Skillfully Teaching Skill

Teaching is a profession that a lot of people think they understand because they went to school and saw teachers do their jobs every day for years. Maybe they showed a young relative how to tie their shoes, or finger paint, or make a sandwich.

Those people are wrong. Very wrong, to the degree that once you free yourself from the Dunning-Kruger Effect of pedagogy, people who think they can efficiently and effectively teach complex skills without considerable experience in teaching itself are laughable. We’re talking about a career where the first 1-2 years are sometimes known as the “fantasy” stage because a novice can’t tell how ineffectual they are (or hasn’t yet actually run a classroom!)– a stage quickly followed by “survival,” wherein the teacher mostly struggles and remains in a constant, hopeless, uphill struggle. Eventually, the teacher becomes a “master” teacher, characterized by effectiveness and improvement through development. Those few who pass by this stage become “impact” teachers, who have the ability to alter the path of young lives in profound ways.

I write now as someone who reached the impact stage during my 11 year career as a teacher and as someone whose professional career since has been in curriculum design. The year before I left teaching, I maxed out our performance evaluation system and 50% of my AP students scored in the top quartile nationally; 75% of them outperformed the 50th percentile of the nation, and we were a school where almost half the students were classified as economically disadvantaged. I have thank you notes saved that tell me I made children believe in themselves, and a few that outright tell me I saved their lives. I am happy to debate any of the points I make herein, but bear in mind that ethos has been around a lot longer than either of us.

My first main point: SCA combat teaching is usually very poor by any credible measurement of instruction, and it’s usually because many of our teachers overestimate themselves and their outcomes. Bear in mind, I am not talking about someone who is doing the best they can and acknowledges that they’re flying by the seat of their pants and trying. We should all show due respect to the “survival” teacher, especially if they are putting energy into climbing out of that hole.

Before we can get into effective teaching practices, it is important to understand some concepts that are often misused, conflated, or misunderstood. Or, most likely, merely unknown.

A learning objective is the skill that you expect your students to have after the lesson. These are typically best framed as, “Upon completion of the lesson, the student will be able to [action verb + direct object].” For example, “the student will be able to perform a strike via a cavazione in quarta, maintaining opposition.” Any skill learned must be revisited and reinforced in future lessons so that it can become a permanent part of the student’s knowledge base.

Content is made up of the facts, theories, concepts, and other principles that make up a discipline. In our above example, the student must know how to perform a cavazione, what quarta and opposition mean, how to lunge and recover, and forming a guardia. There may be more, depending on the level of detail involved, but never forget that people can be overwhelmed.

Assessments are how to determine if a lesson has been learned, or to what degree. These assessments, for our purposes, are all formative and should guide later lessons. Formative assessments are the means by which an instructor determines how well progress is being made with the skills being taught, as well as how to judge what adjustments need to be made or what concepts need reteaching. Formative assessments are representative of skill development at that moment in time.

Guided practice of the skill being taught is part of formative assessment. This is, very simply, where we ask, “are you doing it right?” We don’t really have a summative assessment, though tournament performance (i.e. demonstrating skills under pressure against a genuinely resisting opponent) could be thought of as summative assessment. This is imperfect, however, as a summative assessment assumes that a learning program has come to a conclusion, and ours need not ever.

These elements combine to make up the lesson plan, which is what anyone teaching a skill puts together whether they realize it or not. A series of lesson plans that culminate in a set of connected skills make up a unit plan (“attacking,” in this example), and unit plans that form a coherent whole create a curriculum (historical Italian rapier).

One remaining element, which I intentionally separated, is the use of engagement strategies. Engagement strategies are whatever you do to keep your students interested in the material. There is no right or wrong way to engage interest; there is only whether or not something is effective. One student may be enthralled with 200 cycles of the same drilled action, whereas another might need a tennis ball hung from the ceiling. Neither is wrong, but neither is automatically right, either.

Where we frequently run into “fantasy,” however, is in thinking that engagement is the same as learning. It is not. An engaged learner might be deeply focused and developing nothing, and a bored learner might be receiving perfect content and remembering none of it. Simply saying that a lesson is “fun” is a good way to get fired in education; without a learning objective and a rationale for where it fits into your unit and curriculum, you are not teaching. You may even be actively harmful to your student through your own ignorance.

One of the most successful engagement strategies I know of is fairly simple: students stay engaged when they are taking action or interacting, when they are challenged just beyond their ability (in fact, they learn best when they try, FAIL, and succeed after correction), and when they see that they are improving. How this manifests is immaterial, but it requires constant planning and monitoring to achieve.

So, I shall say this clearly: good teachers have long and short term plans for what they are teaching, and do so in a way that keeps the student interested.

There are no doubt many of my readers saying here, “I was handed a sword and it was fun and I stuck around and now I’m (some level of skilled)!” Of course you did– you’re one of the relatively small percentage of people who can muddle through the non-curriculum of an SCA practice and achieve relative success, and so that method “worked” and you stayed.

How many are lost because they don’t improve and become frustrated? How many hit a skill cap early and never break past that plateau? Why do dedicated people who attend practice regularly go years without growth?

This leads us to my second point: it is important to know what your limitations are insofar as what skills you possess, and what skills you can teach. Effective, qualified teachers are content area experts who are also pedagogical experts. These two skills are chiefly unrelated: an expert fencer may be a terrible coach, and an expert coach may get tremendous results for skills they do not personally possess the capacity to execute at a competitive level.

I am of the opinion that people can teach effectively to one level below their own knowledge base, and that once two people are approaching equality their relationship is more a partnership than a student/teacher pairing. The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition is a useful means by which to evaluate skill, but here I want to supplement the discussion by bringing in the knowledge and performance descriptions of Bloom’s Cognitive Domains and Bloom’s Psychomotor Domains. Neither Dreyfus nor Bloom present perfect frameworks, but they are nonetheless useful tools for guidance. Much of what’s involved in teaching relies upon refining practices through experimentation and reflection, and so I acknowledge that these classifications are not entirely rigid at the edges, and that many lessons will involve multiple domains working concurrently. The chief things to remember are that moving too far beyond what the student is capable of becomes detrimental, and that failing to address the lower levels adequately will hinder refined development of the higher skills. No two students are exactly alike, and the best teachers can tailor their lessons accordingly– as lessons are refined, they must be additionally adjusted to meet the needs of the student. The complexity of this cannot be overstated. It takes many years of experience as a full time teacher to develop this skill to a high level, and thus it will be rare to find.

You will notice that the Domains often employ verbs– which are integral to writing a successful learning objective. I’m not including the verb lists that go with these, but further reading will provide considerable examples.

Cognitive Domain / Psychomotor Domain

Domain 1: Remembering / Perception

Remembering entails the ability to repeat the relevant terms and their meanings: facts, methods, and principles, such as measure, tempo, and line. At this level, flashcards or a strong memory are all that is needed. This is a vocabulary test. You must know the lexicon if you are to hope to have a conversation about a specialized topic.

Perception is awareness of sensory stimulation: what you see and feel, like open lines and the pressure of blade contact.

Anyone can instruct at this level, as performing well here is mostly indicative of modest effort to learn its content. According to the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, this is the Novice level of skill, characterized by rigid adherence to instruction and the absence of judgment.

Domain 2: Comprehending / Set

Comprehending concepts is demonstrated through actions like organizing, describing, or comparing the vocabulary learned in the remembering stage. This would be the ability to combine the concepts of lunge, recovery, opposition, and tempo together under the broader heading “attack,” several attacks being compiled into “offense” later on, which in turn can be connected to other concepts until eventually the word “fencing” contains a lifetime of information.

Set entails the readiness to act, as in an “if, then” statement. Set includes the awareness of one’s own capacities, including not only physical capacity, but motivations and emotions as well.

Most basic drills function at this level, and are absolutely necessary parts of later learning. Failure to address this level appropriately and adequately is harmful to the learner as they will integrate incomplete or inaccurate information into their later knowledge systems and fall behind their potential– possibly never to recover. Knowing this, as you now do, and ignoring it is negligent.

Anyone who can execute single actions successfully can potentially teach at this level. This Domain is within the Novice’s skill development.

Domain 3: Applying / Guided Practice

Applying information is done by taking what is known and using it to solve familiar problems.

Guided practice involves imitation coupled with trial and error.

This is where failure becomes especially important as a learning tool, but “trial and error” is a metacognitive process that needs to be understood to be done effectively. Wandering into a learning environment without a sense of how to evaluate results leads to an incoherent assortment of ideas, which will have varying degrees of value depending on how fortunate you happen to be– an educational roll of the dice.

In order to effectively judge an imitation, there must be a trusted ideal with which to compare.

Without an agreed upon lexicon, without concepts, without forms, there is no basis for imitation and no means for comparison between the ideal and the actual. Moreover, there is no means by which to develop an understanding of martial principles, as comprehension is inherently dependent on the ability to articulate relevant ideas.

This ability to compare the actual with the ideal is the basis for taking a scientific approach to learning methodology: hypothesizing, testing, evaluating, and repeating the process again and again serves to slowly chip away at every piece of marble until the statue is freed. We have the advantage of several centuries of cumulative learning already present to show us the way; no individual need recreate this wheel.

Successful instruction will instill fundamental actions early on and reinforce them thereafter; correcting bad habits or errors after they have become ingrained can be tremendously difficult. Failing to teach fundamentals is negligent.

At this level, we see the practical manifestation of abstract concepts, that is, we link the principles of combat the physical actions. This takes the form of more complex drills, though typically these drills are still limited to a single intention.

At this point, the student’s Dreyfus level is best described as an Advanced Beginner, with limited situational perception and an inability to integrate or prioritize information.

Domain 4: Applying / Mechanism

At this level, Applying still refers to linking principles to the physical actions.

However, mechanism requires habitual, learned responses to certain situations and that the fencer performs them appropriately and successfully.

At this level, the teacher must have skills beyond the drill being employed, which may now include multiple steps and/or a decision tree.

This Domain level is where Advanced Beginners first show signs of what Dreyfus calls Competence, meaning they can form limited plans and execute them effectively, are less readily overwhelmed by stimuli, and begins to see how their actions relate to broader goals.

Limited sparring is an example of this domain, and this is the level that many poor SCA teachers desire to start their students on. By starting at this level, every level that precedes it is undermined, and every level that follows it is stunted.

Don’t be a bad teacher. Now you know.

Domain 5: Analyzing / Complex Overt Response

Analyzing involves taking the elements of fencing (the terms as they work in conjunction with one another) and seeing how they relate to each other. Analyzing allows the student to organize the principles so that they can understand how they fit together in a meaningful and useful way.

This allows for a complex overt response: the coordination of many mechanical components in a way that is observable. For example, a habitual, learned response to lunge partnered with a habitual, learned response to perform girata of the left foot can result in a very artful sequence of attack.

This level of understanding is where sparring becomes useful, and at this level, students will sometimes put things together in ways that make them impress themselves. Dreyfus would refer to them as soundly within the Competent stage.

Failure again plays a prominent role in the learning process here. Fundamental actions should be at low risk for significant errors, but errors in timing and judgment will abound.

It is important to understand that failure can be productive, if the cause for failure is examined, understood, and resolved. Failure also provides lessons in what does not function, which helps guide a learner toward what does. If a particular technique proves challenging for a learner such that they initially fail at it 1,000 times to garner only 50 successes, those failures have incredible utility. That learner now knows 1,000 instances where their technique did not work, and can avoid repeating those mistakes. They also have 50 instances of success, which likely possess overlapping characteristics, to repeat by working to recreate the conditions for success in their fights. By repeating their successes, the broader principles involved become more clear.

Again, this is only fully realized if the initial knowledge base is present. There can be no systematic analysis if there is no system to analyze.

Everyone can participate at this level if they are beyond the Novice stage of Dreyfus, but to teach at this level likely requires Proficiency on that same continuum. In general, I have equated Proficiency with the Orders of High Merit, though obviously that is a good shorthand at best. Remember that people can generally only teach beneath their actual cognitive level and skill. It is once again worth noting that performance capacity is not strictly necessary to instruct, but it is obviously a substantial benefit that should not be discounted.

Domain 6: Synthesizing / Adaptation

With enough analysis and complex overt responses, a fencer begins to synthesize information, taking what is known and creating new patterns of movement, or seeing patterns form from diverse elements. For example, understanding opponent habits broadly enough to use feints and invitations effectively– or to see them for what they are.

Adaptation involves modifying known movement patterns to fit the requirements of special situations. This could mean successfully defeating an opponent using a previously unknown style or weapon by applying existing techniques in new ways.

Teaching at this level is extremely difficult and will likely only be successful when done by a Dreyfus Expert, though a Proficient will be able to perform at this level. Proficient performance is marked by a holistic view of a situation and the ability to prioritize effectively and adapt existing maxims to the present moment. Someone teaching this must be either intimately familiar with the learning levels and capacities of the student to the degree that they can tailor their instruction to meet that student’s needs almost exactly, or they must be able to assess the student to that level in a short time. This latter case is exceptionally unlikely; I could certainly accomplish this as an English teacher after 800 students or so, but that is far more experience than I hope to ever achieve in the SCA.

Do not confuse knowledge or skill with capacity, however– a very strong, very tall, very fast, very young fencer may have little knowledge or skill, but great capacity.

Domain 7: Evaluating / Origination

Evaluating deals primarily with judgment, using both internal evidence and external criteria. Does a technique meet the requirements of martial principles? Can an assertion be generalized to other situations? Is it effective? Is it effective against a skilled opponent? How skilled? Is it working because it’s legitimately artful, or is something else factoring in? Here, we get into advanced critical thinking, an entirely separate set of skills that is its own mountain to climb.

Origination happens when someone is able to create new patterns of movement to fit an unfamiliar or even familiar situation: at this highest level, an expert may invent a solution in an instant, without conscious consideration. They simply know what to do and make it work.

People who have been learning an amalgamation of tricks that are not part of a coherent system struggle severely to achieve this level, as their perception of their technique may require a total overhaul and reordering. The Expert level of the Dreyfus Model is not within their capacity, as it requires the ability to accurately and intuitively grasp a situation based on a deep understanding of all elements involved– this cannot be accomplished without knowing those elements thoroughly. The Expert can see what is possible, and as such not only knows what the rules are, but when and how to break them. To paraphrase a friend, you can only be Picasso if you first learn how to paint.

Realistically, this requires so much effort on the part of the learner that it needs to be at least as much self-directed as instructed. I would say that while a teacher might be able to help at this point, the student should already be taking on students of their own. The teacher and the now former student become partners in their mutual edification. I hope that some of you are able to achieve this even once.

My final point is that this is merely scratching the surface of what is necessary to teach well– you will note that it does not even talk about what to teach much at all, or how to read and work a roomful of students to monitor for attention and understanding. That is because being a skillful fencer and a skillful teacher are separate and unrelated characteristics, and to do both well requires equal effort spent on each– and most of us supplement our fencing with lifetimes of building proprioception and fitness.

Teaching is hard. I hope that I have provided some useful direction here to aid you in developing that incredibly valuable and necessary skill.

As far as what to teach, the content? Pick a system. They’re not all equally good, but none of them are bad. Pick one.

I have a recommendation:


11 comments to Skillfully Teaching Skill

  • Tibbie Crosier

    Thank you for this essay. This is thought provoking. Have you taught any “how to teach rapier” classes at a KWAR or Pennsic?

    • Dante di Pietro

      I’m glad it is useful to you, and I hope it informs your perspective as a learner.

      I haven’t done much at Pennsic because that’s vacation time. I’ve done numerous classes at University, with mixed results.

  • Tibbie Crosier

    I mentioned KWAR and Pennsic rather than Atlantian University because your approach might gain more interest outside Atlantia. Other kingdoms with the cadet system are perhaps more likely to have senior fighters with multiple long-term cadets and students, fighters who might be more interested in improving their teaching methods because their kingdom will judge them on how well their personal students learn, and teach in turn.

    • Dante di Pietro

      That seems plausible.

      Really, I suspect that what really needs to happen is for the students to demand better from their teachers. Even in actual education, complacency is a constant risk. When you couple that with the ignorance most people have about pedagogy, the results are predictable.

      • Dante di Pietro

        I want to clarify what I mean about “demanding better.”

        We’re a volunteer organization and people basically do the best they can with what they have. The key thing, then, is to make “what they have” as good as possible. That’s why I wrote this: having read it, the only reasons to not try to abide by it are stubbornness or laziness.

        As a student, having read this and perhaps recognizing your learning environment as poor, a person can take measures to improve that situation. For example, you could pick a fencing system (Docciolini is a great basics choice) and form a study group to work through it. You could pick an already skilled fencer and ask them to help you through a manual you both have access to. I’ve given you the tools to plan out your own curriculum here to a reasonable degree. You can recognize deficiencies in your learning and ask or act to correct them. The resources are out there, and they are plentiful. In 2017, there’s really not a good excuse for anyone who genuinely wants to learn to fence not being able to do so.

  • Ruairc

    We’re a volunteer organization and people basically do the best they can with what they have. The key thing, then, is to make “what they have” as good as possible. That’s why I wrote this: having read it, the only reasons to not try to abide by it are stubbornness or laziness.

    This is the hurdle I keep running into when thinking about what I dislike about the SCA’s/HEMA’s teaching, and how to change it: You can’t get strong performance out of a nonprofessional with a couple hour-long University classes and a pep talk. It’s not a question of stubbornness or laziness; it’s a question of competence.

    I can tell someone all about (say) visualization strategies to aid in movement instruction, or how to properly build functional strength, or whatever – but without basic knowledge of anatomy and the ability to closely observe movement patterns (skills that comparatively few instructors in the SCA possess, even at a low level), these tools will not be properly applied. And basic anatomy, or movement observation skills, takes much longer to learn, and isn’t nearly as much fun.

    Someone could use the information you’ve presented here to create a beautiful curriculum and still fail to teach it well because they have poor communication, can’t recognize a bad learning environment, don’t understand the material particularly well themselves, or lack any of the other foundational skills of education. And a student – by definition, a non-expert – probably won’t be able to spot these shortcomings, much less demand more.

    Essentially, I see an article like this being useful to only the handful of instructors who are already halfway competent – and thus, not really doing much to address the widespread problem of which you speak.

    I’m not sure it’s possible. I can say with confidence that my teaching only started to improve – to move past the “fantasy” stage, and into the painful but productive “survival” stage – when I began to get critique after every single lesson from someone considerably more experienced in teaching (and used those to develop personal goals and research instructional skills).

    • Dante di Pietro

      Competence is the ability to DO better; I’m advising people to merely make the effort, here. A lot of this development just takes time, but you have to TRY to do it, even if you don’t do it well at first. Laziness and stubbornness are the hallmarks of someone who keeps doing what they’ve always done, not of someone who is trying to improve, even if they fail. A good teacher fails a lot in the effort to be better, and can be honest with their students about it. It even helps the students, often, to see the teacher as fallible (to a degree) and willing to admit errors or weaknesses.

      It’s very involved and you’re absolutely right about how complicated it is. But, everyone has to start somewhere and everyone can do better, worse, or stagnate.

      • Ruairc

        I went through a stage where I designed lesson plans rigorously before every class. I did research. I sought out other people’s work and recommendations and regularly observed other teachers. I put in a lot of thought. I was proud of what I composed. I was proud of my execution. And then after class, my mentor would rip it all to shreds. This went on for months, twice per week. (Still happens, although now I usually get more nuanced and limited critique, and I’m starting to land “that was a great class. You did everything well” consistently.)

        The process was considerably more emotionally difficult than any of the frustrations I encountered while developing my own fencing skills, and I came close to giving up a half-dozen times. If there had been another rapier instructor around, I probably would have. I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was failing the people who trusted me to teach them well – far worse than simply failing myself.

        I’m not sure if this is a universal phenomenon. It is difficult to imagine learning some of these skills without a very critical, very honest guide. The missed details, the flaws in instruction … even if I could have spotted those, I suspect the emotional burden would have been too great without someone to contextualize and direct it.

        Is there a Thibault for teachers?

        • Dante di Pietro

          Is “every class” rapier, or…?

          The thing is that a lesson plan can be done in about… 10 minutes, tops, once you get the hang of building it as a part of a curriculum and have content expertise. And that’s me talking about actual, professional teaching where you have to contend with everything else involved, too. The thing that makes classroom teaching hard is mostly classroom management (i.e. engagement strategies, which are mostly for students who wouldn’t otherwise want to learn). “Getting the hang of it” took me about 5-6 years, or about 2,750 lesson plans. 😀 There’s a reason 50% of new teachers quit in the first two years, and another 50% in the first five.

          It’s absolutely a universal phenomenon, but most professionals don’t get much guidance after their student teaching (one semester); I certainly was almost 100% on my own from day one. I moved mountains for my own student teacher to ensure she went to her first job prepared and even with an entire 30 day unit plan that could be applied at any secondary grade level and with any text, just in case she needed a buffer at any point in her first year to gather herself.

          The biggest things I see in rookie teachers is one of a few things: they don’t know how to engage, they don’t understand their purpose, or they don’t know the particulars of their content well enough to really get someone to understand it.

          If they don’t know how to engage, then they present information that is promptly lost. Engagement is more about personality and rapport than most anything else. It’s about reading a room. There’s a balancing act between explaining too much, too little, the wrong thing to help this particular problem, and knowing when to put your foot down and tell them to just shut up and trust you because it takes too long to explain and they’d see you’re right in 5 minutes of obedience.

          If they don’t understand their purpose, they tend to either be fun and games without real rigor; or they assign a ton of busywork and call it rigor; or they try to encourage enthusiasm hoping that learning will follow. The purpose of teaching is primarily to impart skills: rigor is a consequence of this, not a goal of its own, and enthusiasm occurs when learning happens and generates improvement.

          If they don’t know their content well *enough*, they end up being able to do more than they can impart to another. This is how we end up with very skillful fencers who can’t necessarily teach it– they know fencing, but they don’t really understand it. This is more of a depth and breadth issue than anything else, and it requires nothing more than constant knowledge building and developing your own interconnected understanding of a subject. We used to say that “the more you know, the easier it is to know more.” It’s not just being able to see what the student is doing right and wrong, but also WHY they are at a fundamental level. This takes some guesswork, but with enough experience I’ve been able to successfully diagnose and correct fencing matters based on a few sentences on the internet: problem X likely has cause Y or Z. I have had great joy in being told by people, near and far, that their knees don’t hurt anymore.

          In general, I would say that the Pareto Principle is a good thing to keep in mind; I have been fixing targeting and blade alignment problems by adjusting one simple thing for the better part of the last two years. I simply hadn’t realized that people weren’t doing it already because it seemed impossible not to. I also found that a substantial amount of what I did was teaching critical thinking, not English per se:

          A big chunk of fixing your fencing is just looking at the ideal, looking at yourself, and figuring out how to get there from here.

          There isn’t a Thibault for teachers, and there can’t be. However, the fundamental guideline for learning is that people learn best when presented with a challenge just beyond their skills, are allowed to struggle with it, *fail*, receive correction, and then succeed.

          Failure is so important to learning that trying to teach an impeccable, foolproof lesson is itself undermining the learning process.

  • Ruairc

    “Every class” was rapier, yes. I haven’t taught anything else formally, aside from some basic Bolognese drill sequences in the last couple months.

    Lesson plans have gotten fairly straightforward at this point, even with the inclusion of targeted conditioning. New material is always rough the first time, but that’s to be expected. I still have difficulty adapting when something goes wrong – when I’ve not prepared the students properly by overlooking some critical detail of technique or strengthening, or when they’ve not prepared themselves by failing to do the homework. The rhythm of the year plays into this as well. Attendance is always spotty during certain seasons, which disrupts learning.

    I’ve had experiences and struggles with everything you mention here, and I’m still working actively to develop specific skills relevant to these ideas. Despite what I said earlier, I wonder if some well-designed University classes might be helpful – perhaps classes with a heavy focus on application (i.e. person X teaches something new to person Y, then gets critique; repeat). These would involve some nontrivial logistical challenges, but I can think of few other ways to get past the confirmation bias and raw ignorance that seem to characterize the fantasy stage. People can’t start to improve at a skill (content, learning environment, “engagement” ≠ “sparring”, etc etc etc) if they don’t even know it exists, or mistake it for something else entirely.

    • Dante di Pietro

      What do you think about maybe a couple of sessions that had a very small max number of people (like, 5-6 tops) with some lesson planning strategies, everyone making their own plan, and then teaching the concept in front of the class to someone else (say, me)?

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