A Better Approach to Teaching Martial Arts

This post is in response to an email from an instructor wishing to know more about how teachers teach. Working in a public school, I have had the chance to study up close the methods used by some very effective teachers, and apply what I learn from them in my own classes. This is just scratching the surface, but it will give most instructors a great point of departure, if put into practice…

In order to be as effective as you can possibly be in the classroom, you need to understand that modern teaching methods are far removed from the way you were taught on your journey toward black belt. There is a world of difference.

A good place for you to start is to understand that there are three basic types of learners, and every lesson of every class should address the needs of all three types.

The three types are Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. The quicker you incorporate this into your teaching in every class, the more effective you will be.

Visual Learners are easy to identify. They are the students who watch intently as you demonstrate whatever it is that you are teaching them. They may ask you to demonstrate it more than once.

You can serve these learners well by demonstrating from a few different angles. This is the most common type of learner, as is evidenced by the massive number of books and DVD’s which teach martial arts (although nearly all instructors claim that learning from a video or book is impossible, there seems to be no hesitation in producing said books and films, I have produced some myself…hint hint…buy my stuff!).

Keep in mind that the odds are high that the majority of the students in your room at any given moment are visual learners. Do not forget this when demonstrating the techniques. These learners will do the technique the way you show it, even if you show it wrong. Do not go through it in a hurry, sloppy or weak manner, as that is how the visual learner will interpret the technique.

Of course, a high quality instructor would take pride in their work and never give a bad demonstration of anything they are trying to teach.

Auditory Learners learn through hearing. They need explicitly detailed descriptions.

This group will not be as big as the first. You can identify them easily, as they will be the ones who never interrupt your description, and will often ask you to explain the technique again. Sometimes they may repeat your instructions (we all learn better when it is our own voice giving the instructions, so do not admonish them for this repetition).

You can help to meet the needs of the auditory learner by speaking in a clear voice (no mumbling), and giving precise instruction.

It does no good for the auditory learner to hear “put your hand here”, or any other such vague description. However, it is very helpful to them if you say “close your left hand into a fist and place it near your right shoulder”. It is also helpful to have the class repeat the instructions or call out together the names of the techniques. You can also help the auditory learner by encouraging the class to ask questions.

If you are an instructor who discourages questions from the students, then you are a low quality instructor and will remain so until you change that outlook.

Do you just want to be an instructor, or do you want to be the best instructor in your area?

You should also ask questions of the class to help ensure they grasp what you are presenting. With just a little practice, this can become a very helpful habit.

When asking the questions, keep it upbeat and relaxed, don’t grill the students.

One easy method is to use a fill in the blank statement. An example would be, “After we fold for the knife hand block, we step into a _______” and allow the students to fill in the name of the stance.

Kinesthetic learners learn through the performance of the physical action in question. “Learning by doing” is the rule of thumb for this type of learner. The kinesthetic learner will not form a large part of most of your classes, but they cannot be overlooked if you are to be truly effective as an instructor.

The way I identify the kinesthetic learner is through an unconscious action most of them will take. While demonstrating a technique, the kinesthetic learner will mimic my movements while I am demonstrating and explaining. This is interpreted by some instructors as disrespectful and is vigorously discouraged, but such behavior is detrimental to the learning of these students!

Do not discourage it, they are learning and it is a very visible sign that they are paying attention!

If a kinesthetic learner asks a question on the detail of a technique, be sure you are showing the technique as you answer, for the kinesthetic learner gets bored quickly during verbal explanations.

One important rule to keep in mind through all of this is that every class you teach is going to have a mix of all three different types of learners. Also remember that nearly every person is a combination of types. Show it, say it, do it; and you will be teaching all three types of learners every time. Make it a habit!

Of course, it is never going to be good enough to simply know how to identify the types of learners. You still need to do the work – identify the types of learners in each of your classes. Once you identify what type of learner each student is, you must then personalize your instruction to meet the needs of the individual.

Hope this helps!