Saturday morning learning in the dojo

Recently I read this post by Brian Stack of Connected Principals comparing the karate studio as an example of a competency based classroom.

In this blog posting, he discusses the elements of the karate studio that are examples of excellence in teaching practice.  While I was at karate class with my five year old son Sam this morning, I was reflecting on his post and just how truly correct he is.  There are many, many attributes of the traditional karate class that are models for positive behaviour, flexible groupings, assessment practice and beyond, but the approach that I see as I watch the instructors and their interactions with their students speaks volumes about how we interact with at-risk youth in our schools and community.

Brian Stack brings up some truly relevant points.  He discusses the values system attached to traditional karate and the role that this plays in the behaviour of the students.  In a karate dojo, there is protocol and the expectation, without exception, is that each and every student follow the protocol. This is not a rule designed at one point that can’t now be justified, but because of the honor and tradition associated with the heritage of the lineage.  It is a question of respect, of believing in something that those that came before you created.  And when I participate in the class, I see every single student bow in, bow out, and follow the traditions and expectations.  It is taught and it is enforced.  In our system we speak of I believe, I belong, I respect, I want to know.  These are our core beliefs.  I see so many teachers reinforcing the importance of these beliefs in the schools that I visit and I believe it to be critical to the success of our students.   Without those core values, learning is difficult.

This aligns with Brian’s notion of expectations for students.  If we want students to accomplish a given task, we must be clear and we must be consistent.  Obviously we need to differentiate for students based on a multitude of factors but ultimately we should have high expectations for our students.  We need to be clear in our expectation of behaviour as well.  I have seen students in the dojo that I believe would struggle in a traditional classroom for a variety of reasons.  Obviously the setting is completely different, but there is quality instruction, and there is listening, and there is self-regulation.  All of these pieces are key for successful learning.  Students at the dojo are clear on the expectations and they respond to what is being asked of them.  Even the students that struggle to listen, and to sit still (so hard at five years old) learn to focus their minds and their bodies while in the dojo.

The role of the instructor is certainly key as well.  The master greets the students when they enter and leave.  The instructors (and there are multiple forms of support, as would be of great support in every classroom) circulate and provide constant relevant and pertinent feedback.  It is direct, immediate, and helps the student at any given moment know how to improve.  Beyond that, the instructors empower the other students as role models.  They help facilitate instruction and flexible groupings and know that their role goes beyond just themselves; it involves supporting and training with the other students.  In terms of assessment, the instructors are constantly assessing the outcomes of their students, and once a summative assessment occurs, it is based solely upon readiness and by no other determining factor (age, length of time involved, effort, etc.).  Flexible groupings occur often, by age, by skill level, by task and help support the mastery of the task in question.

One of the most amazing things in the dojo is the support of the community of learners.  Collaboration is key.  From upper belts helping with the children’s classes, to partnerships and teacher support, all the way to the exams for the upper belts in which multiple members of the club are involved in the assessment practice.  This community supports each other; a positive attitude and energy spreads through the club like fire and everyone involved can feel its effect.  The expectation that the community maintains a responsibility to each of its members is very clear.

The other connection that I love as an educator is that of life-long learning.  The instructor today spoke of hard work.  “Every single one of you in this room can get to be a black belt”, he says, “BUT it is essential that you continue trying”.  You will never truly master a task; you will continue to learn and practice .  You can never stop trying to improve.  As educators, life-long learning is our passion.  We strive to do better, to make connections, to push ourselves, and we know that we will always be learning.  Isn’t this what we ask of our students? In fact, what we dream of for our students?

How does this model support at-risk youth?  It provides a structure and a balance.  It deals with the fundamental aspects of the human character that make us able to learn in the first place.  Self regulation, calming one’s mind and body, learning to focus, listen, follow the expectations laid out, these are all essential attributes of a learner.  Beyond that, we know that students who are searching for belonging and who do not find it may end up finding it elsewhere, in ways that are neither safe nor appropriate.  Let us help our students find belonging in the community that we help them create within the walls of our classroom.  And further to that community, let’s do our very best to ensure that every child that comes into our classroom feels safe, and loved, and a member of that community.  Our students need to know that they are essential not only in their own learning but in someone else’s learning as well and that we rise and fall within our community.

I know that supporting at-risk youth is always a challenge; it is sometimes a thankless task and teachers do not always see the results of their time and energy invested.  Sometimes, thought, the results are less tangible that we think (making a better decision) and so it continues to be important for those teachers to know that they are making a difference.  I am so proud to be a teacher and to know how the actions of our system, and my colleagues, is helping to support our most vulnerable students.

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