Reflective practice in aikido

reflective-practise-aikidoIn the early days of aikido, when the cup is well and truly empty, it’s pretty easy to make progress just by turning up and soaking up information like a sponge. The learning pedagogy follows the learning pyramid down a few levels and by green belt you’re confident and by brown belt a little cocky. By shodan there is usually a confrontation with self as you probably don’t measure up to your own preconception of “black belt” awesomeness, and by the time you exit sandan there’s a faint sense of disquiet creeping into your soul as you have run out of things to do.

It is here that the other aspects of aikido take on a greater role. Rather than a perfunctory practice that seems culturally appropriate, such as mindfulness meditation and breathing or finding the stillness of yoningake, students might be asking, “Where to now?”.

learning styles aikidoIn a previous blog we looked at pedagogy and it is timely perhaps to revisit that. We can ask ourselves, “What are the mindfulness practices we see in other spheres of education?” whether in vocational training or preparation of athletes. There are significant areas of overlap with traditional study of aikido in honing skills and bringing a maturity to our learning. They also start to bring us to the lower levels of the learning pyramid.

Unfortunately, many students don’t progress beyond practising technique, which is really just the beginning levels of aikido. It is a weird journey and a long one to reach out for the extra planes of aikido. After 30 years of wondering I feel that Dan Sensei and Andrew Sensei are discovering new ground and looking forward to getting together for the Autumn workshop this weekend

words: Jim Nicholls
image: Dan James

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Aikido and Pedagogy: Thoughts for the Autumn Workshop

cropped-shionage.jpgIf you’re like most of us learning aikido, you are diligently practising the aikido kata (some call them techniques) and hoping that you will make some sort of modest progress. Your dutiful teacher, also on this ladder of hopeful progression, is doing the same thing and passing on what he or she has learned to you. The trouble is, this is not a good recipe for successful learning. It’s simply what we’ve been handed as the way to do it in aikido, and it’s pretty much the only way we get to learn.

And the longer we spend training aikido the greater the probability we will progress from one teacher to another, whether it’s in the same dojo or school or possibly in a new dojo or new school (because circumstances change, that’s life). And a bit of “old teacher bad — new teacher good” syndrome can creep in, where we discard or even denigrate what we have learned previously in favour of the new and exciting (but Einstein never felt the need to say that Newton had it all wrong, he simply presented a progression of understanding). This is quite human, but it ignores the process of learning, that there can be multiple models or descriptions of the same phenomena in varying degrees of detail and sophistication that can coexist without contradiction.

When we look at the greats in aikido history we can see that they did not make progress by blindly following a single teacher within a single discipline. Sure they progressed within a system but most went outside for a while at least to get what they needed. They were part of the system but not bound by the system.

Educators talk a lot about pedagogy when discussing how best to teach or learn. But pedagogy literally means “to lead a child”, because most of our beliefs and understanding of learning are based on how we learned as children and how we in turn teach children. (Some of you might be thinking that it is good to cultivate beginner’s mind and childlike wonder and that is true to a point, but not the whole story.)

Far better, I would suggest, to pursue andragogy (methods and principles used in adult education). Andragogy is predicated on self-directed, autonomous learners and teachers who are facilitators of learning. This is the antithesis of what is often presented as the “traditional” model for learning martial arts.

Pedagogy tends to focus on explicit instruction of specific skills within a defined framework. While this promotes rapid skill acquisition within the framework, the skills can deteriorate rapidly under conditions of diversity or stress (for example, their application in the real world).

Andragogy tends to focus on other learning modalities like peer-to-peer learning, implicit learning and practising the performance of acquired skills. While we can see these modalities in the “traditional” model they are often restricted in scope. What we almost never see in “traditional” learning is the use of questioning and experimentation. Yes, you might ask the master a question, but a koan, platitude or deflection is often the response. What-if questions are definitely frowned upon — especially if the teacher doesn’t know the answer. Questioning — What are we trying to achieve? What are the learning outcomes? Can we learn, or teach, this better, or faster? — is critical to the process.

So what can we do, if we want to take charge of our own learning? One approach is to keep asking questions and be quietly chastised. It’s a hard road. Another is to accept the hierarchical system as excellent for delivery of content but start to look at modalities that engage the other systems of learning. This is not an easy path either!

I’ve been delighted to work over many years with Jim Nicholls, who has been a senior student in three systems of aikido. His quiet manner belies the magnitude of his contributions to these organisations where he acted not as a top-down leader but toiled away in the trenches, regardless of his seniority, quietly taking us and his students to the next level. I suspect this is the outcome of his research into consciousness over many years and decades as a vocational leader and teacher in adult education around the country. Based in the Northern Rivers since the early 1990s he is part of the zeitgeist of the region. He gets that real outcomes come from a community-based practice of learning and that the role of facilitator supports learning  in an effective manner. I am delighted to be a participant in his upcoming  Autumn workshop, March 19th at Alstonville Aikido, to deliver a little content and be a part (rather than apart) of the digestion, enrichment and questioning it will bring as we seek to find out a little more about the fascinating art of Aiki.