How we learn

The job of an instructor is to cause us to learn. Quite often they do this by teaching us; but it’s not the only way.

When I was studying mathematics at university, I went to lectures. Four lectures in all, all in the first week of my first term there. Never again. The reason I gave out to my friends was that the lectures coincided with the moment at breakfast when I’d finished my second egg and my eighth crossword clue. The real reason (that I only realised much later) was that the lecturers were trying to teach us and I was not much good at being taught. I learned mathematics by going through the problem sheets we were given and working out for myself how to solve the problems. Once I’d effectively “invented” mathematics in this way, I was much more teachable. If you like, my tutors could put jam on the bread but I was the only one who could bake the bread in the first place.

I think the same dynamic is beginning to occur in BJJ. There is no one in the class who is better than me at forgetting the moves we have just been shown. The memorisation of moves as facts is something I’m no good at.

When I do feel I’m beginning to make progress is in what you might call “first principles”. I know – my body knows – that to do a sweep you have to deprive your opponent of support on the side the sweep is going (or just choose a moment when he’s deprived himself of it). I’m beginning to know – my body is beginning to know – that in any rotatory motion it’s best to have your opponent as close to the axis of rotation as possible: for example, in sweeps from half guard (which I’m just starting to learn) stretching out your and your opponent’s leg so that they form a “hinge” is the natural thing to do.

These “first principles” (and others to do with weight and balance) aren’t moves in themselves: they are the motives for moves, the reasons why a move is done in a particular way, and the reasons why it succeeds or fails. I think they’re also unteachable in themselves. You can teach this armbar or that armbar, but you can’t teach “armbarness”. That is something the student’s body has to learn for itself.

For me, then, it looks as if the pattern of learning may be:

  1. Apprehend the first principles and make them part of you.
  2. Act according to those first principles. You will end up moving in particular ways as a result.
  3. Discover that the relationship between the moves you’ve made up for yourself and the moves that everyone was trying to teach you is that they are the same thing.
  4. Start understanding and learning moves when other people teach them to you, because they fit into your already existing body of instinct and knowledge.

This sounds like a massively ambitious programme stretching over many colours of belts, and I guess in some ways it is. The question I’m trying to explore is whether everyone thinks like this. I don’t think they all do. I think a lot of people are able to function by memorising moves and having them immediately available when they’re sparring. Those people are teachable.

What do we do with the unteachables? We have to find other ways of causing them to learn.

What I have found most useful so far has been what you might call “calibrated sparring”. I’ve done it against my instructors in 1-1 sessions but I can’t see any reason why any higher belt shouldn’t be able to do it. When it works well, I think it works rather like this:

  • He isn’t trying to win. We already know he’s better than me!
  • He turns down the “volume control” on his speed and skills so that he’s stretching me further than I thought I could be stretched but not unbeatably so.
  • He guides the fight so that situations naturally arise in which I can practise the skills I’ve learned earlier in the session. This is the crucial point. It means that my body learns how to recognise what to do and when to do it.
  • He has a Pause button. If I get completely stuck, knowing I ought to be doing something but either not remembering exactly what or exactly how, we can have a pause and a momentary consultation before continuing.
  • He has a Rewind button. If I handle a particular situation in the wrong way, or if I surprise myself by handling it in a successful way and want to check that it wasn’t a fluke, we can go back and replay the scene again.

It would be interesting to see whether sparring against higher belts would be as much of an educative experience. I am writing this post, of course, on the very evening when I could have found out by going to a mixed class and “playing with the big boys”!

But to return to my original point: I think different people learn in different ways. Some can accumulate facts and get round to generalising from them later: those people are easy to teach. But others can’t really absorb facts until they have the general principles already under their belts: those are the people who have to be helped to learn.

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