Tuesday, 2 November 2010

When does a question become a challenge?

Traditionally, in Eastern cultures, the transmission of karate knowledge from generation to generation required new students to follow and copy the movements of their sensei without question and certainly without challenge. In this respect learning was passive rather than active; the student allowing their ‘cup’ to be ‘filled’ by sensei’s (often) silent teachings. Verbal communication between sensei and student was kept to a minimum and was generally one way traffic from sensei to student.

This is essentially a description of a pedagogical approach to teaching which is also widespread in the Western world, particularly in schools. In fact, pedagogical teaching methods have their origins in medieval Europe when young boys were received into the monasteries and taught by monks using methods that required the student to be submissive and obey the teacher’s instructions without question, in order that the children learned to be obedient, faithful and efficient servants of the church.

However, since the 1960’s, research into educational teaching methods with adults, much of it led by M.W Knowles, has resulted in the learning theory of andragogy. This theory is based on several assumptions about the way in which adults best learn:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking it.

2. Adults like to take responsibility for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction

3. Adult learners draw on past life experiences when making judgements about new learning experiences.

4. Adults are ready to learn those things they need to know in order to cope effectively with life situations i.e they prefer problem solving approaches to content learning methods.

5. Adults are motivated to learn when they perceive that learning to be useful to them in real life situations (and not so keen to learn things for which they perceive no value)

Essentially the theory of andragogy states that adults learn better when they are more actively engaged in the learning process and are able to take some degree of charge of it (self-directed learning)

However, martial arts continue to be taught in most systems in a pedagogical way i.e very didactic and teacher led. It is not surprising therefore that occasionally the androgogical requirements of adult learners will clash with the pedagogical approach of most instructors. This may result in much tongue biting, inappropriate questions or even challenges to the instructor’s authority.

This brings us to the main point of this post. What constitutes an inappropriate question or a challenge to the instructor? In most Western dojos these days I would imagine most instructors don’t mind answering students' questions, particularly of the nature, ‘Can you show me that again?’ or ‘I don’t quite understand why we are doing it like this, can you please explain?’

I have been trying to think at what point a question crosses the boundary from being appropriate and welcomed by the instructor to being inappropriate and unacceptable in a dojo. I think the boundary may be crossed when the question being asked is a result of ego on behalf of the student. By this I mean a question  the student is only asking because it is an opportunity to display their own knowledge/prowess. For example, ‘Why do we still do this technique like this? When I went on a course/read a book/saw a YouTube video they said it was better to do it this way.’ I think this is inappropriate because it undermines the instructor and the student is trying to display his (perception) of superior knowledge – ego motivates a question of this sort.

One of the ultimate goals of learning a traditional martial art is to free oneself from ego. It therefore represents a challenge for adults to learn martial arts in a pedagogical environment. To learn to ask only appropriate questions, the ones that actually aid your ability to lean martial arts and to refrain from those that are designed to undermine or challenge the instructor.

It’s not always easy though is it? I know that I have been guilty of asking slightly ‘challenging’ questions at times – questions I now regret asking. My instructor has always responded with good grace whilst at the same time putting me quietly in my place. On reflection, these questions have usually revealed my ignorance rather than my superior knowledge!

I think in a situation where ‘modern adults’ meet ‘traditional training methods’ there will always be some degree of tension between instructor and student. However, pedagogical training methods have stood the test of time in traditional martial arts and whether by accident or design offer a test to the student – a test of mental and spiritual strength in which the student must learn to control impulses, know when to stay silent, develop trust in their instructor, overturn previously learned bias/prejudice and rid themselves of ego.

On the other hand, the instructor must also recognise the tension or resentment that may result in the adult learner who is not allowed to express their desires or self-direct their learning according to preferences.

How easy is it to strike this balance between how the instructor wants to teach and how the adult student prefers to learn? What do you think are appropriate or inappropriate questions to be asking an instructor?
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. said...

I love your posts Sue. They always get my brain ticking!

I think asking questions is okay providing you're asking them to further your instruction - for example asking to clarify a movement in kata or asking how to improve a technique. My Shihan and Sensei certainly have no issue with me asking this kinds of questions - if fact they would rather I ask them than continue to do something blindly without understanding it. When it becomes a problem is when (as you've suggested) it becomes a vehicle to people's ego - questioning used to show off some perceived knowledge or to challenge the instructors ability.
I'm very glad my Shihan is opening to questioning on some things though - I think I'd be flumoxed otherwise!!


Sue C said...

Hi Marie, I think the kind of questions you are asking are welcomed by most instructors. They are the kind of questions that enable you to clarify or codify your understanding.

However, I was interested in your latest post 'mastering the art of suckage', in which you describe having to suppress your 'inner brat' because of the criticism you received from your sensei. In a purely andragogical learning environment you would have been free to express your 'inner brat' i.e your frustration, through an open and frank discussion but because of the pedagogical learning environment you had to suppress it - this is a great illustration of what happens when 'andragogocal inclined adults' have to deal with pedagogical teaching methods. We have all been there! That's why I think it is a test of mental strength and why I think martial arts should retain this method of teaching.

John Coles said...

Wonderful and thought provoking post (as always) Sue. I've written a blog on what cognitive sciences refer to as 'the core of all learning' so your blog which references modern theory and concepts is well recieved. The martial arts needs more of this to objectively explore, understand, and explain what is so often taken as gospel.
My instructor, Jan de Jong, always used to say he loved questions. And he did. From any student at any level. I've seen letters written to him from attendees at the seminars he gave in Europe who express gratitude for his patience, helpful, and always respectful answers to their questions. They would explain it is not their experience that a martial artist of his stature would take the time to answer the questions of a person who has only just started out in the marital arts.
I've experienced it myself. When I trained for a bit at a school in London I was taken aside and told not to ask the instructor questions. I was only asking technical questions which De Jong would have enjoyed. He always said that the questions he recieved showed him what was not being understood or what he was not covering. He saw it as a means of doing a better job himself.

John Coles said...

I'll leave you with another thing that I've learnt through adverse times.

Eleanor Roosevelt (far smarter than her husband who was president of the US) said: 'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.'

This supports some of the Buddhist philosophy I've adopted which I try to live my life by. Not a wholesale Buddhist mind, no shaving of head and wearing of bedsheets and chanting repeatively (at least not sober).

The idea is that another's words can only be disrespectful, hurtful, etc if that is the meaning you yourself ascribe to them. When people I'm teaching ask what might be considered 'inappropriate' questions or comments, I try to to ascribe any negative connotations to the question or comment. I try and treat it the same as 'appropriate' questions and comments, and in an objective rather than subjective fashion.

Well, so much more can be said on the subject. These are just my views mind. I'll leave this engaging topic there though ... and save you and your readers from having to listen to my 'soapbox' eulogising.

Sue C said...

Hi John, thanks for sharing your thoughts and views on this subject. That quote form Eleanor Roosevelt is very interesting. It sort of works the other way as well - I immediately know when my comment or question has slightly overstepped the mark and wish I hadn't said it. Me and my big mouth! LOL.


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