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Finally: the answer to the conundrum which has bebuggered our dojo and its instructors—maybe all dojos and instructors—since the dawn of forever!
Ours cannot be the only dojo that wonders what constitutes the best practices for teaching aikido. Should you demonstrate techniques silently and allow practitioners to repeat them ad infinitum? Should you provide minimal verbal instructions? Or should you provide descriptive details, memorizable steps, and plenty of explanation?
And what about when you’re not the instructor, but just the senpai (senior student) paired with a novice, or kohai? Should you remain mostly silent while your partner reps a technique? Should you correct the errors you see or feel—either silently/bodily like a mime or verbally/accurately like a tutor?
I am especially keen to unravel these mysteries because I am co-teaching our 4-week Monday/Thursday Intro to Aikido class (download the intro class flier) coming up on March 12th, 2018 (for questions or to register, contact Philip Riffe: firstname.lastname@example.org)!
The answers to these and other questions can be found in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Co-authors and experts Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel compile recent findings from neuroscience and cognitive psychology and combine the results to reexamine what learning is how best to facilitate it.
Conventionally, our culture believes that learning anything the hard way is a waste of time and effort. The student and teacher are better off when the learning is fast and easy. We also believe that practice makes perfect. Repeat something over and over AND OVER until you have it down. However, like nearly all the revelations arising from fMRI (real-time observations of living brains) evidence, the takeaways on learning are counterintuitive and quite opposite from the quick-and-easy conventions.
The Make It Stick authors reveal that when it comes to learning, easy in equals easy out. For example, whenever someone tells you a phone number, you might repeat the number over and over until you can plug it into your phone or jot it on a piece of paper. If asked to recite the number again later that day, odds are good you would succeed in the memory task. But, if asked to recall the number days or weeks later, odds are you will have forgotten the number entirely.
Because the brain stores quick and easy info in short term memory. Think of short term memory like a chalkboard. It’s as easy to mark on as it is to wipe clean. Long term memory is more like a safety deposit box. It will cost you to put anything in it, but once there, it will endure.
The cost required to store anything in long term memory is effort. Learning actually needs to be effortful if it’s going to last, expand, and enrich.
Worth the Effort
How can we make learning meaningfully effortful? The authors recommend “interleaving” or mixing the tasks and skills to be practiced. Their example comes from a study of youngsters challenged to master the art of chucking a bean bag into a bucket two feet away. One group of kiddos practices exactly that: lobbing bags at a bucket set two feet away. Over and over in the usual “practice makes perfect” style—or what learning specialists call “massed” practice. The other group interleaves their learning. Their buckets sit three feet and four feet away and they can shoot at either or both targets as mixed or as methodically as they wish.
On an immediate skills test, the first group nailed the two-foot bucket more often than the second group. However, within a few weeks without additional practice, the first group missed the target while the second group nailed it. The interleaved practice was more difficult and did not produce desired results immediately, but it built a wider range of skills thanks to mixed targets. Over time, the brain massaged all that learning into the physical finesse needed to land the shot, regardless of the bucket’s distance.
How might this apply to teaching and learning aikido? We may all benefit by mixing what we rep. Maybe, if I want to get better at that hiki-hiraki ikkyo irimi, I should rep some kote kaeshis or shiho nages from a hiki-hiraki start. Maybe I should rep some ikkyos from yoko-hiraki or dashi-hiraki starts.
Mind the Gap
Another vital point which contradicts convention concerns forgetting. We assume forgetting stems from a flaw in our ability to remember, or that the way we acquired the information was somehow flawed (otherwise, we would remember it). On the contrary, forgetting is what the brain does naturally and needs to do in order to acquire information for the long term.
How can we encourage beneficial forgetting? Build open spaces or gaps into the learning process. Following a lesson, allow for a gap in time and attention on the topic. Allow the brain to erase some or most of what you acquired. Then quiz yourself. The effort you put into reconstructing the lesson strengthens the wiring in and across your brain. To recall what you learned (and partially forgot), you must tap various regions of the brain—those governing sound, smell, touch, taste, and so on. Your prior learning and experience will also feed the reconstruction process, which in turn, bolsters the wiring (synaptic connections) around the new information. More connections equal deeper storage and longer retention.
Riddle Me This
Another way to build in gaps is to hold back “right” or “wrong” feedback. Gaps of silence. When your kohai is fiddling about with footwork or handwork, simply giving them a few unaided attempts is enough to let their bodies relay important information to the brain, like: this is weird…this feels inefficient…this doesn’t seem at all like what the sensei showed…etc. In the wake of that evidence, the mind and body work in tandem to problem solve, to imagine alternative solutions, or to re-imagine sensei’s demonstration. This attempt to solve the problem before being given the answer builds robust learning because when you do offer a correction/solution, kohai’s mind and body will padlock that information and connect it to all the wiring that arose during unaided experimentation. Again, more wiring makes the revealed solution stick better and longer.
Consider any time you were given one of those bizarre brain-teaser puzzles to solve. Like those two ten-penny nails twisted together that supposedly come apart. Or think of any time someone has challenged you to solve a riddle. You try out answers and solutions until either you solve it or you ask for the answer. How well do you remember the solution years later when you hand over the same puzzle or riddle to a new, unsuspecting victim?
Naturally, this book belongs on every educator’s shelf, but for senseis and aikidoka, this book represents an opportunity to strengthen and expand not only their practice, but also the essential senpai/kohai relationship which makes practicing so rich.
Featured image “Chalk” (CC BY 2.0).
“Is there nothing that stops you?”
This friendly question came from a fellow classmate as we both arrived to the dojo for class. His question roused me from my trance–mindlessly stuffing my coat, scarf, and shoes into a wooden cubby. I asked him to repeat the question.
“Is there nothing that stops you from coming to class? You’re always here,” he elaborated while unlacing his shoes.
It wasn’t a criticism. I realized it was praise. A compliment. Admiration from someone whose schedule demanded more than mine in terms of work and family commitments. To be sure, I missed classes to take a vacation, go camping, or visit family in another state; but on the whole, my attendance generally hovered around 95%.
I smiled. “Well, I am always happy when I am here.”
“Me too,” he grinned, then hurried off to wrap up in gi and hakama.
But the question stayed with me for days. I easily recalled stretches of time in my aikido career when blowing off class became a hobby in and of itself. I’d fill my tote bag with all the gear. I’d tie up my hair. And all the while, I’d pile up the reasons not to go.
I was tired.
It had been a long day.
It had been a crappy day.
It had been a sunny day.
At last, I would empty the tote bag and plop on the couch. The next time class rolled around, I repeated the process. Entire months passed and my absences stacked up.
Could I blame the situation on a bad dojo with crummy participants or a lousy instructor? Heck no! I adored my fellow students. I adored my sensei’s lessons and his keen ability to peel back the infinite layers surrounding every step of every technique. I laughed joyously in class. So why was I dodging the practice and all its splendid treasures?
I didn’t know it at the time, but have since found out that my absences boiled down to habit. In the human brain, habits form faster than Napa Valley fires. Charles Duhigg provides a lucid explanation in his book, The Power of Habit:
“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit…” (17-18).
Chunking is another term for the process of globbing repeated actions together into an automatic, even automated performance. Driving a car and brushing teeth are two routines chunked into habits. Consider how strenuous life would be if you had to relearn these and other common tasks every time!
Essentially, when the right triggers arise, the brain thinks: oh, this is that thing you do all the time. You know how to do that. I’m out! Laterzzz! And then it kicks on the autopilot. Duhigg explains, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks” (20).
Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t necessarily distinguish between good habits and bad habits. It simply connects patterns with programming and leaves you performing. Going through the motions. Like a windup toy. A robot.
Years ago, I established the habit of prepping to ditch aikido. I taught myself the technique of not going. I taught myself how to quit.
So how do you break a bad habit once it has formed? First, you have to bring awareness to the habit and know it’s a habit. See it unfold. Then, you are in a position to work with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities — that is, its ability to constantly rewire. In her book, Small Move, Big Change, Caroline Arnold outlines a basic methodology for getting the brain to adopt changes. They key, according to Arnold, is to start small.
For example, if you have a habit of overeating or mindless snacking, don’t alter your entire diet or ransack all the junk from your kitchen cabinets. That introduces too much change and the brain will rebel, big time! Instead, identify one problem food or eating behavior and work with it. Next, set a time for that new action to occur (every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, for example.) Allow that time to trigger the behavior so that, eventually, you do it without thinking.
And what do we call a thing we do without thinking? That’s right: a habit! Only now, it’s a good habit.
Duhigg cites behavioral researchers who refer to these small changes as small wins, or keystone habits. Just as a wolf is a keystone species positively impacting the health and wellness of all other species in its habitat, so too does a keystone habit promote a mental and bodily biome of other positive habits. One small win sets in motion forces that favor and allow for another small win, which in turn triggers another.
“Small wins,” Duhigg says, “fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach” (112).
How do I sustain such a regular attendance at aikido now? It’s a habit. I have the routine down pat. I quit quitting when I stopped thinking about quitting. On nights I have aikido, I don’t think about it at all. Suddenly, I am there, cramming my coat, scarf, and shoes in a cubby. It’s probably the most important technique I’ve ever mastered.