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Thoughts on Teaching: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance, Part 1

I'm a believer in being well--prepared. Basically, this accounts to just about any endeavor. Still, recently I realized (once more) how important it is for a trainer to actively and properly prepare for a class.

Let me start with some introductory words first. Living with a woman that used to work as a PE and math teacher, I know that quite a lot of teachers frown upon the requirement of writing out detailed plans for their classes, seeing it as an nuisance rather than an aid. I strongly believe that this point of view is a direct result of an ongoing unification and formalization process.

Don't get me wrong on this one, though. Having an academic background in computer sciences, I fully appreciate the value of standardization and formalization. However, those things should have a benefit, not be a burden. Pre-printed spreadsheets to record topics and methods for upcoming classes are a great things, as they take work away from the teacher. Still, they also lend themselves to overkill.

Consider the case of a primary school teacher preparing for a week when children learn to read. Looking for pedagogical and interdisciplinary benefits of teaching kids the alphabet isn't necessary; it's just a fundamental skill they need to master. Still, if the designer of the aforementioned spreadsheets happens to come from a very theoretical pedagogics background, this might be a required field teacher have to fill in... which is overkill and frustrates the teacher.

The point I'm trying to make is that class preparation  should be functional and practical. That means that
  1. a teacher should be able to actually hold that class he prepared. This calls for a certain margin of flexibility. Overly-detailed and rigid plans never work out. Having a guideline with must-have, good-to-have and luxury aspects allows the teacher to make adaptations on the fly. Of course, structure (i.e., what is taught when and why) is just as important  as the selection of exercises - but that's a different story. Might as well post something on this one at a later time...
  2. the preparation should actually aid the teacher in holding a higher quality class. This means that it shouldn't be frustrating or overly complicated to do, as this will impair motivation - a crucial factor when it comes to class quality, IMHO.
Let us now make the transition into the realm of martial arts training...

Strategical considerations
At the [BSPA Linz], one of Austria's state-sponsored institutes for trainer education, there is a distinction made between instructors and trainers.

Now the way I see it (after having completed an instructor course and being right in the process of earning my trainer degree), the instructor is someone who can hold a class or do floor work in gyms. You know, that's the guy who has a working knowledge of anatomy, physiology and biomechanics, as as well as a big repertoire of exercises to draw from. His job is to correct athletes when they perform an exercise improperly or just do something plain stupid.

The trainer, on the other hand, is the guy who sets the course. He does all the testing and evaluation, makes plans and sets goals for his athletes. Then, it might or might not come down to instructors to actually implement those plans and goals with the athletes.

Now in the strength and conditioning world, things like periodization and exercise programming are common knowledge. In many martial arts classes (not referring to high-level competitive teams here), though, I find those aspects seriously lacking. Most of the Dojos/Gyms I know will each following one of two strategies:
  1. Just go ahead and teach whatever comes to their mind on a given day. This is the worst style of teaching, IMHO. For me, excuses like "I need to adapt to the class, that's why I don't make plans" just don't count.
  2. Slightly better is the concept of "teach everyone what his/her belt grade calls for". In essence, this is learning for the exam. While it's more structured than the first approach, I believe it offers too little adaptability. Also, the basics might be left out unintentionally if they're not re-tested at every exam.
A more sophisticated way of preparing classes might be more time-consuming, but Gray Cook had a wonderful thing to say about proper preparation in his [start with why] article:

"John Wooden was the basketball coach at UCLA, and many refer to him as one of the winning-est coaches of all time... Here’s what he did. He created skill drills on the basketball court that put a spotlight on each of the very important movement parameters involved in a complete basketball game—a defending drill, a rebounding drill, a shooting drill, a stalling-the-clock time drill and others.... The beauty of this is that those 40 minutes didn’t just all happen by accident... As accomplished as he was, John Wooden often spent two hours designing a 40-minute practice. That’s very, very important. He made a plan."
--Gray Cook 

Before trying to formalize a workflow for class preparation, the next post will take a look at the goals and benefits of such a venture from two points of view: the istructor's/trainer's as well as the student's.

So long,

take care


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