Sorry about the delay on this week’s blog post. I was planning to post a presentation I recently gave on the origins of Tai Chi, but unfortunately I can’t find a way to record the audio for the presentation and still be able to see my speaker’s notes at the same time. I’m sat in my hotel room feeling quite glum about this defeat. One for the weekend, when I’m back home and can hook my MacBook Pro up to a second monitor!

This week’s class was a first for me. It was Week 14 (out of 30). The students I’m teaching are now about half way through their first year of learning Tai Chi; they’ve probably got a good seven or eight minutes of the form that they can now play in one go. And this week we took on a new student, Julie.

Whenever the topic has come up before, I’ve always been reluctant to take on a new student part-way through the year. To help students the most during their first year, they need (and deserve!) the majority of the instructor’s time and attention. That’s fine if you also have an advanced group at the other end of the hall, because they can be left to learn through self-reflection (that’s one of the lessons they need to learn, come to think of it 🙂 ), but I’ve never been confident that I could run two separate beginners’ groups at the same time.

My wife and I were talking about this over lunchtime, and she wisely pointed out that there was nothing for it. Just run one beginners’ group, and anyone who joins late will have to start where everyone else is, learn the same moves going forward as everyone else does, and they’ll just have to come back the following year to do the beginners’ classes that they’ve missed so far. Fortunately, when Julie turned up that evening, she was of the same mind, and quickly fitted in with the group.

So it’s good news this week. Normally, over the 30 weeks, numbers go from around 25 to just a handful by the end of the course. This year – my first teaching the class on my own – at Week 14 we have twelve regulars (up from eleven last week), and if anyone else in the Cardiff, Barry or South Wales area wants to join the class, you’re more than welcome.

And I’ll do my best to get that presentation posted at the weekend, too.

(I’m very interested to learn how other groups cope with this situation. Let me know what your group does in the comments below.)

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I’m not sure that the train is the best place to write a blog post, but here goes 🙂

The thing with the door from last week worked, I’m pleased to say. The guys took quite a bit of convincing to actually try it for themselves (very understandable; when was the last time you played parts of your form in a doorway?), but it did get across the reason why the arms stay close to the body all the time.

Although we don’t teach it as a martial art (we’re teaching through the local authority’s Lifelong Learning programme), we do place equal emphasis on both Tai Chi for health and Tai Chi as a martial art. As part of that training, we encourage students to imagine themselves playing the form against an imaginary opponent of equal height. Asking them to imagine themselves playing the form in a confined space like a doorway is another aspect of the same mental exercise. The day they first manage to visualise their opponent in front of them is one of those ‘ah ha’ moments that takes their form to a new level.To help with this – just like with the doorway – we have to start in the physical world, by standing in front of the student and providing them with a real target for them to aim at.

They have to be able to practice the move and feel what works and what doesn’t for themselves. The physical experience creates what I call the Frame of Reference – the common understanding that allows the intellectual work to follow. Without it, we can speak the words, but we’re not passing on the knowledge – just the information.

No matter how successful we are in our own visualisation, and in all the other intellectual work that we must take on as part of our practice, we must never allow our Tai Chi to become purely a mental exercise. We must never lose sight that our Tai Chi is there for our health, and that it is there as a martial art too. We must return to the physical, to ensure that our practice continues to benefit our physical health, and that it can still be successfully applied against a real opponent.

Because anything else is just naval gazing, and contributes to the decline of our art.

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This week, I want to share an amusing anecdote about just how simple it can be to get an important point across – and how in Tai Chi that theory is no substitute for a proper demonstration!

During every class, I normally take a bit of time to focus on corrections: looking at the form move by move, and pointing out key areas that need adjusting. Last night, we ended up focusing on the transition from ward off left to ward off right. During the transition, the right arm is meant to come straight up the side of the body, but there were plenty of arms pointing out to the right instead as they came up.

Well, I tried everything I could think of (which wasn’t much), and ended up just confusing matters further by getting into the theory behind open door / closed door. Eventually I had to just give it up and move on, but not before I promised the class that I’d do my best to come up with another way of explaining this particular move.

When I got home after the class, I talked to my wife about my bad experience that evening. I don’t like it when I fail my students like that, and I was determined to keep my promise to find an alternative way to get my point across. I was in the kitchen at the time doing the ironing, with my wife leaning in the doorway. Suddenly, her face lit up, and she mimiced my description of the move that I’d tried too hard to correct in class. Her right arm came up and out to the right, and promptly banged into the door frame.

“Get them to play the move in a doorway,” she beamed. “Then they’ll get it.”

Now how’s that for the perfect simplicity? 🙂 I’ll let you know next week whether it worked or not.

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Brief Thoughts On Teaching Approach

Posted by Stuart Herbert on January 10th, 2008 in Teaching.

I’m currently reading Psychology For Teachers, as part of the background for my ET01 Introduction to Teaching course that I’m taking to become a teacher qualified to teach adults in the community. A couple of points in the book resonated with me, and I wanted to briefly blog about them if only to remind myself to come back at a later date and learn more about them.

According to PFT, there is debate over whether children think differently to adults because their immature brains work fundamentally differently, or whether it is because they haven’t acquired the knowledge base that your average adult has. This means that, at the moment, the door is open to the possibility that learning processes originally optimised for children can be equally adapted and applied to adults. I don’t teach children, but I do teach adults, and the idea that the same fundamental teaching strategy can apply across both interests me greatly. Teaching strategies for children appear to be much more advanced than those for adults at this time.

The second point that PTF discussed that caught my eye is the notion that children first need to experience something in the physical sense before they can intellectualise about it. PFT presents this as a process linked to mental age and development, rather than a lifelong learning strategy. But this is incredibly close to a recurring behaviour I see all the time in adults where they need to feel something (sometimes physical, sometimes emotional) before they’re able to start gaining deeper understanding. It’s as if the adults are indeed reverting back to those childhood learning abilities time after time after time, and indeed PFT discusses that the idea of children reverting back to earlier learning needs is something that research currently hasn’t ruled out. How many adults do you know who, when subject to distress and fatigue (commonly described as stress in western society), revert back to their basic capabilities? From my own point of view, it seems to be most of them!

Combining these two points, and applying them to teaching Tai Chi, we come to the possibility that an optimal strategy to teach Tai Chi to adults is to focus first on the physical aspects of the training (safety, stances, stepping, shapes, and form) expressly because these are the tools that the students need so that they can experience for themselves the ten principles that ultimately underlie the art. Once students can play the form, they can then use the form to explore each principle, and in turn use the principles to improve their form. Without the form, how can the student study and explore the principles at all, except by trying to apply them to things other than Tai Chi? Is this not the same as the requirement for ET01 that we must be teaching regularly before we join the course?

I’ve long advocated – and practised – the strategy of teach the physical first and then use the physical to teach the principle, based on observation and experience in management and senior technical roles over the last nine years. It’s interesting to know that there may be good scientific reasons to adopt this strategy (we’re talking way-up-in-the-clouds strategy here), and that the information may be available to help further optimise matters.

The irony is that I’ve had PFT sat unread on a shelf in the house for at least five years now. (I am an avid hoarder of books. Fortunately, my wife is too 🙂 ) If I’d picked it up five years ago, before I started regularly teaching, would it actually have made any sense to me?

And, taking this beyond Tai Chi for a moment, what I can learn about those experiences (notably towards the end of my time with Gentoo) when I’ve been unsuccessful in winning certain people over to my ideas despite overwhelming intellectual evidence?

Wow – I’m always amazed at the way that studying Tai Chi can affect the rest of our lives 🙂

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Welcome To My New Tai Chi Blog

Posted by Stuart Herbert on January 10th, 2008 in News.

Welcome to the “Ten Principles” blog.

Although I am someone who teaches Tai Chi Ch’uan, I always choose to think of myself and to introduce myself as a student of the art. It’s not false modesty. At the time of writing, I have only been studying the art for eight years, regularly interrupted by old injuries from a car accident. Eight years is not a long time to have been a student of Tai Chi! I hold no recognised qualifications in the art; unlike the Japanese arts with their grading systems, Tai Chi only uses belts to hold one’s pants up. The majority of my training has been limited to the form. My knowledge of push hands and the martial applications of the form are far more theoretical than practised and honed.

By any sensible way of measuring such things, I am still at the beginning of learning this most excellent of arts. To say that I am not still a student would be a colossal over-statement of my progress and ability to date. Any yet, here I am, also teaching the art. What’s going on there?

My own teacher, Robert Earl Taylor, has long recognised that teaching others is a vital part of our own learning process. Teaching forces us to confront our own understanding, and our own assumptions. When we learn mostly on our own, we are free to cover up our own gaps with a mixture of blindness and false assertions. Contrary to popular wisdom, we are not always our own worst critics, especially when taking on a new field where our opportunities to apply what we think we have learned are few. But it is difficult to escape a hall full of eager students, each looking to us for satisfactory answers to their questions and scepticism. These students, these wonderful people who are joining us for a time; they provide an important challenge to our own skills and knowledge. I teach what I know of the art in order to make me a better student.

That’s not the only reason I teach. In a world where every Tai Chi teacher claims to have the “one true style”, I’m privileged to have been taught a style that normally resonates well with students. Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan is the Ng family’s own take on the popular Yang Style. Robert learned the art here in Cardiff from Dr. Louis Ng, who (as I understand it) in turn learned the art from his grandfather before the family left Asia for Europe. It appears very similar to the Yang Style taught by the famous Cheng Man-Ching in New York in the 60’s and 70’s, and contains many of the same moves and shapes. For his part, Robert has ensured that the form he has taught to his students maintains both the health and martial aspects; that it adheres to the underlying principles that are the true essence of Tai Chi, and that it is accessible to all students through the use of simple, organic measures and attributes. By teaching this art, I am playing my part in ensuring that it survives my generation of Tai Chi players. If others come to remember my contribution simply as a teacher of Tai Chi, I shall be content, as my duty to the art will have been fulfilled.

But I will always prefer to think of myself as a student first and foremost. There is simply so much to learn about playing Tai Chi, about what we play and why, and about applying it not only for health and self defence, but also to other aspects of our lives. The habit of being constantly open to new ideas, information, and interpretation is vital. We can’t accept the old simply because it is what we have been taught. It must be challenged; it must be able to stand up to reasonable scrutiny. Otherwise, our own knowledge of the art is a sham; we are no more than parrots repeating something we don’t understand, and what we pass on to the next generation is nothing more than an echo of the art. Along the way, mistakes are going to be made, misunderstandings will occur, and there’ll be plenty of blind alleys for us to chase down. But we have to try anyway. Otherwise, even the most basic fundamentals of Tai Chi such as its history as a martial art can be lost. (Alas, I’m not exaggerating here. Many other martial artists don’t believe that Tai Chi is a martial art, and there are Tai Chi teachers who teach that Tai Chi was never a martial art).

Why call this blog “Ten Principles?” Our Tai Chi style consists of cultural exercises, the form, and push hands drills. These physical activities are guided by ten key principles, and it is only when a student has attained all of these ten principles that they are proficient in their daily practice of the form. Principle-based learning is one of the key benefits of Tai Chi, and it is the main tool that students such as myself ultimately use to guide ourselves day to day. “Ten Principles” therefore seems like a fitting reminder not of the ultimate destination of all Tai Chi players (which is to master investing in loss), but of the minimum standard that I hope to help all of my students to achieve.

I’m currently teaching on Tuesday evenings. My aim is to update this blog most Wednesday mornings with topics inspired by the previous day’s class, as well as other ad hoc posts on further subjects