How I Learned Not to Teach

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The autumn sun pours through windows high in the gymnasium, showering the floor with light. Outside the trees fluff orange and yellow leaves in a breeze. It is a mild, cloudless Great Plains day, the kind that seduces you into thinking that you will live this life forever. Inside, I am performing the kata seisan, as an instructor looks on.

Seisan is a difficult kata for me and despite my effort there’s been no significant improvement. The instructor is silent until I finish. Then he comes forward and tells me my errors. I shouldn’t do this, and this, and this – and this, too. And I shouldn’t do this, and, oh, yes, this was terrible and I shouldn’t do it. And, by the way, this is wrong, too. 

His critique lasts nearly 15 minutes, “Now, try it again,” he says. And I do, again and again, as the afternoon light fades and I have increasingly less understanding of what I should do. Occasionally, he demonstrates this or that technique, each flashing before my eyes and disappearing, but, mostly, it is “don’t do this and this.” When he tells me to do the kata one last time, I have to wonder, “Do what? There is nothing left to do that isn’t wrong.” I finish and he declares that I have improved, and I, ever the bad student, think, “Improved what? Nothing cannot be improved, it remains nothing.”

I know now that my training session was not unique. It is a common scene in many dojo, and many classrooms, too. Chances are good wherever there is learning, there are students who know they are doing many things wrong, and yet have very little idea of what they should do right.

That day was many years ago and though it is not a happy memory, it is a good one because of what I learned: How not to teach. If a student diligently studies and yet fails, the teacher has failed, too, and there are usually two sources of teaching failures – the instructor’s ego, and a focus on mistakes. Pointing out a mistake elevates the instructor above the student. Dwelling on the mistake solidifies this position.

How many mistakes can be made in the seisan kata? Thousands, I know, and there are so many more that I could have made, or haven’t made — yet. This is why focusing on the objective is crucial. It sidesteps the problem of infinite errors. Plus, it reduces the power structure so the teacher is no longer the center of learning, the student is.

Anyway, forget about mistakes. Any fool can point out a mistake and, given the chance, every fool will. Most mistakes are just longer routes to the objective and the objective is everything. Looking toward the peak rather than the precipice is a basic rule of mountaineering and should be a basic rule of education.

The question is not “What did you do wrong?” but “What did you want to do?” If a student can answer that, then you’re nearly there. If he cannot, then ask yourself, “What do I want him to do?” If you can answer that, then you should be able to answer, “How can I get him to do that?”

It is late night in winter. Outside rain falls on frozen snow. Inside, I stand in the fluorescent light of the dojo at the University of Kansas, watching a brown-belt student demonstrate a disturbing lack of proficiency in his kata – off balanced and technically disarrayed. Strong and athletic, he practices often, but moves with a mechanical awkwardness – a distinct rocking of his head and upper body as he hauls his feet through each step. It’s painful to watch. My first instinct is to mitigate the pain, to correct everything, but I know how that feels and that it doesn’t work. I just want him to focus on one thing. If he gets it right….

“Lift your heels just a bit, so they’re slightly off the floor.”

He tries it and his weight comes forward, his knees bend naturally and the tension in his thighs and calves balances it all. So many “don’ts” disappear. He practices this for a time and with each repetition he looks stronger, faster. He feels the difference. After awhile, I have him stop to talk. He looks down to hide a smile. I want to slap him on the back and thank him for what I’ve learned, but I don’t. I just ask him to do it again and to focus on lifting his chest upward, just a little. His posture aligns. His breathing deepens. 

Even now, after all these years, this is a beautiful memory.

This originally appeared at Globis.jp. in a series, “Occam’s Razor.”