The K-12 Classroom Dojo

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.

pete

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.

pete

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Soft Skills and Personal Development Are Key to Teaching Mastery

It should come as no surprise that great teaching has many components, and while schools are good at focusing their professional development efforts on the trainable aspects of teaching…knowledge and skills; the opportunities for us to focus on the more complex aspects of teaching…attitude, self-awareness, authenticity, and trust, are almost non-existent. These, and other personal attributes, are often referred to as ‘soft skills,’ inferring their lack of importance. However, extensive research (as well as our own experience) indicates that it’s our personality and presence that makes the greatest impact on learning in our classrooms. In essence, soft skills are ‘essential skills’, and our development as teachers challenges us to consider personal development as an important component of professional development; part of the path to professional mastery.

It’s who you are, your personality, your soft (essential) skills, that are the keys to teaching mastery; and it’s by bringing your best self to the classroom that you’ll experience the most success. Why? Because, by taking care of your own mind, body, and heart (your inner ‘self’), you’re also taking care of your students. After all, as Parker Palmer says,

“You teach who you are.”

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks.

gratitude,

pete

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The Calling

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I’m back after several years of an amazing journey. Welcome my friends. I hope you are all prospering, and that you’re letting your gifts shine bright in this world. There are lot’s of changes coming to this blog, but I want to offer you an excerpt from my latest book, “A Path With Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery.” I hope you enjoy it, and I hope we get to re-connect soon. With gratitude, Pete

The Calling

Consciously, or unconsciously, when you chose a career in teaching, you chose a ‘calling,’ a ‘path with heart;’ for teaching is an invitation to a world of possibility… for your students, and if you’re open to it, for yourself. Though it may sound grandiose, it’s no less true, that who you are, your personality and character, are at the root of good teaching; for teaching is about big things, not little. And it’s by turning your own promise into practice that you’re able to unlock the potential of your students, and make a difference in the world.

Human beings are born with hearts that yearn for meaning. We want our lives to count for something, and our daily work to provide us with a life, as well as living. The classic story of three stonecutters helps us see that the true impact of our work goes far beyond the day to day tasks that consume so much of our time and energy.

One day a traveler came across three stonecutters working in a quarry. Each one was chipping away at a block of stone. Curious, he asked the first stone cutter what he was doing. “What? Are you blind?” the stone cutter shouted, “Can’t you see, I’m cutting this stupid piece of stone.”

The man walked near the second stonecutter, who seemed a little happier and asked him the same question. The stonecutter replied, “I’m cutting this block of stone so that the mason can build a straight wall.”

Finally, he approached the third stonecutter, who seemed to be the happiest of the three, and asked him what he was doing. “I’m building a cathedral,” he replied with a smile.

Like the third stonecutter, knowing that the work you do can make a positive impact on a child’s life, and sometimes, through that child, on the world writ large, makes your personal sacrifice and toil worthwhile. As an educator, you have the opportunity to build cathedrals, not just chip stones.

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pete