No Such Thing as Unstructured Space

The trick to creating freedom to experiment, learn from error, and develop self-reliance, is a structure that actively supports those behaviors.

I talk a lot about how you can’t teach students to be independent thinkers and active problem-solvers if your class structure is built around obedience and rigid adherence to pre-set patterns.

You also can’t do it with no structure at all.

“Unstructured” spaces like free sparring days and SCA-style open practices will always serve the interests of the dominant group and reinforce how they do things.

Humans love structure and will create it wherever it’s not already present. “Unstructured” really means “we’ll do whatever the dominant group wants, with no mechanisms to change that beyond social pressure”. And social pressure is always biased in favour of the dominant group.

Over time, every unstructured spaces will develop its own “correct” models of doing things that are just as rigid and restrictive as what you’d find in an explicitly hierarchical and over-structured space, but which are harder to change because they’re not officially acknowledged as existing. Everyone just kind of ends up doing things the same way, without being able to point to how or when it happened.

My workshops and classes often look like self-directed chaos. There’s lots of playtime where students experiment with solving a particular problem, group work where they develop their own interpretations of the material, and sharing time where we all excitedly burble about what we figured out and help each other address weaknesses or sticking points. Some days, I do little or no “teaching” in the sense of “imparting information and demonstrating technical skills”, and it looks pretty damn unstructured.

That’s a lie. There is a huge amount of social and pedagogical infrastructure underpinning that chaos.

All of our activities are carefully chosen and structured to facilitate skilled problem-solving, model how it’s done, reinforce good habits, and build students’ trust in their own knowledge and abilities so that they can rely on them in the field. The teacher’s role becomes that of guide and facilitator, and often fades into the background of what’s happening, but it’s no less active.

It’s not magic, and learning doesn’t happen by accident. The structures you build, or that you allow to take over, will determine how your students learn. They’ll determine who thrives, and who struggles. They’ll shape the makeup of your senior ranks and your leadership.

Make sure you know what the structure of your training is. There’s always something there, even if you didn’t build it on purpose. Does it serve your goals? Does it serve your community? If not, change it.

Note 1: Structure Isn’t Just Hierarchy and Spreadsheets

“Structure” can mean a lot of different things. When we talk about structure in martial arts, people’s minds often jump to an orderly room of students doing rigid drills while an instructor at the front yells at them. Or to elaborate testing regimens and rank hierarchies. You can have structure without any of these things (my classes include exactly none of them). You can even have structure without a curriculum.

Structure is just having clear goals, creating processes to meet those goals, and having tools to assess whether the process is working and to hold people accountable for its success. The actual process can look all kinds of different ways.

Note 2: Unstructured Spaces, Safety, and Diversity

“Unstructured” spaces don’t really exist. They’re just spaces where the structure is implicit, rather than explicit, and enforced through social power.

Saying your training community, school, or club has no structure doesn’t actually mean that everyone has equal freedom and opportunity. It’s just an abdication of power to whoever dominates that space (through social leverage or physical force), and an abdication of responsibility for the consequences.

This is also why “Don’t be a dick” doesn’t work in place of a code of conduct. It’s the safety policy equivalent of an unstructured process, and ends up being a set of implicit rules that reinforce whatever the dominant group things “being a dick” means, with no tools for marginalized people to ensure their own safety. It’s worse than having no rules at all.

In my experience as a martial artist and as a consultant for other teachers and their clubs, some of the least diverse spaces and the ones with the biggest difficulty keeping women and minority students around have been those with no formal policies or structures. They’re run by a combination of habits (implicit structure) and social expectations (implicit rules) that everyone still has to conform to in order to belong, and which nobody can challenge except through direct social conflict. This combination creates a big power imbalance in favour of a single group (usually white, straight, cis, men) and a ton of inertia against correcting that imbalance — or even acknowledging that exists.