Teaching kids

Through my involvement with the USMA Schools Program, I have recently had an opportunity to watch Sabum Cariotis teaching young kids who are completely new to taekwon-do. This has given me cause to consider my own approach to young kids and how this fits with the message that Sabum Cariotis has been expressing lately that “Adults are easy, but until you have taught young children, you cannot call yourself an instructor.”

One thing that has always intrigued me is that in a martial art in which “discipline” is paramount, Sabum Cariotis does not enforce discipline on young kids in the straightforward way that I would approach it. I tend to say “Do this!” and then stay and wait until it is done. I am reasonably good at this form of “crowd control” and have assumed that crowd control is a necessary pre-cursor to “learning readiness”. In other words, I have implicitly been operating from the assumption that before the kids can learn anything, they need to be quiet and listening but I haven’t considered whether it matters at all how they got to be quiet and that once they are quiet, how you actually get them to listen actively rather than passively to what you are saying. Although in my professional role as an educator, I spend a lot of time considering teaching and learning strategies for adults and I have always argued that understanding how to talk to kids is one of the best preparations for teaching adults, I actually haven’t spent much time relating what it is that kids are “listening to” back to the teaching situation – I teach in the tertiary sector, I teach concepts, and I am very much a person of words, so I automatically think of listening as being focussing on what I am saying despite being aware personally and professionally that “active listening” involves a whole lot more than that. I am also aware that younger kids in particular will naturally understand the inflections in speech which carry the emotional content of what is being said irrespective of whether they understand the semantic content (ie the meaning of the words). They read “body language” in its natural form in a way that many adults (sadly) have been taught to filter out.

So although I might think that I succeeded a bit in teaching kids by ensuring that they are under control and doing as I say, what I see Sabum Cariotis doing is capturing his students from the inside out. He captures their attention and motivation from within themselves in contrast to my approach of trapping them in a corner and forcing my will onto them. It occurs to me that the essential difference will be in terms of “ownership” of what the students learning – when I force my will on someone in a teaching situation, they might “learn the basics” much more quickly because of my enforced discipline than if I try to achieve self-motivation for learning first, but I have probably stifled their ownership of learning, their willingness to seek out knowledge on their own and, in the longer term, their creativity. This loss of creativity is hugely important and is something that can’t easily be rectified.

When Sabum Cariotis talks to children (and adults) about taekwon-do, he tells stories and these stories are constructed at multiple levels. He tries to place the taekwon-do story into a context that matches the level at which the students can comprehend. Within a multi-age class, each story has strands that are accessible to each different level and many stories are told simultaneously in choice of words, in emotional tone, in choice of analogy and metaphor, in physical demonstration. Very few instructors have the depth of knowledge combined with passion for the content combined with respect for their students to engage with people in this way. I see many parallels in what Sabum Cariotis does and the way that a passionate academic teaches in their discipline area. What I haven’t really thought through before is the skill involved in inspiring passionate interest in young children for something (eg biology or history or even cooking and gardening) … it is easy to get kids to do activities relating to these things copy-cat style, and it is even straightforward to get them to be excited about bringing their work to you for your praise. But it is a wonderful and entirely different thing to inspire a passion that can feed their creative spirit throughout their lives so that they do things for themselves.

A very common theme for people who excel in a particular area is that a single great teacher stands out as their inspiration. This is unlikely to be the teacher that sat everyone in straight rows and made them follow the lesson plan to the nth degree!! It is far more likely to be the unconventional teacher who reached out to them in their world and built their self-belief and creativity while sharing their own passion for learning in their discipline.

The thing that is emerging for me in writing this is not directly related to taekwon-do, but relates more to the tertiary sector that I work in. In the mid eighties, before the huge and rapid expansion of the university sector, it was considered quite inappropriate to lecture even at first year level in a discipline area in which you were not an active researcher – if a topic was outside your core area of expertise, who were you to think that you could teach in it?! But as student numbers and teaching loads increased (and $$$ became critical), it sounded a bit precious to say you needed to be an expert to teach first year. These days it is unlikely that even at third year level it would be considered necessary to be an active researcher in an area to lecture in it. But what is lost is the depth of knowledge, the multilayered “stories”, and the passion that experts have for their domain. The subtlety of how things are put together to lead into a capacity for creativity in an area is lost if you don’t have the depth of knowledge to understand how an area is structured and how it relates to other areas and other concepts. The subtlety of good teaching is replaced by “process” around things like learning objectives, lesson plans and a need to be very explicit about assessment. With structured lesson plans, people who don’t know the content area think they can teach, and worse still, that they can judge quality of expert teaching even though they are not in a position to judge the actual content … this approach is very misguided and depressing and spiritless, and probably says a lot about our current social, cultural and educational values and the lack of passion and creativity in our lives – and this uplifting thought is probably a good place to stop writing for the moment … it can only go downhill from here !!!

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