Archives for category: pedagogy

As a martial arts junkie, I often find myself comparing concepts between different martial arts. Whenever I can, I like to adapt what I’ve learned in one martial art to make me better at another. I like to think that my experience with prior martial arts can help me learn other martial arts by applying concepts that I already know. But when I do this, I often run into problems. Whenever you try to import a concept from one martial art to another or compare ideas across martial arts, you are likely to run into trouble. Why is this?

Right away, one thing is clear: Sometimes different martial arts conceive of similar ideas very differently. For example, Wing Chun traditionally teaches six and a half point pole techniques as if they were extensions of unarmed techniques. On the other hand, there are other martial arts which teach very similar long staff techniques without pairing it with unarmed martial arts at all. If you were to examine the reasoning behind the techniques of Wing Chun or these other martial arts, you would probably find that they are very asymmetrical and difficult to compare, despite their similar jurisdictions. Why? Some would say it’s a matter of comparing apples and oranges. That may be true, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the underlying reasons for their asymmetry.

It’s easiest to examine and compare concepts when they are deconstructed as much as possible. When we deconstruct concepts, they tend to become more specific and less inclusive(more limited in scope). For example, if I say that “spirit” is important in martial arts, I am allowing that concept to remain broad and vague. If I say that it is important for a martial artist to cultivate spiritual strength, then I am a little more clear and specific. More specifically, I could say something like “a martial artist can increase his awareness and mental acuity by engaging in meditative exercises.” This last statement is the most deconstructed, and the easiest to analyze. However, it is also relatively narrow in scope, so it may not contain all of the meaning of the original statement.

But sometimes we can’t deconstruct ideas as much as we would like. For example, the principle of Aiki is an umbrella concept which contains multiple ideas. On the physical side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance by using the opponent’s momentum against him. On the interpersonal side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance in social relationships as well. There are also ethical aspects to Aiki(e.g. if the goal is to neutralize a hostile opponent, then one should not attack if the opponent is already neutralized. Furthermore, if you do attack, the opponent may use the very same tactics to neutralize you). While we can look at each of these aspects separately, it’s clear that Aiki links these ideas together at a fundamental level. That provides an obstacle to those of us who would try to deconstruct it.

Aiki is problematic because it contains several linked concepts. When concepts are linked together, they are difficult to compare to other martial arts which have similar ideas that are not linked. This is a problem that translators encounter every day. In language, we encounter linked concepts frequently. In English, the word “house” has different connotations than the word “home,” because “home” is linked to ideas such as comfort, safety, love, and so on. If we were translating the word “house,” it would probably be easy in most languages. On the other hand, it would be difficult to translate “home” if the target language did not have a word with those same connotations. This is why many words do not have direct translations in other languages. Likewise, many martial arts concepts do not have direct translations in other martial arts. This is because when concepts are linked together, those concepts acquire certain connotations.

It’s not always a problem when concepts are linked. But when we’re comparing ideas across two different martial arts, it’s a problem when that linkage is asymmetrical. For example, martial art A believes that every stance is associated with a certain state of mind, so it links its concept of proper stance with its ideas about attitude. On the other hand, martial art B looks at stances independently, preferring to think of attitude as an unrelated concept. When comparing the stances of martial arts A and B, or when applying the stances of one martial art to another, these linked concepts will be an obstacle to the translation.


Simplicity is critical. Any time you teach a complex subject, your goal is to break it into small, digestible pieces. These pieces can grow more complex over time as students learn to put them together. Students will learn best when given the simplest pieces possible. It’s not just about martial arts, it’s about pedagogy in general.

Any subject can be broken down into simple or complex discrete units. A discrete unit is like an atom, the smallest part of the whole which still retains its properties. An alphabet uses letters as discrete units. A phrasebook uses phrases as discrete units. Likewise, some martial arts use sequences or combinations as discrete units, while others treat simple, isolated motions as discrete. This is a fundamental difference which has cascading effects in the way a martial art is learned and implemented.

Simpler discrete units make learning more efficient. When you train the simplest piece of a technique, you can examine it by itself. You can see how an opponent can counter it, then how to counter his counter. This dialectic builds more complex sequences. It’s easy to make a simple technique more complex this way; you simply chain them together. But it’s not so easy to go the other direction. To examine a complex technique, you have to break it apart and look at it piece by piece. You have to identify the decision points – the points where you decide how to proceed with the technique – and you have to be willing to change plans if the opponent responds differently than expected. This is easy if you’re used to dealing with simple discrete units, because you already know where the decision points need to be. From this perspective, any given sequence is just one of many possible combinations which follow a simple initial technique.

If martial arts is a language, we want to be learning letters instead of words or sentences. You can learn a language by starting with an alphabet, or you can learn it by starting with a phrasebook. I’ll bet that the phrasebook method will allow you to speak the language quicker, but before long, you’ll reach a plateau. Phrasebooks are more efficient than an alphabet if you’re only interested in a shallow understanding of the language. But if you keep learning, then eventually you will have to break down those phrases and discover the alphabet underneath. At that point you begin to wish that the alphabet was given to you from the start. In the long run, it is much quicker to learn 26 letters than to reverse-engineer those letters from a thousand phrases.

This principle applies to nearly anything you can learn. Imagine you were learning to cook Mexican food. Mexican dishes famously use the same basic ingredients over and over: Corn, beans, rice, salsa, various meats, etc. The fastest way to cook would be to learn a complete recipe from start to finish. If you’re only interested in eating a burrito, then that’s probably the best method for you. However, if you want to learn how to cook a wide range of Mexican food(the entire Mexican food system, if you will), then it would be more efficient to learn the different ways to prepare each individual ingredient. Then all you need to do is mix and match your ingredients and preparatory techniques. Although this method of learning is more efficient in the long run, there would be a longer period in the beginning when you couldn’t make a single complete dish. Think of that period as an investment. Of course, we don’t really learn to cook this way because we never have to prepare unexpected dishes under time constraints against the resistance of a bloodthirsty opponent. The analogy is flawed in that sense. But on the bright side, that would make a great reality show.

This is a complex shape that fits the situation perfectly. But how versatile is it? (Courtesy of

Simpler discrete units are also more versatile. When the building blocks are smaller, it’s easier to rearrange them according to your need. Imagine you started playing Tetris in the middle of someone else’s game. You had no control over where the previous pieces fell, so now you’re left with holes to fill. If your Tetris blocks are small and simple, they can fill up any hole. Likewise, if your blocks are huge and complex, then they are very unlikely to fit the situation at hand. The most appropriate shapes may, in fact, be complex(see picture). But if I had to choose in advance, with no knowledge of the situation, I’d be better off choosing the smaller, simpler blocks because they are more versatile. And because these discrete units are versatile, fewer techniques are necessary.

With fewer, simpler techniques, a system can reduce redundancy and become more cohesive. Think about simple blocking sequences, the kind that is taught to beginners: They tend to be simple, cohesive, and lacking in redundancy. Can the same be said of most kata? When techniques are simple, they can each fill a specific role in the system. When techniques are complex, you’ll need one for every situation, like the Tetris block above.


Now that I’ve made this distinction between simple and complex discrete units, two sets of questions naturally arise:

1. Why would we train complex techniques as discrete units? Doesn’t it make things harder for the students in the long run? Doesn’t it threaten the cohesiveness of a system? Won’t all that complexity have to be reversed eventually?

2. Is this kind of complexity inherent within the system? In other words, can it be simplified without damaging the system? Some people have claimed that entropy is a modern phenomenon, that martial arts used to be simpler. That sounds plausible to me. If this is the case, then the answer is probably yes.

I don’t have the answers to these questions, unsurprisingly. Being inquisitive usually provides more questions than answers. It’s a self-sustaining habit.


I see a tendency toward entropy in Americanized Asian martial arts. Some people are cynical, and believe that the entropy is the result of a deliberate attempt to make more money by increasing the number of forms and techniques that each student must learn. I’m cynical, but not quite that cynical. More likely, it has to do with students preserving their teachers’ additions for generation after generation. The problem is that the core of these martial arts becomes less accessible as entropy increases. It is never impossible to go back to basics, to practice with smaller discrete units. But with every layer of complexity, the student has an additional layer that must be stripped off in order to build a foundation. When martial artists talk about training fundamentals, they mean training simpler pieces. Train the simple pieces first, and the complex will follow.


Naturally, this topic once again raises the question of whether martial arts and teaching methods can be separated. For more on that topic, see my previous post on deconstructing martial arts, “The essence of a martial art.”

When you learn a martial art, you are not learning its “true” form. At least, not right away.

Martial arts are too complex to learn without any simplification. It’s the same reason that we begin with addition and subtraction before moving on to more complex mathematics. These building blocks are supposed to enhance the learning process. If someone already knows how to fight, they don’t need to deconstruct their fighting method in order to use it. If they were self-taught, then they may have never been exposed to a deconstructed version to begin with. Although you might deconstruct the art to improve your own personal understanding, it’s never necessary until you want to teach it.

A martial art gets many of its distinctive characteristics from the way that it is deconstructed. For example, when I studied Wing Chun, we used a surprising amount of body tension. You need tension to make sure that your structure is solid and that it protects you where it needs to. However, my teacher did not believe that Wing Chun is ultimately a tense art. He told me that it is better to exaggerate the tension in the beginning so that you’re sure that you have proper structure, and that you can learn to relax it as you progress. You could come into that class and say “Wow, Wing Chun uses a lot of body tension.” However, that characteristic is only representative of the art in its fledgling state, not its ultimate state. What seems like a distinctive characteristic is really just a by-product of the teaching method.

In reality, there are other possibilities. Another Wing Chun teacher of mine taught us to be soft from the very beginning, emphasizing relaxation over structure. He might say that the first teacher’s method teaches you to be overly rigid, while the first teacher might think that the softer method leaves you unprotected. In either case, their goal is the same, but they have deconstructed the art in different ways based on their different priorities. As a result, these two versions of Wing Chun appear different at the lower levels but should converge at the higher levels.

What are the logical consequences of this? Let’s begin with two premises:

1. A martial art gets some of its distinctive characteristics from the way that it is deconstructed.

2. A deconstructed martial art is supposed to be reconstructed. In other words, it is ultimately practiced in a different way that it is taught to beginners.

If the above two statements are true, then some of the distinctive characteristics of martial arts are by-products of the teaching process which do not apply to the art in its ultimate form. Notice that I say “some” distinctive characteristics. How much is “some?” That depends on the degree to which martial arts are convergent or divergent.

Now, let me define those terms:

Convergent – Martial arts are convergent when they produce the same result. In other words, they are different paths up the same mountain.

Divergent – Martial arts are divergent when each one produces different results.

If martial arts are highly divergent, then there are many distinctive characteristics which are not by-products of teaching methods. On the other hand, if all martial arts are highly convergent, then there are ultimately very few distinctive characteristics of any martial art. In this case, style is essentially synonymous with teaching method.

With that in mind, the The next question is “How convergent or divergent are martial arts?”
I think we can agree that martial arts are not purely divergent, for the following reasons:

  • Human bodies don’t vary drastically.
  • The laws of physics hold true everywhere.
  • Effective methods have often been invented independently by different groups.
  • Martial arts are forced to respond to most of the same problems.
  • The “form” of a martial art is always secondary to its effectiveness.
    • In other words, fighters must respond to the reality of the fight rather than approaching the fight with rigid and/or preconceived ideas about how the fight should go. They can’t force their own dogmas on a fight and come out successful.

However, I think we can also agree that martial arts are not purely convergent either:

  • Martial arts have different priorities.
  • Martial arts are developed in and for different circumstances.
    • Ex. They may be optimized for civilians, military, self-defense, formal dueling, etc.
  • Some martial arts have adapted to situational restrictions, such as competitions or legal requirements.
  • Some martial arts use weapons peculiar to a certain place and/or time.
  • Martial arts have different underlying philosophies, worldviews, and ideas about what is possible.

Because martial arts are not purely divergent, some of the distinctive characteristics are by-products of the teaching process. But because martial arts are not purely convergent either, not all of the distinctive characteristics are by-products. This doesn’t do much to answer the question “How convergent or divergent are martial arts?” but it’s a start.

What sort of distinctive characteristics might be simplified? All forms, scripted techniques, training exercises, and sequences of any kind are deconstructions. Let’s take sequences as an example. A martial art may produce a given sequence of motions, but that does not mean that a martial art is a collection of sequential techniques. A martial art provides a dynamic system for decision-making. If a martial art is an algorithm, then a sequence is its output. To learn the output is not the same as learning the algorithm. We learn sequences of techniques in order to learn what the “algorithm” is supposed to produce, but those sequences are not goals in and of themselves. Our goal is to learn the ultimate form of a martial art.

Once all of the deconstructions from an art have been removed, only pure martial art remains. Maybe the ultimate expression of a martial art is a system of principles. Maybe it’s not even as restrictive as that. When you try to pin down the essence of a martial art, I think you begin to see the truth behind the famous quotation from Bruce Lee:

” 以无法为有法,以无限为有限 “

 “Use no way as way; use no limitation as limitation.”

If you read my previous critique of definitions, you may come to the conclusion that definitions are a waste of time. This critique may be extended to all verbal communication. Why bother organizing your thoughts into words at all? Why not learn martial arts simply through observation and experience? The simple answer is this: Clarity is important, and other forms of communication are rarely as clear as words.

As martial artists we are all trying to learn from someone. Clear communication is invaluable because we are trying to understand someone else’s ideas. There are limits to what can be expressed with words, but many martial artists use this as an excuse to be vague and uninformative. Metaphysical concepts are especially prone to vagueness. This is a major reason why I view them with skepticism. Metaphysical concepts are difficult to communicate, but do not mistake what is difficult for what is impossible. Clarity requires effort.

The term “energy” is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to vague metaphysical concepts. There are so many different meanings of the word that it would be ridiculous to try to list them all. Recently, a teacher of mine used this word to refer to at least five different concepts over the course of a two-hour Wing Chun class. He made no attempt to differentiate his different meanings of the word, which meant that he wasn’t willing to make the effort to clarify his instruction. This is an example of a teacher doing a disservice to his students. Clarity is key if students are to progress.

Here is another scenario to consider: A martial arts teacher could say that a movement is a “Tiger technique.” But what does that mean? Here are three ways that you can deconstruct the idea:

a. It means that the technique is an aggressive motion involving the collision of opposing forces.
b. It means that the motion employs specific stances, hand positions, etc.
c. It means that the practitioner exhibits a certain kind of aggression, independent of the motions themselves(e.g. emotionally, through facial cues and body language)

Each of these possibilities might reflect what a teacher actually means by “Tiger technique.” In this case, the three options above are clear because they are much more specific. Consequently, they are much more effective at conveying ideas. Without this kind of specificity, the students have to come up with their own interpretations. It would be much better if the teacher spoke clearly in the first place.

There is an exception: Some people use phrases like these as shorthand, which is fine, but only if everyone is clear about exactly what they mean. For example, if “Tiger technique” refers to quality A, B, or C, then the meaning is ambiguous. It can refer to three different qualities, plus combinations. If “Tiger technique” refers to quality A, B, and C, then the meaning is more precise. Most people don’t discuss these nuances, however, and as a result we must be very careful about defining shorthand clearly and using it appropriately.

Yet even if I make an exception for shorthand, some would still disagree. They would say that if you want to be precise in your meaning, verbal communication is too flawed. They would say that ideas need not be defined verbally to be understood. They would say that as long as student and teacher both have a mutual understanding of ill-defined terms like “energy” or “Tiger technique,” then communication can still be clear. But I have three problems with this line of reasoning:

  1. How do you develop mutual understanding in the first place? If you can’t use clear, verbal communication, you’re going to have a very hard time explaining this concept to someone else.
  2. How do you know that both parties have the same understanding of the concept? For example, my Wing Chun instructor and I undoubtedly have different understandings of the word “energy,” because he refuses to give any definition of the idea. As a result, we’re never on the same page when he uses the term.
  3. What do you intend to do when you are unable to see or feel a physical technique? Sometimes verbal communication is the only option available.

I have made my greatest progress as a student when given clear and precise instruction. Clarity is also useful for the instructor, who is forced to order and clarify his own thoughts before communicating them to others. Clarity helps everyone involved to understand causative relationships. Without a clear understanding of causative relationships, we can’t diagnose problems, and if we can’t diagnose problems, we can’t improve without a teacher present. Clarity is therefore the first step toward independence as a martial artist.