Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mastery Learning or Spiral learning?

How do you prefer to learn?
  1. Incrementally: a little bit at a time, able to show fairly complete proficiency at one ability or skill before proceeding to the next, slightly more challenging level; or
  2. Iteratively: Cycling through a number of skills and challenges, periodically returning, and gradually ratcheting up the challenge level.
The first approach s sometimes referred to as mastery learning; the second as spiral learning.  As always the devil is in the detail.

Spiral learning approaches are great for those students whose pace matches that set for instruction.  On the other hand, if you're struggling with the pace it will feel too fast, and you may feel inadequate (or resentful); if it's too slow, you may well feel bored (but boredom can often be productively overcome).  Mastery learning, on the other hand is by necessity individually paced, but can be a bit procedural from an instructional perspective.

In my jiu-jitsu and classical judo classes I have learned (and follow) a hybrid approach:
  • The teaching method is spiral, but we are always reinforcing the basics, and pair practice with a variety of partners gives students access to individual instruction (and learning through teaching)
  • Assessment is mastery oriented: you do not get put up for grading until you are ready to demonstrate a section of the curriculum at a high level of proficiency: so individuals tend to progress at difference rates, but there should not be a sense of being an "A, B, C, ... student" with its attendant problems (e.g. encouragement to adopt a fixed mindset).
This may be reasonably be regarded as a best of both worlds approach: we get the interest, variety and reinforcement of the spiral together with the steady progress of incremental mastery.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Every so often I read a book that is so good that, on completing it, I re-read it straight away.  Mindset, by academic psychologist Carol Dweck is the latest.  Entertaining and highly informative, Dweck has a different take on the eternal nature vs nurture debate.  Her research centers not on the relative impact of nature and nurture, but rather on the impact of the individual's belief in nature compared to nurture on their performance and personality.  It turns out that "mere" belief in nurture leads to better performance over time, and much more besides.

With respect to any capacity, be it intelligence, sporting ability, musicality, etc. it is not too difficult to establish whether an individual takes a "fixed" mindset (the belief that, broadly speaking, you got it or you don't), or a "growth" mindset (the belief that that capacity can be developed and refined with effort).  People are not either purely "fixed" or "growth", but may adopt different mindsets with regard to different capacities, and their mindsets can change with time.

When caught in the fixed mindset people tend to be fragile, crave constant validation, and treat success or failure in some test or task as a true measure of themselves (making them a success or failure).  By contrast, those employing the growth mindset are more resilient, treating external critique as a diagnostic of where they need to improve, and tend to define themselves as successful if they are learning and improving.

Dweck's academic work, personal experience, and teaching record demonstrate how this single factor has a profound effect on performance, resilience, and attitude.  The book also has stories from education, sports, business, etc. that illustrate the impact of the two mindsets.  The people who adopt the growth mindset largely do better performance-wise overall, and make great positive role models.  (Some of the well-known people who adopt the fixed mindset make great negative role models.)

Mindset can change and it can be influenced by external factors: the growth mindset can be taught.

* * *

I found the evidence and illustrations of Mindset convincing, and am encouraged to try to adopt the growth mindset more broadly personally, and also in my parenting and teaching to try to try to steer others to adopt it.

The idea of the growth mindset also brings to mind the chinese phrase kung fu, not originally meaning martial arts, but rather "any individual accomplishment or skill cultivated through long and hard work".  To someone trapped in the fixed mindset, this sounds like a waste of time and effort; to those cultivating a growth mindset, it's where it's at.

Adopting the growth mindset is not an end in itself, but rather a beginning.  It means that, with respect to a capacity, you are ready to start learning.  And that is the real journey.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

10 favorite sayings of Confucius

From the numerous sayings attributed to the ancient Chinese sage, Confucius:
  1. "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."
  2. "It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop."
  3. "The cautious seldom err."
  4. "A person who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it, is committing another mistake."
  5. "Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles."
  6. "By nature, people are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart."
  7. "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."
  8. "Respect yourself and others will respect you."
  9. "Every truth has four corners: as a teacher I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three."
  10. "Wherever you go, go with all your heart."
And here's a selection of Confucius jokes like the ones we used to tell in high school.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Big class / hard mats

We had 18 people on the mat the other night, up from 15 the week before.  With 15 on the mat, it was already crowded, so this week we borrowed some jigsaw mats and put together a two-layer annex to the side of the main mat.
Throwing practice on the main mat

I sent the most senior students (plus Tyrone the tyro) to the annex during break-falling warmup.  It reminded me of when we started the main Monash University club at the Clayton campus under Sensei Tony in the mid 1990s.  We borrowed some hard mats from I think the resident judo and aikido clubs and got stuck in.  The problem was that although the experienced students quickly acclimatized, and soon relished the harder conditioning, we couldn't keep new students: you need to ease into that sort of thing.  [In time, we got some softer mats, and the membership grew accordingly.]

Students gather around Anthony for R&C instruction on the annex 

On Wednesday I had my assistant Anthony (a brown-belt) on hand, and he took charge of the annex and taught a smaller group restraint and control techniques, while I led throwing practice on the main mat.  We rotated most of the students between the two stations, and then joined together for groundwork and rolls at the end.

* * *

Given the spurt in numbers, the Caulfield club is not only faced with a space shortage, but a changing dynamic.  That newcomers are signing up and staying is welcome after some lean years at the start, and I take it as validation of the current student body, my own efforts, and the appeal of our system of jiu-jitsu, but we face new challenges with the dynamic that the larger class size entails.

The growth itself will be self-limiting, because the quality of the experience for newcomers will start to decline if we grow much bigger at this stage: Once beginners constitute the majority I will need to pair newbies with each other more often, and that's not conducive to learning jiu-jitsu in a large class.

However, I have a plan in mind.  Thanks to a solid core of students with 1 or 2 years experience (plus a few more senior), I think that is feasible to now pick up the pace (a bit).  This will encourage and challenge the core group, and hopefully motivate the newcomers to rise to the occasion.

The increased numbers also gives me the opportunity to grow as a teacher.  With the increase in numbers I am doing more demonstration and supervision, and less one-on-one than in the past.  As a result I will need to do a bit more lecture-style talk to the group as part of my demonstrations, while keeping it brief and practical.  Thankfully I have several good models to base my approach on.

I anticipate a great year of learning.  When we come through it, we'll be in a position to grow again, and if the current numbers prove solid, I'll also look into expanding the main mat area.

P.S. Thanks to Brenton for taking the photos on his phone.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Where does jiu-jitsu come from?

"Jiu-jitsu is originally from Brazil, right?"

I've been asked this a couple of times lately.  With the rise of mixed martial arts, kicked off by the UFC in the early 1990s, and before that the "Gracie challenge", Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (which we used to call Gracie Jiu-jitsu) is now better known than Japanese jiu-jitsu.
Jiu-jitsu was the unarmed martial art of the Japanese Samurai class, so it's definitely Japanese.  Right?  There were many schools of jiu-jitsu, and some of them had a heavy Chinese influence.  But legendarily,  the martial arts were brought to China from India, by Bodhidarma.  These things go back ...

A similar story pertains to Karate.  Many people think of Karate as Japanese, but it was introduced to Japan from Okinawa in the early 20th century, and before that was adapted from southern Chinese martial arts, and even known as "Chinese hand" in parts of Okinawa.

You have to draw the line somewhere.  So I say:
  1. Kung fu (Chinese boxing) is from China
  2. Jiu-jitsu is Japanese
  3. Karate is Okinawan
Japanese Karate is an offshoot of (Okinawan) Karate.  Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is an offshoot of (Japanese) Judo.  Judo is a daughter art (along with aikido) of Jiu-jitsu, and they are all Japanese.

Both Jiu-jitsu and Karate, although influenced (and maybe derived in large part) from Chinese kung fu styles, have had enough time to become more than offshoots.  Plus: the names were changed.

In the end, the history doesn't necessarily matter as much as the content.  There are only so many ways to move the human body, and most (all?) ancient cultures featured some form of wrestling, boxing, and weapon-use, and must be the forebears of all martial arts.  Today martial arts have significant areas of overlap.

Getting back to the original question, it doesn't bother me.  Such a question is usually evidence of innocent ignorance on the part of the questioner, and nothing malicious.  Most (all?) martial arts practitioners tire of being asked how their "karate" or "taekwondo" (or whatever the flavor-of-the-month style is) is going, by well-meaning but martial arts illiterate family members or friends, who are merely trying to "show an interest" or make small-talk.

Interestingly, now that there are so many schools teaching Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Japanese Jiu-jitsu may be gaining in cachet because of its relative scarcity.  I do get enquiries from people specifically seeking it out, and that's often a good sign.  On the other hand, some people assume that all Jiu-jitsu is Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, but these are quite quickly dispelled.

I wonder how many people think that soccer is originally from Brazil, too.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Hip throws or loin throws?

The hip throws are the most powerful throws in judo, but the term "hip" is somewhat misleading, referring as it does to the joint connecting the top of the femur (bone of the upper leg) to the pelvis, and the surrounding region.

A more accurate term is loin, not in the sense of "loin cloth" or "fruit of his loins", but rather in the sense of sirloin steak, or tenderloin:
In human anatomy the term "loin" or "loins" refers to the side of the human body below the rib cage to just below the pelvis.  It is frequently used to reference the general area below the ribs. -- Wikipedia
This area -- which can also be described as the lower torso, "the core" or even "the guts" -- has as its focal point the body's center of mass, known as hara or tanden in Japanese, and dantien in Chinese.  With reference to this point Feldenkrais writes in his book, Higher Judo, Ground Work:
All movement of the co-ordinated Master is so performed that one point of his body, lying below his navel and situated vertically above the center of pressure of the standing foot, describes a simple curve at the crucial moment of any throw, or rotates only.
Something to work towards.

Monday, March 08, 2010

E.J. Harrison on Judo

"I should explain here that the underlying purpose of Judo is to enable a physically weaker person to defend himself against a physically stronger opponent, alike in mimic combat on the mats of the Dojo or exercise hall and in a genuine struggle for survival outside it. 
Other things equal it is simply axiomatic to say that the stronger man must eventually win, but seeing that not infrequently the relatively poorer physique of one man is largely offset by his superior intelligence, skill, and agility, he may conceivably prove the victor in contest with his physically more powerful antagonist. 
And admitting that there are always numerous gradations of sheer bodily strength among the pupils of any Dojo, the cumulative effect of assiduous study and practice of Judo is bound in the end to convert even a veritable tyro weakling into a physically vigorous and technically skilled Judoka." -- E.J. Harrison, Manual of Judo

Astonishing tiger footage

The club where I started my training in jiu-jitsu is called Tora-do ryu; translation: "Way of the tiger school".  Here's a clip that shows a bit of what a real tigress can do:

Stealth, speed, huge leap, balance, intent: wow!

Snippets from the back-story:
The 25-year-old mahout, Satya Pegu, who was badly lacerated, lost three fingers on his left hand, is in a hospital in Dibrugarh. Doctors are worried about the onset of gangrene and may have to amputate his left palm.

Reconstruction of events and a video taken by the divisional forest officer, R.K.Das, graphically show how Joymala pinned down the tigress with her foot as it was trying to get up and attack the officers who had fallen on the ground.

The team cautiously moved towards it and could get to almost 20 feet where she was growling away. Bodo could see her clearly and took a shot at it with the dart gun. The dart missed her and this enraged her so much that she charged and took a “flying” leap on to the elephant’s head. “I have not seen something as dramatic as this,” Vivek Menon, executive director WTI, who recently saw the footage, said. “I could never imagine that a tiger could so effortlessly leap from the ground on to an adult elephant’s head, which is at least 12 feet above the ground,” he said.

more details...
Notice how the tigress grabs the ground and pulls herself forward with her front legs.  Even though humans have only one pair of feet, we can do a bit of that too.  It's a good exercise (and good exercise) to play with that grabbing and pulling action while walking around.