Monday, January 30, 2012

The Black Belt Curriculum: The Age Gap

“It has been more than half a century since I began teaching. Not only the methods of martial arts instruction, but the world itself has changed drastically and rapidly.  Consequently, I have had to throw out many of my old notes as the teaching methods have evolved greatly from my old days.”

                                   -Grandmaster Jae C. Shin, 2002  
We have introduced the fact that there are several qualities that separate the black belt student from the color belt student, and that there is a need to challenge the ideas of the past concerning the “hands off” philosophy of allowing black belt students to develop these qualities on their own.  Before we can move forward to develop a comprehensive curriculum for the black belt student, though, we must first identify the factors that have created the need for this new curriculum, as well as the areas in our current curriculum that fall short in addressing these factors, or are missing altogether.  In short, there are two questions we must address:

1.  Why do we need a new black belt curriculum?
2.  What is missing from our current black belt curriculum? 

Why We Need a New Curriculum: Teaching the Young

                  One reason we need a new curriculum for our black belts is actually relatively obvious.  Over the years, the average age of a martial arts student has decreased dramatically.  Until the early to mid-1980s, teaching martial arts to children was a very uncommon practice.  Even then, at ten to twelve years of age, a child was considered quite young to begin training.  Teaching methodologies were aimed at late teens and young adults, and not at children.  Over the years, instructors worked hard to develop new methods specifically designed for teaching children, and many became quite good at doing so.  Martial Arts Instructors began to realize that by starting at younger ages, they would be able to develop students who had lived their entire lives in the martial arts, and as such would learn and grow along with the curriculum, their skills and knowledge naturally growing with their mental and physical development over the years. This worked out extremely well when the new white belt was as young as ten years old.  In the martial arts schools of today, though, we are seeing new students as young as three.   As we began to accept beginners at younger and younger ages, a mismatch began to take shape between the development of the student and the development of the curriculum itself.
                  Grandmaster Shin, in his latest book, Traditional Tang Soo Do: Volume V: Instructor’s Manual, states the following:

                  “In years past, practice of martial arts was limited to male adults.  As the martial arts spread to countries outside of the Orient, it was acceptable for women and children to train.  As we progress even further, we see that the acceptance of children as young as 3 years old is beneficial both physically and mentally, as long as the program is geared towards their skill and comprehension levels  (emphasis added)

We are told, in no uncertain terms, that a martial arts curriculum for these very young students must be specifically tailored to them.  Many very skilled instructors have spent years doing so, and have made our current Tiny Tigers and Little Dragons programs into a rousing success that is shared among studios across the world.  However, this program, while a wonderful addition to our overall curriculum, only addresses one end of an unbalanced dynamic created by accepting three year old students.  What it does not do is address the other end of our current curriculum, in which we are confronted by a growing population of eight and nine year old black belts, who may not be truly prepared to take the steps necessary to begin developing the advanced qualities of that rank.  These young black belts need additional stimulation, guidance and direction, or they may find themselves straying from the path.  It is our job as instructors to further develop our teaching methods for not only the young white belt, but for the young black belt as well.

                  Over the years, I have noted that one of the most common complaints of black belts, and in particular young black belts, is that they aren’t learning anything “new”.  This in turn tends to lead to boredom, and in the worst cases, students begin to despair that they will never learn anything new.  I have often challenged these students by telling them that if they aren’t learning anything new that is their fault; there is so much new to learn, and they simply aren’t looking.  This idea perhaps too strongly embraces that old philosophy that a black belt’s journey must be entirely one of self-discovery.  It is important that black belts learn and discover things on their own, yes, but perhaps it isn’t critical that they make every new discovery entirely alone.  This is especially true of our young black belts.  While we do want to encourage leadership skills, maturity, and a certain degree of self-sufficiency in these students, we certainly do not wish to foster a sense of boredom, or worse, hopelessness.  Children of eight and nine years old, even black belt children of this age, inherently seek guidance from those they perceive as role models. If we are able to guide them towards new discoveries and don’t, then perhaps it is our fault if they don’t learn anything new.  Black belts must be encouraged to see their techniques and drills from a different perspective; to analyze things they have been doing for years with a new set of “black belt eyes”, and in so doing, become stimulated to see the “new”, even in what they once thought of as “old.”
                  In addition to the need for additional stimulation, guidance and direction, young black belts also display a need for socialization, and more importantly, a need for social acceptance. In short, they need to feel as if they belong, and if they are given any sense that they do not fit into the group in which they are classified, they will naturally begin to pull away from that group.  If they do not have consistent and stable peer groups present both in their individual classes, as well as within the larger body of the dojang, they will begin to withdraw.  If this is not remedied, withdrawn students will very likely leave in order to seek new social groups in which they feel accepted.  While individual learning can and must continue to take place, our new curriculum must also address the need for socialization by creating new partner and group drills and activities geared towards black belt students.  They must be encouraged not only to interact with one another, but also to push and encourage one another towards new levels of achievement.     Within these group activities, certain roles will naturally begin to form, and some students will begin to take the lead while others will be more content to follow.  While leadership is certainly a trait to be encouraged, true leaders will know when to take a step back in order to help others develop these skills as well.  For students to truly take the bigger step towards understanding, they must actively take part in both roles.  The curriculum must be designed so that all members of the group both lead and follow, for only in this way will they learn to accept both the assets and the faults present in others, and will then help to strengthen one another’s assets while learning to overcome areas of weakness. 
                  While social acceptance from peer groups is a strong motivating factor that will help young black belts continue to train and develop their skills, there is perhaps another guiding factor that is an even stronger force in determining whether or not a young black belt will continue onward on the journey towards mastery: respect.  While it is true that respect is earned and not given, instructors can and should create opportunities for young black belts to earn respect.  Most instructors will allow youth black belts to engage in supervised teaching responsibilities and will give them opportunities to lead their juniors in many activities.  By putting young black belts in these positions of authority and leadership, they can earn the respect of both their peers and their juniors, but this is only one factor that must be addressed.  In addition, a black belt curriculum must put these young black belts into positions in which they can earn respect from those who are traditionally placed above them as well.  As historian and criminologist Don Pinnock says:

“Elaborately, often unconsciously, and with tools, substances and attitudes dating back to the dawn of our species, young people engage in rituals of transformation which have a single goal: adult respect.”

While the preponderance of evidence suggests that this is true, it also suggests that young people in general, and young black belts by extension, do not necessarily understand how to achieve this goal; nor do they truly understand what respect from adults is or how to measure it.  In the end they will create their own methods for achieving this respect, even when those methods actually yield a negative result.  If we want to create a comprehensive curriculum to include young black belts, we must then incorporate ways in which they can earn respect from various groups of adults, both in and out of the dojang.  The curriculum must include opportunities for public service, guided authority in adult groups, and, ultimately, recognition of both efforts and achievements in a way that matters to the youth black belts in question.

The Age Gap: Conclusions

                  After some analysis, we see that there are three main areas in which the age gap between black belts of the past and the black belts of today has caused corresponding gaps in our curriculum:

1.   The need for ongoing stimulation, guidance, and direction: developing “black belt eyes”
2.     The need for socialization and social acceptance from peer groups
3.     The need for respect from juniors and seniors, with a focus on respect from adults

By identifying each of these needs and the gaps in our curriculum which correlate, we can begin to create a specific curriculum designed to fill these gaps.  Before we do this, though, we must ask whether the scope of this design will be too narrow.  After all, these gaps only address a very specific population of black belts, and generally address situations within the dojang, but not without.  As Grandmaster Shin tells us in the opening quote of this post, it is not only martial arts teaching methodologies that have changed over the years, but the larger world as well.  Perhaps by examining this larger world, and the predominant ways in which it has changed, we will find additional areas in which we must modify and update our black belt curriculum, and in so doing, broaden both its scope and overall effect, but that is a post for another day.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


“What the caterpillar calls the end,
the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”

-Lao Tzu

            It is often said in the martial arts world that black belt is the stage at which we really start to learn; that is not the ending of our training, but merely the true beginning.  If this is true, and I must say I agree that it is, then we must ask this fundamental question:

If black belt is only the beginning of our learning, then how, exactly, do we begin to learn?

While this proves to be a difficult question to answer, in either a qualitative or quantitative fashion, it is nonetheless what I will attempt to do over the next few months.  Before we can even begin to answer how we begin to learn at the black belt level, though, we must first ask what it is we are attempting to learn.  What are the qualities of a black belt student that are different from those of the color belt student, and what is a black belt striving to be that a color belt is not?
            Obviously, we could discuss the basic mental, physical, and spiritual development of the martial artist, and determine that a black belt should be a person who trains hard, who studies the history and terminology of his or her given art, and who is of strong character, but the fact is that all of these areas have been developed since white belt.  The training in these areas does not really change, and it certainly does not begin at black belt, so again we must ask, what is beginning, and how does it begin?
           Based upon my experience watching and training alongside countless students and instructors, I fell that I can say with some certainty that one of the qualities of a good black belt is understanding.  A black belt should strive to do more than simply perform the motion of a given technique or skill.  A black belt needs to be able to apply that technique, and must be learning how to do so for a variety of different situations in a dynamic way.  The black belt must display the ability to improvise multiple solutions for a given problem, rather than simply show that he can demonstrate a static drill through rote repetition.  The black belt is moving beyond mere imitation of what the instructors and senior ranking students are doing.   The black belt is in the process of attaining knowledge about why we perform our techniques and drills exactly as we do them, is learning how to use these techniques correctly, and is learning when to use one technique over another.  It is in all of the above areas, then, that a new black belt’s learning begins, and it is in these areas that the instructor must guide and develop his black belts.  To reiterate and consolidate these ideas then, a good black belt curriculum must facilitate the development of three key areas:

1.      Understanding (knowing why techniques work as they do)
2.      Application (knowing how techniques work and can be used)
3.      Improvisation (knowing when to use one technique or application over another)

           While this list of characteristics is meant to illustrate the qualities that the black belt is beginning to explore and develop, it is important to realize that it does not denote a simple step-by-step process, and should not be viewed as one.  As a black belt develops ability in one of these areas, it in turn feeds into another area as well.  A student may start by learning a particular application of a technique, and this in turn can foster both a greater understanding of the art and at the same time trigger certain improvisational skills.  Each of these three areas in turn feeds into the other two, and is not only a circular and cyclical process, but one that can travel in multiple directions at once, and also feed back into itself.  Perhaps the process can be best viewed like this:

                If these are the areas in which true learning begins, where, then, will this new beginning take us?  Is there some inevitable destination to which this process will bring all black belts?  If the black belt does, in fact, go through the process of learning each of the above key areas, then I postulate that yes, there is one destination common to all good black belts: becoming an instructor.  If one truly understands the core concepts of his or her own martial art, can apply those concepts, and can improvise and adapt to diverse situations, then I truly believe that person will naturally develop the desire to see these skills develop in others, and will want to be the one to teach them.  This stems from a natural desire to see the art we love continue, and this can only happen by passing our knowledge on to a new generation of martial artists.  It seems to me, then, that a good black belt curriculum must take teaching into consideration as well.  A black belt who is beginning to display development in each of the three key areas identified above must also be encouraged to develop teaching skills, and must be presented with teaching opportunities.
           Knowing, then, that we must cultivate these areas in our black belts and that in so doing we can be assured that our art will be perpetuated, why do we see a continued trend of black belts who quit their training while only on the beginning steps of this journey?  In the “old days” of martial arts training, we would always have placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the black belts who quit.  The responsibility for discovery, research, and technical development was theirs alone, and only the occasional nudge from the instructor was expected in order to keep black belt students on the right path.  If they strayed from the path, it was their fault, and it was generally up to them to find their way back.   
           Perhaps, though, it is time to reconsider this philosophy, at least to some degree.  While it often is the case that a black belt quits due to their or limitations, or for their own reasons, it is also true that some portion of the black belts who quit do so because they aren’t learning that which they need to learn.  We must identify the areas in which our curriculum for black belts is deficient, and we must innovate new ways of teaching an ancient art in a modern world, while still preserving the integrity and traditions of our art. We must realize that there are situations we face today that our predecessors did not.  We must determine where and why some of our current practices fail, and change those practices accordingly.  It is not an easy task, but with some thought and some hard work, it is one we can accomplish.


Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.