For the past 12 years I have maintained a practice in Aikido. We learn Aikido in a ‘dojo’ which means “place of the Way”. What would it look like if we structured each of our classrooms like a dojo?
Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba as a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying with life energy” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit”. Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.
First, there is a teacher, the sensei. Sensei is one who has demonstrated his mastery and continues to study and practice his subject. This is similar to the traditional teacher in our classrooms today.
The pedagogy is simple and direct. The teacher demonstrates a technique with a partner chosen from the students in the class. He generally chooses a senior student called a sempai. Sensei does not usually over explain the technique. He illustrates it by performing it with his partner. After a showing the move a few times, the students in the class begin practicing it.
Students of all ability levels take part in the same class. This is a throwback to the one- room classrooms of 19th century America. Senior students train with the newer students, and assist them in perfecting their technique. This is beneficial to both the new student and to the sempai, who by helping in this way, become more aware of the nuances of each technique themselves.
Sensei moves about the dojo, observing students at their practice. He may stop someone to show him how to improve a particular part of his move. He may provide encouragement to someone who has done something well. He may step in to work with someone individually, or to stop all the practice and re-teach the move, focusing on some point he feels the students are missing.
The key point here is that students are learning by doing. The amount of time sensei spends instructing in front of the class is minimal compared to the practice time of the students. All instruction from that point on is specific to the individual students and their needs.
Aikido training is structured for students to obtain mastery. What does this mean? There are basic techniques that are foundational and practiced nearly every day. No matter how basic the move may seem, there is always more to learn, and more to master. For example, a beginning student might be learning the footwork of the move, an intermediate student may be doing the same move but learning more about proper spacing, and a senior student may be focusing on feeling the energy of his attacker and maintaining a steady flow of movement and breath.
This is unlike our classrooms which focus on checklist type learning. “I took that already.” I already learned that.” This type of learning fades away into oblivion over the years, because it was never really ‘learned’, only memorized.
What about testing in the ‘Classroom Dojo”?
Sensei is always watching his students. When he feels one has reached a certain level of competency, he asks the student to ‘test’. When sensei asks someone to take a test it’s safe to say that they’ve already passed because he would never ask a student to test if they are not ready. Some students learn quickly and move through the ranks relatively fast; while other students move more slowly…always at their own pace. It doesn’t take long to realize that it is not helpful to compare oneself to others in the class.
The test itself is a chance to demonstrate the student’s level of mastery to the rest of the class. A student isn’t tested on what he knows; but on what he can “do”. Learning in a dojo is never about what one says, thinks, or believes; but it is more about what new actions one is able to take.
What if the ancient concept of the dojo were adapted to our educational system?
Could we find a way to group students that wasn’t solely based on age or ability level?
What would it take to create a culture of learning based on Mastery?
Is it possible to re-define learning from an abstract knowing to an ability to do something with what we know?
Could we create classrooms built on practice?
Might it be possible for students to learn from each other?
Could testing become a ritual meant to demonstrate what one has learned after one has already satisfied the teacher?
I’ve found my years in the dojo to be an incredible and affirmative teaching and learning experience. I still maintain a ‘beginner’s mind’ and do my best to stay on the road to mastery because it’s a lifelong journey. My hope is that every K-12 student find a classroom/dojo, and a teacher/sensei who can help bring subject matter to life and arouse their curiosity and passion. Done well, learning can be the adventure of a lifetime.