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.