Today we’ll take a deeper look into the structure of martial arts curriculum and classes. In general, we’ll be examining the pros and cons of a structured approach vs an open-ended, free-form approach. While I personally believe the best approach lies somewhere in the middle (having a plan and adapting to what comes up), we’ll be looking at the two concepts as opposite extremes.
If your school has belt ranks and a set curriculum for each rank you have structure. Some schools take this further and have different smaller pieces of the curriculum taught on different days or weeks. For some, this could mean a rotating form that everyone practices for a month in every class. For others, this could mean weeks alternate between focusing on basics and forms one week, and techniques and sparring another. The commonality is that in schools like these, students will know what will be taught on any given date.
Beginner students especially like structure. Starting martial arts is scary, and knowing exactly what to expect in a class makes it less so. Students who know they need to work on a certain part of the curriculum can make arrangements to attend the classes where that will be covered.
Monotony is the biggest con of a rigid schedule like this. If intermediate and advanced students know a class will focus on a form they’ve already been practicing for months or years, they might be less likely to attend. Also once a student has been through the rotation of curriculum a few times they might get the attitude of boredom, “oh great, these 3 techniques again.”
A more free form approach to curriculum would be covering a wide array of material, but not taught in any order, and taught to everyone in a given class without schedule or warning. If a school like this has a belt rank system, rank is usually an indicator of experience or subjective improvement rather than memorization of a set list of things.
When something is new to everyone (from white to black belt), everyone can work together. It’s easier to manage a classroom when everyone is working on the same thing. Having a class without set curriculum can also be exciting for students. Some people thrive on showing up and not knowing what to expect. Experienced students in particular will enjoy being challenged in this way.
When the content of a class varies wildly from one class to the next, it’s hard for students to develop a real proficiency. If a student does the same form every class for a month, they’ll show much more improvement than a student who has done 8 different forms in the same amount of time. Repetition is the key to learning a skill, and too much variety can hinder that. Also, presenting too much material can overwhelm students and make them feel like they’ll never be able to learn it all.
A structured class is one where certain things are regularly covered in a certain order. For example:
15 minutes of warmups and stretching
15 minutes of basics
15 minutes of forms/kata
15 minutes of techniques/sparring
As you can see, this class is rigid but covers all aspects of a curriculum.
This type of class covers a little bit of everything. It provides a general level of proficiency by not over-emphasizing one part at the expense of another. Another pro is that students with a favorite part of class will always get a chance to do that. Love sparring? You get to do at least a little every class. Having a structure like this is great with beginner students, and great for beginner teachers too! A new teacher can sometimes get “deer in the headlights” when teaching, but having a rigid structure like this makes it easy to know what to do next.
If you get too rigid, it’s easy to let things slip through the cracks. Sometimes a student will struggle with something and need more than 15 minutes to learn it. If you have to keep the whole class moving to the next thing, you won’t be able to focus on details for students who need it.
Having no set structure to class can be freeing. You can decide exactly what to work on as you go, and allocate time accordingly. Winging it like this can require more skill as a teacher, but it has a lot of advantages.
If you realize your students need to work on forms, you can spend the whole time on it. If spin kicks are giving people trouble, you can take all the time you need for them to get it right. Without a rigid structure to follow, you can adapt to your students’ needs. This is a great approach if your goal is to make sure as many mistakes get corrected as possible.
This approach can sometimes lead to tunnel focus. If you work a spin kick until it’s perfect, you might realize it took the entire class. Assuming your student shows up to 2 classes a week, you devoted 50% of their training this week to one very specific thing. It can be very easy to lose track of the big picture when you don’t have a plan for time management.
Somewhere between the two extremes…
Warning: Personal Opinion!
There’s a balance of structure and adaptability. Personally, I like a class where a little bit of everything will be covered. However, there should be some flexibility. If a student is struggling with a kick, maybe subtract 5 minutes of forms practice and add it to basics instead. For curriculum as a whole, I also favor a more structured approach. I like knowing what forms and techniques are required at each rank, and when that will be covered.
I tend to think that the free-form approach works best for special occasions or seminars. For example, if you told every student ahead of time that a certain class would be special and focus only on one topic. Another use of this type of class would be having a guest instructor come in to do an entire class on a topic not normally covered.
I tend to think structure should be the rule, and free-form should be the exception.