APPENDIX: Learning Styles & Martial Arts

One of the good folks on Reddit brought some issues to my attention. Although I hinted at it in the article proper, I was conflating a technical definition of “learning” with the way the word “learning” is being used in the phrase “learning styles.” Learning styles don’t actually facilitate learning; at least, not directly. Learning styles should only be thought of as preferred modes of processing information. I decided to make this a separate post rather than make the already long learning styles post even longer. Below, I reproduce my interaction with this Redditor, including the quotations that I am interacting with.

Learning occurs in the cognitive domain: People learn by “doing”, and learning occurs by making connections between new and old information. The instructional approach should match what’s being taught.

Yes, I agree. Learning modalities were pretty de-emphasized in my coursework in comparison to the way laypeople speak of them. In some place, they were outright disregarded, which is why I noted towards the beginning of the article that motivation can override any preferences for how you take in information. And that your preferences change from environment to environment. Toward the end of the article, I wrote that no matter how you prefer to take in information, (1) you need elements of most of the modalities anyway, and (2) you HAVE to physically practice. Your “learning style” is actually just the way you prefer to take in information, and information only lets you have access to the learning process — it doesn’t cause it. Likewise, learning the visual and verbal details of a technique only lets you have access to preliminary information on how to perform a technique. The real learning is the physical practice, and, in my thinking, more properly in the context of application.

For the author’s example of math: All students learn math best by being given instructions, then practicing solving problems. His example of some students learning math through “songs” is just silly. The only application I can think of where songs, rhyming, or poems might help is memorizing formulas or theories, but memorizing something is not the same as application. (Ie. memorizing a formula isn’t the same as knowing how to use it.)

True, which is why I made this article long — I have no interest in exploring or adding on this concept because instructional design is so much more important. I think the learning styles idea takes liberty with the word “learning” by conflating “learning” with “consuming and memorizing information.” And it is my fault that I did not consider this equivocal use of the word learning. (In my defense, the article is very long and potentially just an exercise in information overload.)

I think even if learning styles have a tenuous relationship with actual learning, it is still true that we have preferences for how we consume or memorize information. But that is just memorizing facts, as you said. That is more in line with study skills than learning. Learning requires you to understand and apply those facts — totally agreed. Thank you for pointing this out. I will add an appendix to the article noting these points, and make clear some of the caveats I did not include in the article.

That said, my mathematics illustration was a bit sloppy. I was taking liberties with the word “learn,” but what I’m really talking about is the way you prefer to consume information for the purpose of learning. I prefer almost invariably to read instructions; but several classmates of mine prefer to be told. But like I noted later in the article, these modal preferences cannot be thought of in isolation from one another. For verbal math instructions, there still have to be written or drawn illustrations. And for martial arts, there always has to be visual, verbal, and kinesthetic (doing) element to accessing and learning a new technique.

nobody can learn a technique just by being told. They also can’t learn by just by watching. It’s a combination of auditory, visual, and physical. But the most important part is the physical practice.

Absolutely, dude. Recall that I said this outright in the article. I also noted that every learning style actually involved elements of other styles, and that they cannot be thought of as existing in isolation from each other.

When taught a new technique, I know in my head how to do it, but until I practice over and over to develop the “muscle memory”, I haven’t really learned it. And this holds true for all students.

I would say that just as you cannot consider memorizing facts to be learning without the ability to accurately apply and relate those facts, so also it is with learning a technique vs being able to apply it in a specific context (for me, everything is oriented toward sparring). This isn’t a perfect analogy, but I would liken your isolated ability to perform a movement pattern more to the memorization of facts, and your ability to apply that movement pattern appropriately (in this case, sparring) would be the actual learning.

In my thinking, to say “I have learned a side kick” without an ability to apply it is not technically learning. “Learned” here is just using the word in a colloquial way, as in, “I have memorized this information,” or “I am aware of this now.” Essentially, the equivocal way I was using it in the article. Again, in some respect, you have technically learned something (which is why my analogy is not perfect); but insofar as martial arts is not dance (we don’t just kick in isolation: there’s an opponent involved), I cannot think of learning a side kick and learning to apply that side kick in total isolation from each other. So it is difficult for me to say you have truly learned the side kick if you have not also gained some competence in applying it to sparring.

So, all that said, why did I write about learning styles? I think even though it cannot be said that learning styles directly facilitate actual, technical learning, it is important to know that people prefer to consume information in certain ways. It is NOT true they can’t consume information other ways; but knowing someone is more auditory than visual (in the context of motor learning, of course) can inform the way you use coaching cues and which cues that you use.

This article is also going to serve as the backdrop of a series of articles on adaptive or special needs learning. Learners without exceptionalities just need good instructional design; the modalities involved don’t have to be especially tailored for them to be able to learn so long as they want to learn. However, with students with exceptional conditions, they sometimes do not respond to information that comes through certain senses. Again, we’re not directly talking about learning, but if we remove the nomenclature “learning styles” and think of the concept purely as preferred modes of consuming information, it can be important for instructors to be aware of.

Understanding Learning Styles for Teaching Martial Arts

What is a Learning Style?

Most martial arts instructors should be aware of learning styles. In education research, we also call these styles learning modalities. A learning modality is the perceptual mode through which one accesses and processes new information. In other words, a learning modality is the sense (sight, smell, touch, hearing, etc.) you use to learn new information (or learn to perform a new skill). The main four styles, or modalities, are visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. This is sometimes cut down to the first three modalities because the difference between kinesthetic and tactile is missed (and in reality there seems to be a lot of overlap).

How Do Learning Styles Work?

Different people generally learn better by processing new information through one or more of the above modalities. The conventional wisdom is that preferring a certain style (modality) means you cannot effectively learn through the other styles. For the most part, this is untrue. Humans are dominant certain modalities when they learn, but they can efficiently learn something through other modalities if they are motivated enough to learn it. Moreover, our preferred modalities can shift from one activity or environment to another. I might better learn arithmetic through the use of manipulatives (tactile), but otherwise gravitate more towards listening to verbal instructions or singing songs (auditory) as opposed to reading them on paper (visual).

If you would have looked only at how I prefer to learn mathematics, you would have labeled me a tactile learner. Meaning it would be logical for you to assume that I prefer to learn through tactile means in other areas, such as reading, history, or science. However, it is extremely important to understand that human learning does not always follow logic. In this scenario, I am actually an overall auditory learner.

How Learning Styles Apply to Motor Learning

As an M.Ed. graduate, I am most familiar with the academic classification of learning modalities, which I partially outlined above. Motor Learning is a newer domain of research for me. Most of my coursework in graduate school had to do with traditional forms of education in subjects like language arts and mathematics (my cognate was in English, so I spent the most time exploring composition, reading, and linguistics). There is a lot of conceptual and terminological overlap between mainline education research and motor learning research, but it is worth understanding where motor learning differs because it is more relevant to our work as martial arts instructors. 

Differences Between Traditional Education and Motor Learning

According to Motor Learning & Control for Practitioners (Coker2009), the classification of learning styles, when it comes to motor learning, appears to be slightly different than in regular education. In this case, it includes the standard education modalities from above, as well as some styles that are more about procedure (the design of a learning activity) than sense perception.

Styles Classification in Motor Learning

Coker suggests that all styles of motor learners fall on a broader spectrum between Global and Analytical learning profilesGlobal learners “learn more easily when they are first presented with the big picture and then asked to concentrate on the details;” and analytical learners “prefer to have new information presented in a step-by-step, sequential manner that builds toward the main concept” (Motor Learning, 2009, p. 138).

Coker asserts that personal learning styles are actually made up of several factors. One’s preferred perceptual mode (here synonymous in function with my definition of learning modality) is perhaps the defining factor. (To Coker, learning styles include preferred modes, but are more than just those modes. But for our purposes in this article, we will use style and mode interchangeably.) She outlines four modes. I quote at length (pp. 138-139):

  1. Visual learners understand new concepts better when explanations include visual cue words such as “watch,” “see,” and “look.” Demonstrations, videotapes, pictures, models, and the use of mirrors are all effective methods for accommodating learners whose modal strength is visual.
  2. Kinesthetic learners strive to understand what the desired movement feels like. Once they achieve this understanding, they use it as a frame of reference with which to compare future attempts. Instructional strategies such as simulations, guidance, repeated practice, and incorporating cue words such as “feel,” “move,” and “experience” all assist the kinesthetic learner to develop a sense of what the correct movement feels like.
  3. Analytical learners approach the desired movement in a problem-solving fashion. Scientific concepts and principles and cue words such as “analyze,” investigate,” and “why” assist the analytical learner in solving the movement problem.
  4. Auditory learners prefer sounds and rhythms. Cue words such as “hear,” “pace,” and “tempo” will assist auditory learners in learning the movement pattern.

Coker’s classification brings to light a couple interesting facts about how learning styles operate in the context of motor learning. First, every mode has an auditory element (coaching cues). The lines between the modes blur more than in the conventional education classification. Second, all of the modes include a kinesthetic (movement) element. It does not matter if you are a kinesthetic learner: at some point you have to practice the movement to improve at it. In other words, your preferred learning style helps you to more easily access direct movement practice by presenting the instructions for that practice in a way that you can more easily digest and process them.

Catering to Learning Styles to Improve Martial Arts Instruction

Diagnosing Problems of Practice (Uninformed Teaching)

I listen to a lot of martial arts podcasts. Usually a big-wig instructor appears on the show to tell us about learning styles, and how to structure our instruction so as to cater to all the styles. Without exception, only three of the four traditional learning modalities are cited, and there is no mention of the motor learning versions. These instructors speak as if these learning styles are immutable, in a sense: that a student must learn through one mode or else they will be unreasonably hampered in learning it. These instructors suggest teaching in a show-tell-do format to hit all three styles.

Like I said before, this isn’t always true. I find this view of learning styles to be too isolated and simplistic. Your normal learning preference(s) might not apply to the martial arts learning environment. And as we established above, even non-auditory and non-kinesthetic learners still need both auditory coaching cues and actual movement practice in the context of learning through their preferred modes. The styles have dominant features, but they cannot exist in isolation from one another.

Applying the simplistic view of learning styles presented by the aforementioned instructors will very likely improve the the teaching quality of many instructors. Show-tell-do seems to me to be a solid approach to introducing new movement patterns or techniques. The problem is that it can also lead you into errors of practice.

The Danger in a Simplistic View of Learning Styles

Consider Sally Soodo. Sally is an auditory learner — she takes verbal instructions well, and has a natural propensity for following beats and tempos. She often turns the cadence of her poomsae/kata/forms into a silly song to help her remember he moves and keep the proper tempo.

Pretend for a second the extent of your understanding of auditory learners is that they learn better through hearing. You’ve never looked into any formal research on auditory learning, or any of the other learning styles. You will probably think little of the fact she likes to sing, and focus on the fact she responds well to verbal instruction. This is the easiest for you, because it fits into your show-tell-do procedure for introducing a new move.

Because you think Sally Soodo learns better from verbal instructions, you might be inclined to introduce new moves by speaking longer, and explaining in greater detail. However, unbeknownst to you, coaching science has discovered that short, precise cues produce the best results, regardless of what learning style you have (Motor Learning, p. 163). But you don’t know this. So from your perspective, her progress seems to slow down for no apparent reason. She appears more visibly confused, frustrated, and increasingly demotivated…and you do not understand why.

How Does a Solid Understanding of Learning Styles Improve My Teaching Ability?

Rewind.

How would this look if you had a more formal understanding of learning styles? You would know immediately that it is the quality of your coaching cues that needs to be tailored, not the length or intricacy of them. Auditory learners understand things more easily through sound, but for the most part they cannot close their eyes and learn the movement purely through verbal instruction. Therefore, they still require a visual component, and do not require more intricate verbal instruction (indeed, a contrived explanation might leave them just as confused as a non-auditory learner). So you would realize that you actually need to use auditory-focused cues — as alluded to in the Coker quotation above — and to design sound-based (song or rhythm) movement exercises. To better teach Sally and other auditory learners, that is.

Which means you would not have failed to note her affinity for songs and rhythms, either. You would understand that her bend towards these auditory tools is a gift. Therefore, you would control the rhythms and songs by producing them for her (to make sure they are accurate) or by collaborating with her to compose a piece (the best of both worlds).

In the end, a deeper understanding of learning styles has increased your teaching ability in ways that far exceed the simplistic view.

Concluding Thoughts: What Now?

Learning styles are the modes through which you prefer to process and learn new information. Most people are familiar with a simplistic and incomplete view of learning styles that, while helpful, can lead you to errors in teaching practice. A fuller understanding of learning styles, however, can lead you to avoid those pitfalls and level-up your teaching ability exponentially.

I recommend sticking to the show-tell-do model for introducing new movements. As someone who (hopefully) has gained deeper understanding of learning styles from this article, the difference here is that you will tailor the cues that you use in the tell phase, and apply the principles of motor learning styles to how you design drills for the do phase. This is intensely relevant to private instruction. For group instruction, try to have a good variety of cues and types of exercises (problem-solving based, rhythm-based, etc.). You can’t cater perfectly to everyone’s learning styles in group class, but you can make it as easy as possible to the broadest range of learners.

Also, please read the Appendix to this article. I consider some issues with calling these modalities “learning” styles.


Works Cited

Coker, Cheryl A. (2009). Motor learning & control for practitioners. Scottsdale, AZ: Holcomb Hathaway, Publishers.

Teaching Martial Arts: 2 Myths That NEED TO DIE

I took a long break from this blog. Before, it was known as TKD Fighter. Now, I’m returning to it, re-calibrating its purpose, and relaunching it as Martial Methodology.  I’m focusing on the science of teaching and learning as it relates to martial arts — specifically Taekwondo, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and self-defense.

Where have I been, you ask? I was finishing up a Master of Education in Teaching & Learning, working full-time security, and trying to weasel my way back into the martial arts instructor game. Now that I’ve graduated, and I’ve slid my way back into teaching again, I’d like to share my research and hash some things out with the broader martial arts community…and Taekwondo guys are square in my sights. 

The Problem with Martial Arts Instructors (and Instructing)

Martial arts instruction is fraught with tradition. Most instructors seem to teach as they were taught, without making any other considerations. Magical thinking and confirmation bias prevail, and objective methods of testing and developing newer and better teaching strategies are shucked in favor of the old, “reliable” methods.

The problem is, science has left these people in the dust. And most of them don’t even seem to know it. Motor learning, control, and educational research have shown that a lot of traditional ideas about teaching martial arts  — or, really, anything — are at best bunk, and at worst counterproductive.

My beloved Taekwondo is still classified quite firmly as a traditional martial art…and traditional martial artists are the worst perpetrators this kind of head-in-sand resistance to better, more scientific teaching (and training) methodology.

With my newfound credentials and knowledge-base, I’m going to be tackling these issues head on. I want to do my part to destroy this magical thinking, and promote evidence-based practice among martial arts instructors. That’s why I’ve busted 2 huge myths pervasive in martial arts curriculum and instruction design:

2 Instructional Myths that NEED TO DIE!

Myth #1: General Transfer

Transfer is an extremely sticky subject. Just because you can dream up a million ways your drills or exercises could benefit your students, doesn’t mean that’s actually what’s happening. The way you, as an instructor, can logically see things coming together, is not actually how a student will learn or grasp a concept.

For Taekwondo people, that means that practicing formal poomsae will not transfer any skill or ability to the application drills that often accompany them. When you practice an applied movement from poomsae, you are functionally learning a whole new movement pattern.

Specificity is the name of the game here. If you want positive skill transfer from an exercise or drill, that drill needs to mimic your ideal application mode (e.g., sparring or self-defense) as closely as possible. The more general or abstract your practice is, the less likely your students will leave with any positive skill transfer from it. 

Myth #2: You Need More Repetition 

You do need to learn a technique or movement pattern in a compliant situation first. Yes. But that is just level 1. Once you’ve learned the movement, it gains you nothing on a functional level (i.e. application to sparring or self-defense) to spend most of your time perfecting that movement in isolation. You must start applying that movement, tactic, or strategy against progressive, active, unscripted resistance from an opponent. Simply drilling that move more against compliant or scripted opponents will gain you nothing. (It just makes you feel like you’re doing something.)

What’s Next? Concluding Thoughts

These myths are so pervasive that even instructors with good teaching methods sometimes fall prey to them, myself included. It’s important to know that what was taught to us, or what feels right, or what seems to produce results can be very deceiving. We need objective, scientific measures to test these methods, see which parts, if any of them, have merit, and to guide us in developing methods that do help us teach and learn martial arts better.

In the near future, I will be outlining, in detail (sources cited), what training methodology my research and practice has led me to. I believe, based on the evidence, that this training methodology — called aliveness by martial artists, and randomized practice by sports science practitioners — is not just a better way to teach and learn, but an entire epistemology by which to verify if your training will work in both sport and self-defense contexts.