As I already mentionned, I’m very interested in alternative ways to learn jiu-jitsu — or rather I’m discontent with the way we learn it today. It reminds me of highschool. I wrote a big ass draft about that 6 month ago, but when I read it now it sounds like stating obvious things so I’ll keep that part short.

The education analogy

Schools — at least where I live — don’t try to teach you to think, they try to make you memorize things. Multiplication tables are a perfect example of that: instead of learning how to solve 7×6, you memorize that it’s 42. The problem of course is that when you have to solve a multiplication you haven’t memorized yet, you’re fucked.

We usually figure out the logic behind multiplications later in our lifes, but more complex subjects are kept as a collection of facts. We’ll get back to this soon, but before I’d like to show an interesting video of Kit Dale explaining how that relates to BJJ.

Memorizing the result of a multiplication is pretty much like learning individual techniques in jiu-jitsu: it’s helpfull when you’re in the situation to use it and uterly insignificant otherwise. More importantly, it’s just not a scalable way to learn something as complex as jiu-jitsu. Black belts often explain how they see everything as a big system instead of a bunch of techniques.

Why then don’t they teach jiu-jitsu as they see it? Is the multiplication-tables way of learning more effective?

It has always been done that way

I think it’s because we tend to teach the way we learned. Traditionnal education uses the memorization approach so it’s no wonder it translated over to martial arts education. But are there other ways?

When computers started to become common a lot of smart people thought about what we, as a society, could do with them. One of those people was Alan Kay. In 1995, he wrote some things that I find relevant here.

We have to find out how we humans are “naturally” set up to think and learn.

We can get a clue from the Bible. King Solomon was held to be the wisest man who ever lived and it says why: he knew more than 3000 proverbs! And proverbs work as follows: if you come home from a trip and your family is glad to see you, then “Absence made their hearts grow fonder.” But if you come home from a trip and they aren’t particularly glad to see you then the reason is…what? That’s right, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Each proverb exists to give meaning to a particular situation, and each is recalled on a case to case basis. If the proverb you use today (or the play or movie you see today) contradicts the one from last week, it is of no moment because proverbs and stories are evaluated mainly on how good they are right now, not how they compare to the other proverbs and stories in the pool.

Emphasis mine, but replace “proverb” with “technique” and we are back to the fundamental problem of learning by memorization. The next paragraph is where it gets confusing:

This way of thinking and giving meaning to one’s life and society in terms of stories and narratives is universal over all cultures, and is in our basic “wiring” as human beings. It is part of what we call “common sense.” And it is the way most of the college students that NSF and I talked to had “learned science”–as isolated cases, stories that would be retrieved to deal with a similar situation, not as a system of inter related arguments about what we think we know and how well we think we know it. Story thinking won out. Claude Levi-Strauss and Seymour Papert have called this incremental isolated “natural” learning “bricolage”—which means making something by “tinkering around.” This is one of the reasons that engineering predates science by thousands of years; some constructions can be accomplished gradually by trial and error without needing any grand explanations for why things work.

Did you notice? Trial and error are viewed as an integral part of learning by memorisation, or narrative as Kay calls it. But in the Kit Dale video above, trial and error was the alternative! So what gives?

Inventing other ways of learning

The rest of Kays text is scoped to computers and doesn’t translate well to jiu-jitsu (but it’s an interesting read anyway). My point is that learning by trial and error is probably better then sporadic techniques but in the end, it’s still story based learning. The tree of skills Kit Dale is refering to at the end of the video is what we shoot for, but it blooms very late.

So what other ways are there? You can’t teach something you don’t know really well, let alone invent new ways of teaching it… So I will limit myself to areas of the game that I feel I know enough and there aren’t many of them right now :). I have a draft on closed guard that I’ll publish some day.
The thing is, there seem to be some condescendance from older, upper belts regarding new learning systems. I remember the words of a speaker — the one who introduced me to the work of Kay, and changed the way I think about many things — he said:

The most dangerous thought you can have as a creative person is to think you know what you are doing. You stop looking around for other ways of doing things. You stop beeing able to see other ways of doing things. You become blind.