Getting Out of the Way and Blending

The experienced practitioner of Aikido learns to blend with his attacker. Physically, it involves getting out of the way, then ‘blending’ or ‘shadowing’ (looking in the same direction as your attacker for a moment), while feeling the energy, power, and momentum that they’re bringing to the situation.

Blending allows us to move without direct conflict. We don’t overreact and add ‘fuel to the fire’, but use only the energy and power required for the situation, and nothing more. No one gets hurt. Once again, when we’re in the classroom, ‘blending’ isn’t a physical move, but a psychological one.

Several years ago, I watched in awe as a veteran principal blended with a disgruntled teacher who had been challenging some of the ideas being discussed during his school’s staff development program. The teacher was clearly frustrated, and eventually blurted out angrily,

“I’d like permission to leave. This program is stupid and it’s not relevant. I’d rather go back to my classroom and do some lesson planning.”

The presenter reacted as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and the entire staff looked stunned. The principal, who was sitting in the back of the room, broke the ensuing silence and spoke in a measured and sincere manner,

“We’re not asking for you to adopt every idea that’s being presented in the program. But why not give it till the lunch break and see if there might be a few things that you can use to help you?”

The teacher protested, “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

The principal continued to blend, “You’ve already brought a lot to the program by challenging some of the ideas (the presenter) has brought forth. I think you surfaced a few thoughts that some in the group may have been thinking about, but weren’t willing to verbalize. We need people like you, with different points of view, to be active and vocal so that the learning here is real. The worst thing that could happen is we leave this session and have the real discussion and questions relegated to complaints in the teachers’ room.”

The principal sat quietly looking at the angry teacher, who was surprised by the principal’s openness. His face began to soften and the moment opened in possibility.

The teacher nodded his head, “If you think it will help, I’ll give it a try.”

The veteran principal smiled warmly, “It will. Thanks.”

I’d never seen a ‘blend’ done so well anywhere outside of an Aikido dojo.

The principal was clearly a master teacher.


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The Generosity and Power of Public Mistakes

I have spent a lot of my life trying to be perfect.

Or trying to have others see me as perfect.


When I was teaching a class, I really, really felt that way.

If I made a mistake I certainly didn’t want my students to know about it.

I got defensive if one of the bright ones tripped me up on something.

When I took up Aikido as a regular practice I became a student again.


I saw the world through the eyes of a beginner.

I felt the confusion and clumsiness of a newcomer.

I looked at the senior students (sempai) in awe.


Their seeming perfection made me feel like I was alone.

I was the only one who wasn’t “getting it”.

And then it happened.

During the demonstration of a technique, one of the sempai, working with our teacher, struggled with the move and made a mistake.

Immediately, the spell was broken. I was not alone. Other folks were finding this challenging, too.

And at that moment, I began to see the generosity and power of public mistakes.


They let us know that we are not alone.

That learning is sometimes difficult.

They give us confirmation that mistakes are a part of learning, a part of being human.


As teachers, letting students see our mistakes is an important part of their learning.

When we struggle, they must see us struggle.

They need to see us pick ourselves up and continue our efforts.


Our persistence shows them that mistakes don’t stop us.

It is all part of the journey.

It’s not always neat and clean.

But it is always exciting and rewarding.


As teachers, we must have the courage, to model authentic learning.

And the courage to be our imperfect selves.

It is through this generosity that we let them know that learning and mistakes go hand and hand.

That having flaws is a part of being human.

And even teachers make mistakes.



The Learning Dojo

“We are now at a historical transition in which it is crucial that learning be placed in the context of action, as a way of being in the world, instead of being simply intellectually smart.”


I am in the midst of reading Richard Strozzi-Heckler’s excellent new book, “The Leadership Dojo”. In it he puts forth a compelling case for public education to expand its view of learning. Richard recounts studying Aikido in Japan and speaking with a fellow student from New Guinea who says,

“In my country we say that knowledge is only a rumor until it is in the muscle.”

Richard goes on,

“Leadership (and learning) is about taking skilful action, producing results and mobilizing others, not simply acquiring academic knowledge. We learn through our bodies, through recurrent practices, and learning means being able to take new actions. Leadership is a learnable skill.

Trained in the rationalistic tradition where we are predisposed to think of learning as something that happens in the mind; the idea that we learn through our bodies is startling at first. We can see the influence of rationalism in our formal education when we recall sitting at our desks, reading books, listening to lectures, and reviewing case studies and theories. The body was simply the delivery system that transported us to the classroom and then remained in the background as we absorbed information. This person, we would say, is smart, because he or she can prove what they say is true. While this is one interpretation of learning, there is another that has been widely neglected because of the authority of the rationalistic approach. There has been, for example, little recognition given to someone who could produce value through the way they manage mood, how they skillfully coordinate with others to achieve a desired goal, or their ability to ignite the passion and purpose of others.”

Later Richard points out,

“We are now at a historical transition in which it is crucial that learning be placed in the context of action, as a way of being in the world, instead of being simply intellectually smart.”

As we look at new models for educating our children, we would do well to expand our definition of learning from accumulating information, to being able to do something with that information; to be able to take new actions. Reform models that overlook this exciting and emerging definition of learning, may find themselves simply repackaging what they seek to transform.