Taekwon-do and cognitive science

I haven’t written in my taekwon-do blog since our new dojang opened in January – but I have been thinking a lot about the way in which my study of taekwon-do has informed my thinking about cognitive science.

Let me be clear about this: there are three elements to my study of taekwon-do which have been pivotal in influencing the way I think.

1) my Instructor, who introduced me to the martial art in an accessible way, showing the theory and practice, the moral culture and application, and most of all, demonstrating through everything he does the ongoing level of passion and commitment required to become a martial artist.

2) the 15 volume encyclopedia of taekwon-do (and its condensed version), written by General Choi, which documents the martial art itself and the structure of the taekwon-do syllabus through which a martial artist can learn his or her art form.

3) the conceptual mapping across perceptual learning, motor learning and meta-cognitive awareness of learning principles through which my Instructor is able to relate theory and practice and through which he gave me sufficient insight and desire to understand the depth and richness of the curriculum developed by General Choi.

As I have remarked elsewhere in my taekwon-do blog, the structure of the taekwon-do curriculum, bringing together the martial arts of east with the educational system of the western military (US Military Academy), is a masterpiece of curriculum design and exposition. However, based as it is on curriculum design principles for a military curriculum, there is no specific curriculum framework for children. I have also discussed elsewhere in my blog the special facility my Instructor has in working with young children and older people, two groups who are not the traditional focus for martial arts instruction.

The focus I have had in previous posts on martial arts and instructing children have been based around motivational factors in terms of learning most likely because I was involved in educational design of “learning materials”. However now that I am reading Eleanor Gibson (Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development), Williams and Hodges(Skill Acquisition in Sport), Johnson-Frey (Taking Action: Cognitive Neuroscience Perspectives on Intentional Acts) and such things, focusing on perceptual learning and cross-modal sensory-motor integration, I am seeing other aspects of the taekwon-do syllabus that are masterful in terms of design.

I am currently working with concepts of dynamic coordination and constraints in skill acquisition, which fit pretty nicely with the taekwon-do concept of sinewave, and how these fit in with instructional models. This approach contrasts sharply with traditional instructional approaches emphasising verbal instruction, active cognitive processing of knowledge, and dependency on feedback from instructors. The role of the instructor or coach in the dynamic approach is

“to ensure the correct ‘discovery environment’ through the manipulation of task and environmental constraints in an attempt to guide exploration of the dynamics of the perceptuo-motor workspace … if one uses the metaphor of a ‘story’ to conceptualise the skill acquisition process in sport, then the end-state form (the skill) to be acquired by each individual is not prescribed at the outset, but is painstakingly and creatively written ongoingly. In such a ‘self-reading and self-writing’ dynamical system (Kugler, 1986), practitioners have a major say in the development of the individual’s unique storyline by creating localised pressures (as constraints) so that functional global systems behaviour emerges from practice time. The implication is that there is a need for significant research programmes in the sport and exercise sciences to gain a broad understanding of how constraints shape the individual ‘stories’ of skill acquisition in different sports contexts.”

The constraints-led model asserts that the set of possible movement solutions for a skill to be acquired can be limited by the dimensions of the perceptuo-motor workspace imposed by the coach or training environment. Directed coaching or training environments with limited dimensionality will only support a very narrow search process, whereas unbounded workspaces allow unconstrained search which can be unrewarding, inefficient and potentially unsafe. An important role of the coach or instructor from this perspective is to support the perceptuo-motor search process by manipulating constraints so that exploration occurs within the optimal area of the perceptuo-motor workspace.

Interactions between the coach and student are minimised during early stages of learning so that the important dynamics of the movement task are revealed through discovery.

“In a soundbite, the key point is: Let the learner begin to write her own story. Direct coach intervention at this stage may well assist in the short-term assembly of coordinative structures as temporary solutions, but the ongoing process of establishing control may be delayed as a result of inappropriate (i.e. textbook and non-individualised) coordinations early on. In fact, the adoption of generalised ‘textbook’ approaches can be likened to the short-term solution of ‘plagiarism in our analogy of writing a story. In other words, the learner may come to rely on these ‘neatly packaged’ temporary solutions for immediate performance effects in specific environments. But the unique relationships between movement subsystems, which influence long-term performance transfer to novel situations, will not be established early in learning” Williams et al 1999, p322.

This all starts sounding very like the ideas I was trying express early in my blog in the article on Teaching Kids.

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