10 Instructional Principles Teachers Can Learn From Karate

Pic by author

A few days ago, I had an interesting opportunity to observe a karate training session at a dojo in Tokha, Kathmandu. It was given by a sensei (a senior black belt) as a crash course on a style called “Okinawan Goju Ryu” karate. Around 30 students (of different ages and varying belts) were present in the hall, all dressed in the traditional karate gi.

The training session looked like a perfect scenario for me to experience, reflect, theorize, and gather “teaching” insights. As I started to observe from a meta-level and take notes, I could see a lot of similarities on what/how/why great instruction matters both in the dojo, and in the classroom.

“The secret to learning and mastering karate,” the sensei started the session, “is to Look, Listen, and Sweat.” Citing some other masters of karate, he explained this idea of always looking at the sensei and other seniors with keenness; listening to instructions properly; and practicing again and again till perfection.

Next, he talked about the three core elements of karate:

a. Movement

b. Technique, and

c. Stance

I loved this idea of how the foundation of karate can be stripped down to these three concrete ideas. And, it kept me wondering if there’s a similar set of ideas in classroom instructions too.

“Without a perfect combination of these three,” he emphasized, “you’ll never get better at karate.”

While he was describing these three elements, I also realized I had a misconception about karate: I used to think karate was simply about technique, speed, and brute power.

But apparently, power and speed would naturally come as a byproduct of proper movement, technique, and stance. Also, power and speed seem quite vague/abstract, while movement and stance look visible/concrete.

After his short lecture on these principles, the session continued with the obvious warm up exercises. For each, the sensei first talked about “what” it was. Then showed “how” it was done. And, then explained “why” the exercise mattered.

His explanations were short, and instructions clear and concrete.

Interestingly, he would also give a quick demo on how the exercises were a part of the bigger/whole technique. Making the students (and me) think, “oh, that’s the reason to practice it that particular way and not the other way.”

Basically, he was

  • giving a demo of one whole move
  • breaking the whole move into several smaller parts
  • explaining why and how the part was an essential component of the bigger whole

The sequence looked like: whole — — part — — whole.

So what did I learn from the session?

After observing the session for 4 hours, listening to the instructions, taking down the notes, and reflecting on it, I’m sharing with you the 10 instructional principles we as teachers can learn from karate and implement them in our classrooms.

1. Clear instruction facilitates clear learning.

Make the instructions clear. Keep it short. And be visual.

Additionally, the sensei was giving the instructions only once, forcing the students to stay alert all the time.

Implication: In the classroom, giving instruction only once might not work all the time. However, one can practice giving the instruction only after every student is ready. And also, one can use a slide for keeping the instruction visible. Stop shouting out the instructions twice or three times while the students are still scrambling.

2. For understanding, domain language matters.

During the session, successful instructions relied on both the students and the sensei knowing and understanding the specific terms/vocabulary/phrases/jargons related to the movements, techniques, and stances.

When they didn’t know the terms, they looked confused and had to rely on their seniors for clarity.

Every domain of learning and skill has a specific language. When one can master the language, they can learn better. “What” is as important as “how”. “Knowing” is as important as “doing”.

Implication: Don’t just blindly believe in the edu-fad: don’t teach students what to think, teach them how to think. Without enough content/domain knowledge in students, it’s almost impossible to teach them how and why to think.

3. Checking for understanding.

The sensei was constantly asking the students if they understood the instruction, while also observing them, and giving them quick helpful feedback (along with demonstration). This helped the students to follow along, and prevented them from learning/practicing wrong techniques.

In other words, the sensei was teaching them that knowing what/how NOT to do is as critical as knowing what/how to do.

Implication: A teacher must assess regularly whether the students are learning or not. And, if they are not, the teacher has to figure out a way to give proper instruction and time for them to catch up. Give feedback, in both cases — when the students are making progress, and when the students are faltering.

4. The sequence is the KEY.

The whole session looked like: Demo — Practice — Feedback — Practice. This looked a lot similar to the classic direct instruction: I do, We do, You do.

There was a lot of incremental support too. Less for the advanced students, and more for the beginners.

Implication: Despite a negative connotation attached with direct instruction, sequence, and structures, learners (especially the novices, beginners) need more direction, guidance, and scaffoldings.

5. Practice. Repeat. Practice.

Group practice before individual practice, and individual assessments (in the form of kata and a fight). These embedded practice sessions also made sure that the students were looking, listening, and sweating. Meaning, they were also getting enough opportunity to practice the skills right away.

Implication: One of my favorite quotes, by Herbert Simon, is “Learning results from what a student does and thinks. And, ONLY from what the student does and thinks.” Giving enough practice time thus ensures that the students are thinking and doing. Plan for time when students can practice and apply their knowledge in groups, in pairs, and on their own. In the classroom, and outside the classroom.

6. Warm up and Cool down.

The session started with a lot of warm up exercises, preparing the body and mind for the inevitable “pain”. And after an intense session, it ended with exercises for physical relaxation and mental reflection. After all, karate is about both the physical and the mental skills.

Implication: It’s a good idea to structure the class in a similar way. Students need stimulation (mentally and physically) before they get engaged in intense learning. And similarly, to consolidate and internalize concepts, they also need reflective, cooling down moments. One can always plan this even for a 40 minute class.

7. Improvising: changing the strategy but never changing the bigger objective.

Just like an expert teacher who has both the depth of the content and the competence of teaching, the sensei was tweaking here and there, while still knowing where the students should/would end up ultimately.

Implication: You do need a broader teaching plan with learning objectives, assessment criteria, and learning process. However, not a single class will ever go as written down in the lesson plan. Master teachers know when and how to improvise, change their instructions, and still take the students towards the intended learning goal.

8. Sage on the stage and guide on the side.

The sensei was on the center as well as on the side. He didn’t just yell out the instruction, he was actually doing it with the students. Looking. Listening. Sweating. In other words, it was a balanced combination of moving into the center and then stepping aside. A combination of a sage and a guide.

Implication: Yet another edu-fad about taking the either/or perspective. “I’m just a facilitator, not a teacher” “Progressive, good, traditional, bad” “I’m a guide on the side not a sage in the front”

Any teacher with a rational brain and some experience knows that teaching is a complex blend of all these notions. One is constantly switching roles to meet the needs of the students, and to accomplish the learning goals.

9. Groups that practice together, learn together.

Individual practice is important and so is group/pair practice. The sensei made sure that each participant was practicing in all three levels: individual, pair, and group.

Implication: Give the students a chance to practice on their own, and with their peers. Engage them in group works and projects. Sometimes, let them choose how they want to practice. Some like quiet time, while others enjoy and thrive in noisy collaboration.

10. Respect, discipline, and routines.

Despite the firmness in instruction and toughness in practice, it was all about the students and the sensei respecting each other. Being in discipline and following the routines.

Those exercises did look repetitive, of course. Why would you have to bow down every time you enter and exit the dojo? Every time you practice with the partner, and every time you fight? Those did seem boring and redundant.

But, the key to mastery, which was apparent in the session, is in repeating the boring stuff. The mundane stuff. The painful stuff. And, enjoying repeating them, day in and day out.

Implication: Setting up a learning culture with rules, norms, and expectations right from the start of the class is super critical for effective learning. Yes, the students might not like the idea initially. But it’s all about planning, designing, and delivering learning experiences for the students where they are engaged in the process, taking risks, getting positive feedback, and feeling/knowing that they are making progress.

To summarize, the four hour long session gave me better insights on the nature of good instructions in the dojos. And, a way to connect the insights to how teaching/learning happens in the context of classrooms.

You might say, for instance, “karate and math are different. You can’t put them both in one basket. Teaching karate is obviously different from teaching how to solve math problems.”

Of course, the objectives and content are different. Different time and place too. But, they are similar because most learning happens in similar ways, in the intersections of the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social worlds. And through meaningful repetition. How you teach/learn math and how you teach/learn karate — both look different yet so so so similar.

This need not be that controversial at all. Great instructions matter, whether you lean into the progressive or the traditional side of teaching and learning.

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Umes Shrestha,
Teacher Developer

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Umes Shrestha

Umes Shrestha

Teacher. Teacher Developer. Right-brain@Unlearn Academy