Periscope Depth

like a star that can’t wait for the night

This past Saturday, I audited the oral exam for the newest class of jiu-jitsu instructors. It took just over four hours to get through twenty students. Each student got two five-minute segments: one to teach a technique of their choosing, one to teach a technique that our sensei assigned. As an instructor, I kept score on every student, though my score won’t be the deciding factor.

The certification exam is graded on a 20-point scale, where 17 is passing. Of those 20 points, only 2 come from teaching the correct technique. Everything else is about presentation. Can you capture a crowd’s attention? Can you break a complex process down into manageable chunks? Can you find metaphors or good images to help a student remember the steps they need? Do you speak loud enough to be heard? Do you remind the students of what you’ve told them initially?

(As a credit to the energy of the current class: the test did not feel four hours long)

I bring this up in reference to my post last month about Casey Anthony. I wrote about how hard it is to get people to focus on something long enough to learn about it.

But the first thing that came to mind was: damn, this is why kids keep failing classes! It’s the rare nerd who is genuinely curious about the cotton gin, Silas Marner or the quadratic formula. Some kids have parents at home who’ll supplement the rewards/punishments treadmill, so that helps. But the vast majority of kids show up at school not just unknowing, but uncaring, of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I’ve spent the past six months living a productive life full of competing interests, wonderful friends and work that requires a lot of concentration. To breach those defenses to plant the seed of Casey Anthony awareness in my mind has taken (A) millions of dollars of media coverage and (B) the uncoordinated effort of dozens of unconnected friends. Not just deliberate effort, but order emergent from chaos. My bare minimum knowledge is a result of both immense planning and unplannable mass action.

Even that hasn’t inspired me to learn more. But if you asked me to write an essay about her, I could get a C-minus.

If it took that much effort just to instill awareness in me, what chance does Eli Whitney have?

Educating someone is hard. Getting someone to learn something – not just sit there and hear it, but take it in, turn it into a concept, develop it into their own – is hard. You can’t teach a skill by mastering it (though it helps) and you can’t do it by yelling louder or making them repeat it more. You have to find a way to make the student care, engage them in a way they recognize and then encourage them to keep practicing until they become good.

This goes just as much for activities outside of formal schooling. No one has to take jiu-jitsu (except 15th-century samurai). Everyone who shows up to a class paid money to learn a martial style. But that doesn’t mean everyone who shows up is engaged at the same level. Some people are afraid of their own bodies and take halting steps. Some people are gung ho, with their own preconceptions of how strong they are. Some folks had a bad day at work, or spend a lot of time in their own head trying to replay what they just heard. And some people just aren’t meant for jiu-jitsu, but they haven’t figured it out yet.

The goal of an instructor should be to present each new process in a commanding, exciting way that will engage as many students as possible. This takes months to learn and years to master. I’ve sat through two oral instructor exams now – three if you include the one I took. I’ve been teaching on and off for seven years, more regularly in the last few. The first students I taught are on the verge of becoming instructors themselves. And I still have a lot to learn.

To add to the growing list of things I’ve learned from jiu-jitsu, competency takes effort. When we’re teaching someone a new skill, we often rush through the material and hope they’ll figure out the rest on their own. “I’m available if you have any questions,” we say, and we mean it. But teaching someone a new skill means teaching them how to think a new way. We’re literally folding new wrinkles in a person’s brain. Even the most committed student can’t reinvent the wheel. It’s our job as teachers to find students who want to be here and to meet them halfway.

(Incidentally, this is why I fear for the future of public education. For one thing, mustering the energy to teach a dozen students tires me out. Genuinely teaching two hundred – not just getting them to spit back a textbook, but making them think about the material – seems impossible. And while I believe that it’s possible, I don’t believe that two million teachers can do it consistently. And most of the public school teachers I know have told me that you have to work with the kids you can reach. Not everyone is equally gifted.)