January 23, 2013

Effective Teaching

A few months back, I was contemplating the idea of writing a book about programming; an introspective attempt at understanding my own approach to software engineering as well as to figure out how to teach someone else to do the same. What I quickly realized was that I couldn’t just teach a new programmer my final, current development practices because these practices had grown out of a long sequence of habits and without that history, my current practices would be haphazard and ineffectual. I spent a number of years in the beginning of my career being obsessed about quality, structure, elegance, documentation and beauty and in subsequent years focused on developing speed without sacrificing any of the previous benefits. Today I can do things in a fast and haphazard way and get away with it because of that strong foundation that keeps my systems from falling apart. A developer without a strong foundation in solid software design would not be able to apply the fast development practices without negative side-effects.

I happened to read “Bruce Lee: Between Wing Chun and Jeet Kun Do” by Jesse Glover recently. Jesse was his first student and close friend during the early 1960s. Bruce studied Wing Chun under the world’s top masters at the time for six years before moving to United States and developing further from that. As Bruce developed physically and fine-tuned his style, he was actually adding and removing things from the original Wing Chun to better suit his own style and physiology. As he got strong and faster, his technique changed and adapted – to a point where he could even no longer call it Wing Chun since it had diverged so much from the Classical version.

The traditional way martial arts are taught is by attempting to imitate the master’s moves as closely as possible. However, this is as if taking the solution, the end of a journey without understanding the journey. Children are often bestowed words of wisdom by their parents yet they rarely listen – because they did not have those experiences, they find little incentive to believe their parent’s advice. Everyone is always on their own journey and we are all a result of the sum of our experiences; attempting to apply someone else’s experiences onto ourselves seldom produces the expected results. This explains why very small percentage of students of great masters go on to become great masters themselves; more often than not, those who do have undertaken a similar journey of discovery and research as their masters did – and more often than not arrive at a different conclusion and go on to become masters of their own style instead.

When Bruce started teaching Jeet Kun Do, he initially attempted to teach his students to pick and choose their own moves and elements that best fit their personalities and style. If you are using methods which are counter to your personality, you are constantly fighting yourself trying to bend your personality to that of the art. A passive, reactive person studying an aggressive style will always feel disconnected from it and his growth thus limited. However, this method of teaching eventually failed as Bruce’s students insisted on copying his moves verbatim, believing that through imitating the end product they could become it. Yet, we did not see a new Bruce Lee emerge.

Every person will inevitably fight their own way because while we have the same physical bodies, we have very different personalities which define how we react to different situations. To believe that we could become someone merely by imitating their every move is ludicrous. An aspiring musician learning to play every song of her favorite idol is merely imitating; to become truly creative, she must expand well beyond mere imitation; to have her own journey and experiences; to understand the product, one must closely look at the path taken to get there.

The only measure by which we can compare martial arts is therefore not the level to which this or that particular master has taken his own skill, but rather how well the skill and journey can be bestowed upon students. Thus it is no longer a discussion about styles, movements or individuals, but rather about the teaching method utilized and whether that particular teaching method produces consistently good results. The skills required to become a great master and those required to produce great masters do not necessarily need to manifest themselves in the same person. A personal trainer does not necessarily have to be stronger and faster to be an effective trainer, but a deep understanding of the journey that one needs to undertake to get there is required.

Perhaps this is where MMA and Thai Boxing are onto something. Both have developed a working teaching system which is consistently producing great fighters that perform well in a variety of settings. This is not to say that other martial arts are ineffective or useless – quite the contrary. I believe there’s potential for greatness in every martial art – the founders of those arts are proof of that. However, I think that the methods by which a lot of martial arts are taught are discouraging self-discovery, exploration, adaptation and modification. Too many arts are stuck in specific, fixed routines and practices and anyone attempting to change things or adapt them is viewed as a heretic. Bruce Lee took elements from a number of styles, improved upon them and then presented his improvements to the masters of the original style – yet his improvements were never accepted because he had broken tradition and something that was already perceived as perfect.

Just as modern school systems tend to be optimized to produce identical drones of unoriginal people incapable of independent exploration and though, so do a lot of martial arts – teaching methods which offer answers without the questions. What we need is more systems which ask questions and encourage students to figure out their own solutions.

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him a lifetime.” – Chinese Proverb