Thursday, January 14, 2010

Teaching to learn

Well, with major illness passed, Christmas and New Year's over, and my stamina regained, it is time to get back into the swing of things. Which means both training and this blog. Can't let myself be too lazy.


A number of wise and knowledgeable heads from various fields, including some that I know personally, have mentioned at one time or another the benefits one can gain in the act of teaching.

I have to be honest: I figured "Sure, but you have to be fairly skilled to be able to teach, and also you need to have the knack for teaching, right?"

Well yes, true to an extent.
However, I have come to realise that my attitude completely missed the point.

By TRYING to teach something with which I am familiar (even if I am not an expert), I am forced to carefully evaluate every aspect of what I'm doing, physically and mentally.

After all it is very easy, when tired or lazy in the comfort of one's own home, to fall into the trap of "Okay, that was kind of sloppy but whatever. Time to browse youtube for longsword clips." Sad, but true. In that situation though, only I am being disadvantaged.

One does not have that luxury when engaged in the challenge of trying to teach: after all, if you get it wrong, you are essentially messing with the training habits of a friend. And a gentleman just does not do such a thing. It's just not cricket.

So, getting back to the point: I recently returned to training. After spending a bit of time bouting to warm up, there was an opportunity where I could assist a new fencer with some basics.
So for once I decided not to avoid the challenge in favour of playtime. Turns out, good choice.

About 1 hour of the 2.5 hour evening was spent with a gentleman who wanted to work on some basic technique and footwork. Mostly footwork, with the final focus on the lunge.

While I hope it was of some assistance to the gentleman, here is what I learned:

1 - Explaining is hard (but the challenge is worthwhile).

As I tried to explain why we moved in certain ways, and why we needed a certain posture to improve our ability to perform certain actions, I realised that communicating these concepts is rather difficult. You know what the result needs to be, but how do you get there?

I mean, one is trying to impart not only the conceptual foundation of a technique, but also the practical execution and applications of it. That isn't necessarily easy for a scholar trying out the teaching side of fencing.

The challenge lay in tackling each explanation and demonstration from different angles until it made sense whilst not derailing the learning experience. It took as much concentration as a good game of chess. (I think we got there, by and large)

2 - Teaching physical activity is a different game to teaching ideas alone.

Yes, I am Captain Obvious. Now take your seat, soldier.

While this is not the first time I have acted in a role where I was teaching some kind of skill, I have never taught a PHYSICAL skill. I have never had to try and teach someone both an IDEA and an intrinsically related ACTION in tandem so that they both make sense and are applied as a cohesive whole.

As a result, I never realised that, when your entire focus is on evaluating technique and physical movements, your thought processes shift into an entirely different gear from when teaching purely intellectual concepts. There are a lot more cues that have to be taken from the eyes.
I had to really think about HOW the body moves in an analytical sense (probably for the first time in my life, really). I had to then try to explain why certain foot positions and leg positions were detrimental to the fencer where others were beneficial. And I had to explain it well, or there would be no reason for the 'student' to listen to what I was saying.

3. Teaching IS learning.

In Soviet Russia, Students Teach You! (Sorry Yakov, I promise not to do that again)

The upshot of all of this was that for every basic technique that I was ostensibly 'teaching', I was forced by the mere attempt of teaching to do the following:
- think about the technique
- mentally picture the technique to explain it
- physically demonstrate the technique
- correct inaccuracies when the 'student' attempts it
- explain why the inaccuracies were 'inaccurate' to begin with.
- revise my own interpretations in the face of obvious evidence that I am 'doing it wrong' (This becomes evident, for example, when the student does EXACTLY what you ask them to do, and you look at it, and you think "Uh oh. That explains those bruises on the upper right arm. O for a full length mirror at home and space to move.")
- recognise when a technique is performed adequately or well
- advise the student in a timely fashion when they performed the technique well, and explain why.
- show the student how to recognise the signs of a correctly executed technique themselves for future reference and solo training.

For example, with the lunge: I put a lot more thought into the lunge when trying to teach it than I ever did while practicing it at home. I feel certain that a lot more practical theory and application crystalised in my own head regarding the lunge in that little session than had in the past few months. Not to mention I had to be very careful of my own execution of the lunge to be able to demonstrate it adequately.

All in all, trying to teach, even at a basic level, was a very interesting experience.

I have a lot more to learn about effective teaching, but I can guarantee I'll learn more by attempting to do so than otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. Well done, it is about bloody time. Teaching someone else can only enhance your own knowledge. This is one of the reasons why I choose to do it. Keep going and you won't believe what you will then be able to pick up.