Testing Children in Martial Arts

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Some questions came up with the recent children’s tests that I thought should be addressed for everyone.  The questions are along the lines of “If a child is being lazy because they think they can get away with it, how/when do we ‘get tough’ on them.  How come children never seem to fail their tests?  If a child can do better on a test, how do we encourage it, and why can’t a child who has the ability to perform the test techniques actually take a test if they haven’t practiced long enough?”

These are good questions that bring out the differences between the philosophy of education and goals in martial arts training vis a vis the school system and other activities such as gymnastics.  In other endeavors, children are pushed to perform at higher and higher levels.  Martial arts training uses a different model.  The goal is not to maximize performance by encouraging children to find the quickest way to achieve a goal.  The quickest way is often memorization.  Also, a significant component of martial arts training is development of positive character and compassion.

Martial arts training is designed to teach children how to “do something.”  In this particular case, they are learning self defense, but the process can be generalized.  Learning does not involve so much memorization as it does in depth study.  A child should ask questions about why a technique works so they can understand how to use it or how to adjust it to changing circumstances.  The questioning evolves out of a natural sense of curiosity which is developed in the context of a fun and relaxing environment.  Children learn through play and we do not over-ride that process.  The questioning needs to come from the child and not be forced upon them.  They should experience a moderate challenge and not be pushed to any extreme such that their own curiosity and study is cut off, being replaced by memorization to accomplish a short term goal.  This environment not only fosters in depth study now, but also brings about an appreciation for life time learning.

In addition to learning how to do something, children are introduced to ideas that will help them develop good character and compassion for fellow human beings.  Other activities may not expressly target these aspects, but instead may focus on short range performance objectives where a coach or teacher may sprinkle some lessons learned during their personal lifetime among technical information.  In martial arts we tend to target lessons learned through the profound training passed down from countless generations of highly realized individuals.  The lessons tend to be more precise, more clearly thought out and more profoundly beneficial.

The testing process is quite different from what we expect in the west.  We think of tests and certificates as a means to certify the accomplishment of a particular grade of technical skill.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We do give tests, colored belts and certificates to children because they need such encouragement.  However, the test is not designed to certify their level of knowledge at all.  Testing is nothing other than a teaching tool that will be applied to each person individually.  The process of learning involves developing a practice over a period of time.  If a student has not done so, even if they can perform certain test techniques they will not be allowed to test.  Once the practice is developed, we pick out and emphasize certain techniques for study.  The child is supposed to examine these techniques in more detail and ask penetrating questions which arise out of their practice.  We don’t force depth in questioning technique, but place the children in a fun and relaxed environment where the questions arise naturally.  Once this study is accomplished in these techniques, they can apply this knowledge across all the techniques they practice.  If a child is awkward or cannot memorize their material, but they are kind hearted and helpful for others on a regular basis, they will assuredly pass their exam.  Advancement in rank therefore does not certify accomplishment, but merely represents the child is practicing and learning with sincerity appropriate for their age and capabilities.

We have yet to fail a child fully on an exam (meaning they do not pass and are not allowed to test again for another 6 months).  The reason here is that there is a difference between a child failing a test in school in private and failing a test here in front of their peers and friends.  We do not wish to take harmful action towards children.  The process is more one where a child will not be allowed to test if they are expected to fail.  If a child is lazy, we will definitely address the issue, but not normally by failing them on an exam.  We have taken harsh action towards certain children from time to time to deliver a message directly that certain lazy habits are unacceptable on the mats.  Those messages quite definitely were received.  If a child shows disrespect for the testing process, we will address that as well.

Hopefully this explanation will help people understand our methods.  Our objective is not to produce athletes or high performance individuals in an immediate sense while sprinkling in an occasional lesson of character.  Instead we seek to encourage students to dig into the training methods, ask questions that arise out of their own imaginings so they will know how to use the material when needed.  Testing is only a small portion of the overall program where the purpose is strictly to facilitate study and not to identify standard levels of knowledge or ability.  Character is also emphasized in the testing process.  Ultimately, the objective is to foster deep understanding of the material and lifetime learning in an enjoyable setting while being cognizant of the character of the society we develop.  If our objective is met, the child can become a high performance individual through in depth study and sustain the effort indefinitely.  I encourage everyone to kick these ideas around and develop a discussion here to the extent you have further thoughts or questions.