Critical Essay on Martial Arts Education
Dr. Jerry P. Galloway, Ed.D.
All martial artists are or should be concerned with the reputation of skill and knowledge in martial arts. Whether or not our training and education in martial arts is correct and legitimate is very important in our self-respect and in achieving our goals. I am a 4th Dan Black Belt with over 18 years experience in martial arts. I have trained in Shito Ryu Karate, TaeKwonDo, Hapkido, and Chuan-Fa Kung Fu. I have taught martial arts for over 14 years to all ages in classes from 1 to 200 students. I am the Vice-President of the Indiana State TaeKwonDo Association. I have competed in scores of tournaments of all types and sizes including winning the Bronze medal in the 1994 National USTU championships. I have won my share and of course lost my share as well. I am also an Associate Professor of Education in a large university system in curriculum and instruction. I teach teachers to teach. I have taught for many years in a variety of situations and to a large variety of learning styles. My research and study in education has brought insight into how students learn as well as how teachers should teach. It is my combined experience in education and martial arts which has caused me to consider how martial arts education can progress and improve.
Martial arts often lacks the respect commonly given to other activities in the arts such as ballet or learning a difficult instrument. Likewise, martial arts education seems to lack the respect regularly found in education as a whole. This may be part of a serious problem in martial arts education.
Throughout my experiences as a college professor including five prior years of public school teaching it has become clear to me that martial arts education is not viewed by a great many people as an actual "education" but more as an informal and haphazard series of unstructured lessons. Whether or not this point of view is fair and accurate is an important issue but, in any event, the fact that people hold such views is, in itself, damaging to martial arts as a whole. Every student must surely suffer to some degree, must be limited in some way, by the very existence of this disrespect.
Admittedly, such impressions are difficult to put into words. But the perspective of experienced educators that martial arts education is somehow unworthy of respect as a well founded institution of learning is not just impression. If their point of view is justified then it is certainly a serious limitation for martial artists everywhere which should be examined more closely.
I would like to begin by looking at an attitude of many schools and instructors of martial arts about their own reputations as a key element of proper instruction. Why do new martial arts customers, students and/or parents of youngsters, select a particular school or instructor for their martial arts instruction? Why do students stay with a particular school or instructor once training has begun? There are a variety of possible answers to these questions. The most common answer from chief instructors and masters seems to be their reputation. That is, that customers seek out the reputation of their own expertise and accomplishments as well as the reputation of their martial arts system and school(s) in particular. It has been my experience that the majority of leaders in martial arts are overly confident in new students' perceptions of benefits and success in their school and in extreme cases totally obsessed and close-minded about the value of their teaching. They seem to have an inflated view of their style of martial arts, and their personal expertise as the only reasonable choice for any worthwhile endeavor.
Certainly a great many things may explain why students select or remain in a particular school. Relationships of trust, encouragement, and sharing of all kinds develop between students and staff instructors and between fellow students. Such relationships amount to a rewarding experience where students can enjoy the company of friends without regard to learning martial arts. Even productive relationships from which many students learn their routines, patterns, skills and strategies are not typically acknowledged by instructors. Instructors take pride in the design of their martial arts programs and ignore the educational value of interaction between students.
There are also a great many students who seem to stay in martial arts because they enjoy a certain level of power or authority. Others enjoy various responsibilities in school management. None of these things have to do with a chief instructor's or master's system of martial arts nor their reputation as teachers or directors of schools and organizations. Even though these reasons may not account for the majority of students, chief instructors and masters fail to recognize other reasons for why new customers select and stay with a particular school. I like to believe that the system which I teach, which I learned from my master, is in fact a system of rare quality and that I am an equally good teacher. The fact is that most all new students with whom I have ever spoken selected our school based on one or more of three things: (a) the cost of membership and participation, (b) the location of a school as close to home or work, or (c) the schedule of classes. Yet, I have never heard of any instructor acknowledging the role of their fees, location, or schedule in getting new or keeping existing students.
I have spoken with a great many martial arts students from a great many schools. Many of those schools were obviously of poor quality and others were quite good. However, the students naturally felt pride in their school, their instructors, and their own training. Likewise, virtually every instructor with whom I have ever talked maintains a confidence in both their ability to teach as well as the quality of what they teach. Obviously, genuine quality variations are not reflected in the self-examination of students and instructors. This is the case with many disciplines and professions from medicine and law to politics. The lack of a universal standardized body of knowledge on how martial arts should be taught is at least partially a cause of the problem. A standardized system against which everyone is to be judged is of course an ideal but many disciplines manage to come much closer than martial arts. For example, if one receives a high school diploma, or a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature, or a Masters of Business Administration degree from a U.S. accredited institution then their level of expertise is reliable and commonly accepted. I submit that if one states that they have a Black Belt from "XYZ Karate School" then we know nothing whatsoever about their skill or level of knowledge.
Since students of little skill and knowledge tend to stay with poor instructors and systems just as well educated and highly skilled martial artists stay with competent instructors the loyalty and continued membership of students is not an appropriate test of a system's or instructor's quality. That is, where there is no universally accepted standard of quality the so-called law of supply and demand, where quality and value can be expected to rise to the top, does not apply. Indeed, many chief instructors' and masters' pride and ego are placed above observation and an unbiased examination of facts.
I suggest that this over confidence and personal satisfaction with existing structures and teaching styles stagnates the growth of martial arts and limits its acceptance by the greater educational community. In the field of medicine there are refereed journals which report research where questions are tested experimentally and reliably. Opinion and speculation is a necessary and valuable part of research but it is through the examination by accepted experts in the field which maintains the integrity of medical knowledge.
Educational knowledge is expanded, developed and critically examined regularly by researchers around the world whose work is subjected to experts for critical evaluation. For example, for a mathematics teacher to become an accredited teacher in public school he or she must achieve an accepted level of training and education. This education would certainly include study of learning theory, knowledge taxonomies in the given field relevant for instructional design and delivery, and also proven teaching methods. Such education is not based on traditions. It is based on reliable research which has long been a part of a standardized body of knowledge. Mathematics teachers, elementary school teachers, college professors, special education teachers, as well as administrators, and educational psychologists, and more all make use of and draw from the existing knowledge base in their profession. Private school teachers, technical school faculty, business colleges and more also typically utilize and shape the methods of their profession and even contribute to the universally shared body of knowledge in education.
Why then do martial arts educators typically fail to learn anything of this knowledge which is directly applicable to their profession? Clearly the success of expert martial artists is due more to their personal dedication and effort than to a well structured education. Most experienced martial artists have had their mentors as I have had mine. However, this does not qualify as a reliable system of education. Left unchecked, many individuals will continue to achieve high levels of success through extensive study, hard work and talent. But for such an expert to teach martial arts to other individuals who may or may not possess such personal fortitude requires a knowledge of how students learn and how to teach. Their personal experiences may or may not be applicable.
If one asks a martial arts master, "How should students be taught? How do students learn martial arts? and How do you know this for sure?" one would probably hear a list of credentials and successful history in teaching and training. Therein lies the problem with the credibility of martial arts education. There is value in experience and successful methods are of course not to be ignored, but this does not constitute an acceptable philosophy of education. Is nothing to be learned from the work of learning theorists? Is nothing to be gained from the research on the way students process information? Where is the scientific research in martial arts education? One should ask why there are no universally accepted researchers of martial arts education. In a free society there will always be poor quality instructors to be found across the country just as there are private mathematics or science tutors who would be better in some other profession. However, even the masters who have extensive experience and great skill often do not accept each other as valid educators and certainly do not frequently work together to improve martial arts. My experience has witnessed priorities like the guarding of "company secrets" over the free sharing of methods and techniques, the avoidance of other martial arts systems rather than the free exploration and interaction with fellow martial artists, and more.
It is clear that as long as such problems exist that martial arts education will suffer. As a Doctor of Education and assistant professor I can see how martial arts education does not receive the respect and acceptance it needs. As a veteran of many years of study in martial arts I can also see where there is value in what a martial arts expert has learned and in what a successful teacher can accomplish. There must be some way to begin to resolve some of these issues. Certainly there may be many who have had exposure to instructors and training environments well established in quality education. If so we should work together to build and support a standardized, universally accepted philosophy well founded in what the world of education has already learned about learning theory and how teachers should teach.
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