Three Things for Teaching and Learning – Rory Miller

I’m sure there are more, but for my purposes, there are three distinct modes of teaching and learning:

  • Conditioning
  • Training
  • Play

To make this useful, we have to define them.
For our purposes, ‘Training’ is verbal teaching, explanation, patterns and repetitions.  Almost anything that you learn as a step-by-step process.  Practicing basics is training.  Going over the mechanics of a particular submission is training.  Kata is training.  Shadowboxing a specific pattern is training.  Whiteboard lecture on SD law or violence dynamics is training.

Conditioning is pairing a stimulus with a response.  Through immediate reward (punishment also works but can have some side effects) it can bring action up to nearly reflex speed.  It has limitations– it’s very difficult if not impossible to condition a complex response. The stimulus must be realistic, etc.  But conditioning is what you need in very fast situations.  And (proper) conditioning does come out under stress.  Responses that have only been trained seem to require experience before they can be accessed under stress (the 3-5 encounters that Ken Murray mentioned in “Training at the Speed of Life”).

Play is getting into a chaotic environment with the fewest possible restrictions and getting a feel for what works.  Randori, sparring, live training and competition.  But there are also a lot of games in different things.  And nothing beats reality.  No one has become a good driver just through classroom lessons or simulators.  You can memorize all the vocabulary and grammar rules but until you can bargain and argue and flirt, you don’t really know a language.

Conditioning is limited, but it has a critical aspect that is invaluable.  It is not only effective under stress but it is fast when done properly.  How many reps does it take to learn to throw the perfect reverse punch?  That’s training.  How many reps did it take for you to learn not to touch a hot stove? That’s conditioning.  It is powerful.  And conditioning is always on.  Your hindbrain is constantly learning lessons, getting a feel for what works and what hurts.  It is incredibly common for an instructor to teach something different than he is conditioning.  You teach pulling punches, you will yell at the student who makes contact.  Punching is taught but missing is conditioned.  The student will miss under stress.

Playing is critical because not just improvising but improvising subconsciously (the conscious mind is too slow) is possibly the most critical skill when things go bad.  Playing is how your skills become ‘nothing special.’  Just a normal way to move.  Playing moves what you have trained from your too-slow neocortex to a deeper part of your brain.

Training is the aspect I find myself questioning.  Some stuff is complex and almost everything interconnects.  Your higher brain is the only part that can grasp that, so training is critical.  But almost by definition, training wires skills to the part of the brain that is least effective in a crisis.  Critical.  Especially critical for talking about, challenging and improving your stuff.  You can’t share information easily or clearly by the other two methods– so without training everyone is in the trap of their personal experience and personal lives.  I believe it was Kano who said, “We must learn from the mistakes of others because we will never live long enough to make all the mistakes ourselves.”

So is training necessary?  How necessary?  How much?  When and how is it counterproductive?  Does rote repetition actually make you worse under stress?  I know it does if the environment is too different. I know it can get you killed if you don’t recognize when you are staying on a script and the world is changing.  So is training good?  Sub-optimal? Bad? A necessary evil?  How necessary?  And do most people spend most of their time with that aspect because they believe it works?  Or because the other two are too simple to satisfy our monkey minds?  Or because we all know, on some level, that training is easier, more controllable and often safer than conditioning or play?  And humans love control, safety and ease.

Real quick, the next step in our program, as the students identified the principle became:
Is there an aspect of the principle that can or must be conditioned?  How?
What needs to be trained to understand and apply this principle?
Can we come up with a game that relies on the principle so that it becomes natural, easy and fun?

Note- Play includes conditioning.  Instant feedback to what works and what doesn’t; immediate reward and punishment.  And play also provides ‘teachable moments’ where you can, with a few words, evoke a principle and increase efficiency.

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