Anyone who has worked in education for any length of time will be familiar with the ebb and flow of different ideas and trends in teaching much as anyone outside the profession will be accustomed to similar ‘evidence based’ public shifts and arguments in favour of different foods and diets.
We are often told we are right or wrong to do something and presented with credible looking evidence to support the case, and then it isn’t long before either the results don’t support the change or further investigation reveals undisclosed flaws or omissions in the data, or new research reveals even stronger data supporting arguments for previously established procedures.
One of the things currently back ‘in fashion’ is letting people ‘find their own way’. It is suggested that discovering solutions rather than being taught solutions leads to superior and more adaptive understanding of material, particularly with regard to physical skill sets, which in turn leads to more intuitive behaviour and skills access under pressure. It’s not an approach to which I am averse, but it is one that requires active supervision, coaching and of course will still require the transmission of knowledge through teaching. In my opinion it requires more instructor input and support than simply teaching by rote.
So how should we let students find their own way? Before I look at training in the martial arts, I’d like to explore the concept through a different medium.
Imagine having no hiking, camping or survival experience and being randomly dropped off in the middle of nowhere after a blindfolded journey and being told to get to a particular destination. Find your own way.
If you are lucky you might not need any specialist kit such as appropriate clothing layers or footwear. You might have money on you and be close enough to an established and regularly used road to hitch a lift. You might have a mobile phone and be able to hire a taxi. You would be able to get to your destination with no particular skill or guarantee that you would be able to do it again.
It’s more likely however that you would need appropriate clothing, possibly shelter equipment, water, food, a map and a compass as an expected minimum. You would also need to have the skills to be able to navigate the terrain, use the kit and improvise without it as necessary. You would want redundancies in place in case events didn’t run as smoothly as planned.
While it is possible to learn how to use a map and compass in a classroom or via video, and to practice putting up a tent in your garden in the sun, it’s no substitute for having real experience getting out onto both familiar and unfamiliar terrain and actively using the skills in all conditions. What you very quickly understand is that while it is a great tool, the map is not the territory. A map helps you navigate unfamiliar territory and illustrate it to other people to help them navigate the territory as well, but once on the ground knowledge of the map is no substitute for time spent physically navigating that territory yourself.
If you want people to navigate their own way when dropped off at random as I suggest then to give them the best chance of success you’ll teach them how to use the necessary kit, give them advice and support in getting their own, and you’ll give them lots of opportunity and support in actively trekking and getting time on the ground. This ensures that they not only have the ability to make their own decisions, but that those decisions are likely to be the best ones for them. Some people will be keen to use what they have learned to take individual routes, most of which will be trails marked out by those who have gone before. Cutting your own individual path isn’t always possible or practical: often it can expend more energy than necessary, sometimes it leads to a dead end, the route you are creating might not be legal, it might not only be more difficult but also waste a lot of your time, and it may result in you getting lost or ending up further from your destination than when you started. There are often very good reasons why a path is less well travelled. Some people are not only content to simply stick to well established paths to get to their destination but actively prefer to follow an experienced guide rather than make their own way.
It’s no different in the martial arts. You could just drop people into ‘free sparring’ and see what happens but to do so is like taking people to a random place and expecting them to find their way. Some will ‘survive’, some may even appear to thrive, but everyone will benefit from the appropriate teaching of fundamentals and supporting coaching to help them identify the optimal paths for them. There is a difference between freedom of choice and freedom of informed choice – appropriate education and experience improve decision making.
Teach fundamentals. Isolate them and integrate them in varying fixed combinations in pad work, paired training and solo exercises to help students get a good foundation. Think of fixed sparring combinations as set ‘skill teaching’ walks with a map and compass. Think of dynamic training where students are given a number of possible options from which to draw as letting them do loosely supervised walks in a known area where they can choose and change routes from a fixed number of existing criss-crossing paths and bridleways. When they make mistakes or under-perform step in, show them alternative routes they could have taken and refresh their understanding of how to exit their predicament. Use the information to help pick areas to isolate and improve for future rambles/rumbles. When they have demonstrated ability and confidence in those areas, when you have given them the skills, then you can keep expanding the options – changing the terrain for them to navigate. Keep them playing, but keep changing the nature of the game so that confidence and ability grow hand in hand.
Finding your own way or helping your students do the same requires hard work. It necessitates a combination of instruction, coaching, personal practice and research. It’s not wrong to show someone your way. It’s not necessarily wrong to simply follow another person’s path. It is great to give people the opportunity to find their own way, but be aware that letting them stumble blind can lead to a worse outcome than letting them ‘blindly’ follow someone else. If you want a person to find their own way then don’t leave them to it: give them the right skills and support to help them make informed choices at every step of the way.