Art of Learning vs. Art of Teaching
By Sifu Bahram Khozairy
Copyright © 2018 by Bahram Khozairy. All Rights Reserved.
Throughout the many years that I have spent my life in Martial Arts, I have observed one phenomenon among others and that is this:
Not everyone that learns can learn to teach! From a natural perspective and observation, this may sound not logical and in fact you may even view it as an oxymoron.
One would argue: “Everyone can teach! It’s just that each teach differently”.
Others may argue: “No, you have to be a good learner, before you can teach”.
Then, again, some others may argue: “learning is the same as teaching; they are just brother-sister skills.”
Or they say, “It doesn’t matter how you teach, as long as the end results of your teaching is the same”.
Or another seemingly logical (at least on the surface) argument goes like this: “students are all different, so you can’t really expect the same result from each student; if they don’t learn the way you expect them, it’s not your fault; it’s that they might not just be gifted; so just keep teaching the same way you have been!”.
And then we have the New Age Martial artist, the Relativist, the Existentionalist, which among them are the classical JKD instructors; the ones that stay true to the spirit and guidelines of the JKD as it was laid out by its founder.
They argue: “We don’t teach anything, we only let you discover your own JKD!”
They maintain: “We have a JKD class but we don’t teach JKD; you are here to learn, but truthfully we don’t teach you anything; these are just the JKD drills, so don’t say you are being taught Jeet Kune Do; we are not teaching anything, because we just let yourself teach yourself; look in the mirror, you will learn and find your JKD”.
Or something like this: “Our JKD classes are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, but I can’t really teach JKD, because JKD doesn’t have any structure; you have to discover it from within yourself…”.
Or consider the following dialogue between Bruce Lee and James Franciscus from a famous episode of the 1971 TV series Long Street:
James Franciscus (JF): "Lee I want you to teach me what you did the other night."
Lee: "I already told mis Bel I can't."
JF: "I am willing to empty my cup in order to taste your tea."
Lee: "Your open-mindedness is cool, but it doesn't change anything. I don't believe in system Mr. Long Street or in method. Now I meant it. Without system, without method, what's to teach?"
JF: "Yeah, but you had to learn. You weren't born knowing how to take apart 3 men in a matter of seconds."
Lee: "True. But, I found the cause of my ignorance."
JF: "Help me to find mine."
You get my point!
So, how do we deal with this mess? Is there any way can sort this out and make some rational sense out of this? We are humans and not animals, and as such, we can analyze, rationalize and conclude based on some sound judgment, well reasoned arguments based on facts. And exactly what does it mean when we say we are learning and we are teaching? Is there such a thing as the art of learning and art of teaching? The answer is Yes. Lets deal with the Learning first.
Webster dictionary define the word “Learn” as:
“to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience”
In a true sense, when a person (in our case a martial artist) is learning, he or she has to go through a process. That process will have to entail various sensory components, such as: Listening (using ears), Watching (using eyes), Feeling (Using body sense) and Thinking or Analyzing (Using brain). We can talk about the spiritual sense of this process as well; however, I would like to tackle this issue from a naturalistic perspective in order to convey the message to a general audience.
When a student is in a process of learning, he or she “must” utilize her or her senses, in order to fully grasp the material. I am referring to any martial art material, be it a purely a physical punch and kick (kickboxing) class or an intellectual and thought provoking and challenging combative art such as San Jieh Dao. Now, martial arts instructions are different than any other arts, as they not only entail physical movement, but also some level of concepts behind their movements; at least that’s what a meaningful art should have. They must have a reason behind their moves. Utilizing all of the senses described above, even if an art is purely physical and very shallow and void of any cognizant material and concepts, would allow the student to analyze and question the purpose and intent of that art. Student would investigate and constantly be in search of the whys (reasons) of the art and its elements and not just whats (elements) of the motions of the art. He or she won’t just be programmed student to merely follow along the moves and try to imitate them just like the rest of the students, or even the instructor. A true martial art student must be aware of what he or she is learning and whether the elements have any substantial meaning or not. Again, even a purely physical art that offers no mental concepts needs to be analyzed to some degree. I am not suggesting the student only use their thinking or mind when they learn and practicing the art. But what I am referring to the fact that as human beings we can try to comprehend why we are doing what we are doing.
The 5 stages of learning should be:
1. Exposure: Being exposed to the physical movement and motion of the art.
2. Experience: Practicing the motion based on exposure.
3. Understand: Analyzing the motion based on the experience.
4. Practicing: Practicing the motion based on understanding.
5. Proficiency: Dedicate time, energy and will power to become competent in the motion of the art based on the previous 4 stages.
I also emphasize that learning martial arts in a purely solo and unofficially format is no substitute for learning it under the tutelage of a professional, experienced and well competent instructor in a comprehensive martial art. When learning by yourself without any official instruction, you would be lacking many of the ingredients in the stages of learning process mentioned above. The fact is that we can learn how to learn. The art of learning can be learned and be grown in to. Yes, you can grow in this art as it is an art form by itself. The more a student learn a comprehensive and mind challenging art, the more his or her mind becomes skilled and educated and as a result can pick up the material easier, can comprehend the material smoother and can master the elements of the art faster.
We have observed many of our students in the past that after training at our academy and classes for a period had nothing they came back with positive testimonies regarding their schools education and their jobs. They reported that they excelled quicker in their schools studies, and in various subjects such as math and science. They reported they became much more aware of what they were studying and they articulated that they were able to absorb and grasp their material and subject matters with much more efficiency and less effort than before. They used to inform us that due to their martial arts training and education at our academy, they had become much more proficient and skilled in their jobs and profession to the point of getting higher raises quicker and saw themselves become more and more successful in their daily tasks among their working colleagues.
In a way, correct learning causes our brain to develop better and a trained brain can help the student to learn better and faster. If the stages of learning above are observed under a qualified instructor, the student will not only learn correctly, but quickly. And the more the student study and train, the more student learn how to learn. The art of learning is an ability to observe, understand and grasp the material. It is a skill that the instructor can help the students to learn and it is an art that the student can gradually gain and master by themselves in a correct and healthy environment; that is The Skill and the Art of learning.
Now let’s turn our attention to Teaching.
Webster dictionary defines “Teach” as:
“To instruct by precept, example, or experience: to make known …”
I also like the Google’s definition:
“Show or explain to (someone) how to do something. Give information about or instruction in (a subject or skill). Encourage someone to accept (something) as an act or principle. Cause (someone) to learn or understand something by example or experience.”
A teacher, especially a martial art instructor has an enormous responsibility. The Chinese Gung Fu arts, particularly in the past and more so in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong (and many in US as well) look at the role of an instructor, or master or teacher more as a father figure than just someone instructing the students in the martial way. The titles 師父 Shifu (Mandarin pronunciation) or Sifu (Cantonese pronunciation) has a very deep and impactful meaning in Chinese Gung Fu. It comprises of two characters: 師Shi, which means teacher, master, mentor or leader; and the second is 父Fu, which means father. So, it is a compound designation for father figure mentor or father figure teacher. The first character 師Shi is not only used in Gung Fu martial arts, but also in many other professions and skills, such as a Chef, Doctor, Lawyer, Designer, Technician, Animal trainer, etc.
In this context, a teacher or instructor is meant to not only pass down the information, data and material to the disciples, but also help them internalize the material and grow in their path. An instructor is someone that is to help to carry the disciple from point A to point B. I have often seen (not just in martial arts, which is quite prevalent, but also in other professions, such as University professors) the instructor goes in front of the students and just shoots out a whole bunch of information verbally and physically (i.e. martial arts instructor) and expect the student to just learn what they’ve been shown without any proper explanation, breakdown or analysis. They are expected to discover why they’ve been shown and how to develop their skills; all by themselves! Instructors make the fatal mistake that just because they can demo the move, they can teach the moves. This in turn causes the students to not only become confused, but to be discourage and in many instances give up on that art or that school.
And therefore, this is where the art and skill of instructions come in play! An instructor is not born an instructor. He or she has to go through instructorship process in order to learn how to teach, how to mentor and how to develop his or her students.
Part of the teaching component include, coaching, mentoring and edifying. Explanation of the element or material of the art is a huge constituent of the art and skill of teaching. As I explained in the earlier section regarding Learning; the source of learning; the correct source of learning that is, must come from a qualified instructor. Instructor is responsible for delivering the material, visually and verbally in order to convey their meaning and significance to the mind and thought of their precious students. And that takes a skill. Thus, teaching is an art that needs to be learned, developed and grown into. There are of course exceptions among people; and that is some are truly gifted instructors. Those are the ones that are exceptionally sensitive and flexible toward their students. They grasp the material very quickly and can learn to teach rapidly in a clear and concise way. But, regardless a truly gifted or no so gifted student-instructor, he or she needs to go through the process of instructorship which also has its own stages and they are:
1. Internalization: Correct understanding of the material.
2. Organization: Orderly categorizing the material.
3. Experience: Practicing the transmission of the material to the students.
4. Flexibility: Adapting to the various circumstance and needs of the students.
5. Guiding: Directing and steering the students from one level to another.
Just because someone has reached a certain high rank in their class training, doesn’t qualify them to teach. They can take the role of instructor, but if they are not being developed into becoming a proper and approved instructor, they will cause the student’s failure I described earlier.
Consider the following:
Question: “Can anyone become a good instructor, if they just follow and go through the teaching stage described above?”
Question: “But if they spend years learning how to teach, would that not be sufficient reason to call them good instructors?”
A person that has the will power, gifted to some degree or even tries very hard would very soon discover whether they can teach or not. Teaching just like any other art form can be discovered. Meaning, one can determine and assess if one can teach or not in the early stages. Notice, I didn’t say can teach correctly or properly or maintain any of the character trades in the stages I described above. What I am articulating is that a person will know if they are meant to teach in the early chapters of their journey learning to become teachers. Part of that learning is experience. They learn by doing. They learn whether they can or cannot teach and if they can, they will continue that journey until they are approved and qualified by their instructor to teach.
Three main component of that self-discovery are:
1. Desire: Yearning to Teach.
2. Willingness: Putting effort to Teach.
3. Gift: Discovering if they have the internal talent or endowment from God to Teach.
Without #1 and #2, #3 will never be discovered. Again, I say, they will learn by doing.
In conclusion, I would declare that both learning and teaching are an art form. Look at a baby. A baby wasn’t born knowing how to walk or talk. They learned by doing and by making mistakes. One should Never ever (and I emphatically accentuate this) give up discovering, acknowledging and developing these two art forms, just because one slips or make mistakes. As long as honest mistakes are viewed as a way of betterment, self-improvement and growth, they serve their purpose beautifully. Humans make mistakes and that’s what makes us humans! Moreover, Learning is just as important as Teaching. Wrong way of learning can lead one astray just as a wrong way of teaching can lead others astray. And self-deception is a worst kind of deception. Correct knowledge can lead us toward the Truth and victory or can lead us astray toward Tri Fold destitution and defeat.