As much as I love training and researching, I also love teaching, and it’s something that I have been doing, in some capacity, since I was a yellow belt. I’ve gone from helping a white belt learn the most basic aspects of a block, to teaching classes and seminars, and it’s been a wonderful adventure, as well as a learning experience for me. When it comes to teaching, everyone learns differently, and has slightly different goals. For me, I tend to teach some things from a structured, “scaffolded” approach, and some things from a more open, Socratic approach. My primary teaching goal is to make students prepared for as many situations as possible, so there has to be a bit of each in order to get the necessary skills across to the student.
Most people learn things the best when they are organized in a manner that builds on previous knowledge, which is called “scaffolding.” For example, it is easier to learn how to multiply if you have already learned how to add, because multiplication can be broken down to a longer addition problem (eg. 4×4 is the same as 4+4+4+4) for easier understanding. From a karate perspective, you could say that it is easier to learn basic kata, like the Taikyoku series, for example, if you have already learned the basic movements for the techniques contained within the kata. Even as you advance, and begin to see compound movements within kata, they will be easier to learn if they can be broken down into their component parts. This is actually part of why kata are often taught and practiced by the count, which was likely introduced to karate in the early 1900’s when it began to be taught to larger groups as part of Itosu Anko’s primary school karate program. When you are going to be teaching a large group, it’s easier to make sure everyone is doing the right thing if you lead them through it by a count, and have them stop regularly to make sure they are in the correct positions.
This approach can be used with kata applications just as well as it can be used with learning the form and pattern of the solo kata, itself. For example, if you want someone to be able to apply an armbar like the one depicted in this GIF, it may be difficult for them to pick up if they haven’t worked some of the component movements first. There is a lot going on, and it is easy to get confused if you haven’t already been introduced to the methods it contains. If the student has already learned gyaku-tsuki (reverse thrust), chudan-uke (middle receiver), and morote-uke (double receiver), and drilled parries with the palm of the hand, parries with punches, the classical “parry-pass,” kicks to the leg, using their stance to break down the opponent’s structure, and the basic armbar without an attack, all separately, then it will be much easier for them to put them together then to try to learn the entirety of the technique at once.
In situations where you are attempting to teach very specific techniques, this works very well. In situations where you are trying to teach a methodology or concept, however, it can sometimes be beneficial to use more of a Socratic approach to teaching, where the student is asked questions in order to provoke more creative thought on their part. This isn’t something that can be done all the time, or very early in a student’s training, because they have to have a foundation of techniques to use as examples in their thought process. When a student asks how to apply a movement in kata that they haven’t learned an application for previously, or they want an alternative application, you can provide them a starting point and ask them what they could potentially do from there, using the movements of the kata. This gives them a base to work from, but also allows free thought and problem solving on their end, using techniques and methods they already know.
For a simple example, we can take a look at the supported elbow strike found in Naihanchi Shodan. The elbow comes after the other hand extends outward, usually in an arc, and is usually described as a haito-uke (ridgehand receiver/”block”) or haishu-uke (backhand receiver/”block”). Depending on where you put that hand, and the student’s previous training, the way the elbow strike is used can vary. If you start with the hand on the opponent’s neck or head, chances are good that the student will grab the head and use the elbow to strike it. If you place the hand on the inside of the opponent’s arm, perhaps the student will use the elbow to strike the body. If the hand starts on the outside of the opponent’s arm, and the student has learned armbars and the bunkai concept that touching your body can indicate touching the opponent (something I have previously written about, HERE), then they may use the elbow strike to actually apply an elbow lock to the opponent. There are many different ways to apply the movements of kata, depending on the starting position, what the opponent does, and the experience of the practitioner.
There must be a balance in your approach to teaching martial arts. If you only ever teach strictly structured, perfectly standardized material, then you will end up with students who develop strong basics and mechanics, and can perform techniques by rote, but cannot think creatively about what they are doing. If you only ever teach with an open, Socratic approach, you can end up frustrating your students before they get the chance to really benefit from their training, and they may not be getting enough precise feedback to develop solid fundamental skills. The same things can happen if you only teach techniques, but never explain the principles and concepts behind them, or only teach principles and concepts without giving students enough example techniques to work from. Finding this balance can be frustrating for the teacher, as well as the student, but I personally find it to be a very interesting endeavor, and finding the right way to teach a student and have them “get it” is very rewarding.
Keeping all of this in mind, you can structure your curriculum to be more effective to teach a wide array of skills, since you will be able to carry over both fundamental mechanics and concepts. There are five general ranges to martial arts: long range, medium range, close range, standing grappling, and groundwork. While there are martial arts which specialize in just one, or perhaps a few of these, even they typically evolved from a more extensive art which incorporated all ranges. Boxing, for example, focuses on punching at medium and close range, but used to include kicks (long range) and throws (standing grappling). While specialization leads to a very highly-developed set of specific skills, and can be vital to competitions with rulesets designed with that specialization in mind, it can be limiting. To be well-rounded, a martial artist should be competent in all five ranges, so they have to be trained accordingly, if the goal is to develop a martial artist who can protect themselves effectively in as many scenarios as possible. Admittedly, not all martial artists will have the interest in doing this, so the teacher must be able to adapt, at least somewhat. Some students will need a wider range of material, while some will need a narrower focus, and it is important to remember that students will tend to learn material better if they have an interest in it. As an instructor, you should do your best to make the material interesting and engaging, both for the students’ sake and your own. It is easier to learn if you are interested in the material, and it is easier to teach students who are interested in the material.