October 13, 2005

Manuals and Curriculum

Hmmm - I'm getting to wonder whether I should be writing this in my taekwon-do blog or my work-related edublog but since the thought processes and content have come directly from interactions with my taekwon-do Instructor and fellow students, it really should go here.

Because my background is in academia, particularly in cognitive neuroscience and, for want of a better term, "educational design / pedagogy", I have been encouraging my Instructor to provide more written materials for students to "study" at home to reinforce what they learn in class. Being an older student and academic by nature, I needed to see most things written down in order to understand them and practice them, and I found many interesting resources on the web. Fairly early on, I bought the Condensed Encyclopedia, and it was an excellent investment. Also, being a parent of a child learning taekwon-do, I wanted to be able to "help" my child practice and study correctly, on the assumption that my child would not be concentrating and therefore would miss half of what was said in class, and would practise the wrong things if he practised at all.

We have a pretty clearly set out grading manual, which explains what we need to know for each belt level, but it doesn't have the intimate details of each pattern, nor does it have details on each technique. For that level of detail, we are encouraged to buy the Encyclopedia. When I think back to how I dealt with the lack of detailed written information that I felt I needed to help my son get the best out of taekwon-do classes, I had two approaches.

1) I attended the classes too so I could listen and learn and know what he had to practise.

2) Before I bought the encyclopedia, I put together my own set of notes from the web to support what I was learning in class, and to break down the higher level things into the level of detail I thought I needed.

What I am beginning to see more clearly now that I am assisting with classes for young children in a school environment, and my own child is older and self-directed in his learning and practice, is the bigger picture with respect to listening, learning and practice. These are things I know theoretically, but have not really carried through to the practical stage. (If you don't want to read the longer version, the bottom line is that the kids need to want to learn themselves, not because their parents want them to. And if they want to learn, they need to know to listen and practice themselves, not have their parents do it by proxy. If they don't want to learn, perhaps we need to look at what we model for them as parents, rather than what we actually tell them to do.)

1) The parents of some of the children want to have notes from the classes so they can help their kids practise at home. This is a good motive.

2) They want their kids to practise because they see their kids "falling behind" their classmates. This is where it becomes interesting ... the kids don't like other kids getting better than them, especially when some of the other kids are physically less naturally talented. Parents also don't want their kid to "fall behind" even though they want them to learn "at their own pace". Everyone wants to be the best at everything (good - although maybe I mean "do their best" rather than "be the best" ...) without necessarily wanting to do the work that goes with it (bad).

3) If the kids do extra practice at home, they will perform better in class and they will "do better" and move up the line and then feel better about themselves. We probably all agree they will perform their movements better, but they will only feel better about themselves if they care about their taekwon-do movements (good) or if position in the line is important to them (bad if they don't care about taekwon-do per se).

So although we agree that as a general rule practice is good, we probably also agree that the way to learn is to listen carefully to the Instructor in class. And we want them to learn to listen and concentrate. And we want them to do it at their own pace and not to feel pressure to keep up with anyone else, but to always try to better themselves. At least that's what we say ...

But when they are not ready to do it themselves, we want to take the short-cuts on their behalf and do it for them so they never have to feel the frustration of not knowing something when some of their peers do know it. We are very concerned that if our kids "fall behind" everyone else, that they will feel bad and not want to keep going. And undoubtedly, our kids are perfectly aware of our anxiety and disappointment on their behalf and it is actually us as parents that reinforce the idea that, if "their own pace" is a bit slower than that of their age-group peers in something, they are duds.

If we have notes on what the kids need to learn, there is another risk that I am only just understanding in this different domain although it is one of my major hobby horses in academia. When we list the things for assessment, or some specific things people "need to know", they become focussed on learning those things, rather than seeing them as representative of the type of knowledge expected of someone at a particular level in a discipline. And we then fixate on specific things that "prove" our achievement rather than on being rounded martial artists.

And sometimes we focus on special tricks that will let us perform better on specific tasks but will not improve us in the discipline itself. And from outside of the discipline, we might see better ways of teaching the things that will be assessed to improve test performance, without understanding the bigger picture of how to learn the whole martial art. We become instant experts in how to do something despite only have the limited view of the children we know trying to learn something we don't know ourselves.

So where am I going with this?

I have realised a few things.

1) I started taekwon-do to help my son make the most of it, and to make sure it was the sort of martial arts environment I was happy for him to be in.

2) I immersed myself in taekwon-do because after listening to my Instructor and reading the web and the Encyclopedia, I was hooked and *I* wanted to learn it myself.

When I practised (myself because I wanted to practise), quite often my son would practise too. When I left taekwon-do related material lying around on the coffee table, my son would read it and study it. Yet if I ever asked him to practise or to study something for a grading, he would point-blank refuse - kids don't like being told to do stuff especially if thtey are told it is "good for them". But they are naturally curious and competitive.

3) I advanced more quickly through the belts than my son because I listened to the Instructor and I practised a lot. My son would have stopped lessons mid way through (around blue belt) if I had let him - our deal was he would do it for three years if he started it at all, and I held him to that. Towards the end of the three years, he was starting to enjoy it again for himself, not for me.

His practice and study are now unrelated to what I do, except that he knows that if he tries, he can do anything that I can do better than I can do it. But I've done some things that he is yet to do ... which bugs him, in a good way :-) The presence of a free standing punching bag means that he practises as often as he wants and the encyclopedia and internet means he can access as much info as he requires to understand what he is doing.

4) We can train together not because I am a parent who can make him study and make him want to do better and be proud of himself, but because I am a fellow taekwon-do student with him.

I have helped him most by being living proof that practice leads to improvement, and that you can learn to do things over time that you couldn't do at the beginning, that it's okay to learn more slowly than other people, that there are many different components to being a martial artist, etc etc

I have also demonstrated (not deliberately !!) the various phases one goes through in learning something, especially the inevitable frustration with the Instructor. At some point where you can almost do something, but not quite, you often feel like the Instructor is just not telling you something for their own amusement ... and then when finally everything clicks into place, you realise they had told you all you needed and you just weren't doing it properly ... d'oh!!!

This frustration phase of wanting to murder your Instructor is probably the best phase for a parent to model to their kids (again, not intentionally - you can't fake it, because it is the real depth emotion that matters !!). How often have we seen our kids frustrated about something, and sat in the seat of parenthood, pontificating about "phases" and "listen to your teacher / parent" and "just do as they / I say and stop thinking you know everything"

It can be good for a child to see their own parent being humbled by something they can't do, being frustrated by the Instructor, seeing both sides of the story (but Mum, you're not doing it properly ...)

It is very important for them to see the reaction (and it's important that the reaction eventually be constructive !!) If they see their parent working hard enough to master something difficult (at least to a certain degree) and then feel a sense of pride in their parent because they know how hard their parents worked to learn something ... it's a great lesson all round.

Where does that leave me?

As parents, we want to ensure that our kids have an opportunity to try everything. We want them to be good at everything. We want them to learn as much as possible and so long as they are happy, so are we.

But mastering new things involves an inevitable phase of frustration when new ideas or new movements are still taking shape.

I contend that that phase has to happen for true mastery of something difficult.

Being tired and frustrated and not wanting to continue is an important phase of learning and when the new thing is learnt, there is an exhilaration of achievement that matches the level of effort that went into that phase. So if you don't struggle to learn something, you don't appreciate achievement in that domain in the same way. And you don't "own" the knowledge.

And if you never learn how to deal with the frustration because you never have to take responsibility for it and someone always steps in and gets you over it, you will not be well-equipped to cope with adult life.

So this is a critical part of the learning process, and a critical part of the mental discipline side of a martial art.

Does that mean there is no place for written teaching material in teaching taekwon-do? I don't think so. I think that all it means is that I've begun to understand the real problem with written material aimed at allowing the parents to "help" their kids.

Parents can help their kids best by watching them in the classes and listening to what their kids have been told and shown. If they don't have time for that, they can help their kids research what they need to know, or have their kids explain what they remember. The kids need to know that they are learning things that their parents *don't* know (how cool is that for some kids?!), and parents need to remember that the act of explaining things is an act of building that knowledge into their own picture of the world.

This has been written in response to one of the teenage students wanting my help to put together some stuff for the parents so they can help the younger kids practise. I've realised that the major learning here is for the student putting together the material (learning by having to think about how to teach) rather than in producing materials for the parents themselves. And at some level it is not helpful to the kids to have their parents helping them - taekwon-do expertise does not derive from age, but from belt-level - ie from the amount of training and learning in taekwon-do itself.

Our Instructor is trying to instil into the kids the ability to think for themselves, to ask questions, to find answers within themselves as well as around them and to be self-motivated in what they do. It is one of those wonderful paradoxes of parenting and teaching that you can't *teach* self-motivation. You can only encourage it, and I contend that you can only encourage it by being passionate about what you do, and inspiring others by your passion.

I have had the privilege to have been inspired by an excellent and passionate Instructor who understands the essence of teaching and is a master of what he teaches at a time when I am trying to understand in an academic framework what is special about teaching and learning and what constitutes "best practice" in that area.

The research suggests quality in teaching and learning is about the teacher-student interaction and communication rather than about disembodied content but of course "quality audits" focus on what is easily measured and disembodied content (the "curriculum") is easy to examine "objectively". For me, the introspection as a student and trainee-teacher in the context of an expert Instructor teaching all ages and abilities has been invaluable.

Posted by lzwise at October 13, 2005 11:19 AM