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A Shared Mission Partnership With The National Teaching And Learning Forum (Kung Fu And The Art Of Teaching)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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I am pleased to announce that the Stanford Learning Laboratory's

Tomorrow's Professor Mailing List(SM) has formed a "Shared Mission Partnership"

with the National Teaching and Learning Forum (NT&LF) to exchange selected

postings and related information and of interest to our subscribers

NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning.

If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at

[] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed

version--offers subscribers stimulating insight from colleagues eager to

share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning.

>From time to time the Tomorrow's Professor Listerv will feature selected

articles from the NT&LF newsletter and in the process draw subscribers'

attention to the many in-depth resources available through the NT&LF web

site. Here is a recent article, by Laura Border, University of Colorado,

Bolder, on the role of mastery in student learning.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Nine Functions of a University

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


----------------- 1,565 words --------------------




By Laura L. B. Border

University of Colorado at Boulder


The fall semester is in full swing. Students rush from class to class, from

the library to the campus center, from work to the gym. Some are focused on

what they are doing, what they want, and where they are going in their

lives. Others manage to look busy but are actually moving from space to

space with no awareness of who they are and what they want out of life. It

takes only a few visits to local college classrooms to see the difference.

Some students sit up front, ask questions, answer questions, do their

homework and come to class prepared. Others sit in the back, write letters,

read the paper, or snooze. One of the most surprising results of this

difference in diligence is that if we follow the attentive students and the

dilatory ones to the end of their four year assignment as undergraduates,

it's highly likely that both will receive a bachelor's degree and go off

merrily as graduates of the institution. It is also safe to presume that

the difference in their level of skill will be remarkable.

Where Credit Is Due

Nevertheless, the credit system ensures that students who barely make the

grade graduate right alongside those who have excelled. Rather than

accumulating evident skills and knowledge, they have both accumulated a

certain number of credits. This issue about the credit system worries me a

bit because Europe is about to embrace this very American form of

schooling. I submit that the varied European systems and the American

system would do well to reconsider the concept of mastery--mastery in the

sense of thorough understanding and consummate skill, not in the sense of

domination, imperiousness, or peremptory behavior. Mastery has a long

history in various forms of education. The master painter, builder,

sculptor, or writer could show extraordinary skill or supreme intellectual

or artistic achievement. If "mastery" sounds too old-world, call it

"personal achievement." Personal achievement can only occur if an

individual understands who he or she is, what he or she would like to

attain, and consciously pursues the acquisition of the necessary knowledge

and skills to reach a chosen goal. It's more than a university degree, and

it's what I think should be the result of post-secondary education.

In the US we have two cultural archetypes that militate against the

concept of mastery or personal achievement. One is the image of the

do-it-yourselfer; the other is of the self-made man. Both, of course, have

their good points, but an unconscious reliance on either can lead to a

certain belief in anti-intellectualism or anti-mastery. Rather than taking

the time and effort to become a master, the do-it-yourselfer gets the job

done. But I think these archetypes have a negative influence on students'

behaviors in American classrooms. They are wed with the notion of degrees

seen as certificates and grades as commodities, and confound the ideals of

education with the often laudable American emphasis on "getting the job

done." Thus, they lead to a devaluing of the concept of mastery and reduce

"personal achievement" to a collection of external markers instead of the

measure of internal growth.

Grasshoppers or Locusts

All this became especially clear to me when I joined a Kung Fu class

recently. Suddenly I was in a learning environment where each student was

attentive, engaged, personally empowered, and quite frankly working to

achieve personal mastery. It was so invigorating and exciting I have gone

back many times. The difference between many courses on campus and my Kung

Fu class is quite astounding. As a longtime observer of teachers and

students, I have been delighted to find at last a classroom that seems to

match my learning style perfectly.

Imagine a classroom in which the teacher knows the precise level of each

student and arranges them accordingly. Because each student is wearing a

belt that indicates precisely each one's level of experience or lack

thereof, students know exactly where they stand in the class. Testing is

done individually and students must prove themselves worthy of moving up to

the next rank. Learning and testing is not focused on physical skill or

mental prowess alone, but on both. The teacher is an enthusiastic coach, a

playful questioner, a well-organized presenter who understands and

communicates theory and practice clearly, and cares passionately about the

topic, the students, and the results of the class as a whole. And, even

more interestingly, classes are long--up to two and a half or three hours,

alternating physical activity with history and theory, spirituality with

physical technique. The course program states that course times are

approximate in order to be able to devote the proper amount of time to each

learning session.

The classroom is a long empty carpeted rectangle able to accommodate

various sized groups effectively. During classes, students may sit on the

floor, stand, or move about. There is no attendance problem, rather the

class is brimming with students eagerly bumping into each other to find a

spot. No one leaves early and students linger to chat with each other on

their way out.

Masters, Novices, and Teaching Assistants

Teaching assistants are plentiful. In fact, for about one-half of the class

time, various levels of students work in small groups under their guidance.

Beginning students don't complain. They are quite content to have

individual and energetic attention lavished upon them. No one complains

about teaching assistants at all because even the beginners know that

learning to teach is an integral part of advanced training. They have

already read about this in their course book, which states that through

teaching others, one truly gains mastery and understanding of one's art and

practice. In fact, the beginning students actually enjoy the teaching

assistants because each one has a


If "mastery" sounds too old-world, call it "personal achievement."


slightly different approach, notices certain points, gives unique

examples, and shares personal perceptions of the art. Each one has a

personal physical and mental approach, allowing beginners to experiment and

explore a broader range of motion and technique. Naturally, the students

also appreciate it when the master steps in and clarifies a motion or

technique or tells a personal anecdote.

A Pedagogically Wide World

It has fascinated me to experience the different metaphors, examples, and

terms various instructors used to communicate the form. One might talk

about how you will injure your muscles or joints by using the wrong form.

Another might demonstrate the application of the form to a real contact

situation, while yet another might use a metaphor such as "let your arms

move like the wings of a crane."

The content is not watered down or doled out slowly. Students are

challenged to learn five to ten clusters of forms or techniques at a time.

They are expected to mirror, question, try out and practice each set until

they can perform them smoothly alone, relying only on physical and mental

memory. They are also required to learn the history and mythologies that

pertain to the art, the definitions and use of Chinese terms, and an

abundance of forms and techniques.

The teacher's approach is a nice melding of abstract conceptualization,

concrete experience, reflective observation, and active experimentation.

Each class has a format that begins with an introduction, a warm-up

exercise, a demonstration, a teacher-modeled group practice session,

followed by individual work with the teaching assistants, and ends with a

teacher discussion and question session, followed by a homework assignment

and cool-down exercise.

Humor is an important element of the class. Humor that challenges students

to be stronger and more adept. Humor that encourages students to tolerate

some discomfort for the good of their achievement.

Learning: The Endless Test

Within this congenial, focused, and attentive environment, testing is a

constant reality, yet it is not feared. One takes each test when one is

ready and has been deemed so by the masters and the teaching assistants.

Testing is also cumulative so that students at higher levels are also

tested on information and forms from lower levels, requiring constant

review and renewed practice. The test becomes an avenue to demonstrate to

oneself and others how one is doing physically, mentally, emotionally, and

as a member of the group. Success is rewarded concretely and immediately

with feedback from a panel, a numerical score that assesses performance,

and before a week has elapsed, with the awarding of a certificate and belt.

The entire system is designed to motivate students to succeed. Students

are aware of the length of time it took each level of students to master

consecutive levels. The teachers offer -reminders about pretest

possibilities and about knowledge, form, and content. Everyone knows there

is no short cut, each student must achieve the requirements for each level

in physical and -intellectual skill.

The multicultural aspect allows for a unique blend of American and Chinese

values, stories, and comparisons. Cultural comparisons create poignant

learning moments, stimulate questions, and stir the imagination (i.e.,

diversity is good pedagogy). Stories amuse and instruct (knowledge in

context). The histories of heroes inspire (ethics, ideals, values


As I have watched these very successful teachers who have their disciples

literally sitting at their feet, I have wondered whatever happened to the

real concept of the university. And the words of our Latin forefathers have

echoed in my brain, mens sana in corpore sano--a sound mind in a sound