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.