Karate Analytics: Test, Think, Triumph!

Last week I performed a small experiment during kid’s Karate class.

(I know, I’m evil like that. Bwahaha, manic laugh etc.)

I took five junior black belt kids, and gave them each a “student” (another kid), with green, blue or purple belt. Some got two students, some got one. The junior black belt kids were then asked to teach a certain section from the kata Bassai Dai to their “students”. They had a finite amount of time before they had to switch students (the groups formed a kind of circle, so they just walked to the next student when I said switch).

In other words; when the experiment was over each junior black belt kid had taught the same sequence of Bassai Dai to at least five different students.

Looking from the other side, a student had received instruction in the same sequence of a kata from five different instructors.

It would be a gross understatement to say that I love doing experiments like these.

You just learn so, so much.

With “you”, I mean “everybody.

Anyhoo, the lesson was about to end so we wrapped it up by having each “student” show the sequence to the rest of the class, and when all of the kids had shown their kata sequence the rest of the kids could vote. Who had been the “best” instructor? Who had been the “best” student? Which, of course, led us to discuss exactly what a good instructor is. And more importantly; exactly what a good student was. How do people learn? Why? And what is important when you teach? Why? Practical? Easy? Cool? Fun? Bunkai? Spirit?

That sort of stuff.

The lessons were numerous, for everyone.

Perhaps mostly for the junior black belt kids.

Because the truth is, they had barely known Bassai Dai themselves. They only learnt it a couple of weeks before! But, just like when you study stuff in school, trying to passively remember what you’ve just studied – then actively writing it down – is often a surprisingly good way to learn.

Teaching is learning.

And your brain can only absorb what your ass can endure.

Here’s the deal: In a study I recently came across, published January 21 in Science, researchers had asked 200 college students to spend five minutes reading a short passage about a scientific subject. Afterwards, they were either told to re-read it several times (as if cramming for a test); make concept maps of the material (trying to concreticize an abstract structure of the material); or spend 10 minutes writing a free-form essay about the passage (letting the “juices” flow).

Compare this to how you learn Karate.

(No, I won’t spell it out for you! Geez…)

One week later, the students in the study were given short-answer tests on what they remembered, and asked to draw logical conclusions from those facts. The result?

  • Students who originally wrote essays performed best!
  • Next came the crammers…
  • …then the “concept mappers”.

As if adding insult to injury, the students were then asked to draw simple concept maps from memory, and – lo and behold – the essay-writers again did best, even beating those students who made concept maps the first time around!

Isn’t that amazing?

The findings are a bit limited, sure, but they seem to suggest that retrieval practice, (as the essay-writing was called), is a pretty powerful learning tool. Recalling stuff, sorting it our in your brain, restructurizing it and then presenting it in a comprehensible way (as in teaching another person) is indeed a very powerful way of learning stuff.

The same goes for this website, actually. What, you think I know everything I write about? Hell to the no! Often I learn more when I write about something than I did before. I just act like I’m this ultra confident super Karate grand master blogmeister to gain your respect. Really, I know nothing. I’m just a big phony. Please, believe me. I totally suck at everything Karate related (is this reverse psychology thing working yet?).


Teaching is learning.

But better.

However, everything is not peaches and roses. Here’s an interesting side note to the previously mentioned study: “Concept mapping” and “cramming” did prove useful in at least one way. Beacause, when asked to self-assess their learning, students who used those methods reported higher levels of understanding than their essay-writing counterparts!

So, they didn’t actually learn much…

But they felt like it.

While the opposite applied to the essay-writers!

Here’s the original graph:


“Metacognitive predictions” is science lingo for "what students felt they learned".

So, what can we learn from this?


So, so much.

“Shu-ha-ri” most of all.

Think about what kind of dojo you have, what kind of learning environment it encourages, what methods you generally use, what results you have been getting, how high the rate of “I don’t know this stuff, sensei!”-complaints is, how high the rate of “I totally know this stuff already, sensei!”-complaints is, how high the failure rate (gradings, tournaments, tests) is compared to that, what the general skill level in the dojo is (comparing other similar dojos/senseis/students), what the general difference/similarity is between students who also teach or practise by themselves, their perceived skill level, choice of methods blah blah…

Also, perhaps most importantly, what is the general purpose of the dojo? Producing top-notch, bona-fide, killing machines? Making people… feel good? Feel bad? Step by step emptying students pockets? The implications and applications of the knowledge contained in this post is monumental. Use it or lose it.

Play the rules, make the rules, break the rules.

Let’s analyze.


  • Te'o
    Jesse, this is a really good article. I guess becuase I teach high school kids and the martial arts. My opinion is that bringing good, sound educational theory and practice into the dojo is a great idea. The ideas of introductions, anitcipatory sets, assessments, tests, etc. is awesome...if you know how to use them. In my teaching practice, at school and in the dojo, I have essential questions that guide my practice: What do I want the students to learn? (Curriculum) How do I know if they've learned it? (Assessment) What do I do with the kids that don't get it?(Reteaching the concept, adjust teaching style or method) and What do I do with the kids that get it? (Use them to teach others!) Amazing, maybe not too much, but you used these concepts in your teaching experiment! Congrats! Thanks again for the good information. Hopefully other "teachers" are paying attention!
  • John
    While reading this I realized this is why I've found this website and the 20 or so books I've bought etc, because I wanted to be a good teacher. I've improved more from this than anyone else in the club, but I least I know how to teach better rather then just tell people to do this, do that.
  • Viking
    This is bringing lousy educational practice to my hobby. Teach to exams, make the students jump thru hoops like poodles instead of learning the subject. Oh your being ironic again. History of education is littered with this payment by results etc etc. Pass an exam instead of learning a skill. Exam passers instead of Time served craftsman.
    • Te'o
      I don't think that what's being talked about here is lousy educational practice and it certainly isn't the kind of martial practice where are taught to pass a test or gain rank. What is being talked about here is good sound teaching theory, that when implemented correctly, will bring people to the joy of learning a skill and then become lifelong learners...skilled craftsmen. At some point you have to broaden your view of teaching and the student. Students learn in a variety of ways...some are visual, some auditory, some physical. Some learn better in groups, and others individually. As a teacher you have the responibility to teach the student in the best possible way so that they LEARN. As a teacher, I take the calling seriously enough to realize there is more than one kind of student, more than one kind of teacher, and more than one way to teach. Thanks again Jesse, great topic!!! Fa'afetai lava tele e Soifua Uso!!
      • Viking
        What is being talked about here is some experiments that may lead to some conjecture which could help. It is not "good sound teaching theory". Teaching theory is full of fades and fashions which change every couple of decades. Jesse's blog is more consistant and has more to offer than introducing lousy educational theory into my hobby.
  • diego romero
    "Teaching is learning" THIS. to transmit something, it needs to be in a concrete form (language, physical demonstration, etc), and for it to be in a concrete form, it must be compiled into one from abstract data. the need for transmission (ie teaching) forces you to go through that process and leaves you with concrete information. fun, creepy, and little known fact: i have had decent success doing retrieval practice by talking to myself while training (and practicing other non-MA subjects), as if having an imaginary conversation :p.
  • Barbara Hesselschwerdt
    I have found that a combination of demonstration with a verbal explanation followed by time to process the info mentally and then an opportunity to physically practice it works best for me. I also write notes after class so I remember what to improve on and then work on those things by myself at home during the week. This enables me to establish what I have understood and what I need more help to grasp. I do agree that different students require different approaches. That's why always doing the same thing in class will always find some students excelling while others stagnate. Using a variety of methods will hopefully meet the learning needs of the majority.
  • Lyndon
    I think Jesse makes a valid point. How many times have you been to a course/seminar and thought that you really understood what was being taught only for it to fall apart when you attempt to teach it to your students? (or worse, sit in on a class where someone who attended the same course mangles the lesson "as you understood it")? OK, the person giving the course might well be a better instructor, which is why it didn't work for you, but more likely you've missed something and that only comes to light when you try to pass the concept on. To use a quote often attributed to Einstein (these days, who knows who said what?) "if you can't explain something in simple terms you don't understand it well enough".

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