Continuing from what we examined in the first HEMA Pedagogics article where we looked at the gymnastics and pedagogics pioneers that laid the foundation for modern teaching we will now look closer at the implications of the 15 points listed at the end of that text.

Again, while this article is more aimed at instructors of HEMA, it is also quite important for practitioners, as it also describes the needs,  roles and responsibilities of the practitioner.

So, without further ado, here are the key elements.

People have a natural desire to learn 

Our desire to understand our surroundings is an integral part of the human psyche and our capacity for survival. We want to to learn and grow more capable of dealing with the various situations we are subjected to in life, in fact we have to or we just wouldn’t survive. Simply put; we are born curious and eager to learn. From this follows that the knowledge and skill itself is reward enough and there is no need for punishment or superficial reward. The teacher only needs to stimulate the students’ natural curiosity.

Of course things are a bit more complex than this, as we all have past experiences that affect our self-confidence and self-image as we meet different situations in life. However, in our case as instructors we can assume that the students come to learn because they want to. Consequently, there is no need for punishing push-ups etc, unless they are seen as fun and in other aspects rewarding. Humiliating punishment is naturally a big no-no. That said, rewards and punishment can function as substitutes for actual learning, meaning humiliation and punishment can control behaviour, but not understanding. It works, but isn’t effective for what really try to achieve; thinking fighters.

Stimulation can be done in various ways appealing to both mind, heart and soul, e.g. through humour, through passion and through sharing interesting new information. Stimulation needs to be constant and personal. Stagnation and fossilization in the teaching will cause the same in the student’s development.

Stimulation can also come from leading-by-example, but the latter can also cause other issues, which brings us to the next point.

The teacher should act as a guide rather than as authority of power.

HEMA is in a way quite unique in that most of us recognize that we are studying and recreating a martial art that in most cases has been lost and forgotten. For the weaponized aspects of it we will likely never have the opportunity to actually apply it for real and we will never have the experience that our predecessors had, thus never quite seeing things the way they saw it. Furthermore, our understanding, while improving will always be flawed, as we struggle to understand what the sources try to teach us. Our misunderstandings and our physical capacity combined with the various types of experiences we build will affect what and how we teach, meaning a lot of flaws risk being transferred from the teacher to the students, unless we are very careful. Whole martial arts traditions have branched off from their main lineage due to such things.

Continuing, martial arts application is always individual. The Art is not the same for everyone and we need to make it our own, suitable to our own circumstances and capacity. This I will return to a bit later.

Consequently, we as teachers can never be the real authorities on weaponized single combat, but only serve as proxies of the real authorites; the masters and authors of the combat manuals. So, with this in mind the teacher should primarily act as a guide to knowledge and understanding rather than as a role model or authority of power. The focus shouldn’t be student on teacher, but teacher on student.

Famous martial artist Bruce Lee expressed similar ideas, stating that:

A teacher, a good teacher that is, functions as a pointer to truth, but not a giver of truth. He employs a minimum of form to lead his student to the formless. Furthermore, he points out the importance of being able to enter a mold without being imprisoned by it, or to follow the principles without being bound by them.
– – –
A teacher is never a giver of truth; he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. A good teacher is merely a catalyst.
– – –
A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence. It is easy to teach one to be skillful, but it is difficult to teach him his own attitude. Each moment during teaching requires a full alert and sensitive mind that is constantly adjusting and constantly changing.1

From this also follows that the student needs to take responsibility for his or her own learning and that the teacher needs to both inspire, but also help the student to understand how to study and learn. Part of this can be for the student to set up goals with his or her own studies and training.

This however, doesn’t mean that the teacher shouldn’t lead by example. The passion and ambition of the teacher is hugely important for inspiration. However, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a capacity for defeating everyone. It could just as well be exemplifying how to be a dedicated student of the arts. In fact, the latter is very important as everyone needs to study the sources if we are to succeed in what we have set out to achieve; collectively recreating these lost arts.

However, as what we teach is dangerous even while studying, the teacher also needs to be in a certain position of authority for reasons of safety. The teacher needs to keep a good overview of what is happening in the training hall, thus keeping everybody safe. This I will return to later.

Teaching should be adapted to the student

While group teaching has its advantages, most of those relate to practical concerns making it easier for the teacher, not for the student. Quite commonly students have been treated as if they were all the same, given the same exercises and advice, regardless of their personal characteristics. It is like giving shoes of a single size to all students and it just isn’t optimal. Teaching should ideally be adapted to the students’ level, needs and capacity, thus requiring individualized teaching.

However, as most of us teach and train at most once or twice a week, for a few hours each session, this is one of the most difficult aspects to implement. We separate classes into various forms of progression through more advanced training, which helps to some degree, but we also need to look at the needs of every single student.

Consequently, we need to make notes, either mentally or in physical form, of what the needs of every student are. In some cases this is easy as we meet regularly, but just noting flaws isn’t enough. We also need to keep challenging the student to continue to grow and evolve. We need to help the students find out where to look next. Therefore, our teaching needs to adapt continuously to the group and the students individually.

Ideally, the students should also regularly make notes about their training, e.g. using a training diary. 

Smaller groups are preferable to larger, but not always

Another implication of this is that it is better to have a teacher following a smaller group of students than having the teacher share a larger group of students with another teacher. Personal contact is vital and it is difficult to maintain with too many students and too little time.

Our favourite modern martial artist again notes that;

Teaching is a direct relationship. – I never believe in large organizations, with their domestic and foreign branches, affiliations, etc. To reach the masses, some sort of system is required; as a result, the members are conditioned according to that system. I believe in teaching just a few, as it requires constant alert observations on each individual in order to establish a true, direct relationship.2

Simply put; larger groups force you to teach more systematically and less dynamically.

However, with the teacher acting as a guide and the students taking own responsibility for their learning, the workload of the teacher can be shifted in some ways, meaning that while there is more work in some areas, there will also be less in others.

Finally, while individual teaching is the best for some types of learning, it needs to be complemented by other types of teaching, like working together with other people than just the teacher. This again comes back to the teacher acting as a guide and not someone to simply copy. It is important to get other perspectives and confront other fighters and learn together.

Consequently, mixing teaching of small groups with larger ones is good for many reasons.

Language enables thought

Language enables thought, it carries ideas, giving them form and structure in a smaller, condensed shape. Consequently, terminology and language relating to concepts and principles are important. However, they are easier to remember if they are tied to an actual result and have multiple connotations.

This means that theoretical study is important as language helps create structure so one can understand the principles that the fencing is founded upon and exploit. However, terminology is dependent on definition of terms and as HEMA is still much about personal interpretation, terminology is by necessity in a constant flux, carrying different meanings for different people.

Consequently, it is always important for the teacher to show and highlight the important aspects of what you’re trying to teach.

Initially, terminology is very confusing for the students and consequently it is then all the more important to focus on movement rather than static stances and terms. Terms and stances can come later, and will then help in building a better overview of how things connect.

Learning is easier when there are multiple connotations

Not only remembering, but also learning is made easier when there are multiple connotations, i.e. points of recognition. This means that it is good to teach a topic from different angles, allowing the use of different senses. Using many senses of course comes natural with learning martial arts as we will naturally use touch and tactile sensation, hearing, seeing and even smelling. All these senses reinforce memories stemming from our understanding learned in the training hall.

This also means it is good to look at a concept or a principle as it is applied through various techniques that are connected through the principle. The principle is the important thing, not the actual techniques. Understanding the former leads to the latter, but studying the latter can also lead to understanding of the former.

Multiple perspectives however, can come not just from several other people, but also from a single teacher. For this, however, the teacher needs to make him- or herself aware of these various perspectives and possible alternative interpretations through continuous exchange with other researchers, instructors and fencers.

This also requires regular variation of exercises, highlighting the principles from different angles.

Context and larger overview ease understanding

Context and larger overview on how things connect ease understanding of individual objects and concepts. Consequently, the teacher needs to help the students discover larger structures. Such structures are commonly principles in fighting tactics and strategies, but also mechanics of body and weapon connected to techniques fall under this category. Seeing these larger overviews makes it easier for the student to see how many things are just different aspects of a larger idea, more being variations of a concept than actual unique items.

Furthermore, it is also important to help the students see the combat arts in relation to the society they existed in and to a degree also its place in our modern world. Without such understanding of history many things will be very hard to truly comprehend.

The physical environment is important

The physical environment in which the teaching takes place is important and can both support and hinder the learning process. Preferably it should make the students relax and feel inspired. This can be done by inspiring activities taking place in the training hall, seeing lots of people having fun, doing various exercises with different weapons, studying and sparring together in a good friendly and energetic atmosphere.

It can also be helped through display of weapons & fencing equipment and our sources with large printed images from the combat manuals, thus building an image of a proper fencing hall dedicated to historical fencing, rather than just a simple basement room where people train. While the latter has a bit of an underground fight club profile that some will like, the former puts more focus on our predecessors and our heritage, thus aiding in inspiring curiosity.

A result is easier to understand than theoretical explanation

Concepts that produce an actual result is always easier to understand than just theoretical explanation of a result. This means ideally the student should be able to create or experience the actual result.

While it is still true that most of us will never reach the level of understanding that the authors of the combat manuals had for our martial art, we can still strive to come as close as possible to it. To achieve this we must use various means that highlight different aspects of the martial art. This can involve exposing the student to situations that add an element of fear or stress, e.g. a tournament or practicing with real “sharp” weapons or little or no protection.

This also means we all need to understand the effects of the weapons associated with the martial arts we study, meaning effects on fabrics and flesh and how that relates to the fencing. A teacher or a student that has never used the actual real weapon will have little understanding of its application.

Experimentation and own discovery is very important

No matter how many times a teacher explains or shows something, the student will always have to experiment and learn on his or her own. Again, the teacher serves as a guide in this experimentation process, helping the students to note various aspects, but also giving them space to discover these things themselves. Oftentimes it is difficult for the student to see things from the “outside” and therefore the student needs help. Mirrors or video can help in this and are thus quite important.

As previously mentioned it is also a good thing for the students to keep and regularly use a training diary. In such they can write down their thoughts on the lessons and their learning, but also make notes about the habits, strengths and perceived weaknesses of their training partners, further helping them learn to see and analyze the fencing so they can exploit weaknesses, and also preparing them to discuss and help their partners in their learning.

Cooperative experimenting can aid in learning.

In experimenting it is often good for the students to be of the same level, meaning they are all experiencing and learning similar things. An advanced student will not benefit in the same way from experimenting together with a much less experienced student. That said, one can also learn a lot from trying to explain one’s ideas to someone with less experience and knowledge, meaning an advanced student can still benefit from this type of work. Generally though, in this case the Swedish saying “Alike children play the best” is applicable and true.

Most people have experienced how with some training partners things just “click”. Fencing becomes interesting and things just work well, despite both parties aiming to “win” over the other using all their skill and experience in doing so. While this in a way is cooperative it is only cooperative in the sense that the two training partners are a good match for each other fencing wise when studying the complexities of the art. However, not all of the fencing can rely on this and training should also involve sparring together where things don’t click, to further aid in a deeper understanding. The “click” is invaluable though, and should be given room and encouragement, as it builds both understanding and a sense of development.

Internalization and appropriation are the final stages of understanding

Proper understanding involves internalization, i.e. mastering a skill at a profound level, and appropriation, where one can finally adapt the skill in a personal manner. Fechtmeister Joachim Meyer speaks of this in his own way

Now since everyone thinks differently from everyone else, so he behaves differently in combat; and so I have thought it best to consider the cuts in every way, both how one shall deliver them and how one shall send away those that are delivered against him, so that everyone, be he strong, weak, quick or slow, will have something useful to learn from this.

For combat is properly a sort of exercise through which the body will be trained to skill in wielding the weapon; then when one is trained in it, he must at last arrange it in the work itself…3
– – –
Further you shall also know that although I have assigned to every posture its particular devices, it is not my intention that these devices shall not be executed or take place from other postures…4
– – –
Also these devices are not so set in stone that they cannot be changed in practice – they are merely examples from which everyone may seek, derive, and learn devices according to his opportunity, and may arrange and change them as suits him. For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot all have a single style in combat; yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis.5

Bruce Lee again speaks of internalization too, using slightly different words;

Absorption vs accumulation in education. – It is not how much you have learned, but how much you have absorbed in what you have learned – the best techniques are the simple ones executed right.6

This requires personal commitment on behalf of the student, where the student takes own responsibility for his or her own learning and growth. Such commitment of course is inspired and strengthened by everything discussed thus far. This also means the student needs to be given sufficient amount of time to learn on their own and also have opportunity for individualized training, both supervised and privately.

Personal experiences and interests can function as foundation

Inspiration can come from many different places, but among the strongest for a student is when it comes out of their own existing experience and interest and such can thus serve as part of the student’s own foundation for study. The student might need help in finding out what these are, which can be helped by learning what inspires and drives others. Social exchange is thus important here, meaning meeting and talking about fencing related topics either in person or online can be an invaluable help. It also helps building a shared identity and a sense of belonging.

Students desire order

Order is inevitably required to create a good and safe learning environment and it is especially important in situations that involve risk of physical danger.

A common accusation against modern pedagogics that emphasize the student’s own responsibility for his or her own learning is that it leads to chaos and disorder. This is simply not true. Desire for order is natural to all groups and it is generally shaped and upheld collectively by all members of a group. Consequently, the teacher only rarely needs to step in with disciplinary actions, commonly acting on behalf of a student to ease the effects of possible conflict.

Rules for accepted behaviour can be defined in the statutes of the club and this is also how it was done historically. In some cultures people feel a reluctance towards doing so as it is believed that “common sense” is enough. However, this can be disputed as there are plenty of examples where the concept of common sense is exactly the problem, as it doesn’t always recognize the less obvious issues that people are sometimes subjected to. This due to the definition of “common sense” being created and perpetuated by persons not affected by the issues involved. Consequently, these matters should be defined and agreed upon collectively, listening to each individual. This way a stronger group identity and sense of belonging and loyalty is formed, further reinforcing the students’ dedication to the study of the arts.


Thank you for taking the time to read this! Next time we will discuss the topic of “How to create a good learning environment”.

Roger Norling

Further reading

HEMA Pedagogics Part 1: The Pedagogics Pioneers & The Role of a HEMA teacher
HEMA Pedagogics Part 3: How to create a good learning environment



  1. Lee Bruce, Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living, 1 Mar 2000, Tuttle Publishing []
  2. Lee Bruce, Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living, 1 Mar 2000, Tuttle Publishing []
  3. Meyer Joachim (1570), Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adelichen Kunst des Fechtens (B4V). Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng []
  4. Meyer Joachim (1570), Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adelichen Kunst des Fechtens (2.18.r2). Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng []
  5. Meyer Joachim (1570), Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adelichen Kunst des Fechtens (2.19R). Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng []
  6. Lee Bruce, Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living, 1 Mar 2000, Tuttle Publishing []