INB #11 The Four Levels of Instruction

tedtinteddrawingO.k. teacher talk. This is going to be a little bumpy at first but it will pay off in extra time for you and skills for your students. As I see it there are four levels to teaching (there could be 3 or 37 but that’s not the point). First I will explain the levels starting at the simplest then we’ll talk about their application.

1. SHOWING. This is comparable to “monkey see, monkey do.” Actually this is quite common in martial arts. I had a number of friends who studied under Chang I- Chung in the 80’s. He would come to Santa Cruz from L.A. about once a month. That lesson he would conduct the class himself which meant, ostensibly, he went through his Chen Pan Ling Tai Chi and everyone followed. His Q & A session after that almost never touched on anything in the form. This was a high level of “follow the leader.”

2. SHAPING: This is very important and very specific. Say you are the back up instructor in a group class. The head instructor is county off kicks, “One… Two … Three… Yi… Er … San ….” You spot someone who needs help. You stand next to him and while they are practicing whisper little encouragement’s into their shell like ears such as, “Get that knee up!” “Straighten that kick!!” “Point those toes!!!” Soft or rough, the process is the same, it is instruction while the action is being performed.

This is an art in itself. Coaching, in the martial arts, often is what most people think of as teaching, but I see a difference. Coaching has Shaping, Showing and a lot of other stuff in it. You make corrections, you show what to do, you analyze the student’s personality, attributes and potential. This is the personal trainer or the basketball maven. Coaching can be one-on-one or scattered over a full stadium. Among the great coaches I’ve seen Joe Lewis pops into mind. He could transform a fighter to a higher level in minutes. Some instructors are all coach, and they can be great. Coaching has the distinguishing characteristic that it is goal oriented. Concretely it might be to win at a competition, abstractly to be the “baddest ass” on the street; but there’s always a goal and a criterion in the back of the coach’s and – it is to be hoped – the student’s mind.

4. TEACHING. Teaching, true teaching, is the opposite of that wonderful line by Mr. Robert Benchley, “We learned everything about the chameleon except why.” The teacher wraps a world into his subject. He doesn’t interest the student, he transforms him or her by showing not how his subject can change the world but, ultimately, how any subject deeply understood can transform a universe. The teacher inspires but doesn’t force. His goal is renovation, not achievement. That he leaves to his student. The teacher concentrates on the subject in such depth and completeness that the student naturally sees the correspondences to the rest of his own life.

Some levels of teaching require a more informed individual but no level is “better” than another. If the student can’t life his knee and aim a kick, the socio-historical relation of the leg arts to Celdaon porcelain production (there is one) is of no use. If you want to win – need to win – a coach will help you reach your goal, a teacher might well confuse you that there is a goal. In the middle of the class setting, the back up teacher should restrict himself to Shaping, the results will be best that way.

What about showing? Does that have any use? Here are two examples:

1. There are certain moves like, say, an aerial kick at some level that it would actually be best for the student to just do, not understand (at least yet). As a teacher you show and then you hope. They pick it up on first try and you have eliminated a lot of cerebral blather.

2. When I start a new instructor’s class the participants are often unsure of their skills. My first example to calm them down is this, “You’re in line and someone joins the class late. He looks at you and you just show him what’s being done by everyone else. At that moment you’re his instructor and he’s happy to have you.”

Once you see that the overall subject of teaching can be broken down into parts you may be able to assign your tasks more efficiently; not only to save time but to actually get a better result for the students. Knowing what level of teaching is required for each technique can open doors to a bright future in the art.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts; probably more than at any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. Indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincere handling of informed viewpoints.

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