What Shaolin Monks Taught Me About Teaching

The best teacher training I have ever had was from a 34th Generation Shaolin  Warrior Monk, Shi Yan Jun.

Over the years, I have had in-school training such as INSETs, after-school twilight sessions, teacher observations (given and received). I have had off-site training run by battle-hardened professionals but sweetened with coffee, fancy biscuit and lecture notes. And I have followed my own CPD via conferences, Teachmeets, reading the latest literature, followed some inspirational education professionals online. Some of these have been useful (especially the last category), but a lot, however good the intention, have been poor. (For me, anyone who tells you putting up displays in a school is “sexy” needs sectioning). As the brilliant David Weston pointed out a while back, that “[doesn’t just mean] poor value for money or insufficiently effective – it’s much worse than that. A large swathe of training has no effect whatsoever on pupil outcomes.”  My time with the Shaolin monks has already had an impact.

Professional development wasn’t my reason for going to China. Instead, as John Kay might put it, the training happened obliquely. A while back I read about an inspirational headmaster who started every academic year with a challenge. He would, to take one example, play the bagpipes badly in front of the whole school, and then explain to the children that by the end of the year he would be better. At the end of the year he would show how far he had progressed. I loved the idea of publicly learning something with the children and so, in the spirit of all good learning, stole it. This year’s my 10-year old students challenged me to become a “tai chi kung fu master”. Like many teachers, I am time-rich so rather than struggle with evening classes during the working week, I decided to go to the source and visit a Shaolin monastery.

It took a month, I was forever bottom of the class and I spent a lot of the time either in pain or with “panda asthma” or both. I would also do it again in a shot. There are clearly physical and mental benefits but it has also made me a better teacher.

Teaching Take-Aways

None of what follows is ground-breaking. After all, the method the Shaolins use is centuries old. What was different for me, though, and what I had not experienced quite so vividly for far too long, was being on the receiving end of different teaching methods, day in, day out, as a struggling student. Being there, at “Level Zero“, even for a month, gave me the chance to view many things in the raw. However much I may try to read, watch and listen to edu-posts, from Ken Robinson’s Kool-Aid to testing and formative assessment, from how timetables feel to peer learning, I never see them from the point of view of a student.

I began to take notes, and was lucky enough to be able to chat to Amanda Gibson, an art teacher from Canada, to get her perspective on things. Broadly speaking, there were 8 lessons the experience held for teachers.

  1. Humour signals effort.
  2. A trellis is not a prison
  3. Small steps still need a direction
  4. Crispness beats pace
  5. Enough rope, then scissors
  6. Review, review, review
  7. Variations on a theme
  8. Value students’ free time

1. Humour signals effort. Remembering everything you have to learn is hard. It’s even harder when you’re physically exhausted, keen to do well, but a little embarrassed at how hard you’re finding it. That’s then makes you hyperaware of others doing bits quicker, or spotting how far ahead the senior students are and thinking about how far you have to go. All of our group worked hard. You could see the frustration on everyone’s faces when they made mistakes and the determination despite the aches and pains. We all, also, encouraged each other, with little bits of advice here and there, with congratulations and with humour.

It struck me that I will have almost certainly at times in class misjudged students’ humour and chatter as a lack of effort and focus when it was quite the opposite. That humour is not necessarily mischief.  Often it is an indicator of how hard the students were working, or if you like the panting in between flights of stairs. Humour signals effort.

2. A trellis is not a prison. Our timetable was, on the face of it, rigid: up at 5.30, cold shower, eight hours of kung fu training a day, regimented meals to be eaten in silence, all very much like a school. Similarly, within the sessions, there was always familiar routine: qi gong, warm-up runs, stretching and then training. While I didn’t always relish the prospect, that routine boosted my readiness to learn. By doing those simple things regularly and often, when the critical part of the activity came, I was properly focused on it. Equally, while there was a basic timetable, there was flexibility within that to practise and train on what best suited me. The shifus would make sure I was all right, and I was always encouraged to ask questions, essentially so they could bespoke my experience.

A large part of me loves open space events, like unconferences, Teachmeets and the like. I’m also a big believer in the value of unstructured play, of independent, self-directed learning and am easily excited by experiments in different sorts of school structures.  While I still value those, the monastic timetable has made it clear that those little classroom routines and broad structures are not a prison were a trellis to support me. If I understood it intellectually after reading Doug Lemov and others, since coming back, I have been a believer.

3. Small steps still need a direction.  Learning the various forms, from the basics to even the most advanced, was taught by chunking. Each journey, as Lao Tzu said, starts with a single step. Forms, or series of moves, were broken down in to smaller sequences to help us learn the whole. This worked, and worked well. Whether it was Tai Chi, Wu Bu Quan or Staff Form, the shifus would take us step by step through the moves. During the longer forms, though, I often wondered how close to the end we were. (A little bit like children in a car asking “Are we there yet?”). Ignorant of the form as a whole, I had no sense of progress. For the staff form, another student, Pascal, had cunningly asked the shifu to demonstrate the moves and videoed him while doing it. He shared the end result (below) and that helped me plot my progress.

As a teacher, I sympathise completely with the shifus. It is all too easy to break the challenge down in to steps for the student and to become so focused on teaching those individual steps that one assumes the student remembers or understands the end goal. This is compounded in the UK in lessons where there is a push to focus on “progress” and showing that students are moving from A to B.

The problem with that, I discovered, is student motivation. Chunked tasks work and are hugely effective, but in and of themselves they do not add any “oomph”. What Pascal showed with his video was that an understanding of how far you have come, and how far you have to go, helps you tackle the chunked tasks with a huge amount more energy. Small steps still need a direction.

4. Crispness beats pace. For three weeks, I found it frustrating learning forms. For the most part, that was because every time I felt I’d “got” one section of the form, and demonstrated it to one of the shifus, they’d tell me I had to make another little tweak to what I was doing. While I was keen to race through and learn the whole form, they were keen on making sure everything I did was as crisp as my abilities would allow.

Slow-witted character that I am, it took me three weeks to realise this was exactly what Josh Waitzkin had outlined in his Art of Learning. I’d read this book, nodded along with it, but when the time came to apply it, or as he might say to “discover the macro by diving into the micro”, I’d ignored it all. In the end, I got it and when I did everything became both less frustrating, I felt I was learning more, and I started making more connections between what I was learning. As a teacher, I have become far more focused on taking time to make sure the micro is there. Crispness beat pace by a country mile.

5. Enough rope and then scissors.  Naturally, within each group some of us were at different levels from others. One of the principles Shi Yan Jun repeated often was that we should not teach each other new things. We could help each other try to understand what we’d been taught but teaching each other new forms ended up giving the learner bad habits. It made sense, even if it sounded a little Draconian. During practice, though, especially while I was trying to learn the staff form, I often found myself asking friends like Henry, Marcel or Nick what on earth I was meant to be doing (and vice versa). What we found was that peer-learning got us some way there, but the shifu would often have a solution that made everything easier and they often timed their interventions to perfection, letting the struggle happen but not letting our frustrations debilitate us.

In my own class, I encourage sessions of peer learning. I think it’s important for students to have a go at maths problems themselves first and I think there is value in their rephrasing ideas for themselves. Similarly, there are moments where students need to work on a task on their own. While there is not always the obvious, rapid feedback of getting your kung fu limbs in a tangle with a stick, what being on the other side has really highlighted is the value of timing one’s input as a teacher, giving students enough rope but using scissors at just the right time.

6. Review, review, review.  Each shifu started the session with a recap of what had been learned in the previous session. Often, this was as simple as doing the form as far as we knew how to. The benefits were two-fold: for the shifus, it provided a very obvious “how are they each getting on” assessment. For us, as students, it also helped. It highlighted areas we didn’t know. Less obviously, perhaps, it gave us a chance to ask questions about what we had not understood.

That last bit was a Damascus moment for me. As a student, it takes time to understand what you don’t understand. As a teacher, I have probably been guilty of moving on too quickly. The simple review allows the students time to have processed what they learned (or didn’t) in the previous session. It was this focus on review at the start of the lesson that was perhaps the biggest take-away of the trip, and one that I think both Amanda and I found the most obvious, despite our different subjects. Since China, “review, review, review” is at the top of all my planning.

7. Variations on a theme.  There were four shifus who taught me and they all had different styles. If I had to characterise them broadly, there was kindness, strictness, energy and enthusiasm. Depending on how I felt I was doing, any one of those might work or not. Some students clearly preferred others, depending on levels, characteristics and approach. What did happen, though, was that the variety of styles, when combined with their unison of purpose, honed our skills. (Xie xie, shifus!)

If jury service taught me anything it was this: that you could disagree with the individual voices but agree with their collective effect. This same dynamic seems to work with teaching styles. Students will always chime with some teachers and not with others. Similarly, given the range of different styles in a staffroom, it is easy to feel “I should be more like X or Y”. But that is not standardising on the right thing (Dave Gray has some interesting things to say on this). Seeing the effect of the different characters of shifus has made me think that the variety is all to the good as long as we are variations on the same theme.

8. Value students’ free time. I was worried before I went that the other Westerners would be six-packed, testosterone heavy “alpha” types who were keen to prove their standing. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The gentle, cheerful support everyone gave each other was astonishing. And what was nurtured in time away from the monastery came back ten-fold during practice.

From a teacher’s point of view, the effect is simple. Give the students time to be together outside of lessons and that will only benefit them as they try to learn. In more jargony terms, unstructured play clearly works. In less jargony terms, let people know that you are aware that there is more to life than school, and school seems a more sensible place to spend your time.

Be rubbish and you will learn

As above, none of this is new, or even close to being groundbreaking. What worked for me, as CPD, was the perspective. Rather than sitting in a hall, or a classroom or a seminar, and rather than imagining what it was like to be a student, I went up a mountain and did something I found hard. I learned a little bit of kung fu, but I learned a lot more about how to teach and more importantly how better to empathise with my students. If you want a different type of CPD, but one that stays with you, I would recommend doing something where you are the student, where you are underconfident and where you start at Level Zero.