Asking questions in Karate, GKR question Sensei, Wado, Kung Fu, Shotokan, Goju“Any questions?”

A sea of blank faces look back.

“Did you understand the principles taught?”

Did I almost see a nod from one person?

The Martial Arts is a funny old game.  We are told that it is traditionally taught by blind acceptance/faith.  The Instructor stands out the front of the class and barks orders occasionally moving an arm or leg of the student and if anyone DARES to ask a question he is immediately used as the demonstration model as to how the technique works and is left in no doubt as to what the consequences of asking questions in the future are.

But I love questions.  My whole life has been one string of questions; I discovered that finding the right question is so important because that’s the only way to get the right answer.  Your Instructor can only know what your understanding of a principle is by the questions you ask and the answers you give to his questions.

Now, I appreciate that some academic questioners are a pain in the backside and some ask questions because they are lazy and don’t want to do the physical training and some people are naturally argumentative but questioning is a skill and needs to be taught like any other.  We have to encourage students to seek out and ask the right kind of questions….

So when I ask “any questions” I’m dying for a bit of feedback!  I’m not looking for praise, which is often assumed by students, but a genuine desire to know how much of my teaching has gone in.  It also helps me to structure my future teaching and is an aid to work out how to frame it.

It’s a two way street.  As a student you require properly structured feedback on your progress.  In my club we do this in writing to each student every month and verbally every lesson.  The Instructors make sure that they get around to every student every session and give them some “personal” assessment and instruction, if the student is a child we try to talk to the parents on a regular basis as well as the child and support that with the written assessments.

We then need to encourage proper questioning from the student and  (quite often) teach them how to do it!  It amazes me how “dull” the minds are of much of the youth today.  I recently gave a lecture on Buddhism to a group of 6th formers as part of their religious education and expected a lively discussion on the subject – I even deliberately made it a bit controversial to get the discussion going….  At their age I would have had a million questions but……  nothing.  I was amazed!  The feedback I got from the teachers later confirmed that they had enjoyed the session but seemed to be unable to phrase their questions!

I received much of my best teaching by having private lessons because it gave me the chance to ask questions without holding up the progress of other students.  Much of the information that I was taught had never been taught before because the no one had ever asked the question! 

It had never occurred to my oriental teachers that we would either want or need that kind of teaching, yet it was vital to my progress!  Often it would involve my Japanese Instructor drawing the Kanji for a principle and explaining the pictogram and its parts to help me to understand the cultural background to the idea.

There is another aspect to questioning that is important, we don’t just teach a student and then they know it.  It’s more like they “give birth” to the understanding.  The instructor acts as kind of “midwife” by encouraging the idea and understanding to take place.  To produce this a positive interaction of 2 way questioning and feedback is essential.  If you’ve been training for a while you will understand what I’m saying, it’s just that a negative training environment where the Instructor doesn’t encourage or use the tool of questioning and feedback stifles this. 

You only have to look at those clubs to see the clones that look like robots on the outside and have no understanding or development on the inside and the instructors act like Sergeant Majors in the army  – and god help you if you think for yourself!

So questioning and feedback is an efficient tool to be used both ways between instructor and student, it can also be an effective tool between instructors as well, to improve their efficiency and working relationship, often they are too wary to discuss each other’s shortcomings and qualities directly.  This is why we have Instructors sessions and courses in my club and association that are not just “advanced” technical courses but include a heavy dose of personal development as well – and this doesn’t exclude the Chief Instructor!

It is also a useful tool to use with the parents and families of the students, it gives you background and feedback as to the effect that the training is having on the student and his family outside of the Dojo.

If the company that you work for does not use it effectively, or the school that you attend, then why not suggest that they learn to employ it?  By bringing up all the problems and challenges that you face working as a team it means that you will all be “singing off the same hymn sheet” once they have been resolved and function far more efficiently.

The same for your home life and any other relationships that you have, it encourages more openness and honesty and the more that you learn the skill of honest questioning without rudeness and are genuinely aspiring to be the best that you can you really will be able to live in “harmony” with those around you!

I’m writing this in a hotel room in Hong Kong – I’m here to train with my Taiji teacher and there is no finer music to my ears than when she asks “do you understand?”  or  “any questions?”….