Monday, 30 March 2009

Grading systems and teaching syllabus. How do we fit it all in?

I posted this to the SES forum and to save time am posting it here also.

After an interesting conversation recently with some of the more advanced students in our group, I started to wonder about how the syllabus and levels are structured and the benefits of introducing grading, as commonly found in other martial art systems. I am sure this has been on other people's minds too and that Guy has given it extensive thought.

What would be some benefits of grading?
1. A solution to maintain long-term interest in swordsmanship
2. Focus training and goals
3. Reinforce the sense of achievement and progress in their studies and training

One of the main reasons for the drop in advanced student numbers is linked to their having little sense of progress, each training session introducing apparently random material drawn from the syllabus which is then not practiced again for months on end, if ever. This applies equally to the Fiorean material as to other weapon systems like 1.33. I am specifically talking about our own group here and the fact that we have quite a good "core" group speaks more of the willingness and interest of the group members than to the amorphous training programme being offered by me as class leader. I can openly admit to being able to handle the beginner's course with a fairly tight structure as laid down in the syllabus. However, the sheer volume of skills and techniques required for levels 1 and 2 "explode" after finishing the beginner's course and I am simply overwhelmed as to how to get all of this across to students of at least three different skill level cohorts at a level that meets all of their needs and which offers the possibility of regular revision. This also takes away from my own training time (but this is another topic).

I have trained karate for 4 four years and experienced several gradings (kyu) to gain a certain belt colour. I didn't really enjoy the stress that the testing engendered, but I trained hard for the gradings, with a specific set of techniques to show that my general skills were up to par, and passed them all. The feelings of achievement afterwards were worth it all. Before finding Fiore, I tried beginner's courses in Turku in Yushinikai karatejutsu, Choy Li Fut kung fu and Hokutoryu Jujutsu. I passed two gradings in the first style but dropped out in the middle because we had to pay to do the grading (100 FIM), which I disagreed with in principle, and through injury in the latter. I have got the impression that in SES we train and we are "observed" so that ultimately Guy decides if we have earned the free scholar rank and so we progress, more recently we have the coloured logos, all of which I think are good ideas and which I support.

However, if syllabus levels 1 and 2, etc. were broken up into smaller chunks, with a tighter list of techniques to be learned, followed by a grading, which needed to be satisfactorily "passed" before progressing, I am beginning to feel that the swordsmanship material would be easier to learn, teach (lead class), and give a better sense of progress/achievement than we currently have. I'm not saying that we would have to have a belt system, after all a belt just holds up your trousers.

Perhaps we could introduce some sort of training logbook for each member? Other martial styles have these and I have something similar for my scuba diving training, which covers all of the lectures(theory) I've attended, the underwaterwater syllabus in the pool and open sea(numbers of dives to specific depths), and any extra courses I've taken (Rescue Diver, Underwater archaeology, Chamber dive, cold-water dives, drift diving, boat handling etc), as well as the tests I've passed, and my current rank.

Ok, this is perhaps an odd comparison, but I think a parallel system could be applied. I've written in another thread on the SES forum about student training data and how to analyse this. Simply making a list and asking students to rank their skill levels on a scale of 1 to 5 is one way of doing it, but this only gives a vague impression of an individual's or group's "skill profile". A logbook system would be much more accurate and could easily be followed in a central database. Low level gradings could be done within a group (within Level 1), with anything higher requiring examination by Guy/Ilkka, or all gradings could be carried out on Syllabus days in Helsinki or when Guy/Ilkka/Topi visits a branch/group. So, if student X is travelling to Helsinki for a syllabus day, they might be grading or using the opportunity to find out more in depth information about the set of techniques required for his/her next grading. Syllabus days set definite goals as well as reinforcing skill levels if there is a particular "theme" for that particular day, i.e. measure.

On rereading my post, I realise that one could also look at the situation like this: Is it that the syllabus is too extensive and needs modification OR is it that as class leader, I am overwhelmed by trying to teach it?

It will be interesting to see the results of the poll I posted on this topic. That is, if SES members take the time to read my post and actively give feedback. IMO, there are too many lurkers and not enough posters.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Free training musings

I thought it would be fun to have some free training last saturday. Free training is an unofficial class where students can pick and choose what style or techniques within a style to train without any organised class structure. Saturday saw us split into two groups, one concentrating on the abrazare plays, the other on 1.33 (see previous post).

Despite my reservations on the outcome of the sword and buckler group, I think the idea was generally a good one. Nevertheless, it seems to be the case that in our group at least, quite a few people like to have a class leader to tell them what to do and take them through or suggest material to train. I was kind of hoping that our lot are independent or comfortable enough to pick something that they want to train and then just get on with it by themselves. Some are, some are not. Ok, so perhaps the next free training will be divided into a structured class for half of the training period and the remaining half will be designated "free".

Perhaps I missed something from saturday's training. The free training is a relatively new event for a lot of our group and even training 1.33 (which we have trained sporadically before) was sufficiently "new" to put some people outside their "comfort zones". When things didn't go exactly to plan, I was left with the feeling that I "failed" in leading the 1.33 class. I guess that in hindsight, this being out of the comfort zone applied equally to me as I'm not used to leading a group in sword and buckler and this reflected on my performance. Still, to look at it more positively, we need to train 1.33 more, and while I may not be good at leading a class in it yet, repetition will make me better.

Obsessing over obsessios

Well, we went over the basics on saturday last and it went....ok. The wards and rolling exercises were generally no problem but as soon as we went to the 1st play of halfshield vs. prima custodia things got a bit bogged down and I have the feeling that people may have gone away from the class feeling that 1.33 is shite and that the next time they have free training, they'll just stick to Fiore longsword instead. Here's some of the problems encountered:

-Students found themselvs either moving too late and/or not moving far enough to the side when "falling under", resulting in they got hit or ended up "stuck", with blades crossing at the fortes, and the besetter then not being able to bind down properly on the defender's blade.
-Other details such as the shiltschlac were somehow "forgotten" or done with the buckler arm bent, as they just wanted to hit the other, often with the false edge.
- To make the durchtritt "work", some students extended their sword hands well beyond their bucklers when "falling under".

Not their fault of course. The "blame", if we want to call it that, lies squarely on my shoulders. I should have gone more slowly and stepped the drill more. The way things turned out, I guess I was trying to make them run before they could really walk. Some of the students coudn't see the link between the movements in the rolling exercise and those in the counter to the overbind, leading to durchtritt, mutacio gladii, or the wrap. Perhaps this is just a question of starting again from scratch and drilling the wards and rolling exercise more.

In fairness, the plays in 1.33 are "difficult", in that they are rather subtle in terms of timing, distance, tactical intent and awareness of what is supposed to be happening at any step in the drill, however this is no different for longsword. In my case, I didn't ensure that each step was trained enough. I think though that if the students can get the hang of the rolling exercise, apply it to the first play and get it right, then everything will start to fall into place.

I love the 1.33 treatise, from the beards and moustaches drawn in later by some child in the last 800 years, to the enigmatic smiles of the priest and student, and the confident and assured "voice" of the priest wisely telling us, "If you would be judged by my counsel.....". Priceless. All I need to do now is practice, practice, practice! It's great that the basic plays are available on youtube from both the School of European Swordsmanship: and from the Hammaborg School in Germany: