Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Teaching adults martial arts

Martial arts are not just for kids. Adults can enjoy and benefit greatly from participation too, but teaching adults is in many ways a different game than teaching children. Following is an excerpt from an excellent guidebook on principles of adult education based on Malcom Knowles pioneering work on the topic.
    • Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct themselves. Their teachers must ... get participants' perspectives about what topics to cover and let them work on projects that reflect their interests. They should allow the participants to assume responsibility for presentations and group leadership. They have to be sure to act as facilitators, guiding participants to their own knowledge rather than supplying them with facts. Finally, they must show participants how the class will help them reach their goals...
    • Adults have ... life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base. To help them do so, they should draw out participants' experience and knowledge which is relevant to the topic. They must relate theories and concepts to the participants and recognize the value of experience in learning.
    • Adults are goal-oriented. Upon enrolling in a course, they usually know what goal they want to attain. They, therefore, appreciate an educational program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Instructors must show participants how this class will help them attain their goals. This classification of goals and course objectives must be done early in the course.
    • Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Therefore, instructors must identify objectives for adult participants before the course begins. This means, also, that theories and concepts must be related to a setting familiar to participants. This need can be fulfilled by letting participants choose projects that reflect their own interests.
    • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them on the job. As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Instructors must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom. These adults should be treated as equals in experience and knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely in class.
I think most of my adult students will probably agree that we do pretty good at following these principles - BUT - I sure would like for y'all to tell me how you think I could do better. I value my adult students and want to do better for y'all, so let me know.
Even if you are not my student and don't know me, I bet you have a story about how you or your instructor have done a good job at this - or maybe you have an example of something in your practice that could be better, so let me know.


  1. I know you're not fishing for compliments, but I honestly think you cover all those bases very well. Noob that I am, you seem to facilitate my learning both in class, and with your answers and recommendations when I have mid-week questions.

    You often provoke me to really think things over even outside of class, which is probably something that happens more with adults than with kids. I don't have any trouble staying engaged with previous lessons, as they're always interesting.

    I am more than happy with your instruction, if not with my ability (yet). I can't think of anything I'd change...except maybe to relocate you about 70 miles closer to where I live!

  2. The best martial arts teacher I've had brought a clipboard to class every week, with exercises written in that he felt were appropriate given the interests and physical ability of current class members. He would think about that stuff at home. In class, there was no discussion that students did not contribute to. The instructor was there to learn and was open to new ideas.

    My latest teacher, on the other hand, (whose class I have now dropped out of) made sure that:

    1. All lessons began with the same warmups.

    2. All lessons focused on the same rotation of techniques "until we got it right."

    3. Every lesson would end with either ground work or kata practice, with no exceptions.

    4. No argument or discussion in class would end with the instructor learning something new. The instructor was an older man than all of his students, close to retirement age, and was therefore the de facto expert on subjects both in and outside of his domain of experience.

    I dropped the class as naturally as I would stop walking on a bad ankle. It was just painful to go reminded me of the worst piano lessons of my youth.

    Your tips are wise and more MA teachers should apply them in practice.

  3. Wonderful post, and showing a big-picture view of what an instructor and student are, and their relationship.

    I've love to hear how you actually implement that into your teaching style.

    I have to admit, that this is why I love teaching "garage-style" classes, where I don't have to deal with school management, in-school politics, and managing multiple classes. I can focus on advancing each student as he/she is ready.

  4. Good grief. That seems like a lot to incorporate into a class. Do students ever have to suspend judgment on something even if they don't see the immediate relevance of it?

  5. Oh, absolutely, Dave. There is give and take in the student-teacher relationship. There has to be some degree of buy-in and compliance from the student to begin with - even with adult students.

    Not every teacher does all these things right - not even every good teacher does all of them. But good teachers that tend to jive well with adult learners tend to get more of this right than less capable teachers.

    And not all of this is done consciously by good teacehrs of adults. As the beginning of Aristotle's Rhetoric states (I'm paraphrasing here), anything that can be done well by some people and not-so-well by others is an art, and any art can be taught an learned systematically or it can be approached haphazardly.

    Perhaps by figuring out which of these attributes we as teachers are not very good at facilitating we can bring more of them into our conscious, deliberate, systematic teaching plans, making us better teachers for adult students.

  6. Either way, I think those points are a great thing for which to strive.


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