Aiming for the Next Grade

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In Karate we are seeing a renaissance so to speak of the disregard or downplay of achieving grades.

Some schools are reverting back to keeping simply a three belt system, White, Brown and finally Black.

This is the same belt grading system as was devised by Jigoro Kano and subsequently adopted by Gichin Funakoshi.

However, since the introduction of coloured belts in 1935 by Judoka Kawaishi Mikinosuke onwards there grew a desire to increase testing and therefore increase belt colours.

Back then it was seen as a way of standardising the material and the students ability. As well as supposedly to help encourage European students to keep training. 

Today it is often further inflated into even more belt derivatives (striped, double striped, etc) and associated with money making McDojos.

However, some Dojo will grade often, and hand out many belt variations, but will not charge for them.

The reason they choose this way is because their pedagogical approach is about goal setting and validation for the students' work; often for children more so than adults.

But how necessary is this?

It could be argued that this system of increased grading and awarding belts is a product of the school system of the country in which the Karate is taught.

Many western school systems, especially in the UK and USA, are continually driven by government programs to produce more testing, and higher test scores. Despite many Teachers urging against such methods.

The idea being that they can better track students', and thus the countries, level of education.

However, it has been noted that with higher testing grows a greater a desire to simply study for the test, and not necessarily to learn the material being taught as a whole.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why many who pass Shodan grading drop out and never continue once the constant gratification wears off, and pretty steeply at that.

This is also the case when students move further up the educational ladder, receiving less and less praise or reinforcement from their respective teacher, tutor or final grade.

Before the introduction of the belt system there was nothing except for the continual feedback from the Sensei on how the student was progressing.

Error correction and an emphasis on making sure the student focuses on recognising and fixing their errors meant that at some point the Sensei was no longer required.

The Student can then go it alone, and continue to put the work in, knowing that over time the errors become fewer and the corrections become even further apart.

In contrast to the School systems of the UK and USA, Finland does not focus, or even include grades and testing throughout a child's education, apart from one final test in their senior year of high school.

And Finland continues to be ranked amongst the highest in educational standards.

Of course, there are many factors involved with the success of a child's education such as living environment, the education level of the parents and economic standard of the household. Finland is also a fairly homogeneous society which also plays a significant role.

Perhaps though what we can learn from this is that testing is overall pointless when it comes to the individuals ability.

Being able to pass a test makes that student no better or worse than the person next to them.

How they perform daily in the Dojo is the marker of their ability. How long it takes them to learn something and how much work they subsequently put into their learning are the basis of how well they will progress in their lifetime.

A study in the USA questioned some of the highest graded College students, 'valedictorian', which noted that despite achieving the highest grades in the country they felt that they were not as creative or as intelligent as their lower graded peers.

Achieving good test scores often comes down to being good at producing the answers that the teacher wanted.

This means less risk taking or deeper analysis of the material being learnt.

In karate this translates to the highest graded student being able to reproduce the techniques being taught by the Sensei. So if you are unable to produce power in the way that is being taught, or keep perfect alignment during deep stances it means you are graded lower in that system.

It does not mean you are not a good Karateka. For there are a number of ways in which to execute a technique and apply the principles.

And if all we ever produced from the Dojo were carbon copies of the Sensei then where would be the individual within the Art.

The desire to be included and validated by others is a strong instinct which is hard to overcome.

However, the sooner you take risks, get creative, play and test with what you know, the more the Karate will become your own.

Shu Ha Ri - To copy, to try, to be.

Do you think then that we should continue to teach our Students to aim for grades in Karate, or should we perhaps teach them the original philosophy, that it is more important to discover their own path than to imitate the path of another?