From the Dojo to the Classroom: teaching in martial arts

EDIT: While I was writing this I couldn’t remember the name of the instructor who led the roundtable: Dr Solveiga Armosakaite.  I should have included her name as a credit and I apologise for not doing so earlier!

I’ve been taking martial arts classes for a couple of years now (Shorinji Kan Jiu Jitsu, for those of you who are interested, more details here) and I’ve reached the stage where I have started taking on small teaching roles within the dojo. At the same time, I also started teaching undergraduate classes at a university. As a result, I was interested when the Educational Development Centre at Carleton University put on a “round table” event with an instructor who incorporated her knowledge of martial arts into her university teaching. I took fairly extensive notes which I have reproduced below.

"Come at me bro" - yours truly at the Ontario Jitsu Provincials 2011

Introduction to the discussion

The instructor began by outlining a few basics about martial arts.  She was a practitioner of both jiu jitsu and aikido and emphasised the difference.  Jiu jitsu (meaning “yielding art”) was developed as a battlefield art to disable or kill opponents as effectively as possible, including in combat against armed opponents.  Jiu jitsu involves the use of an opponent’s weight and momentum against them.  Aikido (meaning “the way of harmonised spirit”) follows a completely different philosophy: that practitioners should seek to do no harm to attackers but merely deflect their attacks.  Regardless, the instructor emphasised that both require the development of constant alertness and awareness of surroundings.  She showed a clip from Kung Fu Panda (here, if you are interested), where Poh the panda is being trained by an aged master who uses Poh’s hunger as a motivation to learn.  The instructor emphasised the importance of adapting teaching techniques to particular classes/individuals.

She went on to outline how martial arts differ from the public perception of martial arts:

Public perception

Practitioner perception

Magic, cult

Lifestyle for defense

Gruesome workout

Biomechanical efficiency – the practitioner needs to be fit, alert and relaxed at all times and students can benefit from this in the classroom, too.

Complicated tangle of Zen

Common sense ethics, operating at four levels:

  1. Attack unprovoked (no martial art)
  2. Harm attacker (jiu jitsu)
  3. Escape with minimal harm
  4. Do no harm to attacker (aikido)

Why should martial arts be used in teaching?

Martial arts is a homogeneous approach to teaching.  It gives access to the mind through the body.  It also teaches a work ethic that can be extremely useful in a classroom that involves what might be considered a “boring” subject.  The instructor gave the example of asking students how many of them could write an essay.  Despite the fact that many of them responded that they could write, she knew from marking their assessments that they were relatively poor standard.  She then asks who can throw a punch.  Many students respond that they can.  She asks for a volunteer and demonstrates that they are as wrong about being able to throw a good punch as they are about being able to write a good essay.  By drawing parallels between the biomechanics of a Japanese-style strike, she emphasised the key parts of an essay.  Both striking and essays should be (i) purposeful (i.e. focused on a particular target), (ii) efficient (eliminating unnecessary motions), and (iii) committed (using the whole body or mind).

How do we incorporate martial arts in teaching?


Opportunity to acquire skills – Students should have the opportunity to acquire skills, whether they use it or not is partly down to the student and partly down to the teacher.  In the dojo, the class has opted to be there to train, but this is not necessarily the case in the classroom and this presents a problem for motivating and engaging students.

Learning to the point of instinct – Students will learn the basic skills of whatever craft they are studying to the point of reflex, analogous to training a defensive instinct in martial arts.  This might involve the instantaneous recall of facts and figures, or the ability to critique ideas on first hearing.  Often this involves repetitive training of certain skills or techniques.

Awareness of key issues – Goals should also include the teaching of an awareness of key issues in the field, as all curricula (in the dojo or in the classroom) should cover.

Punching in martial arts is precise and technical, just like essay-writing (image by Judcosta)

Relaxed and responsive during discussion – This last point can be encouraged if students are told to understand not only to understand concepts, but also to recognise why they cannot understand some concepts.  The instructor emphasised the giving of tests on which students can obtain 50% marks on a question even if they don’t know the answer by highlighting why they can’t answer it.  This encourages attention during class and an awareness of issues, rather than rote memorisation.  Identifying problems is part of the solution.


Requirements of mastery – In order to be a master martial artist, two things must be done: (i) travelling great distances to seek experts and request instruction, and (ii) being diligent in speech and humbling oneself.  Education in the classroom is really no different.  A good student will travel to learn from mentors in a range of disciplines and masters in the discipline that they wish to focus on.  For example, I travelled to Canada from the UK to work with my current mentor.

The bow (or “rei”) – The instructor also highlights the traditional bow which has been recognised as having the potential to bring a civilising effect to western classrooms, as it does in Japanese society.

Endurance of routine – An endurance of routine is vital, as much of classroom training, like martial arts, involves the repetitive use of certain skills to the point of mastery.  Students may not enjoy the method, but they should at least appreciate its utility.

Emphasis on practicality – It was also mentioned that practicality must be emphasised.  Training in a dojo is very rarely theoretical, but we tend to fall back on teaching theory instead of application in the classroom.  Students engage to a much greater degree with applications of principles.

Awareness of space – Dojos don’t have podia or stages like lecture theatres; the whole training space is also a teaching space and that means that the martial arts instructor is more aware of the use of space.

A feeling of achievement – A university teacher must not lead students by the hand to their goals.  The instructor gave the example of a saying from an old teacher: “When sensei points at the moon, only a fool looks at his finger”.  Students should feel that they are getting to the end point themselves.


A progression of complexity – By gradually increasing the complexity of the material being taught, an instructor can watch when things get tough for students.  This will show you and the students what it is that they need to improve.

The utility of repetition – As mentioned above, repetition is the key to mastering anything.  It is better to practise one technique 10,000 times than 10,000 techniques once.

A focus on endpoints – Many students are predominantly interested in obtaining a grade for the course but it must be emphasised that this is not the end point.  The students must work and learn, and the grade will eventually come.  A similar situation occurs in martial arts with an emphasis on gradings and belts rather than on the learning of techniques.

Meditation can be an important part of martial arts (photo by Tevaprapas Makklay)

Mokuso and kiai – The instructor emphasised the use of traditional martial arts concepts such as mokuso (pronounced “moh-kso”) and kiai (pronounced “key-eye”) as ways to frame concepts and prepare students during and after class.  In a dojo, mokuso would most commonly be performed at the beginning or end of training, in a kneeling position, with eyes closed and deep breathing.  The aim is to clear the mind (as in Zen meditation).  In the classroom, it is sufficient to encourage students to take a moment to reflect on the time that they are either about to spend or have just spent learning.  Kiai (meaning “spirit”) is the yell given during martial arts practice (think “hi-yah!”).  While probably not appropriate for a classroom environment, the principal of applying oneself bodily to learning is a common theme between dojo and classroom.  Both mokuso and kiai help to delineate either the classroom or the dojo from life outside, aiding in preparation and the adoption of the appropriate mental state for learning.

Common problems

Comfort-free zone – Students want to be comfortable, but that is not what education is about.  Students should be brought out of their comfort zones and pushed into new territory where they can develop more quickly.  This applies as much to martial arts as to the classroom.

Motivation – As mentioned above, students in a dojo have chosen to learn but those in a classroom may not have made that decision freely.  There is only so much that an instructor can do to engage with students before that effort starts to detract from the actual teaching of material.

The perils of large classes – The number of students in a martial arts dojo can be limited either by (i) issues of safety, or (ii) the capacity of the instructor to teach the students.  In the second case, there are often higher-level students who can take on some of the teaching burden to help out.  However, in university (and high school) classrooms no notice is taken of a teacher’s ability to teach 300-400 students.  The only regulation is the fire regulation and that puts an enormous burden on the lecturer to be effective despite the lack of personal contact.


I found the talk to be extremely interesting.  I have been learning martial arts and learning how to teach martial arts in isolation from teaching science and learning to teach science.  The styles of teaching are very different at first glance, but this instructor pointed out some very interesting cross-overs in content and approach.  I don’t know whether I will ever ask a student to punch me in a class, but the application of some of the more subtle approaches (awareness of space, an emphasis on delineating classroom time from “other” time) and techniques (an informal mokuso, emphasising repetition to ingrain skills) are certainly applicable within my own teaching environment.  I would be interested to hear what other people think (feel free to comment below!).


4 thoughts on “From the Dojo to the Classroom: teaching in martial arts

  1. This is excellent Chris, I wantd to attend that workshop but I found out about it after it happened. Thanks for this.

  2. I agree with Kia, an interesting workshop, thank you for posting.

    If you ever do get them to throw a punch at you in the classroom, lest me know the result.


  3. I am imagining a school where martial arts are practiced by all who spend time in the building.
    I may have missed it in your article, but in modern academic schools, the creativity of many children is crushed out of them. I think the integration of a martial art into a school can unleash the Artistic nature of the children under our tutelage.

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