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Friday, 6 May 2011

Teacher Centred Learning....

Here's a thought for all the instructors and students out there. Who is the primary focus of your training sessions? Or, to put it another way, is your approach teacher centered learning (TCL) or learning centered teaching (LCT)? OK I know it is the sort of nonsense-speak so beloved of "blue sky" thinkers and people who run it up the flag pole, but there is a serious point to consider

It strikes me that the majority of martial art training in the UK is centered around the teacher, style and school. People  come to learn a "style" and  are expected to conform to certain patterns of behaviour, to train in specific ways and to adapt themselves to the requirements of that style. It's similar to someone wanting to learn to "play music". They will typically have chosen an instrument in advance (unless we are talking pure theory) and will learn according to the requirements of the instrument. However once they have learned to play the instrument they can play any style of music, or even compose their own. The same cannot be said of martial arts training

The TCL approach may also involve putting the head teacher on a pedestal -  in which case progression in the style depends on not only learning the syllabus but  how close you can get to the head honcho. Can you become part of the "inner circle"? As you move up the gradings you no longer have to train with the beginners, you get access to the higher level students and become privy to the "secrets" of the style. Some point to  tradition as the reason behind this approach,  I'm not sure that's entirely valid or if it's just an excuse to exercise an unhealthy amount of control over students.

Systema takes more the LCT approach. The class is based around the individuals within it. Everyone works together, there is no formal hierarchy. Drills and exercises can be  adapted on the fly according to the needs / abilities of the student. This means the same drill can be run across the group with differences in intensity to suit different capabilities.

Perhaps most importantly, the teacher is no longer the focal point of the training. There is no standing in rows following what the teacher does. The teacher is there to provide the conditions under which people can learn - in fact when done well the students virtually teach themselves. It's akin to  a director working with actors - he provides the necessary motivation and settings for the actors to act.

Nor, in this approach, is the teacher a distant figure who sits and watches the class and may, if you are one of the chosen few, bestow some words of advice to you. The teacher in  is as likely to be taking part in the drills as the students, stepping out in order to advise the individual or to change the drill. It's a much more hands-on approach to teaching

In order to make a more detailed explanation to the group the teacher may demonstrate something, highlighting specific points of movement, strategy or technique. The overall aim, however, is for the student to discover their own solution to the problem. Which brings us on to the question of problem-solving in training. This can be as simple as how to do a slow press-up with minimum tension through to a full blown outdoor scenario involving a dozen or more people. The job of the teacher is to construct and present the problem in a well thought out, practical and realistic way. By that I mean that the problem should bear some relation to events that the group might expect to be involved in.

Teachers have to take care with this approach that they do not  construct problems that are only relevant to their own situations, likes and dis-likes, or are based on extremely unlikely situations. Of course there are some problem-solving exercises in which the end result of the exercise itself is almost irrelevant, they are constructed to provide a means of team building or similar. But it is more productive, I think, to keep things in a "realistic" context in order to relate skills and training experiences directly back to the outside world.

One other aspect of this approach is the free flow of information in any direction. In the TCL  model, information only flows one way - from the top down. In the LCT model information flows from teacher to student, from student to student and from student to teacher. Nothing is beyond questioning, in fact an enquiring mind is encouraged. A student's real life experiences can be analyzed in class and used as the basis for work. A student may also have expertise in a particular area that the teacher doesn't, which can be tapped into for the benefit of the whole group. Training this way becomes an organic process, it develops naturally along the lines of the experience and skills of the group as a whole. This is why there is no "syllabus" - the people are the syllabus, in the same way that the people are the "system"

I know things are never quite so black and white, but I do feel you can broadly divide training into the TCL or LCT categories. When the two collide or combine things can get interesting! It can be confusing for a person to cross straight from one to the other, especially if there is a prior expectation. I find this sometimes when people come into our group expecting it to be typical "martial arts" - yet no-one is wearing a uniform, no-one lines up and bows and there is a degree of freedom not present in most schools. The vast majority  find this a liberating experience - it's not uncommon to hear " at my last school we were never allowed to do that", "we were never shown this" or most common of all "you mean it is ok to move my shoulder / put my hand this way / move my feet?" (answer - if it works, yes!)

That is nice, but of course this approach is not for everyone and some do prefer a  highly structured TCL  approach. Having to find your own solution (albeit under guidance) does require a measure of self-awareness and self-responsibility from the student. No-one will do your thinking for you and that is not what everyone is looking for in their training.

It has been my experience that very few instructors who embrace the "free" approach go back to the TCL model, though there are always exceptions! While I find this difficult to understand from a self-development point of view, I can understand it much more readily from a marketing / business perspective. Selling self-awareness and self-reliance to the general public is not likely to make anyone rich! The public in general embrace certainty, a concrete syllabus, a snappy name, jargon and terminology (whether technical or foreign language), a measure of progress (such as grading) and a teacher who can  be seen as the expert on every subject. The problem here, with the teacher who makes their own style up, is that they often themselves become the style. When they go, so does the style. Also, everything has roots, and you often find more nourishment from the root than from  the distant branch or leaf.

The TCL approach  speaks more as a method of learning with the conscious mind rather than the sub-conscious - but that is a subject I will talk about next time!

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