January 2014 – Spirit Made Steel Martial Arts

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why We Stopped Using a Rotating Curriculum

A rotating curriculum is a great tool for teaching large classes with few instructors. For those who are unfamiliar, a basic rotating curriculum works something like this:

First, take your curriculum and divide it into cycles. Typically, three cycles are used: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced. Typically, each cycle lasts a year. In our case, however, with a three and a half year minimum to black belt standard, the Advanced cycle was a year and a half long.

Ideally, each cycle gets its own class. So in our case, a beginner class, an intermediate class and an advanced class. Unless you don’t have enough students – and then you can sometimes get away with collapsing multiple cycles into one class. This is undesirable, because it negates some of the advantages of a rotating curriculum.

Now, each cycle is divided into mini-cycles – typically about one quarter (three months) long. You teach mini-cycle 1 the first quarter of the year, mini-cycle 2 the second quarter and so on. Hence the “rotating.”

There are some serious advantages to this approach – and they’re real. First, everyone in class is working the same material. Thus, breaking off one group (say, low belts) to work on one area while another group (say, high belts) works on another is minimized. You can also avoid spells where you have one or more students sitting around watching while higher ranked students do something different. Everyone stays on the same cycle, so students have the ability to help each other as well. After all, they’re all studying the same thing. And everyone belt tests at the same time – typically at the end of a quarter. So you don’t have to run belt tests for one student one month and ten the next.

But there are some down sides as well. For the most part, supporters of rotating curriculums are correct: there’s very little in an intermediate cycle that truly has to come in order. Is it really a big deal if someone learns Kata 4 before Kata 3? Usually not… except in one important case: brand new students. In a tradtional, non-rotating curriculum, the white belt kata (to take one example) is just about as stupidly simple as it gets. In fact, most styles have a variation of the same kata as their beginning kata. In our school, we call it Basic Kata 1. Traditional Shotokan schools call it Taikyoku Shodan. In other schools it goes by other names, and sometimes it varies slightly – but all of them are essentially a combination of nothing more than down blocks and punches.

There’s a reason the beginner forms are so stupidly simple. They’re for beginners. A typical white belt coming in off the street has an awful lot of new information dumped on him very quickly. He needs time to process it all – and he doesn’t need too much dumped on him all at once.

The issue isn’t just forms, either. White belts typically need to learn quite a bit of basic techniques before they’re really ready to follow everything else going on in class. Stances. Basic kicks and punchs. Breakfalls, if your school does mat work. Dumping them straight into techniques that were originally designed for a 3rd or 4th belt level student right on day one is rough. Yes, it can be made to work – I’ve done it, many times. But it’s far from ideal.

White belts often lose out in another way. What happens to a student who starts halfway through a mini-cycle? When the next belt test comes around, he’s just plain not ready. But then he has to waith through an entire second cycle before he can test. I’ve had a lot of students put up with this – but make no mistake, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Putting up with it. It’s not fair to them, and they know it. And as an instructor, I’ve always felt it, too.

There’s another group that often loses out: senior students making the jump from your last underbelt to black belt. Rather than having a few signature items that are designated as “black belt material” – maybe a special black belt kata, maybe a few other things – they’re just learning something at random (based on their start date) as their final techniques. It takes out some of the magic.

But most of all, my issue with it is that it’s a system designed for teaching large classes with a small number of instructors – and that’s exactly opposite of where I want to take my classes. I run small classes, deliberately capped, with maximum student/teacher ratios and maximum class sizes strictly enforced. I like to give individualized attention to each and every student. And I like having a curriculum where each step feeds into the next step.

Is it more work to teach this way? Yes, absolutely. I understand completely why other instructors have chosen to go with or stay with a rotating curriculum. But I believe the results are worth the extra effort.

Why We Are Not a “Black Belt School”

Madison Martial Arts Academy is not a “Black Belt School”. Most students who enter our dojo will never wear a black belt. Even fewer will actually make it “on time.” And even that phrase, “on time,” means something different when the minimum time to black belt is three and a half years rather than two.

But not being a “Black Belt School” means more than that. When you sign up for our classes, you will not:

  • Be handed a belt simply for showing up to a sufficient number of classes.
  • Be handed a belt simply for writing us a check.
  • Be awarded a belt when you’re not capable of doing the techniques required for that belt.
  • Be awarded a belt when you’re not capable of performing at the required level of proficiency.
  • Be forced to sign a contract that will keep you paying for our classes long after you’ve lost interest in attending them.
  • Be hounded into endless “membership upgrades” with little or no extra value.
  • Be taught “play karate.”
  • Be awarded a black belt after X years simply for “doing your time.”
  • Be surrounded by 30 other students with only one instructor.
  • Have your individual needs ignored while you’re spoon fed cookie-cutter instruction.
  • Be surrounded by “black belts” who never workout in class anymore.
  • Be confused by hidden or obfuscated prices.

When you join a class in our dojo, be prepared to work hard. Be prepared to sweat. Be prepared to think hard and to study. That doesn’t mean we won’t have fun – we will, both during class and outside of it. But we expect our students to come prepared to learn and to train and to take that learning and training seriously.

We don’t award belts just for showing up. Every belt has a minimum required time at the previous belt level. Most students who come to class and work hard won’t have trouble earning their next belt at these minimum times. But some students will take longer, even if they’re working hard. Some students have physical or mental challenges that will require even more effor than normal for them to learn the material. We work hard with these students to help them – but we won’t water down the requirements for them. Instead, we want them to know that when they finally reach their next belt rank, they’ve earned it.

We don’t hide our prices. They’re right up on our web site. When you walk in the door, you know what you’ll be paying – and as long as you stay current, your prices will never go up. Can you spend more money on gear, equipment, and accessories? Sure. Do you need to? Not at all. I trained for four years (until well past my first degree black belt) with one gi and one set of sparring gear, and you can, too, if you’re tight on money.

We don’t have “membership” upgrades because we don’t have memberships. You pay for the classes you take – period. Not taking a class? You don’t pay. Need to take a month off because life got in the way? You don’t pay.

Our class sizes are strictly limited based on the number of instructors available. In our dojo, you won’t walk in to a class with thirty students and one instructor. We maintain a low student/teacher ratio to ensure that you get the individualized attention you need. And we’ll modify the curriculum to suit individual physical needs. That doesn’t mean you’ll work less hard – it means that we’re going to help you figure out what “working hard” means for you.

Our curriculum is a serious martial arts curriculum. Based in karate, it also incorporates elements of kickboxing, jujitsu and many other arts to provide a complete, balanced approach for practical self defense. It’s the real deal – not playground stuff. So we might get a little picky about who we choose to train with. We can choose to say farewell to students who are disrespectful, who won’t work hard, or who will misuse and abuse the knowledge we’re imparting – and we have.

At the same time, we like to have fun – a lot of fun. We like to get to know our students personally, both inside and outside of class. We believe in real communities – something sadly lacking in our modern society. Our students help each other on the dojo floor, but also in real life when the occasion calls for it. Or, when times are better, we like to just have fun together.

Our classes are taught by instructors who are continuing to workout themselves – and continuing to expand their knowledge, each and every day. We do it because we love it, and we hope to share that enthusiasm with our students.

If you’re ready to work hard, to come in prepared to study and think, to learn some serious martial arts, be a part of a community, and have a blast and get in fantastic shape while doing it, then you might be a good fit for one of our programs.