Learning vs Knowing

If I could give one single bit of teaching advice to everyone, it would be:

Let your students do it wrong more often.

I know it’s hard. You want to help them. You want them to know what you know. You want them to do things right so that they can get more “good” reps in. I still struggle with this, and letting students be wrong has been a cornerstone of my teaching approach for years.

But here’s the thing: learning things is a distinct process from knowing them. Learning is a skillset that your students need to develop in order to be able to grow into mastery of their arts. Every time you shortcut the learning process in order to help them know a thing faster, you’re robbing them of an opportunity to become better learners. And the learning is the point.

In the chaos of a fight, knowing the right things is helpful, but it has limits. They’ll be fine for so long as they encounter things they’ve seen before. But it takes a long time to develop a sufficiently large inventory of knowledge to make it through even a relatively straightforward fight. Beginners are at an enormous disadvantage due to their limited exposure, and that can persist for a while. Even very experienced fighters are vulnerable to novelty, and keeping up with the knowledge required to recognize all the things they can come up in a fight is extremely resource-intensive.

What is far more efficient and helpful is understanding and the ability to adapt. If students know how and why a technique works, they can make it work even under conditions that they haven’t encountered before. If they’re used to problem-solving under pressure, they can use even a very limited pool of known techniques to fight effectively. A creative beginner isn’t going to be as consistently effective as an experienced fighter simply because they’ve had less problem-solving practice, but they’ll have a hell of a leg up on another beginner who only knows how to recall and execute memorized techniques, and they may pull off some surprising successes against much more seasoned opponents.

And those are skills that are integral to learning.

Our students come to understand how a technique works by finding its limits. Where does it fail? Why? They discover its strengths in contrast with its weaknesses, and by trying other techniques in its place and seeing how they work less well. The more they get things wrong, the better they understand what “right” means.

Problem-solving is a natural extension of this process. Martial arts is fundamentally goal- and outcome-oriented. Our students need their strikes to hit; their defenses to work; and the fight to end in success for them and defeat for their opponent. There are many ways to reach those goals, and they need to be able to navigate them on the fly while responding to whatever their opponent does.

You can think of every exchange in a fight as a question with a number of possible answers. Knowing a right answer is nice, but knowing how to get it is far more important. More important still is knowing how to work towards a good answer without knowing what it is yet (i.e. engaging in a problem-solving process that you can trust to get you to a better position as long as you keep going). A fundamental component of this is being able to make mistakes — or at least imperfect choices — recognize that they’ve happened, and correct for them.

When we feed our students an answer before they’ve completed this process, we deprive them of the most important chunk of their learning. They don’t get to see the problem-solving through. They don’t get to understand why that answer is right, and another is wrong. Even if you explain it to them, they won’t internalize that knowledge the same way that they would if they’d figured it out for themselves.

We end up with the martial arts equivalent of a math student who can tell us that the “x” in “2x² + 7x = -3” is “-3”, but doesn’t know that it can also be “-½”, and can’t generate their own solution if the formula changes slightly. They know a solution to one specific quadratic equation, but haven’t learned how to solve quadratic equations in general, and are going to struggle enormously on an exam.

What’s worse, correcting students early in their learning process conditions them to not really try. If they know that you’re going to give them the right answer anyway, there’s no incentive for them to solve the problem themselves. There might even be a disincentive if they find being corrected upsetting or embarrassing. Which means that they won’t just be slow to develop independent problem-solving skills, but might actively avoid developing them.

Frequent correction also tunes their problem-solving process towards a new external factor: the instructor’s approval. Rather than trying to find a solution that works for them in the moment (especially if there are multiple possible solutions), your students will try to intuit which solution you are looking for and narrow their exploration accordingly. They’ll avoid making mistakes and stop trying to be creative — only right.

And all of these limitations on their learning skills will be functional adaptations to their classroom environment. They’ll feel efficient because they don’t waste time on “bad” solutions that have to be discarded anyway. When they guess right, they’ll be rewarded with praise. And they’ll always feel secure and safe on their training path, because you’ll be there to guide them and redirect them if they stray.

Which is great until it comes time to spar. Or compete. Or fight in a self-defence context. And all of a sudden those adaptations become liabilities.

Because they never learned how to work through a mistake or imperfect position on their own. And they’re prioritizing an additional factor in their decision-making (instructor approval) that has nothing to do with the fight itself, and will slow down their thinking unnecessarily. And that external guidance and correction they’ve come to rely on? It’s not there, and they haven’t developed independent thinking skills in its place, or learned to trust their own answers.

The best fighters I know are all amazing learners. They vary wildly in terms of body shape and size, conditioning, preferred style, and even in the size of their knowledge inventory. But they all see fighting as an opportunity to experiment, play, and solve neat problems, and they’re not afraid to fuck up or look silly in the process. They’re motivated by challenge and the pleasure of figuring shit out and moving well while they do it, and they don’t particularly care if anyone else thinks they did something wrong or right. They welcome the opportunity to fight folks from other styles, not to prove that their system is the best system, but because it’s a chance to learn new things. And they kick ass.

So let your students struggle. And fail. And try solutions that you think are inefficient, or ugly, or just plain wrong. Because that’s how they’ll become better learners and better fighters.

When you feel the urge to step in and correct, let them try a few more reps. I find that if I give a student 5 more tries before I say anything, they’ll correct the issue themselves far more often than not.

When they bring you a “what if” or a solution that feels not quite right, use it as an opportunity to find the edges of the technique or strategy you’re trying to teach, and deepen everyone’s understanding of it in the process.

Build space for independent problem-solving, and not just rote drilling, into every class. See if your students can puzzle their own way through body mechanics, tactics, and core techniques. Reward them not for finding the right answer, but for committing to a good process. For having the courage to try things that might not work. Give them a taste for learning, and not just knowing.

And watch them fucking blossom.

A group of students work through their own interpretation of a historical swordplay technique.
A group of students work through their own interpretation of a historical swordplay technique.