I have spent this academic school year exploring how Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teaches complex systems to students and reflecting on how I can bring the best parts of that to my school classroom. Every three years, my school requests that teachers develop their teaching, assessment and knowledge base to ensure that we remain on the cutting edge of education. One of the three areas I chose to focus on was my experience as a beginner in the art of jiu-jitsu. I should be very clear: I am clearly a beginner. I am no great expert or intimidating fighter, and I do not expect to be. I am a hard-working enthusiast who tries hard to improve in every area of the sport for my own pleasure. I see jiu-jitsu as a way of improving my health, developing skills key to defending myself in a physical/emotional way, and it is a way to connect with others who hold both different lifestyles and similar aspirations. There are a great many fascinating things that I experience when I attend classes which I believe can benefit my teaching in a classroom. For my research, I chose to only explore the positive areas and to discard the methods which might not apply or be seen as negative. The only person who is critiqued during my analysis is me, the beginning learner.
Over the past year, I have noticed how easy it is to focus only on the promotion. Just like my students in the classroom, I cannot help but want to know how I am doing, when will I be promoted; am I good yet? I know that when I teach English, students always want constant feedback even when they have not done all that much to change their level of progression. Perhaps this is simply human nature to want feedback; perhaps constant feedback is meaningless, however, especially in a jiu-jitsu world where your abilities can become futile against an opponent with different skills, attributes and game? But one thing that I know at the end of every class is that when I line up based on stripes and belts that there is never a doubt that this is actually how we rank. The instructors clearly made the right decisions and those tend to be reflected on the mats every night.
However, sometimes your actual level of achievement is clouded when you are at the top of the line for a while, perhaps because those above you are injured or chose to attend classes at a different time. Maybe the next great wunderkind just signed up for classes tonight. Doom is always around the next corner. Even the line up can mask one’s actual progress; I know that it had for me. Last night was when I realized that I was nowhere as close as I hoped to be to a belt promotion. It is no one’s fault but my own ego’s illusionary skills, and there is no real damage other than feeling embarrassed to admit that this jiu-jitsu stuff is always harder than I ever thought it was. I can say that. I admit it: I have a much longer road to travel than I thought just a month ago or even a day ago. Perhaps the best way to compare it to our real world experiences is that moment when you can see the destination in the near distance only to climb the mountain to see that the valleys and peaks go on for hundreds of treacherous miles, and the distinction is twice as big as you once thought. Perspective changes and so does the perception of how to cope with the adventure ahead
I can see why so many white belts quit. I often want to; I think about it. I stop thinking about it. Most other arts and sports offer illusionary achievements as ways toward motivation. After a few months of work on my camera skills my photography was in catalogues, on book covers and magazines (and I never was physically hurt by pressing the shutter release). After two months of practices, my students can win a championship finals in rugby. Jiu-Jitsu is different. In a few months you can barely finish the class drills without vomiting and you might be able to roll without getting injured tonight. That realization about the reality of your skill level breaks your heart and makes what you are doing seems foolish by most people’s standards. Why bother? Go home and watch tv, Old Man. But in a school classroom, students cannot just quit, nor can teachers accept disengagement on any level. We need to look for the positives, build on the negatives and constantly report to parents on how their son is doing. Maybe that is what I appreciate about the seemingly simplistic attendance system and the Master Cycle system at Gracie academies: you know that part of your advancement is attendance, you know what will be taught on any given day and you have an idea of when you might get your stripes, but the belt is still at the discretion of the instructor. Maybe that is what I also like about traditional gyms who have a more holistic approach to grading: the professor knows what it means to be a certain belt for competition and compared to other academies so why delude a student into believing that they are better than they actually are. In an academic classroom, I believe that it needs to blend the two styles based on the emotional needs and maturity of the students.
In the educational system, gurus have watered down the final accountability of students by insisting that all students are achievers and talented. Positivity has created some delusions of grandeur. Not all students can be the best; feedback should not delude them, but it should give them next steps towards improvement. However, over the span of 12 courses and unlike in jiu-jitsu, students can find supremacy in at least one subject area during a time period of 12 years. In a jiu-jitsu class, supremacy is fleeting even amongst your supposed peer belt group. In a heartbeat, a team member might have learned a killer sweep that catapults him to the top of the hill…at least until the team learns the counter and crushes his little niche move into the dust. Last night I struggled against two younger, stronger white belts. I had nothing, even though just an hour before I felt like I had everything. So how can one expect to be promoted when he cannot even fend off all takers at the lower level? At the same time, there will always be younger, faster and stronger white belts than me, because I am not young, so my speed and strength have inherent growth limits. So how can one ever hope to truly deserve a promotion that does not put an indefensible target upon one’s back?
What I appreciate most about jiu-jitsu is that there is room for concept-based learning, drill-based learning, narrative-based learning and application of knowledge to an unknown opponent. In most school classrooms there is only time for one, and even though jiu-jitsu academies aspire to include all of these modes, most focus on a few only. One of the reasons I have appreciated seminars and visiting other academies is to see how each professor approaches drills, warm-ups, class, rolls and philosophy. I have started to implement this same approach to my classes, as my students now warm-up with free writing, drill grammar, listen to a short lesson, apply what they have learned in groups with partners and come back to the table to reflect on what they have learned. This is no longer a classroom where a teacher pontificates about his knowledge and the students’ ignorance.
During this past year I have asked a lot of questions, used social media, spent time talking with peers and other practitioners, I have gone to seminars, visited different schools, rolled with anyone who asked and tried my best to be a visible, positive practitioner. I think that I am now ready to step back from all of that noise and keep the remainder of my experience private. The benefit of broadcasting my incessant thought process and the necessity of public inquiry is no longer valid as I close down my year’s educational study of the learning process for my professional evaluation. Do not worry, though, I will still be practicing and being present on the only place that matters: the mats. It is just that the training going forward is for me, and me only. The rest is static and distraction. See you on the mats…