"What you have been taught by listening to others’ words you will forget very quickly;
what you have learned with your whole body you will remember for the rest of your life."
- O-sensei Gichin Funakoshi in his book "Karate-Do, My Way of Life"
I always try to take a moment with new students or the parents of new students and point out that karate training is different. It's not a sport, it's not a fitness class, it's not a lot of things, it's kind of in a class by itself. For some people, that can create a little bit of a learning curve just getting used to class and figuring things out. Like bows. Like tying their belt. Like all the Osu!-ing! Even the way we teach technique is different, though not as different as it used to be.
Old school karate teachers didn't talk a lot. You might get a little grunt when you got something right, a rough rearrangement of your limbs when you had something wrong, the briefest of smiles when you nailed it. Students were expected to be quiet, observe, and emulate what their instructors were doing. I think that tendency was magnified by the language gap between teachers and students when Americans started studying, either as military personnel in Japan, Okinawa, and South Korea, or when Asian instructors came to the U.S. to teach. When the military people came back and opened schools, they taught like they were taught, without much talking, because they didn't understand much of what was said in their classes overseas. Likewise, Asians teaching in the U.S. didn't speak a lot of English and would depend on their students' ability to watch and copy more than offering detailed instructions for their students to follow.
We've come a long way from the silent approach. We try to describe technique, answer questions, explain application these days. It's a much friendlier approach, a more pedagogically sound approach, and it's a much more approachable approach. And yet, one of the things I say to students who are learning how to teach more often than anything else is "stop talking so much."
Part of it goes back to that quote up at the top--the things you experience and learn with your body will stick with you. The things you are told, not so much. Listening to someone describe how to correctly throw a side kick doesn't burn any new neural connections, it's basically information floating around in your brain. Throwing side kick after side kick makes the connections. The more you do a proper side kick, the stronger those connections become and the faster you're able to kick. We use words to guide people to that proper side kick, but it's the repetition that locks the technique in.
But that's only part of it. Fewer words put more of the onus on the student, not just to do the reps and put the time in, but to observe. Part of karate is learning how to see. At the same time, you are learning to see how to do a proper side kick, your brain is also learning to recognize what a side kick looks like when it's coming at you, which means when someone is kicking you, you're able to identify the kick and use the right block to avoid getting hit with it. Learning to see helps you understand spacing, angles, movement, all these things that are vital to karate training.
But that's still only part of it. Learning to see is at the heart of the discipline that animates karate as a "do," as in Sei-do, or a way of life to follow. Learning to see teaches you patience and persistence. It takes you through that frustrating cycle of trial and error. Learning to see helps you understand how to read a room and it gives you ample experience with fighting your demons of frustration, ego, anger, and impatience.
Allowing students the time and the space to learn by seeing is the most difficult step for a teacher to take. When done correctly, the teacher has to sit and wait patiently for the student to see, occasionally dropping a hint or a correction at the time when the student is ready to accept it. It's so much easier to try to talk someone through to knowledge than to allow them the time to find knowledge with a little bit of guidance. But, when done correctly, encouraging students to see and being patient enough to let them see, means giving students the chance to learn something forever.
We'll always be a blend of these two approaches, of teaching with our words and by allowing students to see. Our culture doesn't prepare people to walk into a dojo and instantly start learning by seeing and as teachers we're not always built for the less is more approach. But once you or your child start to get it, you'll find that learning by seeing is an approach to life as much as it is an approach to learning karate.