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Teaching Teachers, part 1: Class instruction

If I wasn’t teaching swordsmanship I’d be teaching something else. Giving instruction is my best learning environment. If ever I’m having difficulty with any skill, be it woodwork, writing, or getting my sword to go where it should, I conjure up an imaginary student and in my mind teach them how to do it. Instant improvement, every time. This means that my job suits my nature, yes; but it also means that because I’ve never really studied teaching, I’ve just always done it, I find it very difficult to pass on my teaching skills. I have no method, I just do. Or rather, I had no method, I just did.

In this I have been failing my students, which is unacceptable, so for the last couple of years I have been working on teaching. I began by attending a British Academy of Fencing coaching course, in April 2010. We trained from 9am to 9pm for five days straight, and I was deeply uncomfortable and out of my depth almost the entire time. Not very enjoyable, as such, but seriously good for me. It opened my eyes to a pedagogy of teaching, and crystallised for me a clear and simple set of goals for teaching. The Art of Arms is a way of organising the practices and principles of combat so that they may be studied and taught. The BAF has done to the art of teaching fencing what Fiore did for the Art of Arms. It is irrelevant that the techniques and theory of sport fencing are radically different to those of my core systems. What matters is that there is a clear body of technical and tactical knowledge, a perfectly defined environment in which it is supposed to be applied, and a systematic way to get students from one to the other. That system is priceless.

I established a set of quite high-level teaching qualifications for the school long ago, but never put in place a clear and unambiguous ladder for students to climb to attain them. This had to change. And so I discussed the issue with various branch leaders, and we agreed that it would be a good idea to institute a series of seminars in which we would go over class instruction and individual instruction from the ground up. Once this is in place, there will be a clear and transparent way for anyone interested in becoming an instructor to do so. By making it a requirement that anyone who stands up in front of a class has had some teacher training before they do so, we not only maintain standards, but also create a face-saving way for anyone who does not wish to teach to avoid ever being asked to do so; they simply never go on the course and so can’t be asked to run a class. Of course we must also grandfather in the senior students who have been running classes for years without a piece of paper saying they can. Actual certificates and course requirements are not yet in place, but we took a major step in that direction last weekend, when I ran my first ever pedagogical weekend course. We covered running a basic class on the Saturday, and giving individual instruction on the Sunday. I’ll cover Sunday’s adventures in a second post, let’s look at what we did on Saturday.

Twelve students attended, varying in experience from having never stood in front of a class before, to having run dozens and dozens of classes. Naturally, one of our topics was how to run a class for a mixed group! But the first step, of course, was to set the requirements, the expectations. It is simply this: at the basic level, the class leader’s job is to provide a safe environment in which training will occur. That’s it. You don’t need to be able to teach the punta falsa from first principles, nor customise the class to the interests of its members: just open the doors, give folk stuff to do, and make sure no-one gets hurt. In short: create and maintain a safe training environment.

We then had a look at the structure of a typical class. It looks like this:

1. Opening salute

2. Warm-up

3. Footwork/mechanics (especially 4 guards drill)

4. Dagger

5. Solo sword practice (especially cutting drill)

6. Pair sword practice.

7. End salute.

Within each section we identified a typical structure: for example, the warm-up usually goes something like:

1. Open joints

2. Heat body

3. Activate stabilisers

4. Establish range of motion

5. Establish smooth movement

The students then had 10 minutes to plan a class, including a specific warm-up. This written plan would be developed further later in the seminar, but to start with I had them test the plan by simply going through their own planned 10  minute warm-up. Did it work as they intended?

We then started to follow the usual pattern, with each student in turn setting and demonstrating the next step, and having the class follow it. I made sure that those with the least teaching experience went first. I also compressed the practice time- the point of the day’s training was to teach the basic drills, not doing them with a partner.

When everyone had had a slot in front of the class, we stopped to look at class progression: how to know when to move on, or take a step back. In short, if everyone is busy training, leave them to it. If the flow starts to clog up, the class is either unready for the current assignment, so bring them back a step; or ready to move on, so add the next action or move on to the next drill.

You should stop the class for one of the following reasons only:

1) Safety. Things are looking dangerous, so stop.

2) Obvious error: more than half the class is making the same mistake. Stop and correct the group, rather than make individual corrections.

3) Training flow is clogged: see above.

4) Time: classes must start and finish on time. It is disrespectful to your class to keep them past the allotted time.

We then looked at the difference between setting the class a new, unfamiliar exercise, and setting them something that most of them know. In short, for new material, demonstrate step by step, and have them do each step before adding the next. Demo for 2 minutes, have them train for 4. For familiar stuff, demo for 1 minute or less, have them practice for 5. (One of my sins is I talk to much in class. Swordsmanship is learned by doing, not listening.)

Once we had set the theory, it was time for practice. They split into three groups of four, and had each member of the group in turn be the teacher, setting a familiar drill. So, short demo, and have them get on with it. The teacher then had to watch their class (all three of them!) and assess whether to move on, move back, or let them get on with it.

I then had the teachers “teach” a new drill (of course everyone present had already passed their level one, so must know the four basic drills already). This had to be done step by step, starting with something familiar, and building up from there.

This helped to introduce the idea of interval training, which is the bedrock of pacing any class. Gradually increase difficulty, until mistakes start to be made, then ease off a little, before pushing ahead again. (I go into this in more detail in my Little Book of Push-ups.)

Given that almost none of my students who lead classes get paid for their time, it is unfair to expect them to sacrifice all their training time to running classes, so we looked at when and how you can incorporate your own practice into the class. One such technique is to join the group, have everyone train in two straight lines, and when time to change partners, you hold the corner and everyone else shifts one place to their right. The person you just trained with goes across to your right (or waits out one turn if there’s an odd number in class including you).

We then turned out attention to running a mixed class, the pattern of which should go:

1) Everyone together, seniors helping juniors.

2) Juniors and seniors split into groups- juniors practice what they just learned, seniors doing something at their level.

3) Back together, but this time seniors get to play a little, taking advantage of the junior’s predictability, or beginner’s unpredictability.

The basic goal is that everyone in class gets something they can do, something they can almost do, and the students at various levels learn to value each other.

Of course it often happens that students may show up to class that have more experience than the student in charge, so I gave the attendees a few key phrases to use for pushing people along who are already ahead of you. Such as: “add a degree of freedom to that”; “coach for the first two passes then do the drill competitively”; “how’s your grounding?” etc.

I had the students expand their original class plans to include more advanced variations on the set drills, so that if more experienced students showed up their plan could easily accommodate them. I showed them how to do it with a basic example:

They then worked up their plan, before putting it into action. I split the attendees into two classes, and each class being further split into “seniors” and “juniors”. The class leader for each group had to practice setting the whole class an exercise, then splitting them up by skill level and assigning different content to each group, then bringing them back together. We largely left out the actual training time, though everyone present knew that in a real class you must leave them to practice. The drill was for the class leader to practice assigning appropriate content, and splitting and reforming the class as necessary.

We then looked how the attendees could maintain and improve the skills they had picked up over the course of the day. It is now school policy that anyone who has attended this kind of course can ask to lead a section of someone else’s class, to get to practice their demonstration and observation skills. We will also encourage them to take a whole class, at first with a more experienced student present as back-up in case things start to go wrong, and then on their own.

Towards the end of the day we discussed the difference between being responsible and being culpable. While students are under your care, you are responsible for their safety. But this is a naturally dangerous activity, and accidents may happen. Provided you stick to the syllabus and safety guidelines and behave responsibly, you can’t be held culpable even if you are the one responsible. This lead us on to a set of scenarios, such as: what do do if

1) You see a student sitting out? ask them what’s wrong, help them if needed.

2) There is an accident? Depending on the severity: either apply first aid, organise a lift to the nearest Accident and Emergency room, or call an ambulance.

3) You have a student asking too many derailing questions? Tell them to ask them after class.

And so on.

It only remained to define success. In order of importance, your basic class was successful if:

1) There are no injuries.

2) Everyone was busy

3) They ended class better swordsmen than they started it.

All in all, it was a hugely important day for the future of the School, and I was absolutely delighted by the way the students engaged with the process of becoming teachers.







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