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Saturday, 19 April 2014


STOP PRESS: I am delighted to announce that Arton 'Float Sting ' Baleci and I are running a new course on learning - for coaches, teachers and other learners!For more information, and the register, please go to:

From an early age, we are conditioned to want to be right. We learn to need to be right.

Parents applaud their children when they do something well, or answer a question correctly. At school, we are rewarded and celebrated for passing tests, and can suffer in any number of ways for failing them.

The lesson is continually reinforced as we grow older. Promotions, reputations, careers are built on our capacity for right thinking. Or, at least, the appearance of right thinking. To be right is to succeed.

This is fine. It is entirely understandable. But this all-encompassing valuing of being correct comes with a risk. It can make us feel being wrong is always a bad thing, and so etching to be avoided always.

Right equates to success, wrong means failure. Newspapers are filled with stories of mistakes made by experts and public figures, often followed by the demand that they be punished or sacked or in some way called to account for their errors. 

If something goes wrong we seem compelled to look for blame, even if it is difficult to figure out where the fault really lies.

Whatever the wisdom or justice of this mindset in public life, it carries with it an implicit assumption that there is in some way a break from the norm of rightness.  Being wrong is understood as an aberration or a glitch.

And this is obviously not true.

We are all wrong. A lot.  We are wrong about small, inconsequential things, and we are wrong about big, important matters.  We might not want to accept them, we might even try to hide them (from ourselves as well as others). A moment's reflection will remind us that our lives are full of mistakes.

This is the terrain of behavioural economics and the psychology of decision-making. Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking Fast and Slow' is possibly the best known of a series of recent books that have highlighted that our evolved human mind is not, as we might like to believe, a rational computer.  It is more accurately conceived as a veneer of reason on top of a collection of bias, hunches, and prejudices.  So, to borrow Kahneman's terms, we assume that we live our lives laid mainly by slow, rational thinking.  However, reason actually plays a relatively minor role in much of our day-to-day decision-making. Instead, we rely on fast, intuitive thinking, which is often below the level of consciousness. In other words, we believe (and want to believe) that we reason, when we usually just react. Reason occasionally steps in, in times of difficulty, but by then we may have long since acted.

This presents something of a problem for us, and especially those of us who would like to live lives in which reason and evidence have a say, because our minds have evolved over millions of years for survival and reproduction. And they evolved in environments very different than the ones in which the vast majority of us now live.

So, we tend to be extremely good at tasks that require quite quick judgements and actions, but not so good in those situations where reflection is needed. For example, evidence from research over the last 20 years also shows that the biases, hunches and prejudices that come pre-installed in the human mind can lead to a wide range of quirks:

Confirmation Bias - the tendency to accept evidence that confirms our beliefs and to reject evidence that contradicts them.
The Gambler's Fallacy - the sense that the odds of something with a fixed probability increasing or decreasing depends on what has recently happened.
Probability Neglect - our inability to properly grasp a proper sense of risk, which often leads us to overstate the risks of relatively harmless activities, while forcing us to overrate more dangerous ones.
Attribution Asymmetry - the tendency to attribute success to internal characteristics (such as talent and innate abilities) and to attribute failures to external factors (like simple bad luck). 
Repetition Bias - the willingness to believe what one has been told most often and by the greatest number of different sources.
Cognitive Inertia - the unwillingness to change thought patterns in light of new circumstances.

And there are numerous other biases and intuitions that 'feel' right, even if they are leading us astray.

So, we better think again about our attitude to being wrong, because to err really is human. It is scientifically, measurably human.

The philosopher Karl Popper argued that learning could be best characterised as a process of trial and error-elimination.  It begins with guesses that are, to all intents and purposes blind to their outcomes.  We cannot discover if they are right or wrong, or if they work do not work, until we test them with experience or criticism.   So, for Popper, error is an integral feature of learning.  If we shy away from the possibility of being mistaken, we dramatically limit our guesses, and consequently block learning.

With this in mind, I recommend an excellent TED Talk by the journalist Kathryn Schulz.  She takes a different focus than I have here, but the take-home message is the same: we had better start embracing wrong, because - for much more of our lives than we might wish to admit - wrong is what we usually are!


STOP PRESS: I am delighted to announce that Arton 'Float Sting ' Baleci and I are running a new course on learning - for coaches, teachers and other learners!
For more information, and the register, please go to:

Monday, 17 March 2014

St Patrick's Guide to Learning

Since it is St Patrick's Day, I thought I would offer an irish-themed blog.  And since, mixed in with my mongrel ancestry is a large element of Irishness, I feel able to start with an Irish joke.

A tourist in Ireland is lost and asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies: ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’.

In my last blog entry, I suggested that creativity is a habit. It is learned by doing it.  Exactly the same could be said of skill: skilful performance is acquired, developed, and improved by performing skilfully.  And, as the great coach educator Geof Gleeson used to say, a successful skill has a successful outcome.  Learners who can appear technically outstanding, but you cannot actually put those techniques into practice are not skilful in any meaningful sense of that word.

This might seem so obvious as to hardly bare mentioning.  But I think it is worth stressing because of the fact that will be obvious to anyone who has spent any time observing teaching or coaching sessions, as many seem to be concerned with the development of different qualities than the coach or teacher claims to be the aim.

Let me give you a few examples: two from sport, and one (very topical example) from school education

A sports coach who claims to want his players to be creative, but who fills each session with predictable, dull drills and practices will create players who are predictable and dull.

A martial arts instructor who wants her fighters to develop explosiveness and sharp timing, but who mainly asks students to punch air and repeat pretty punches and kicks in the air will produce dancers not fighters.

To paraphrase the Irish joke, if you want students to be creative or explosive, I wouldn't start with this!

And perhaps the most stark illustration of a disconnection between intention and preparation is the enforcement on teachers of young children to teach reading through the use of synthetic phonics.   As you may be aware, this is the approach that is insisted upon by The English government; the only approach that should be used, according to some agencies.  It teaches the phonemes (sounds) associated with the graphemes (letters), and the sounds are taught in isolation then blended together.  In fact, synthetic phonics can form one among a number of effective strategies for teaching reading. But the evidence base behind the government assertion that it is the most effective and should be taught alone is simply non-existent.

But this is not help people read. Understanding the constituent sales of words is a very useful strategy in case of complex words, but effective reading takes place at a number of levels, from the phoneme, to the graphemes, to the sentence, paragraph, and story.  Evangelists insist that children should be withheld real books until they understand the elements of words. And this is simply nonsensical.  It is also not supported by the research evidence.

What is the consequence of an approach like synthetic phonics? My worry is that it will produce a generation of learners who have detailed understanding of the elements of reading and writing, but will have nothing of interest to read or write about.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!
Risteárd Mac an Breitheamh

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Anarchism and Creativity: first break the rules

About 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to study at the University of Vienna, in Austria.  It was a great opportunity for me to experience living in a new city, and to acquire at least a basic ability to speak German.  Since that time, I have stayed in many other foreign cities, and in each case I have been struck by a small differences and idiosyncrasies. Ways of behaving that I had always thought to be "normal"or even "natural" quickly turned out to be simply local traditions.

In some cases, I have abandoned my good old British ways in favour of the foreign alternative (for example, I now believe that food should have flavour and texture, that it is perfectly acceptable for a man to dance, and that coffee should taste of coffee). I have also come to the conclusion that there are many aspects of Britishness that deserve keeping, and even promoting (queueing, the BBC, driving on the left hand side of the road - a subject to which I will return in another blog entry).

Anyway, back in Vienna, I once found myself in the wee small hours waiting to cross a road, alongside about 20 other people. We were returning from a festival, and were the only humans to be seen.  Despite the evident fact that the road was entirely empty, my fellow pedestrians stood on the pavement, waiting for a signal to cross.  I felt a little impatient, and motion to go forwards, only to be greeted by a murmur of 'ssssssss'.  So, social pressures kicked in, and I waited with everybody else, although this obedience to the diktat of a traffic-light made no sense to me at all.

I was reminded of this event whilst reading 'Two Cheers for Anarchism' by the political scientist James C. Scott.  In fact, Scott found himself in an almost identical situation to me, but this time in Neubrandenburg, Germany (and, unlike me, he managed to extract an important lesson from the experience).  He visited this small town once every week while working on a nearby farm, traveling there and back by rail. And every week, while waiting for his train back, he would spend some time watching people at the nearby intersection.

Scott observed that the timing of the traffic lights in the evenings - presumably not adjusted to reflect the reduced car traffic and increased number of pedestrians - meant that they would regularly be 50 or 60 people waiting to cross the intersection.  Again and again, these groups would wait patiently at the corner for the light to change in their favour, whether or not their was any traffic in sight.  Sometimes this meant waiting for four or five minutes or more.

Observing this repeated scenario, Scott thought the behaviour ridiculous and irrational.  And considering the country in which this was taking place (and, of course, precisely the same applies to my experience in Vienna), such unquestioning obedience seemed highly dangerous.

"You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called upon to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready."

He advocates "anarchist calisthenics": "Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready."

Personally, I find this argument completely convincing, and not just for those who live in countries with a legacy of tyranny.

The freedoms most of us take for granted have been hard-won, and can easily be lost again.  Obedience to every law, instruction and directive, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is not just dumb, it is irresponsible.  And to paraphrase the great libertine Quentin Crisp, if the time does ever come when you need to stand up and fight, obedience will have become your style.

It seems to me that the same logic can be applied to creativity.

The great dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that, "Creativity is an act of defiance".  It is about changing and breaking the rules. It is about abandoning the established way of things, and stepping bravely towards the new.

I doubt that there is any teacher or coach who would say that they were not interested in promoting creativity among their learners.  In the case of sport, creativity would seem to be absolutely essential, as the novelty and innovation are distinctively powerful weapons in a competitive environment.  An elite rugby union coach once said to me: "I assume technical expertise and extreme fitness of all players at the top level. What I'm really looking for are creative players. They are the ones who do things differently. They are the ones who give the team an edge."

In practice, it seems to me, the frequently expressed desire to develop creative players and learners is rarely matched by a pedagogy aimed at such an outcome.  As I have observed elsewhere in this blog, a certain style of the lesson continues to dominate, and it is as antithetical to creativity as it is to learning, in general:

- An emphasis on correct technique
- Highly structured, repetitive drills and practices
- An assumption that "the basics" have to be mastered before they can be employed in real settings
- A view of learning in which knowledge is passed from the expert teacher to be ignorant learner

We have absolutely no reason for believing that any of this is true or valid.

Drills and repetitive practices enforce conformity.  Lessons that place the teacher or coach as the fount of all knowledge lead to passivity. An emphasis on correctness results in obedience.  And none of this is likely to result in the development of creative learners.

Creativity is a habit. It is learned and developed through practice and experience.

There are lots of ways in which this habit can be encouraged and nurtured. And I will consider some of them in future articles. For now, though, I will suggest just one idea, and it is inspired by Scott's suggestion:

CREATIVE CALISTHENICS: Encourage learners to break a rule or principal or norm every lesson!

I am not, of course, encouraging the abandonment of the rule of law. I'm not suggesting that teachers of young children allowed them to run into the streets, Or steal. I'm simply suggesting that, as a matter of course, they are encouraged to think for themselves. More than this, they are required to think for themselves.  Every lesson. And that they recognise that most of the things they are taught in sport are really just rules of thumb or generalisations.  They can be broken with no harm done, and if they are broken strategically, they can offer an immediate competitive advantage over an opponent.

In case you think I have lost my mind, let me give you a couple of concrete suggestions:

A basic strategic principle of all invasion games (football, rugby, hockey, basketball) is to attack wide, and defend narrow.  This makes perfect sense in most cases, as it stretches and weakens the opposition defence and aims to strengthen your own.  BUT the competitive advantage of this ploy is undermined by the fact that everybody is trying to do the same thing!  So a judicious and occasional reversal might, at least, unnerve The opposition: attack narrow and defend wide.
A very basic rule of many fighting sports is to maintain a strong guard (for example, in boxing, Thai boxing, and mixed martial arts, fighters routinely hold both hands high in front of their head and upper body).  Again, this makes perfect sense, as the arms protect many of the major targets that an opponent is trying to hit.  BUT a long lineage of fighters from Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee to Floyd Mayweather and the Gracie clan of Brazilian Ju Jitsu have found that deliberately lowering one's guard (called "drawing") can be a highly effective way of forcing the opponent to act in a predictable and consequently stupid way.

It could be argued that both of these strategies could be trained in an authoritarian and traditional way, and that is true. But their real value comes when they are initiated as a response to an active, changing, and unpredictable opponent. And that cannot be drilled or rehearsed; it requires a creative response. And, I have argued, a creative response requires a teaching or coaching environment in which breaking the rules is not just tolerated but positively encouraged.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Six strategies for improving learning in sport

My last blog entry offered a perspective on learning using, as a case study, fighting sports. But the basic principles apply to any skill learning situation.

In a nutshell, my argument was:

1) The best way to learn how to do something is to do it. 

2) The closer practice activities resemble the full activity the better. 

3) Just because you teach something does not mean that students will learn it. 

The most frequently asked questions by commentators on the article was "so what does this mean in practice?"  I'm planning to return to this question a number of times over the coming months. But now, I offer just six practical ways in which learning can be pushed to the forefront of sports lessons.

1) The warm up should be a part of the learning, not a preparation for it.
Too many sessions begin with meaningless calisthenics that do not resemble the movements that will follow. Effective warm ups need to prepare both mind and body, and consequently need to contain the same characteristics.  In other words, they need to be specifically related to the main activity.

My own observations suggest that many sessions begin with activities that could be transplanted into any number of different sports. 

For example, hockey warm ups that do not involve a stick and a ball will not properly prepare the body, and will not engage the mind.  They will simply waste valuable time for practice and play.

Similarly, tennis/badminton/squash exercises that do not involve hitting a ball with a racquet do not work well because they do not exercise the relevant muscles, and do not focus the mind on tennis/badminton/squash. 

Of course, I am not suggesting that players should dive into a full game at the start of a lesson. That could be very unwise!  But it is perfectly possible to devise simplified, appropriate activities that gradually warm the body and wake the mind.

2) Effective learning builds on previous learning
There is considerable evidence showing that learning is most effective when it builds on previous learning and understanding.  However, it is too easy to begin each lesson from scratch, ignoring what has come before.

This can be another valuable function of a good warm up: it can be an ideal opportunity to remind learners of lessons learned in previous sessions by practising adapted versions of previous activities.

The same activities allow you to observe and assess the learners, to identify their different needs, and provide teaching/coaching that is more suitable.

3) Start with the game
By far the most common error made in lesson planning is to begin with extended technique or skill practices. The assumption is that these practices will be applied later in the full game. However, as I argued in my previous blog entry, there is no reason to believe this actually happens.  Instead, there is a danger that learners are simply going through movements without a strong sense of their purpose.

One way of understanding learning, I have argued, is as problem-solving. Giving a learner a skill or a technique without first letting them develop an extremely strong and compelling understanding of its purpose is like giving somebody a solution to a problem they do not have!

So what should the teacher/coach doing?  The solution is simple: start with the game.

If you want a footballer to learn to keep the head down when shooting at goal, do not start with a drill. Start with a game, and introduce techniques and drills if (and only if) a problem arises.  That way learning happens because you have offered a solution to a real problem.

Exactly the same logic applies to developing a golf swing.  My own research with golf coaches showed that approximately 50% introduce a novice to the game on the driving range.  In some cases, the beginner stays there for weeks, and only ventures onto the actual course once the coach has judged that the basic swing has been learned.  But this approach is problematic because the practice is meaningless. The swing only has a function in the context of a golf course.

Starting with the game, or an adapted version of the game, creates meaning, purpose and context. It helps the learner understand the point of the activity, and (vitally) the reason why he or she is learning these techniques.  This understanding should improve performance, and will certainly improve motivation.

4) Focus
The quality, not the quantity of practice is the determining factor of skill early.  According to some books for teachers, skill learning should take up to 3/4 of lesson time. As far as I can see, the only outcome of this approach is that learners switch off, and end up simply going through the motions. Effective practice activities should be relatively short, intense, and highly focused.  They should also be immediately followed by an application in a meaningful game.

5) To err is human and good
The great basketball coach John Wooden once said, "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes."  He was a wise man, as all learning necessarily involves errors and attempts to overcome them.

It is understandable that we would rather perform a skill well than badly, but from the perspective of learning, mistakes drive learning.  If we never make mistakes we would not develop, we would simply reinforce what we already do. It is only when things do not go according to plan that we are forced to rethink, and to devise new ways of acting.

Learners need to become comfortable with their mistakes, and to enjoy the new opportunities for learning and development that they promise. And coaches/teachers need to step back to give learners the time and space to experiment and to create their own solutions.

Learning is problem solving. So, mistakes are the motor of learning as they generate new problems.

6) Shut up!
Most coaches/teachers talk too much! I certainly do!!

The most important element in any lesson must be playing the game. The next most important factor is short, focused practices.  In both cases, learners need to make the knowledge, skills, and understandings their own. This means that the teacher/coach needs to leave them alone and problems, to try things out, to make lots of mistakes, and to practice and play.

As a general rule: if you are talking more than the learners, you are doing it wrong!

I'd love to hear any comments on these ideas. Please share your thoughts in the comment box below. Or via Twitter (@DrDickB).

Saturday, 1 February 2014

How do fighters learn how to fight? An insiders' critique of traditional teaching methods

(this is an early version of a chapter that is going to appear in a book on the martial arts in the modern world. I will add publication details when I have them)


During World War II in Britain when armaments were becoming scarce and use of manpower was critical, time-and-motion studies were made of gun crews in the artillery to see if the speed of operating could be increased. One of these studies looked at artillery crews. In many ways, the operation was impressive, with each of the soldiers smoothly following the well-choreographed process.  But one thing puzzled the observers: at a certain point, just before the firing of the gun, two of the men stood at attention away from the gun.  Once the gun was fired, they stepped back in to help.

Nobody seemed to know why the soldiers simply stood while the others carried on.  They just knew that it had to be done that way because it had always been done that way.  Then one day, the researchers met an old artillery Colonel.  He immediately knew the reason for the immobile soldiers.  He said that 50 years earlier, horses had been used to haul the big guns, before motor vehicles took over.  The time-and-motion people looked confused: “So how does that explain the two soldiers standing to attention, Sir?”  “Simple: they’re holding the horses!”

This blog entry focuses on the martial arts - the physical recreation that has occupied most of my adult life - and it seems to me that the martial arts have more than their share of horses!  (Much the same applies for many other activities, but I will hold off from mentioning them in the name of authorial discipline)

Even in this era of martial sports, Mixed Martial Arts, and street self-defence, the centre of gravity of combat activities lies firmly in the styles that sell themselves (whether explicitly or implicitly, honestly or dishonestly) as traditional.  Indeed, the appeal of these systems comes largely from the sense that they have survived for a very long time.  This sense is bolstered by the paraphernalia of training clothes based on the daywear of Japanese or Chinese peasants, the insistence that lessons take place in a foreign language, and the maintenance of a code of conduct often alien to most host countries.

The fact that hardly any of the styles taught in the West are as old as they imply is an awkward truth.  For example, three of the most popular styles, Shotokan Karate, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do were all invented during the Twentieth Century (Funakoshi, 1973; Park, Park, & Gerrard, 2009; Ueshiba, 1988).  Much the same can be said of versions of Chinese ‘kung fu’.  Whilst their students might like to think they are successors to a line that can be traced back to the mystical Shaolin Temple, they are much more likely to be a member of a school dating back just a few decades, the result of one of the endless splits and feuds that characterise the history of Asian martial arts (Green & Swinth, 2003).

The medium is the message, and tradition continues to be a dominant feature of most martial arts.  This is not necessarily a problem.  Quite the contrary: traditions are indispensable components of learning and knowing, and we would barely be able to function at all without accepting some sort of authority, custom and tradition.  Tradition can show us what has worked well in the past, and what has kept our predecessors alive.  However, in the words of the great Lemony Snicket (2004), 
“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course”.
Difficulties begin to rise when tradition becomes a thing in itself; when it is recognised as 'Tradition'.  Then tradition ceases to be an adaptable and living repository of learning and becomes a source of deadening authority.

This is what has happened in martial arts pedagogy.

Traditional martial arts pedagogy
There is an inherent danger facing anyone criticising practices that they describe as ‘traditional’, or ‘standard’, or 'conventional', and that is that they merely construct a ‘straw man’ to knock down.  A straw man argument occurs when the critic re-interprets a position in such a way that it is so weak or absurd than no sensible person would hold it.  And dishonest strategy is particularly easy to play in the martial arts, which are characterised by a huge degree of variation, contradictions, and tensions.  The martial arts are not a coherent clan, unified by a shared passion; they are a lose group of waring tribes!

Nevertheless, I maintain that not only is there such a thing as traditional martial arts pedagogy, but that its influence is so great it is practised even in styles that explicitly distance themselves from the past, such as Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, kickboxing and modern self-defence systems. (To be clear on this point, I am not suggesting that all instructors in these systems adhere to traditional approaches, but that many of them cannot separate themselves from them. For example, a JKD school I once attended taught the usual mixture of Kali, boxing and Wing Chun, using teaching methods that were indistinguishable from Shotokan Karate!)

This traditional pedagogy happens when most or all of the following criteria are met:

  • a considerable amount of the session time is spent with students practising basic techniques without an opponent;
  • when an opponent is involved, s/he is relatively immobile and compliant;
  • predetermined, choreographed drills and patterns, such as kata, hyeong, or forms form a central feature of training.

That these elements can be sensibly described as the traditional approach to teaching martial arts is supported by numerous textbooks and academic studies (e.g., Cox, 1993; Layton & Bell, 1997; Lorge, 2011; Nakayama, 1977; Ohlenkamp, 2006; Theeboom & Knop, 1998).  It is also supported by practitioners themselves.  In preparation for this article I engaged in a series of conversations with martial artists of different styles from around the world via social media (specifically Twitter and LinkedIn).  If anything, their views of the importance of basic techniques and kata were more fundamentalist than those of the textbooks.  “Basics are everything”, I was told, “they lay the foundation for all that follows”.  “Kata is the time-honoured method for practising these techniques”, and “It must work because it has been around for centuries”.  In the words of one popular karate text, kata and their associated basic techniques represent the “key” to the martial arts, and traditional practice gives the student that key (van Weenen, 2002).  Significantly, though, none of these sources seemed willing or able to offer any coherent explanation about how basics or kata actually translated into improved fighting skills.

At this point, one thing needs to be made clear. As my title suggests, my primary concern is the effectiveness of martial arts pedagogy as a preparation for fighting.  I do not for a moment believe that this is the only, or even main reason why people would wish to undertake such activities.  There is little doubt that regular martial arts training can make positive contributions to participants’ health and well being (Abbott & Lavretsky, 2013; Woodward, 2009). It also seems capable of contributing to much wider personal, creative, and spiritual development (Nicol, 1975; Yuasa, 1993; Zarrilli, 1998).  However, my concern here is with what might arguably be considered the defining characteristic of the martial arts - combat.  In this respect, I claim, traditional pedagogy is ineffective.

817443875_1361372095.jpg (514×360)

Pedagogy - the art, craft and science of education - is a hotly contested topic among theorists (Hansen & Laverty, 2010).  But some themes are not controversial.  For example, it is beyond doubt that pedagogic practice is built upon theories of learning; that some of these theories are mistaken; and that’s decades of research have taught us a great deal about effective and ineffective pedagogy.

We also know that the long-standing view of the brain as a kind of blank slate (or empty container) onto which is written experiences is plain wrong (Pinker, 2003).  Babies enter the world hard wired with countless sources of knowledge and insight gleaned through thousands of years of evolution.  From that moment, the young child voraciously consumes information, seeking to understand, adapt to, and control issues or her environment.  By the time a student enters a martial arts club, therefore, he will she has an extensive biography of experience and knowledge which cannot help but influence any learning that takes place.  This is why the much-prized “beginner’s mind” of Zen Buddhism is an idealised aspiration rather than an everyday reality (Suzuki, 1970).  Consequently, no two people will leave a pedagogic encounter with the same learning, and the learning that does occur is not necessarily that which was intended by the teacher. Learning is essentially an active process, in which the learner struggles to construct meanings that are relevant to them from the situation.  As the great psychologist Jerome Bruner put it, “Stimuli ... do not act upon an indifferent organism” (Bruner & Postman, 1949, p. 206).

This point has an implication that is of enormous importance: teaching and learning have no necessary connection.  Most of my social media informants simply assumed that what was taught was what was learned.  But because an activity aims to teach a certain skill or knowledge does not mean that it will.  No matter how skilled or impassioned the teaching, unless the learner understands it and engages with it, there is no reason to suppose that he or she has learned and that he or she will be able to apply it.  The philosopher Karl Popper (1974) offered a useful way of understanding how this might work in practice. Learning, he suggested, has the character of problem solving, and is most likely to occur when teaching and experience provide solutions to problems that are real and meaningful to the learner.  So, if a martial artist is struggling to defend him/herself from a certain type of attack, and the instructor provides a workable solution, learning is very likely to take place, it will be remembered, and applied in future.  However, if the same instructor merely demonstrates a series of apparently arbitrary techniques that are then imitated by the students, those techniques are much less likely to be retained and applied (Bailey, 2000) (Since my focus is on martial arts pedagogy, I have not even gone into the sometimes bizarre techniques that  make up many kata and forms, and from which some folk make a decent living pretending to have found ways in which they might actually work in the real world!)

So, people learn best when learning situations are real and meaningful.  How does the teacher or instructor make sure that these conditions apply?  This is where another group of findings from research become relevant.  Situated learning emphasizes that learning is most effective when it is specific to the situation in which it is learned.  In other words, learning is most likely to occur when the context of teaching closely reflects the context of learning (Ramsden, 1984).  Swimming on dry land, for example, is a poor preparation for swimming in water because it lacks many of its defining characteristics (such as water).  Likewise, many people claim that schools fail to prepare their students because life in a classroom shares few of the features of the world into which the young people will enter.

Situated learning is actually made up of a number of claims, and each of them highlights the difficulties for traditional martial arts pedagogy (see Table 1).

Sources: Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996; Greeno, 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991.

From the perspective of situated learning, then, traditional martial arts pedagogy fares rather badly because it fails to resemble the situations in which its skills will be applied.  Simply put, we learn what we do.  If any martial artist wishes to prepare for the complexity and chaos of a street fight, he or she will be badly served if the training is simple, ordered and decontextualized.

 Courtesy of Clubb Chimera
Photo courtesy of Jamie Clubb, Clubb Chimera

Techniques or Skills?
It was a traditional martial artist who first and most effectively translated the practical implications of this type of research for the martial arts, and for sport in general.  Geof Gleeson was the UK’s National Coach for Judo, and as a young man had lived and studied with the family of Judo's founder, Jigaro Kano.  Gleason made a number of innovations and provocative ideas (mostly resisted and ultimately ignored by the Judo establishment), but the one that is of most relevance to this discussion is his distinction between techniques and skills (Gleeson, 1983; 1989).  Gleeson’s initial target was what judo players call Uchikomi, or repetitive technical training.  It is worth remembering that, unlike most martial arts, practice of techniques in JUdo necessarily involves interaction with another player.  So, from the perspective of learning theory, judo (and other grappling sports) already have a significant advantage over other (punching and kicking) systems.  Nevertheless, Gleeson was critical of the use of Uchikomi for three main reasons:

1. Fixed routines: Uchikomi is often practiced as habitual patterns of movement.  However, Gleeson argued that judo is the practice and application of a skill, and habit and skill are not synonymous.  Gleeson further maintained that there was no necessary connection between the static repetition of a throw as Uchikomi and the dynamic performance of a throw when the players are in motion.

2. How the completion of a skill movement affects the improvement of the skill: the throw is rarely completed in Uchikomi practice. In fact, practice is often carried out with no movement of the players, non-completion of the throw and no realistic resistance from the partner.  Therefore, the player never really knows if he or she is performing the techniques correctly and effectively since there is no genuine feedback.  Gleeson’s conclusion was that not only will Uchikomi not help to improve throwing skill, but will actually impede any skill improvement.

3. Rhythmic pattern differences in static and dynamic movement: Non-movement of the partner and a stereotypical movement in and out of the position by the throw leads to a regular beat rhythm.  This never happens in competition fighting.  The movement patterns associated with fighting in training and competition are complex and contain endless variations of movement by both of the players.  Therefore, the transference of skills between the practice and performance is non-existent.

Gleeson conceded that the practice of Uchikomi may help to increase stamina and strength, but its value as a method of improving throwing skills in fighting situations is extremely limited (Gleeson, 1967).

Geof Gleeson teaching on an early International Budo Federation coaching course (your author is the keen young man in black)

Traditional martial arts pedagogy focuses on the development of technique (as almost all martial arts textbooks also do), and simply assumes that this will transfer into skilled performance against an opponent.  Gleeson’s central insight is that this is an error.  Technique cannot be treated in isolation, for there are many other things which affect and modify all techniques when they are converted into a competitive skill.  Ultimately, skill is much more about context that it is about technique, and it is context that needs to be taught, experienced and understood.  Uchikomi - which is actually a rather more dynamic and interactive form of basic technique training that is common in the majority of martial arts - is limited precisely because it confuses skilled performance with the repetition of mere technique.  Skill “can be defined only in terms of success, of achievement, of a goal” (Guthrie, 1952, p. 136).  So, skills are actions with some outcome in mind (Schmidt and Wrisberg, 2000), rather than mere physical actions.

The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus - as far as I am aware, not a martial artist - offered another argument, which seems to support Gleeson’s position.  Dreyfus took issue with the widespread view that road to expertise begins with the development of isolated elements (what Gleeson would call techniques): “meaningless, atomistic elements ... Nothing is intelligible to us unless it first shows up as already integrated into our world, fitting into our coping practices” (Wrathall, 2000, p. 95).  Dreyfus argued that if we were to go straight to the actual phenomena we are studying, and undertook a very detailed observation of the activities that they make up, it would be evident that we are not processing bits of information as we deal (or cope) with them.  In addition, Dreyfus introduces what he calls the 'argument from skills' (Wrathall, 2000) to show how the traditional view of learning by building up discrete bits of technique is problematic.  His argument can be paraphrased and reframed like this: if we are to understand how people learn to perform martial arts, and we follow the assumptions of traditional pedagogy, we will need not only rules for performing the techniques, but also a specification of the rules that allow us to know when specific techniques apply in different contexts.  The different techniques that make up the different skills necessary for successful fighting mean that we are talking about a huge number of rules.  But still further rules would seem to be needed to direct these rules, and so on for an infinite regress.

It is difficult to see how to escape this descend, without abandoning the traditional assumption that skilled performance is the result of acquired, developed and applied techniques.  However, the argument does not apply if performance in fighting is understood in terms of the learning of real and meaningful skills in real and meaningful contexts. In a nutshell: there is only one way to learn how to fight in the martial arts: fighting.  Of course, this need not always be fighting in the sense of “the real thing”.  It is possible (and sensible) to construct a programme of teaching and learning that simulates different aspects of fighting contexts, and encompasses many of the defining characteristics of fighting situations, which would include unpredictability, emotion, and contact.

Fighters learn to fight by fighting.  So, martial arts pedagogy, at least as it relates to preparation for fighting, is much simpler than is usually presented both in textbooks and by instructors.  Basic training and kata, in the way practised around the world have many virtues, but they are fundamentally flawed as preparations for fighting.  They survive not because they work, but because of the power and mythology of tradition in the martial arts.  And because critical thinking are rarely features of programmes.  They also gain sustenance by the fact that they all rarely tested in the crucible of real fighting. It is surely not a coincidence that systems that are regularly tested, whether in the relatively safe arena of full contact sport or in the real world, are much less likely to rely on traditional martial arts pedagogy.  They have learned that tradition is only of value to the extent that it keeps you fighting.

Your author competing in a Muay Thai event, Newcastle, 1989

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Monday, 2 December 2013

Tom Daley and other Sporting Heroes

Homophobic bullying is endemic in sport.

The truth of this statement is so obvious that it hardly bares stating. Many of us/most of us 
who are coaches and teachers dedicate ourselves to offering life-enhancing experiences through sport, yet operate within a system that is simply not welcoming to lesbian, gay and bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) people.  Sometimes exclusion is stark and frightening. More often, it is more subtle.

On a few, rare occasions, I have seen coaches verbally abusing LGBT players in front of their peers.  When confronted, the coaches gave the same response: surprise.  They were only teasing, they said.  Just messing around.  It is no different from teasing someone about the colour of their hair, or their obesity!  Apparently, adding the phrase 'only joking' renders even the most offensive comment harmless.  If the player cannot take a bit of harmless banter, one told me, then maybe they should consider a different hobby.

Words like 'poof', 'queer' or 'dyke' are casually used in sports clubs to indicate some failure of an individual to meet an unstated, but unquestioned standard of manliness / femininity.  Boys and men who fail to perform in the acceptable manner are told that they "play like a girl".  Girls and women who play well, but without the required degree of femininity, are labelled "butch".  In many sports, a posturing machismo represents the norm against which all other behaviours are judged.  Lesbian, gay and bisexual usually fall outside of this norm.

Some sports are clearly worse than others.  It seems to be that tolerance for different lifestyles is least among the most high profile sports.  For example, when United States international footballer Robbie Rogers came out as gay, he was only the third footballer after England's Justin Fashanu and Swedish midfielder Anton Hysen to have come out. Fashanu killed himself in 1998.

It would be easy, not too depressing to continue this sort of analysis with other sports.

Sport should be a home for everyone.  People of vastly different backgrounds can be brought together in a shared love of a game. Sport offers a shared language that can overcome differences of all varieties.

That is the claim. And at its best, this claim is true.  But the power of sport to include can too easily be corrupted and turned towards exclusion.  When this happens, the power of the group can shift from friendship to alienation to bullying.

Many lesbian, gay and bisexual young people continue to live lives in which one of the most precious aspects of their existence - their sexuality - must be kept secret.  

According to the gay rights charity Stonewall, more than 55% of of lesbian, gay and bisexual school pupils have been bullied.  A 2012 report by Cambridge University found that one in four young lesbian, gay and bisexual people had tried to take their own life.

So, it seems to me, that the fact so many of us in sport continue to tolerate homophobic behaviour is shameful.  Few, I am sure, explicitly support bullying. But many of us implicitly endorse it by failing to challenge it directly, or by taking steps to reduce the chance that it ill arise in the first place.  We tell ourselves that "there is no problem here", or that homophobic comments to individuals are just playing and not serious.  But lesbian, gay and bisexual people tell us that they are serious, they are hurtful, and they reinforce an environment that can end in exclusion, bullying, or suicide.

The revelation by Olympic diver Tom Daley that he is now in a homosexual relationship was an act of remarkable bravery. Tom knows, as all of us in sport know, that such an admission can be risky. He is a public figure, so the statement about his sexuality open to to all manner of hurtful comments.  But he is also a role model for countless young sports people.  His honesty and openness should inspire anyone struggling with personal challenges.

Sporting stars like Robbie Rogers and Tom Daley are inspirations. However, the most powerful role models in the lives of young sporting people are not the elite, but those they meet on a day-to-day basis.  Evidence shows that the most influential people are the coaches, teachers, and older players within the club or team. They are the ones who set the standards of behaviour: by what they say, and by how they act.

The simple fact is that many gay young people will never join a sports club for fear of a homophobic behaviour and bullying.  Those who do may feel they must remain silent about a core aspect of their nature, their sexuality. Sports coaches and teachers are among the most trusted adults by young people.  Young people talk to us about problems at school, with their parents, with their friends, and this places a enormous responsibility on us all.

If we genuinely believe that sport is for all, we need to take the issue of homophobia in sport seriously. It will not go away without a concerted effort from everyone involved, at all levels. But it is coaches and teachers of sport who need to lead the way.


Former rugby international and 'Strictly' star Ben Cohen has launched a charity that focuses specifically on challenging homophobia, especially in sport.  Click on the image below to find out more, and Stand Up against all kinds of bullying.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Art and Science of Crap Detection

One of the ironies of modern culture is that, despite the remarkable advances of science and medicine, many people continue to believe utter nonsense.

The sea of dubious information has clearly been fed by the emergence of social media.  Anyone who uses Twitter or Facebook will be confronted with a continual stream of bold claims, shocking controversies, and supposed secrets for improved health, wealth and happiness.  Some of these claims come from genuine experts, some come from people trying to make a fast buck, and some come from fools.

Telling the difference can be frustratingly difficult.

Two examples.  I've just been reading a report in a newspaper about advances in cancer treatment. The same issue also includes an article about the powers of Chinese "internal healing".  Another source, this time an online magazine, juxtaposes a piece about recent advances in brain science with a quiz inviting readers to find out whether they are "left brain" or "right brain" thinkers.

In case you are not clear yourself (and who could blame you?), there is no compelling evidence in favour of either internal healing or left/right brain thinking.  They might be attractive ideas. They might conceivably turn out to be true at some point in the future. But, in the words of the late, great Carl Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".  And, at the moment, the evidence is missing.

The genius of social media is that it has democratised knowledge. Information is no longer the preserve of a select few.  We can all access vast amounts of information.  But democracy cannot work without an educated population.  It assumes that people have sufficient knowledge, skills, and understanding to make informed judgements about the decisions confronting them.

The simple fact is that the vast majority of people have not been educated to make such judgements.

The writer Ernest Hemingway famously said, "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector."  That inspired Neil Postman to claim:
As I see it, the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit.
Most schools do not do anything that remotely resembles this. Consequently, they send young people out into the world inherently vulnerable to bullshit.  And that seems rather shameful.

Of course, it is not just schools who have failed to prepare their charges.  Many universities force their students to complete 'learning styles' assessments, despite the fact that it is well-known that most experts on learning and the brain deny that such styles exist at all.  Even worse, an informal review of sports coaching education programmes in the UK by my colleagues and me revealed that all of them taught questionable or erroneous theories as scientific fact.

Remember Power Balance?  The bracelets that used "hologram technology" to "resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body", resulting in the improvement of sporting performance.  Sounds implausible?  Not so much that it prevented tens of thousands of sports coaches, athletes, and normal people from from around the world buying one, just in case they actually worked.

People bought the devices even after scientists demonstrated that they had no effect at all.  Television news items even demonstrated, with the most basic of tests, that the bracelets were useless.  But people continued to buy them, right up until the company that produced them went out of business, mainly due to a court ruling that the company should stop making unsubstantiated claims and that dissatisfied customers should be given a full refund.

Anyway, the company has relaunched under a new name, and people have started buying the bracelets again.

What is to be done?

Surely, the ultimate solution must be to change education programmes to better prepare people to do with the barrage of bullshit with which they will inevitably be confronted during their lives. This is as much to do with a sceptical mindset as specific techniques.

For a start, though, consider this list of questions from the writer Michael Shermer, which make up his "Baloney Detection Kit".


  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

Crap detection can be framed even easier than this, as one simple but profound question:
How do you know?
If every student was taught to ask this whenever confronted by a new idea - no matter who offered it - they would be making a giant step towards being genuinely educated.