Thursday, April 11, 2013

Do We Need Explicit Knowledge of Techniques?

One of the shodan gradings in Jan de Jong's jujutsu grading system is a theory grading. The theory grading is an oral examination of the candidate's technical knowledge. A common question De Jong posed was: 'What are the forces involved in a tai gatame ude kujuki (body set are breaking)?' The candidate was required to answer the question verbally with no physical demonstration.

This is an example of explicit learning or explicit knowledge. The Australian Institute of Sport provide the following explanation of explicit learning which is contrasted with implicit learning:
Explicit learning can be related to traditional coaching approaches where verbal instruction is used to coach a learner about how to perform a skill. This process typically results in the learner being able to verbalise how to perform the skill, although it does not guarantee the learner can physically execute the skill. In contrast, implicit learning methods typically contain no formal instruction about how to perform the skill yet result in a learner being able to perform the skill despite being unable to verbally describe how they do it.
Do we need explicit knowledge of techniques? De Jong obviously thought so given he included an explicit knowledge grading within his shodan grades. The 'traditional' teaching method of Asian martial arts involves implicit learning where techniques are demonstrated and the student attempts to imitate them. Does the student need to be able to verbally describe techniques in addition to being able to perform them? Does the instructor?

De Jong saw his dan grades as producing instructors in addition to practitioners. He expected his instructors to possess an explicit understanding of techniques. Many others in the martial arts do not expect either their students or instructors to possess an explicit understanding of their techniques. One possible explanation for the traditional Asian martial arts teaching model being based on implicit learning may be because the instructors did/do not possess an explicit understanding of the techniques. If you come up under an implicit learning model, where do you gain the explicit knowledge?

Why would an instructor need to have an explicit understanding of techniques if they use implicit learning methods when teaching? One reason is that it provides a through understanding of the mechanics of the technique. It enables the instructor to analyse techniques and provide instruction to correct errors and improve performances. The problem is that an explicit explanation of techniques is hard to come by in the martial arts.

Let's return to De Jong's question; 'what are the forces involved ...?' De Jong intuitively knew that forces are important in understanding how a technique works. Unfortunately, neither he nor the candidates knew much about forces. My work remedies that shortcoming.

Forces are what causes every technique taught by every martial art work. The good thing is that forces is a simple concept for the layperson to understand and apply. First you identify all points of contact between the 'defender' and the 'attacker.' Next you determine if the force applied at each point of contact is a push or a pull. Then you describe the direction and relative magnitude of each of the forces. Finally you determine the intended effect of the applied net forces. This approach provides an explicit understanding of every technique taught by every martial arts.

A very good and rare example of this approach at work is with Jigoro Kano's Kodokan Judo. When you understand the concept of forces and adopt the approach described above, you'll see that Kano consistently describes all his methods in these terms. In this way, Kano focuses on the important elements in the techniques to provide an explicit understanding of judo techniques for the reader.

Friday, April 5, 2013

'Trust your instincts'

'Trust your instincts' - this is advice that is often proffered by activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter (e.g. martial arts, self defence, etc.). Sound advice, but what does it actually mean?

Instincts are often equated with intuition. Far from being a mystical, magical 'sixth-sense,' intuition is seen as being a product of knowledge and experience.

Gary Klein was commissioned by the US military to find out how experts made decision during periods of high stress. He initially studied veteran firefighters and has since gone on to study military, fighter pilots, oil riggers, air traffic controllers, nuclear power plant operators, etc, and how they make decisions during times of high anxiety-fear (although he refers to the ambiguous concept of stress). Much to his surprise, he found these experts could not tell him.

We'll take a step back. It has been found that the 'core to all learning' is the identification of similarities and differences. Four forms of identifying similarities and differences have been found to be highly effective: comparison, classification, creating metaphors, and creating analogies. Far from being literary or linguistic devices, these four forms of identifying similarities and differences are seen by cognitive theorists to be fundamental ways of thinking.

Klein found that experts, compared to novices, made decisions not through a conscious, analytical process, but rather based on 'pattern recognition.' Something in the situation they were experiencing was unconsciously matched with something from their experience which prompted a decisive action.

This pattern recognition involves comparison, classification and analogies (or metaphors which for all intents and purposes is the same thing). The expert compared the experience 'out there' with their past experiences, which have been conveniently classified (albeit unconsciously), and an analogy was drawn that enabled them to understand the unknown (the current experience) with the known (past experience).

So what? If you know the process by which experts make intuitive decisions, you can devise ways and means to expedite and enhance this process. This is precisely what Klein has done and his intuitive decision making (Recognition-Primed Decision Making) is being used by various organisations around the world (including the military of various countries) to enhance decision making during periods of high anxiety-fear.

Before I leave this post, I will make one point. The intuitive decision making model is heavily weighted in favour of experience. The more 'patterns' that a person has developed and classified, the more comparisons are available to be fitted which produces a decision. However, despite the experienced-biased proponents within the martial arts, it is not experience alone that produces faster and more high quality decisions. It is also the ability to identify similarities through comparison, classification and analogies. If we train these abilities, we leverage experience and experience produces the benefits it promises.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Implicit Learning vs Explicit Learning

The previous post looked at Being Taught vs Learning. This post looks a little more at learning, which an understanding of is important for both teacher and student of the martial arts.

Learning comes in two guises: explicit and implicit learning.

Explicit learning can be related to traditional coaching approaches where verbal instruction is used to coach a learner about how to perform a skill. This process typically results in the learner being able to verbalise how to perform the skill, although it does not guarantee the learner can physically execute the skill. In contrast, implicit learning methods typically contain no formal instruction about how to perform the skill yet result in a learner being able to perform the skill despite being unable to verbally describe how they do it.

Hurst, in Armed Martial Arts of Japan, suggests that in Japanese medieval times when fighting skills were still practical, the head of any martial arts school instructed his disciples in a manner analogous to that of many religious teachers. That is to say that transmission of the teachings occurred largely by example and not through verbalisation. Hurst is describing implicit learning as being the traditional model for martial arts transmission.

It has been found that athletes who are given instructions (explicit learning) were found to more likely preoccupy themselves with thoughts about how they were executing the skill, which in most sports is detrimental to performance. Under pressure, the players were found trying to consciously control normally automatic, implicit or subconscious processes, commonly termed ‘paralysis by analysis’. In other words, they were more susceptible to choking. Alternatively, players who did not have any instructions to refer to (implicit learning) were less likely to think about how to execute the skill because they did not consciously know what they actually did. That is not to say their bodies did not know what to do, they simply left the brain out of it.

The explicit-implicit distinction is not as defined in most modern day martial arts training. Instruction is provided, but that instruction focuses on the how-to with very little, if any, instruction provided as to the why-to. That is to say that instruction is provided as to how to do the technique with none provided as to why the technique works.

As with everything, there are costs and benefits. A benefit of implicit training is increased resilience to detriments in performance under pressure. A benefit of explicit training is that it is a faster way for a learner to acquire information. A cost of explicit training is the increased potential for choking. A cost of implicit training is that it does not provide the tools for a learner to self correct. I would go one step further, it does not provide the tools to teach others.

It was once explained to me that traditional teaching of Chinese or Japanese martial arts was for the teacher to provide 'one corner' and it was up to the student to find the other corners. All very mystical and philosophical, but does it not also reflect the fact that the traditional martial arts model provides the student with how-to knowledge and not why-to knowledge. That they do not understand why something does or does not work, only how to do it, and then only for them.

Most martial arts instructors can be viewed as being great tennis players. They know how to play the game. Andre Aggassi was asked to describe the wrist action of his forearm stroke. It was found with the aid of slow motion cameras that his description of his wrist action was incorrect. He could perform the action brilliantly, but he didn't understand it and couldn't verbalise the action. Who do you want to be taught by? Roger Federer or Roger Federer's coach who you've never heard of and is not an elite player?

This raises the issue of what a black belt (or any senior grade by whatever description) means. Should a black belt be able to instruct the tactics and techniques of their martial art? If so, what model do they adopt: implicit or explicit learning? By default, if they are expected to be able to teach, they must adopt the implicit learning model? They will be limited in their problem solving abilities because they have learnt the how and not the why of techniques. Looking back on my martial arts experience, I've known many instructors who knew how to do the techniques, and some who were very good at doing them, but very, very few who knew the why of techniques. They had a 'follow me' approach to teaching and were limited and less flexible in their problem solving abilities for individual students.

Related to the above question, what percentage of a black belt should be given to teaching/understanding compared to proficiency? Right now, most black belts focus on proficiency, which then fallaciously is used to suggest teaching ability. Would you award a black belt to a person who knew the why of techniques and could teach but was an average practitioner? It depends on what you think a black belt means, or what it means to you as an instructor or head of a school. What are you producing - teachers or practitioners?

This is where my work is directed. To fill that gaping chasm that is the lack of understanding of why martial arts techniques work and how to teach them.