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Ideas Technology

Kick, Block, Punch

Or was it the other way around? What mastering a martial arts routine says about custom learning.

Earlier this year, my wife and I earned our first belts in taekwondo. It took months of practice, nerves of steel, and one hell of a kihap. But in the end, there we stood, hoisting yellow belts and broken boards. I felt badass. Mighty. Ten feet tall!

Granted, the “ten feet tall” part may’ve been because I was surrounded by dozens of eight-year-olds. Apparently getting your yellow belt is the martial arts equivalent to graduating from diapers to training pants. But still, I’d cracked a board in two with one clenched fist, forward-punched and downward-blocked my name onto an official TKD certificate, and performed my very first pattern, chon-ji!

Surprisingly, that pattern was the hardest part. And mastering it gave me something you wouldn’t expect to get from a dojang full of kids in doboks (plus me and my wife in workout gear): a lesson about custom learning.

RETHINKING OLD WAYS OF LEARNING

See, what I thought would be hardest thing to master — breaking a board with nothing but my fist — turned out to be easy-peasy. Meanwhile, the allegedly simpler thing — showing off my moves with a graceful demonstration — not-so-peasy. Just like we have to customize every course we create here at NogginLabs, I had to completely rethink my approach to this material. The ways I usually absorb information left me struggling to keep up with the aforementioned eight-year-olds.

Granted, I’m not exactly a graceful guy. I’ve got two left feet on the dance floor; hell, I’ve got two left hands in a thumb war. Still, it drove me crazy: learning chon-ji, no matter how slowly or often I went through the movements, I couldn’t get the order right. Why couldn’t I grasp it? This wasn’t swing dance, this was punching!

I tried to stay optimistic, but when you finish a 19-step demonstration facing a different direction or standing farther forward than everyone else, your pride takes a spinning jump-kick to the face.

I must’ve looked as frustrated as I felt, because after one particularly disastrous attempt, my instructor took me aside and asked what was the matter. It was the turns, I explained. And the blocks. And the footwork. Basically everything except the punches (at least I had those going for me). I could name each move as the instructor demonstrated it, I could map out every step in my head, but every time I tried to put that mental roadmap into action, I’d turn the wrong way or throw the wrong block. Worse yet, the more I screwed up, the more I memorized my mistakes. “Here’s the part I always screw up. Aaaaaaand I screwed it up again.”

The instructor thought for a moment, then offered a solution. All I had to do was drill some choreography into my head: after a left forward punch, always turn ninety degrees left and throw a left block. Right forward punch, 180 degrees to the right, right block. On and on through the entire form, step by step, I had unbreakable rules I had to follow. Miss a step? Start over. Remember to turn left this time.

The change was immediate. No, I wasn’t suddenly tournament material. But I wasn’t staggering around like a confused toddler, either. I had ironclad reference points: if this, do that. After this many of that, do this. No more worrying about the entire pattern! All I had to do was react to what I’d already done. “Oh, I punched that way? Cool, now turn this way.” It was like navigating by landmark instead of by map. When you reach that Korean barbecue restaurant, turn left, and you will punch your destination.

LEARNING BY DOING BADLY

I clung to those rules like a life raft. Which was odd, because I usually prefer a looser, more experiential approach to learning. When I memorize a new script for my sketch comedy group, for example, I learn the scene’s emotional beats first (“this is where I confess that my melting ice cream cone reminds me of my fear of death”) and get the lines right later. If I’m trying out a sweet new gadget, the instruction manual’s probably gonna stay in the box until something goes horribly wrong. I like doing things, even if I bungle them at first. Call it learning-by-doing-badly.

With taekwondo, I had to alter my approach. I couldn’t convey a right-turn-low-block’s dramatic intent while throwing a left forward punch, or perfect a roundhouse kick without any instructions. I could only do it right or not do it at all. So I used my instructor’s rules, over and over, until suddenly I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing anymore. I didn’t even need to go through every step; I could start from any point in the pattern and immediately know what to do next.

ADJUSTING EXPECTATIONS

Of course, that’s the entire point of patterns in martial arts: repeat an action until it’s instinctual. Taekwondo has hyeung, karate’s got kata, even sword fighters practice the same overhead strike over and over again. But until I had to memorize a hyeung myself, I didn’t realize just how much I’d have to adjust my thinking.

Every student has to. Some, like me, rely on mental checklists. By breaking a complex task down into manageable bits, we gain a sense of control over what we’re learning. Neuroscientist Daniel Bor calls it “chunking”: using the human brain’s ability to combine smaller pieces of information into a larger whole (a process one guy used to go from memorizing seven-digit sequences to eighty-digit sequences). It’s even useful for effective long-term goal-setting.

Others think spatially. Ticking off boxes in their heads might trip them up, but by visualizing the shape they make as they move back and forth on the dojang floor, they know where to go next and what to do on the way there. I’ve seen this in action. One of the black belts at my dojang uses the alphabet and can narrate while doing so:

This pattern’s an I. I’m at one end right now, I’ll be back at the other next time I need to kick.

If I tried that I’d probably run into a wall. But for him, it worked like a charm.

CUSTOMIZED TRAINING FOR UNIQUE NEEDS

In the end, there’s no single perfect method. A good instructor (shout-out to you, Master!) will learn his students’ needs and tailor his lessons accordingly. And that’s exactly what NogginLabs does. After all, no two clients’ needs are the same. Different content requires different approaches to design, and NogginLabs has definitely seen a wide variety of content.

In some cases, we can treat it like sketch comedy: teach in broad strokes first, review what the learner missed afterwards. Other times, it’s just like chon-ji: the learner can’t miss a step and needs immediate corrective feedback. It’s our job to determine what works best for each client, then use our four pillars to create a unique learning experience.

Just like an instructor teaching patterns…minus the punches, anyway. (So far.)

Bearing all this in mind, I’m sure my next belt test will be a walk in the park. All I have to do is kick a board in half and learn a new pattern. How hard could it possibly be?

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