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By the sword - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
By the sword
Good martial arts lesson last night -- all sword work, though I hadn't brought my blade so we were only using wooden practice swords.

Sensei rarely introduces the lesson material with "Today we're going to do..." or any other explanations of what he's about to teach. Usually he just starts, with one easy to follow instruction, and I follow. This method works well for me, for a couple of reasons (which I suspect are really just different parts of the same reason):

1. I don't have a chance to try to take shortcuts -- if you don't know where you're going, you can't take a shortcut. You have to concentrate on the journey rather than the destination -- and after all, it's the journey that teaches, not the arriving.

2. Because I don't see the task, the objective (whether that's a sequence of moves to learn, or a technique to master, or a concept to assimilate) in its entirety, I can't be overwhelmed by the extent of it. Often, the reason I fail (in all kinds of things) is that I see the enormity of the thing I'm trying to achieve, and immediately my brain says I can't do that. It's like looking at the other side of the room and saying "I can't get there" when what I mean is "I can't be there without any intervening steps". Well, of course I can't. But I can take one step, and then another, and then another, and before I know it I'll be on the other side of the room.

I follow his instructions, performing the cuts and blocks as best I can, trying to follow the odd hand-position changes, and we're about halfway through the lesson before I have time to breathe and ask "Is this some sort of exercise for hand-position changes?" Sensei looks amused, and says "Not exactly." When we get to the bit where you have to throw the sword into the air, stepping forward to catch it before dropping into a kneeling cut, he finally gets round to telling me that what we're working through is the brown-belt sword kata. And of course, if he'd told me that at the beginning, I would have been disheartened by the difficulty of the thing ahead, but by the time I'm halfway through it, we've bypassed the chance for me to believe that I can't do it. By not trying to take impossible shortcuts, we've taken a shortcut past the most insurmountable obstacle of all.

I mentioned a while back wanting to write about "learning how not to learn", and this is the sort of thing I was talking about. If encouraged, small children will often learn quickly, hoovering up knowledge and skills with an ease that makes adults envious. But somewhere along the line, at some point in our formative years, we learn to look at the big picture and say "I can't do that". We learn how not to learn.

What is it we fear? Is it just a blind panic at the size of the task that faces us, the animal fear of Something Bigger Than Us? Or is it a fear of failure -- of the mockery of our peers when we fail -- of the other consequences of failure? Or more insidious fears -- the apparently rational fear of Wasting Time, or even Wasting Money, trying to learn things which are not useful, not "worthwhile", or things at which we may never excel?

The usually-unspoken principle (they don't foreground the philosophy unless you're interested in it or it seems that it will be helpful to you as a student, but it definitely informs the way they teach) behind the martial arts school I'm training with is that you don't so much "learn to do karate" or "learn to do sword work" as learn how to achieve your full potential -- learning to perform specific techniques to the best of your ability may be interesting and challenging paths towards that, but they're the means, not the end. I find it's a good way to look at the things I learn -- in all contexts; but of course, one person's way may not be another person's way, and probably the best way to work out if it's your way or not is to walk along it for a while.
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rysmiel From: rysmiel Date: June 15th, 2004 07:23 am (UTC) (Link)
And of course, if he'd told me that at the beginning, I would have been disheartened by the difficulty of the thing ahead, but by the time I'm halfway through it, we've bypassed the chance for me to believe that I can't do it. By not trying to take impossible shortcuts, we've taken a shortcut past the most insurmountable obstacle of all.

I think I've come to something congruent with that way of doing things from a very different angle, which is to always focus at least as much on scaling the context of a problem as addressing the problem itself, and to get used to scaling up or down at a moment's notice as best suits the issue. [ "All I really needed to know in life I learned from Designing Freedom" ? Well, it's not often you get a speculative economics/cybernetics text where the last chapter is "And this is what happened when we tried it with a real country... " ]
taimatsu From: taimatsu Date: June 15th, 2004 07:31 am (UTC) (Link)
This was just what I needed to read right now :) I keep feeling I can't get a degree when actually I just need to go to one meeting. Then maybe a second appointment. Then take one course. Then another course. And before I know it, I'll have a degree :)

Thank you :)
keirf From: keirf Date: June 15th, 2004 08:01 am (UTC) (Link)
If encouraged, small children will often learn quickly, hoovering up knowledge and skills with an ease that makes adults envious.
...
But somewhere along the line, at some point in our formative years, we learn to look at the big picture and say "I can't do that". We learn how not to learn.

On the other hand, when you're very young, almost everything you learn is significant and important, and provided you get past the very basics the depth to which you learn is unimportant. As you get older the choice of things to learn increases, and the amount of stuff to learn on each thing increases. Hence our learning strategy changes - and not necessarily through fear, but often through pragmatism.
jvvw From: jvvw Date: June 15th, 2004 03:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your post articulated one of the ways I feel about teaching but wouldn't be able to put into words as well as you!

I find it rather frustrating that nowdays if you give a mathematics lecture say (an example chosen by pure chance!), you're supposed to state what the aims of the lecture are before you give it. There's a time and place for that type of thing- maybe when you're preparing for an examination. And I suspect it may be a way of turning some bad lecturers into satisfactory lecturers, but I'm not at all convinced that it's always the right way to teach things. The most inspiring and interesting mathematics lectures I've been to are more like stories being told with lots of subplots all coming together and making sense at the end.

But then I guess I'm also not convinced that lectures are the best way to teach mathematics. You need to do it rather than listen to it.
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