Why We Do Things The Way We Do

Posted by Stuart Herbert on February 20th, 2008 in Teaching, Technique.

This week was week 16 (out of 30) for my beginners’ class. It’s the first week back after half term, and it’s bloody freezing (well, for the UK anyway) outside by 6pm on an evening. It would be more than understandable for folks to drop out … but they haven’t. In fact, they’ve been spreading the word about the class, and our numbers went up again this week. If our new beginners come back next week, that brings the class up to 15 regular students on a Tuesday night. I’m really grateful to my students this year; this is my first year of teaching a public class on my own, and they continue to be fantastically supportive as I get to grips with things.

I think I’m going to need a bigger hall for next September, if I’m going to run the Year 2 class alongside next year’s beginners’ class!

Robert often told me that one of appeals of Tai Chi is that beginners stuff is the advanced stuff. If you’ve been playing the form for years, or its your first night in a class, what you’re learning is the same stuff. It really helps with a mixed ability class, because you can do something like a walking drill and everyone benefits. Walking drills are the first thing I teach anyone joining the class, and even those who have been with us for a couple of years now need a refresher and some pointers for improvement 🙂

We did a walking drill last night, and I broke the class up into three groups.

  • Those enjoying their first night with us were simply concentrating on the three main stances that we teach (cat stance, back stance and front stance).
  • The rest of the beginners were asked to ensure that they stepped toe to heel and shoulder width apart at each step. (“Ensure” is a gross over-simplification; I must remember to elaborate on that in a future blog post).
  • My intermediate group were also asked to ensure that they picked up their legs to waist height with each step.

The usual explanation for picking up the leg to waist height is that you’re stepping over the fallen foe that you’ve just dispatched (well, it is a martial art after all :), and for those uncomfortable with the martial aspects of the art, there’s always the explanation that picking up the leg is good for your health and range of movement (the use it or lose it principle).

They’re good reasons, but they’re not really why we do it.

The group has walked down one end of the hall, and they’ve turned around and are making their way back towards me, when Leon comes to a halt. Although he’s in the middle group, he’s been doing the waist-high stepping as he walks. It’s one of those lightbulb moments, and they’re the reason anyone who teaches loves their vocation. Excitedly, he catches my eye, and the ear of everyone around him, and explains what he’s just discovered.

The reason we lift our leg to waist height is because, when we put our foot back down on the floor, the foot goes into the right place every time.

It’s simplicity itself. We standardise our movements so that we get consistent results. We measure our movements against our own physical dimensions, because that works for everyone. And we internalise the movement (pick up the leg to waist height) because it’s much less effort / workload to execute consistently than externalising it (step over the corpse in front of us).

These points apply to everything we do in our daily practice, which is far easier to say than it is to actually do 🙂

As teachers, we can’t always tell our students points like these. We have to do our best to create the right circumstances for the students to experience the rule for themselves. As Robert told me just before Christmas, a rule has to be felt for it to be truly understood. Wise words indeed.

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It’s half-term this week, which means no teacher training class on Monday night, and no Tai Chi class on Tuesday night. This gives me a week off to work on the class notes for the next half term, and get everything organised for when (not if) my class is inspected.

I’ve been into Staples and picked up three of their excellent new hard-wearing ring binders. At 4.99 each, they’re very expensive, but the new rubber coating and the four-hole binder inside will ensure that my notes survive the effort of being lugged to and from class for 30 weeks every year. All I have to do now is fill them 🙂

Why three binders?

  1. In Year 1 – Beginners’ Tai Chi – I’m teaching my students how to play the form. I already have lesson plans prepared for each of the 30 weeks that they’ll be studying with me; these lesson plans double up as the notes that the students get at the end of each half-term. So, folder #1 will have my copy of the lesson plans, plus additional sheets so that I can scribble down notes about what needs changing for next year.
  2. In Year 2 – Intermediate Tai Chi – the plan is to teach my students the ten key principles behind our form. That’s quite ambitious for a 30 week course! During the summer break, I’ll be working on lesson plans for each of the 30 weeks, and these will go into folder #2, along with the obligatory sheets for scribbling down notes about how to improve the lessons for next year.
  3. The final binder will hold the Individual Learning Plans and attendance records for each of my students. No, I’ve no idea what an Individual Learning Plan is (more on that in a minute), but I do know that it’s something we’re asked to produce when we’re inspected.

Whoever said that UK teachers had too much free time on their hands? 🙂

To be honest, I don’t mind the paperwork as such. I’ve chosen to teach Tai Chi through the Lifelong Learning programme, and that means accepting the paperwork that goes with it. When you’re involved with government (either local or national), bureaucracy is part of its nature. Accepting something’s nature is part of how I practice the Taoist philosophy that sits behind Tai Chi.

What I do mind is just how badly prepared we are for it. There’s a lot of room for improvement, specifically in designing and running a course that provides practical support and advice to new tutors joining the Lifelong Learning programme. We need a detailed induction course that covers a wide range of practical issues that aren’t covered in the teacher training course.

A great example of this are Individual Learning Plans. As best as I can tell, they are not covered at all during the 12 week teacher training course that we all have to attend. (The course is great, by the way, and when the time comes, I’ll be requiring all of my senior students who want to teach Tai Chi to attend). They are definitely not covered in the recommended course textbooks. They are frequently mentioned in Ofsted reports, but they’re not mentioned in the brand new Lifelong Learning UK standards. I was invited to a seminar on ILPs this month, but as I work full-time during the day, it wasn’t possible to attend at all. Thankfully, somewhere on the net, there’ll be the information I need to design an ILP template that I can use with each of my students. But I’m one of the lucky one on the course; I’m comfortable using a computer. I’m not certain how many of my colleagues would be able to track these down online.

If there’s one point Robert absolutely hammered into me (in the nicest possible way, I must quickly add!) about teaching Tai Chi, it’s this: I am to teach what I do, not what I say. The students must be able to look at me and see me doing the very things I’m asking them to learn. If I cannot evidence it, then it doesn’t exist for all intents and purposes. This is why, in my class, we don’t specifically teach anything about the manipulation of chi. We can’t evidence such manipulation. (At this point, fellow Tai Chi players around the world are planning to burn me at the stake for such heresy 🙂 )

The nature of Yin and Yang means that some experiences will be good, and some will be bad. No experience is good all the time, and no experience is bad all the time. There’s always a little bit of Yin in Yang, and vice versa. If we are suitably prepared, we can learn from the bad as well as from the good; but only if we learn to tell one from the other, and to accept both for what they are.

My experience with ILPs helps me understand why Robert’s point about teaching Tai Chi is absolutely spot on, and why it is something that I must never ever deviate from. We can learn from the bad, but given a choice, we’d rather learn from the good.

On a different topic, I’m planning on using next week’s blog entry to talk a bit about the benefits of playing Tai Chi. Whether you already play Tai Chi or not, I hope there’ll be something of interest for you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s still ten more minutes left today for me to get some paperwork done … 🙂

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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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