conceptual vs discrete learning

I think this is the first I had ever seen Cikgu Maul Mornie’s Youtube channel, stumbling across his Silat Suffian Bela Diri system as I was trying to learn more about silat. At the time, kali was still quite new to me, and I had learned some of the basic angles, blocks and disarms. I watched this video over and over again more times than I remember, thinking about how I wanted to learn all the techniques that Maul demonstrates in the video.

Let’s fast forward through time a little bit. I was teaching a basic kali at the Jeet Kune Do club at my university and tried to incorporate some free flow counter-for-counter games at the end of every class – not unlike rolling in a BJJ class. As I was playing with my student, I disarmed him and took him down, and when he got up, I could see the same look on his face that I had watching Maul’s video years ago. He asked if I could show him the disarm again so he could learn it.

It took me a second to realize I had no idea what I had done to disarm him. We tried to replay the scenario until I was able to find it again. I’m positive anybody who has done enough playing, sparring, or rolling has had a similar experience: “whoa! That was really cool! What just happened?” One part of the equation is the kind of autopilot that guides martial artists through fights, athletes through competition and performers through performances. However, I think that was the first time I really decided to think more seriously about how to both learn and teach concepts in martial arts over just techniques.

I think there is often a common misconception that learning any style or system of martial arts involves acquiring an encyclopedic knowledge of attacks, counters, counter-counters, and so forth. Upon learning that I train in martial arts, people often ask what my response would be to a specific attack: a jab, a choke, a knife to the throat. And it’s true, every system has some solution to these problems, and these techniques are what are taught to students.

There is a famous saying in Buddhism that more or less says not to mistake the finger pointing towards the moon for the moon itself. I think learning technique for technique’s sake is a little like this. When I disarmed my student, I hadn’t flipped through my dictionary of moves and chosen the appropriate technique – anybody who has sparred knows this is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, even at half speed. Rather, I had effectively derived a technique using the concepts and principles I had learned through countless repetitions of techniques.

I started thinking about pedagogy a little differently after that, also being in grad school and beginning to teach classes. Ultimately, what do we want our students to take away from any lesson, martial or academic? The ability to identify and solve novel problems in a relatively quick and efficient way; rather than walking out of class with a notebook of neat, but disparate facts and solutions. And it is concepts that get us all to that point, though it is mediated through specific examples/techniques.

The analogy I most often use when talking about this is to think back to when you had to learn your multiplication tables. At first, you simply have to memorize that 5*3 = 15, 8*6 = 48, and so on; there’s not really an easy around that level of bootstrapping the system. However, no rational person has memorized the fact that 344*13 = 4472, yet we can all arrive at the solution one way or another based on having learned the principle behind multiplication. It is that principle where the real power lies: our ability to abstract over specific given examples and apply those concepts to any new problem we encounter. There may be different tricks and methods to tackle these problems, some better at some tasks than others, but ideally they all get us to some solution.

Essentially, this lies at the heart of linguistics, or likely any other field. In every class, no matter whether it’s phonetics, morphology, syntax, semantics, a student is presented with copious examples of certain phenomena from all over the globe: Basque has ergative-absolutive alignment; Irish has traces of cyclic complementizer movement; Vietnamese tones have creaky voice cues; Amharic allows monster operators for personal pronouns in reported speech; and so on. As a list, these facts are interesting, but a bit meaningless. It’s only when we’re able to have some theory of the concepts that underlie them, motivate them, and allow us to make some predictions about what we expect to see that things begin to get interesting. A language’s default word order being VSO (verb subject object) doesn’t seem interesting – why not that word order? – unless one has a theory in which verbs and objects should be more strongly associated with each other than the subject, making the subject’s placement between them anomalous.

What this gets at is two things: (i) using specific examples as a means of learning and creating concepts; and (ii) utilizing new specific examples to see what how your concepts hold up. This is essentially the backbone of theoretical linguistics, and the scientific method. Look at the empirical data; if there is a pattern, create a theory that accounts for those patterns. Then look at new related data, and see if your theory accounts for that too.

As much as teaching martial arts informed my academic teaching, this method of constructing a scientific theory informed my martial arts teaching and learning – pedagogy is pedagogy, and I often joked that my teaching statement would probably reference martial arts somehow. I think it’s easy these days, within American culture, to be frustrated by learning technique after technique in martial arts classes. Especially with the rise of the UFC and mixed martial arts combat sports, there is often the thought that it’s better to spar a lot and throw out those more complex techniques one often sees in demos: “That would never work in real life!” And to some extent, one could certainly get by this way.

But I think this misses the central goal of learning technique: distilling the concepts underlying them. After all, professional football players have all sorts of intricate training drills that one could also claim would never work as is in a real game; musicians often practice scales a mind-numbing number of times. I don’t think anybody is claiming that the best way to be a football player is to just play games and scrimmages, and the best way to be a musician is to forget the scales and just play shows. Certainly these things are in some way integral to learning these skills as a hole, and provide the means of determining how well the concepts you have learned help you adapt to new situations. But often it is the techniques that are the means of getting us to those concepts as well.

This is the mentality I walk into virtually any classroom with now, and in retrospect, have probably always done. I remember taking physics in high school, and realizing that because I had learned calculus, didn’t need to memorize all those kinematics formulas; they could be derived from just taking the derivative or integral of another formula, which turned out to be an incredibly intuitive thing to do. People are often surprised when I say I usually don’t take notes in class, as I attempt to use that time instead to understand the concepts being taught, and hopefully derive whatever examples I need following that. It doesn’t always work, and I often forget the specific examples I neglected to write down, but on the whole, I think it has helped me grasp the overall point of certain lessons.

Teaching is not any different really, and any time I have put together lessons plans, it has been with the intent of conveying the underlying concepts through usage of a few good examples. It’s not easy; and I’m not the best teacher, but when it works, it’s a wonderful thing. To see a student have that “aha!” look in their eyes is confirmation that they have started looking away from the finger and have noticed the moon.

So what eyes do I have now when I rewatch Maul Mornie? I still have the look of utmost awe and respect for the power and efficiency of SSBD. But I see the video above less as a laundry list of things to learn, and more as a playful exploration of concepts manifesting themselves into beautiful execution.

The Last Goodbye: A Mission of Blood

(( Music ))

(( This precedes and also follows after the break @symphonyofdusk ‘s story located here.))

“ Goodbye, my heart.. Nai mornie alantie ore nuva man.” ((  May your heart be true when darkness falls ))

   No response was never spoken to where his ears could hear, never did a voice call from the darkness to call him to stay. The manor was quiet; no movement from cats nor servants, none of any living nor dead. Rev knew something was off, something seemed so different but yet the same, so close and yet so distant. The Hunter’s hand softly caressed the subtle edges of twin blades, looking on them fondly for but a moment before his things were packed, his bow slung across his shoulders.

   There was no whistle to call his four legged kin, Coromir was already waiting for him at the lower steps of stairs that lead from the soon to be derelict Manor.” Goodbye my pale Evenstar; I hope you find whatever you are looking for in this world, for even in death I seem unable to give it to you.” The words fell from his lips like blood; a iron like taste filling his maw til the color seemed to drain completely from his flesh. Rev could no longer stomach the taste, no longer stomach the goodbye’s that would pass throughout the wind and rattle the bones of long forgotten leaves hanging from corpse-laden tree.

   As they reached the Manor’s wrought iron gates, the pair glanced back toward a home that once brought joy for the last time. A groan-like wail came from the gates hinges, droning out as they were shut; locked tight in hopes the ghosts of the Manor would never escape. Rev glanced down to his wolf brother, furrowing his brows as the beast’s eyes stared up into his shimmering blue hues with no word given. The two traveled in silence; the craggy and broken cobblestone roads of the Ghostlands offer hard comfort with each step, comfort that they would find their way back to the Demon’s Home.

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