slightly different from...

  • Finding the context.  How does the information in this lesson fit with that of the preceding lesson, and within the greater scheme of the curriculum/body of learning?  If you know where it should go, it makes understanding and being able to use it a lot easier.  This is related, and leads on to...

  • Link new information to existing knowledge and understandings.  Making connections and seeing patterns (and seeing non-patterns, which is harder to do, but just as important) speeds up the learning process, assists in later recall and application of the information, and can lead to more complete understandings.  "That's just like…" and "that looks like, but is totally different from…" are equally valid ways of making connections.  And when something is totally new and different from anything previously encountered, it is important to be able to know and understand that.

  • Practicing mindfully.  As Pat Nakata says in his post mentioned above, doing the same thing wrong 1000 times just ingrains bad habits.  When reviewing material, thinking about the "how" is vitally important.   In karate this can take many different forms, such as consciously isolating an area of body movement (ie. weight distribution, pelvic tilt, elbows in, where the eyes focus) to concentrate on while training, to taking a principle-based approach to a training session (ie. concentrating on initial off-balancing of a partner, rather than the technique as such, or fluidity, or kime), or concentrating on the mechanics of the technique (ie. "so this hand does this, while my hips do that and my legs are doing…")

  • Take responsibility.  No-one else is responsible for giving you learning or knowledge, not even if you pay them.  Don't expect them to, don't ask them to take on that responsibility.  You, and only you are responsible.  But don't let this approach stop you from…

  • Asking questions.  I put this one last because it all the above should happen first (even if only fleetingly) before the learner starts asking questions.  The only bad question is one that hasn't had thought put in to it.  Just as in practising, questioning needs to be carried out in a mindful manner.  One good, thoughtful question, after reflection and analysis, is worth more than a thousand superficial questions.

The stimulus for this post was a small incident that happened at training this week, where I was working on a joint-locking flow drill with my instructor.  I was meant to be stretching him out with one arm and attacking the neck (and his balance) with the other.  I wasn't having success at attacking his neck, and he told me so, but I still couldn't do it once told.

So, I looked at why I couldn't - his shoulder (he's half a foot taller than me) was in the way (break it down).  In order to do it, I should have off-balanced more on the previous move (find the context), which while successful, had been unsuccessful in setting up the next part.  Why hadn't that worked? When sinking, I was putting my weight forward into the balls of my feet, instead of through the heels (linking with previous understanding).  This took me about 20 seconds, and a little conversation with my sensei, and lo and behold, I could do it just fine, instead of getting frustrated or trying to force the technique. Learning had occurred.

This got me thinking about how knowing how to learn can make a difference between progress and frustration, hence this post.

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