Thanks to the generous whip-round of staff when I left Box UK last week, I’ve been able to order myself a camcorder for recording Tai Chi practice and (eventually) lessons. I can’t thank Benno, Dan, Judy and all of my former colleagues enough for this; it’s going to help me improve the daily lives of many, many people over the coming years.

After a lot of indecision, I’ve ordered the Canon HF-10 from It has two features that I hope will prove essential:

  • 30p mode (30 frames a second), which should look great on modern flat-screen TVs, and is a great frame rate for content created for the web
  • a microphone input, allowing to use Vincent’s boom mic’s if I want to record sound live

It’s a solid-state camcorder, recording to SDHC memory cards instead of tape or disk. No moving parts should mean a lot less chance of failure for a few years at least (my poor Sony handycam died the death of all moving parts last year). It’s high-def too, which is great for compatibility with my MacBook Pro.

The camera isn’t actually out yet; hopefully I’ll get it by the end of April, which gives me a few weeks to put some thought into what to do with it when it arrives 🙂

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What’s In A Move?

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 19th, 2008 in Teaching.

In the Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan that I practise, we have the following sequence of moves:

  • Squatting single whip
  • Snake creeps down
  • Golden pheasant stands on one leg left

I’ve been preparing written notes for my students this week, and two questions have been on my mind as a result. Where do each of these moves end (and the next one start), and why does it matter?

It matters to me because I don’t want to be the latest in a lengthening line of instructors who leaves the art in a worse state than I found it. Yang Luchan, the founder of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, seems also to have been its greatest practitioner. Those who have come after him have passed on a lesser art each and every time, and it has gotten to the point that much of what is taught as Tai Chi today does not stand up to scrutiny against the Tai Chi classics. (Pick up any modern book on Tai Chi, look at the photos, and tell me whether or not you’re seeing fundamentals like single weight being evidenced).

The thing that always impresses me about my teacher is that he’s always insisted on trying to get down to the core of the art as we understand it, to improve on the information we have. Something is the way it is until new information comes along. In light of new information, things must change. We don’t own the art – it is our duty to hold it in trust for the next generation. Whilst it’s in our care, we should not make it worse!

In classical Yang style, squatting single whip seems to be nothing more than another name for snake creeps down; two names describing the very same move. We break the move into two parts – squatting single whip where we lower our stance by pivoting on alternate heels and toes, and snake creeps down where we use the left arm to defend against a kick. Should we use the one name for both parts? And where exactly does golden pheasant start?

However we decide, we have to start with the questions.

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Reflection In Action

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 13th, 2008 in Teaching.

It sounds bloody obvious, but when you’re teaching something, it’s essential to keep gauging the mood of the room to understand whether or not the students “get it”, whatever “it” might be. If they don’t get it, then it’s the teacher’s responsibility to change tack and on the spot come up with another approach, another description … to make whatever changes are required; and to keep changing it until the teaching is successful.

This is what teaching courses call reflection in action, and it’s something I’m going to be spending a lot of time doing in my classes through to the summer.

19 weeks through the 30 week course, we’ve finally reached the parts of the Tai Chi form that I’ve rarely taught before. Nearly all of my teaching up to now has been teaching beginners the first parts of the form. This year is the first time I’ve taught a class by myself, and had the opportunity to see them all the way through to the end of the year. It’s both a steep learning curve and a thoroughly enjoyable test of my own understanding of our Tai Chi form 🙂

I had a good example of having to reflect in action on Tuesday evening. The new moves this week were low pat right, high pat right, low pat left, high pat left and punch low. The stances for these are almost the same stances that our students have been using for the previous 18 weeks – front stance, back stance and cat stance. (The differences are in the two heel pivots in front of each high pat). So that’s where I started, but after a couple of minutes it was clear that it was the wrong approach to teaching these particular moves.

What was wrong? The first place to look is always to the students, to try to learn what their take on the teaching experience is. (As teachers, we have our own opinions, but they’re not the whole story. We must take into account how our students feel, otherwise we are ignoring half of the teacher/student equation!) Their feedback was clear: without the accompanying arm movements, the stepping on its own seemed harder to absorb. But, we’d already tried arms and legs together a little earlier, and that hadn’t been much success either.

But the students were absolutely right. The underlying problem was that the stepping didn’t make any sense for these particular moves. With the arms, the stepping sort-of makes sense, because you’re peforming the whole move. Without the arms, the stepping seems aimless, because you shift your weight forward, back, and then forward again before actually taking a step. Up to now, all the footwork the students have learned has been about actually stepping forward, sideways, or turning around. With its rocking back and forth, this footwork is both the same (it’s the same stances) but different. And I hadn’t grasped that in advance 🙁

How to find a fix it? Robert always told me to teach what I do, not what I say, and it remains excellent advice to this day. When I’m teaching, I’ll often answer a question by attempting the particular move first, and then by talking about what I’ve just demonstrated. I’ve also added the advice (happily stolen from watching Robert teach) that I should always make the demonstration relevant to both aspects of Tai Chi – health and martial (i.e. put the learning into context). Sometimes it helps to exaggerate the move; the (often unintentional) humour can lighten the mood of everyone, and it stops us being constrained by the strict formality of the form. I guess you could call it trying to look at the move out of the box.

The solution was to stop talking about stances and focus instead on actually rocking forward and back. This change in the instruction better reflected the purpose of the move, and within a few minutes the class was able to add the arm movements back in. By the end of the class, everyone was able to run through the form from the very beginning all the way through to the end of punch low. I’m really pleased with everyone’s progress, and I’m looking forward to that magical evening when we all play the entire form through together for the first time. It isn’t far away now.

So that’s reflection in action. It’s a small thing, and like I said, something that’s bloody obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many teachers stick to one approach and are unable to think on their feet and adapt as they go along.

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Cognitive Science and Google

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 5th, 2008 in Teaching.

I picked up a copy of Stephen M. Kosslyn’s Clear and to The Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations recently. Professor Kosslyn is Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and a leading authority on the nature of visual mental imagery and visual communication.

These are two areas of cognitive science that are particularly useful to anyone who teaches Tai Chi. As instructors, we teach primarily by demonstration – we literally communicate visually with our students. What we communicate, and the way we do it, make or break us as effective teachers. A key aspect of teaching the martial aspects of the form to beginners is to get them to imagine that they are applying their technique to an opponent who is standing in front of them (or beside them, depending on the technique, of course). We ask our students to have a visual mental image of their opponent at all times. Without that image, the techniques practiced will miss the mark.

His advice on escaping from PowerPoint Hell is built around eight key principles:

  1. The Principle of Relevance
  2. The Principle of Appropriate Knowledge
  3. The Principle of Salience
  4. The Principle of Discriminability
  5. The Principle of Perceptual Organisation
  6. The Principle of Compatibility
  7. The Principle of Informative Changes
  8. The Principle of Capacity Limitations

I’m going to explore each of these principles (and how they can be applied to teaching Tai Chi) in a series of follow-up posts, but I can already testify that they work extremely well. I used these principles to design the 20 minute assessed microteach that I did on Monday evening, and I passed with an ‘A’ grade! (The 20 minute assessed microteach is part of the grading for the Adult Teacher qualification I’m currently studying for, on the ET01: Introduction to Teaching course). If you have to present or teach, I can’t urge you enough to go out and get this book.

What does this have to do with Google? Er, nothing, really 🙂 Just that Google’s part of the other news for this week.

I’ve finally registered, and over the summer I’ll be building a website for the Tai Chi school. The plan is to keep it simple: a few pages about the school and our classes, and then a protected area where my students will be able to download electronic copies of the course notes and some videos too. Rather than create all the web pages and underlying software by hand, I’ve decided to build the website using the new Google Sites. I’ll let you know when the website is up and running.

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Many Tai Chi schools put a page on their website describing the benefits of learning Tai Chi. These pages are aimed at potential students, and normally contain lengthy lists of ways that Tai Chi can improve your health. But, all too often, these lists aren’t qualified at all; they do not back up the claim with scientific evidence or testimony. They’re simply the word of the instructor(s) of the particular Tai Chi school.

It doesn’t mean that the claims are bogus, but it goes against one of the core teaching principles that Robert always hammers into me (into the nicest possible way!): I must teach only what I can evidence.

As I’m not a doctor myself, I’ve started searching the Internet for what other people are reporting about the benefits of taking up Tai Chi. I’m limiting myself specifically to reported medical studies, or first-hand testimony. You can find a list of the benefits so far on my new Benefits for Health page.

I have many more sites to add to this list, and a lot of detail to add as well. If you know of any additional studies or reports that are worth a mention, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

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