“How are skills learned? By experience. How, then, are they best taught? By coaching. I, the teacher, can tell you rules for writing — grammar, forms of felicitous phrasing, types of argument. I can show you examples of good and bad writing, and with the aide of an overhead projector, I can demonstrate to you how to analyze a piece of work. However, until you write and I criticize your writing, your expository skills and the thinking behind them lie latent.”

–Theodore R. Sizer, Horace’s Compromise


Experience as the TeacherI had an experience just this week, that drove this point home. I have been training in the martial arts for almost three years. For the past year, I have been studying Kickboxing along with a formal style of Kung fu. I have been learning the skills, and the rules, necessary to effectively defend myself. In the academic world, this would be similar to learning grammar rules, dissecting sentences, and practicing penmanship. The pieces are studied and practiced. Individual skills are tested. Form is learned. I am told and shown what works, how it works and why it works, just as academic teachers “tell” their students how to write. However, I have seldom had the opportunity to apply those skills.

Tuesday night, I put on huge boxing gloves and protective gear. I got into the boxing ring to kickbox with another woman. She is about my height, but a bodybuilder. Her muscle mass makes me look like Oliveoil. We touched gloves to show respect and good sportsmanship and began. The blows came at me, hard and fast. She hardly kicked, which should have been to my advantage. But, I was so overwhelmed by the power behind the hits to my head that I couldn’t think. It didn’t hurt through my gear; rather, it was psychologically debilitating. All those skills that I had learned were useless in the moment. I couldn’t apply them. My confidence hit bottom. My emotions ran the gamut from frustration to anger to humiliation. I was coached through it. My coach was in the ring, guiding, encouraging, making sure the situation was safe. I think I went two rounds. I really don’t know. Time was a blur. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

The coach spent time with me afterward, encouraging, analyzing the situation, pointing out style differences, suggesting alternative strategies. Only now, do all the skills, pieces and techniques have meaning. He stressed that I needed to feel the feelings, understand them, recognize them — so when I experienced them again, I’d know what to do with them. Experience, coaching, critiquing are critical aspects of the learning process. I understand so much more because I have had the experience and the coaching. When I practice the skills, I can now visualize their application. When I practice my Kung Fu forms, I have a better understanding of the “spirit” needed behind the motions. Something clicked. I’ve reached a new level. Knowing I’ll be in the ring again, also adds extra motivation and determination to the skills practice. Now that my skills have meaning, I have more drive.

I often gain tremendous insight into my role as teacher and learner from my martial arts experience. It seems that the physical nature of the martial arts makes the paralleling abstract concepts of the academics very concrete.

Before this week, I have seldom had the opportunity to use my skills “in the ring.” My early experiences with sparring were not coached. Two people were put together and simply told to practice fighting skills. I reinforced sloppy habits and gained little skill. High school teachers expect students to know how to write. With the possible exception of writing courses, students are given writing assignments, told what to do, and left on their own. Rarely do these students have the skills or the experience of meaningful application.

With much drill and practice of parts and pieces, form and style, martial arts students become quite good at specific skills. Until those individual skills are put to the test in the ring, however, meaningful learning does not occur. Just as it is necessary for the martial artist to use self-defense skills in realistic situations to gain understanding, meaning, and the ability to analyze and apply those skills, the academic student needs to write, to think, to analyze, to apply his or her knowledge, and then write again. Just as it is important to have the martial arts coach in the ring, encouraging, guiding and critiquing, it is important to have the academic “coach” in the classroom encouraging, guiding and critiquing, showing the way, but allowing the student to learn by experience, by doing, by being coached, and doing it again.

Special Needs and DifferentiationCLICK HERE to discover a wealth of teaching strategies and resources for maximizing student success!.

Bring Susan to your campus!

Featured seminarDifferentiation Strategies to Reach ALL Learners in the Inclusive Classroom

Would you like to reprint this article, or an article like it, in your newsletter or journal?
CLICK HERE to visit the articles page.