This is the third part of my brief article series on HEMA and pedagogics. Starting with the first HEMA Pedagogics article where we looked at the gymnastics and pedagogics pioneers that laid the foundation for modern teaching we then looked closer at the implications of the 15 points listed at the end of that text. With this small foundation on some different modern pedagogics, here is a fairly pragmatic list of some of the things I think are important to strive for, based on what has already been discussed.
Create a joy filled and relaxing mental environment
If it is the first time, then welcome the students properly and make sure to present yourself and the procedures and rules of the learning environment. For a course you should also have the participants introduce themselves to each other and repeat this a few times in the first part of the course so people quickly learn to know each other, thus feeling as part of a group and not as outsiders and also making it easier for everyone to make new students feel more welcome.
If the students are younger and it is a course, then it is all the more important to build a shared group identity. You can play games that make them get to know each other, for instance various name games where they have to learn the names of their fellow students quickly. You can also give the group or subgroups a name, like “the dragons”, “the lions” etc. It gives them something to hold on to, a certain shared identity.
For a course, make sure to add some extra-curricular activities. This can be an extra study group, making field trips or just having a picnic or a drink or dinner together. In this kind of mental setting people will feel welcome & at home, feeling relaxed and safe, which:
- Makes them more receptive intellectually
- Makes them act with more confidence and self-security, thus increasing actual safety even when using little gear
- Gives them an experience with positive memories of and connotations to what was taught
All this will make your students want to come back for more.
Love what you do
Make it obvious to the students that you love and feel very enthusiastic about what you teach. You need to stimulate and inspire their curiosity and seeing your passion will do so for many. There is nothing worse than a disinterested teacher running on automat and routine.
Make them laugh
To create the environment discussed above you can also use humour. Clever or crude, it doesn’t matter, but having fun makes people relax and it also makes it easier for the students to endure difficult things. However, never joke at a student’s expense, unless you know for certain that they are in on it and only do so with obvious kindness. If in doubt, skip it.
You can joke at your own expense, but make sure you don’t paint a too negative picture of yourself, thus stealing your own authority. Sexist, racist or whatever-phobic jokes of course is always out of the question. Sure, some can take it and even like it, but some just won’t. Respect your students.
Know your students
If you have never met them before it is a good idea to ask them questions like what they have studied, at what level they consider themselves to be etc. Sometimes it is also good to split the class into different groups for beginners and advanced students so you can adapt the class to their differing needs. In other cases it is better to keep them all together. And you can also use both methods for different types of topics and exercises.
Note if someone has special needs due to physical or psychological issues and consequently may need to be treated with this in mind. Otherwise the student may be put into an unnecessarily awkward and difficult situation. Also make sure to be observant all through the class to see that there isn’t a change as you go along, e.g. a student disappearing without saying so, as that may involve sudden sickness & injury or a conflict you have missed.
Act with confidence and take your time
As previously described modern pedagogy commonly defines the teacher as a guide to knowledge rather than a role model or a figure of authority. However, that clashes to some degree with the fact that martial arts training involves risk of bodily harm. It can also attract people with odd ideas on martial arts or with self-control issues that can put other students at risk. Authority is required to maintain a certain structure and discipline tied to concerns for the students’ own safety. Consequently, you need to establish and maintain a certain authority, albeit with a warm heart.
While using humour is good, joking too much about yourself can steal from your authority, as can hesitating too much, contradicting yourself etc. If you experience a moment of hesitation or confusion, then just take your time while you let the students work. Even if it happens when you are talking then you can actually take your time to think things through. The students will wait. If you can’t come to a decision in a reasonable amount of time, then just skip it. Relax and don’t stress.
Use your personality. Don’t be afraid to be personal and human. You can use personal anecdotes and experiences as they can add spice to your teaching. Don’t let things go overboard with display of security and personality though, as you don’t want to come off as egocentric or arrogant. Choose your anecdotes wisely, listen to your students, be humble.
Be consistent but not pig-headed
Try to stick with your defined method and approach. If you give an order, and if you see that students aren’t following it, then repeat it or give a similar order that they can’t avoid following. For instance, if you order your students to stand in line with their swords at their shoulder and some are fiddling about, swinging them etc, then either order them again until they behave properly, or just order everyone to put their swords on the ground, thus avoiding the conflict altogether.
Don’t allow rogue students to ease up on your orders and rules as that steals your authority meaning your orders are no longer actual orders, but just suggestions. Remember that students who feel confused often look at what the others do to understand and if some students to something else, then it risks spreading. This can even cause risk of injury to the students. On the other hand, if a student makes a suggestion then treat it with an open mind and handle it with care. You might not agree with it or be able to incorporate it right on the spot, but at least acknowledge it. Sometimes smaller adjustments that makes things work better can be added straight away. Adapt when possible and reasonable.
Know your material, and some more
This is usually where the biggest issues with self-confidence arise, especially if you are to teach in front of an advanced group of students, near or at your own level. You just have to know and feel confident in your knowledge of your material. However, don’t be too harsh on yourself. If you feel uncertain, then test it beforehand. It is good to know more than just what you are teaching as you may get questions on your topic. If you can’t answer, then you can ask to come back later to the question, sending your answer at a later time. Nothing wrong in being honest about not knowing something and offering to help will be appreciated.
If you have later opportunity to teach the same or related classes, then always make notes after a class so you can revise and improve on your own teaching. Always make sure you have some extra material to use if needed. It may well be that time flies fast, circumstances change or the students have a different profile than you thought beforehand. Having something in your back pocket at such times can be a life saver.
Don’t be afraid to give the students a lot to chew on. They can take it and will rather appreciate having a little bit too much to think about than too little. They have generally come voluntarily and often even pay for you to teach them, so don’t disappoint them.
Use notes, but don’t marry them
Short notes tied to a teaching structure will make it easier for you to maintain your structure and also gives you more confidence in teaching. However, don’t stick too hard to them. You may well have to adapt your class to a different set of needs that the students have and which you hadn’t expected. Keep the notes tight and short and make the letters big enough to be read comfortably from the floor when you are standing up.
Give an overview
Let the students know briefly what the class will be about. Knowing in advance what will happen makes the students prepared for things you teach and explain later. That way they become more mentally open, as they are already somewhat familiar with the ideas and won’t feel as confused or question things due to their confusion.
Give context & actual application
Giving context and examples of actual real world application of what you are teaching gives a deeper understand of the what and why of what you are speaking about, thus preventing confusion, frustration and criticism against certain things. This gives a deeper understanding of how various aspects connect to other things beyond what you can actually do.
Don’t just teach techniques or give examples from the sources. Teach principles and concepts. Repeating techniques from a source doesn’t ease the understanding of them. Techniques are only the embodiment of a principle, and if the students understand the core principle then they can invent the very same techniques by themselves. They will also see that various techniques all group around certain principles.
Help the student in structuring their understanding by making comparisons and grouping together principles & concepts that are connected to each other. This requires a fair bit of research and study on your own behalf.
Share the sources and the basis for your interpretations
You are not the real authority on actual combat here. You are an interpreter who is sharing your ideas and thoughts on the teachings of the real authority; the author of the treatise. Students should turn to the original source under your guidance. This requires them having access to those sources and you pointing them to them and the specific areas of interest in them that you are trying to highlight.
Use iterative loops, recaps & tie things together
Try to build a structure for the class that includes several key topics which everything revolves around. As you teach you keep returning to these core concepts and show how the exercises tie in to what has already been discussed and worked on. The actual structure of the class thus includes iterative loops that sometimes overlap in large or small circles going back to different times in what has preceded the current position.
Using iterative loops it is possible to teach many things in a fairly short amount of time as it really means you are studying something fairly complex from many different angles but explaining how the angles show the same thing, thus giving a deeper understanding of a topic, instead of just studying a small aspect. Imagine holding a small sculpture in your hand. Twisting it around makes it far easier to appreciate its full beauty and design than when looking at just a small fraction of it. Using iterative loops also builds stronger fixed points in the student’s memory for each and every time you return to the loop points, i.e. the core concepts which everything revolves around. Similarly, and for the same reasons and results you can use recapitulations where you sum up what you have taught thus far in a section or in total, and then explaining what you will move onto, thus giving an overview and context.
Create opportunity for personal discovery
Understanding is always more strongly rooted in memory when it comes from personal discovery rather than being told or shown. It also gives a sense of achievement and boosts a student’s self-confidence. Discovery in turn comes from exploration, experimentation, cooperation and interaction. Here you act not so much as a traditional teacher, but as a guide to knowledge and understanding and you need to teach the student the tools he or she can use for learning. For practical reasons it is not possible to rely solely on this, but some of it should preferably be included in every class.
Also, you can give handouts and homework so the students can prepare for next class and then be more ready to experiment and discuss possible interpretations and different focus of study.
Make them sweat
People come to play. With swords and sticks of various sizes. Or to just grapple. It is perfectly fine to talk and at some length even. But they expect to work physically. Here you can encourage controlled aggression, shout, work with attitude and strong words related to combat etc. Try to get the students in a fighting mindset thus gaining both energy and getting into a flow where they stop thinking too much and instead act.
Practicing too slow can lead to too much thinking and thus the students getting locked up in awkward and unstable stances. Attacks need to be made with a certain aggressiveness, speed and intention to actually work or else the movements will be too unbalanced and weak on both sides. However, striking too fast, i.e. faster than the student can control, will also lead to unclean fencing. The key is to act as fast as one can control well. Not slower and not faster either.
Focus on movement rather than terms
Terminology can ease communication when they are established and commonly known, but before that they will actually confuse and hinder people in their learning. So use them with care, especially when you have groups with mixed levels of knowledge. Martial Arts is about movement and the teaching should focus on this rather than standing statically trying to fit a defined terminology.
There are many rights and only some wrongs
As human anatomy is hugely varied even for the healthiest of individuals, the movements of the students will also have to be adapted differently to the teachings we study and aim to understand. Consequently, your students should never mimic you exactly, but rather try to make things work for themselves. This was noted already by the masters themselves who advised us that we need to figure out how to do things ourselves in our own personal fashion. This also means that you should focus your teaching on helping the student to evolve from where he or she is at, rather than trying together with others to copy the movements that you show exactly. Ideally all education should be individual, but this is for practical reasons difficult to achieve. What is practically feasible though, is to focus on individual characteristics of the student, i.e. strong and weak areas and see where special attention is needed.
Everyone present have to feel welcome and “seen“. This is crucial. Look people properly in the eyes, establishing contact, and avoid focusing on just a few students. You might not have to spend the same amount of time on every student as some will find the class easier than others, but spend some time with everyone. Don’t make the class too large in relation to the number of instructors. Tops 15 students per instructor is ideal, although 20 can work too, depending on the topic of study.
Having one or more assisting instructors is a huge advantage, but make sure to prepare your assistants properly beforehand. Also, only speak against each other in a very considerate way and when you do so, only do it to show that there in some cases are multiple perspectives. Unity is the general key.
Make sure to see the little things happening. Occasionally a student may be too aggressive, acting unsafely or in some other way causing friction and conflict with another student that isn’t at first apparent or outspoken. Such things should preferably be prevented early on before they escalate.
Focus on the positive, adjust the important things.
In teaching and coaching a common advice for the last few decades has been to primarily focus on the positive things and instead of telling the students what they are doing wrong, you should tell them what they are doing right. While this is generally a good advice it is often exaggerated and two issues can arise: First of all don’t give compliments for “talent“. While tempting since we wish to encourage someone by suggesting that they really don’t have to make much more of an effort to become great it is is also an empty compliment that is not tied to achievement. Doing so can cause a notion in the student that he or she has to work less to become good, thus making him or her work less hard and consequently not reaching their actual higher potential. In the end hard work tends to pay off more than just talent. So, compliment achievement, not talents.
Second, the concept of focusing on the positive has caused some teachers to be scared of giving negative criticism and adjusting things that are wrong. This too is damaging to the development and growth of the student and can in worst cases cause a student to do something wrong for many years or the rest of his or her life even, despite the issue often being quite easy to fix. Truth is some students will never see or understand the mistakes they make themselves and they need your help to fix it.
So, don’t be afraid, but choose the topic and context of criticism wisely, and know your student’s personality. Some will feel shy and self-conscious so try to avoid criticizing in front of others. Never make a big deal of it. Adjust the truly important things and leave simpler things for the student to see or comment on them in a more general manner before the whole class.
Document and analyze what happens
Keeping a diary is good both for teachers and students and it can help use to evolve both as teachers, students and fencers. For the student important questions to answer regularly can be for example:
- What are the long term goals with the training and what is needed to reach them?
- What are the short term goals with the training and what is needed to reach them?
For the individual classes the student can also make notes about
- What did the lesson include?
- What did I think of?
And after sparring the fencers should ask themselves, and make notes of
- What happened?
- What did I do that worked?
- What did I do that didn’t work and why didn’t it work?
- What patterns do I often end up in or get stuck in?
- What did my opponents do that worked?
- What did my opponents do that didn’t work?
- What are the habits of my opponents?
- How can I exploit the weaknesses and avoid their strengths?
Through this the student can learn to analyze his or her own fencing and that of the others, what the weaknesses and strengths of their training partners are and how those may be treated in different ways. This can also be used to help each other grow in their fencing.
So, these are the things that come to my mind when reflecting my studies in pedagogics and methodology against HEMA teaching. I am by no means a perfect teacher in any way, but these are some of the things I strive for and fail with, slowly getting better at what I do. As mentioned several times the theoretical thoughts on learning processes and creating ideal environments for promoting and advancing it sometimes clash with real world situations and teaching in a somewhat dangerous environment, but many of the ideas of the pedagogues that have influenced modern pedagogics and teaching methodology can certainly be used and applied as we guide our students in their learning process. We just need to figure out how to do it the best in their theoretical and practical studying of our predecessors.
Thank you for your patience in reading all of this and I hope you have found it useful.