What I Have Learning About Mastery From Martial Arts

My son recently tested for his next level in taekwondo. Before all the students test, they are asked a series of questions, in order to assess their understanding in areas such as the offensive and defensive moves in their new form.

What is the meaning of your form?

How many moves are in your form?

Did you make your bed this morning?

The last question is a personal favorite :). It’s knuckle push ups for those with messy rooms. Responsibility is applied conceptually within my son’s program.

Students are also expected to perform their newly acquired knowledge and skills. Mastery is shown by displaying accuracy in their moves and through board breaking. If a student does not successfully break the board the first time, or if their form is not up to snuff, they try again. And again. And again. No student is left behind. They were invited to testing day because the instructors felt they were ready. Some students are not encouraged to test even though they are eligible; the instructor felt they needed more practice before this summative assessment.

  • When it is time for students to show what they know, is failure in option in our classrooms?
  • If a student is not ready to test, do we allow them more time to prepare?

medium_475602666 photo credit: Taekwonweirdo via photopin cc

The most interesting question that gets asked of all students is the reporting of their grades. The master instructor asks each one of them to publicly share what they received on their most recent report card. Personal responsibility is also connected to their efforts in school. If a student wants to attain black belt, they have to be in good standing in their academics. At this last testing event, I heard the following responses, and these are only the ones I remember:

“All A’s and B’s”

“Mostly 3’s and 4’s”

“My child does not receive grades; we homeschool, and he is assessed every day on his progress.”

“I got an E, some P’s, and one S.”

“We do standards-based grading, so we won’t know until later in the school year.”

At the end of this roll call, the master instructor quietly laughed and shook his head. “I used to teach physical education. When I taught, all we had were letter grades.” His comment hit home. In my own school, we report out two different types of grades: letters (A to F at 5th grade) and numbers (4 to 1 in K-4). In our effort to be more accurate in our assessments, we sometimes muddy the waters in what is considered mastery.

Schools would be wise to look to extracurriculars when trying to better represent student performance and progress. Taekwondo, and I suspect other martial arts, are a great example. For each belt, it is very clear what the student has to accomplish in order to don the next color. There are specific kicks, combinations, and forms that must be learned to move on. These skills are an iteration of a broader learning progression; one set of learning targets is built upon knowledge both previously attained and yet to come. Also, the athletic ability is not as important as the adherence to the criteria for achievement. Students are not compared to one another. Their performance is as much about personal bests as it is about mastery.

  • When we grade students, is our final assessment based on a common standard? Are we calibrating our judgment through collaboration?
  • Are we comfortable giving an “A” to two different levels of understanding and performance, as long as both learners met the criteria for mastery?


photo credit: palindrome6996 via photopin cc

In a prior post on this topic, I tried to start a conversation about this issue. As I reread my post and subsequent replies to readers’ comments, I don’t think I left the door open enough to facilitate a quality dialogue. I felt like I came across as knowing more than I probably do. After reading some of the articles in Educational Leadership’s most recent issue, Getting Students to Mastery, I have discovered the complexities on this topic. Grant Wiggins suggests that to help students attain a worthy goal, teachers should “provide valid feedback early and often” and help students “track their progress in closing the gap” toward true mastery (15). Thomas Guskey notes that mastery in itself “can be the learners’ purpose for engaging in a task or activity” (20). Guskey encourages teachers to focus on three practices when helping students strive for mastery (20):

  1. Allow students to resubmit assignments than need more work;
  2. Do not pressure students by consistently talking about grades and assessments; and
  3. Encourage self-comparisons and avoid comparing students’ achievement with that of other students.

When done right, it seems school and martial arts have much in common.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

3 thoughts on “What I Have Learning About Mastery From Martial Arts”

  1. I got a lot out of the most recent EdLeadership magazine as well. Mastery is so much different than proficiency. I wonder how my my life would have been different had I not gone for the As and had, instead, developed a desire to know stuff really well.

    My school has moved to a completely standards-based system. Having moved to Australia, I’ve moved into a culture where ‘meeting standard’ is a C. That is true in my stepchildren’s school. It’s true in my school. It’s true of all the all the transcripts we get from other Aussie schools.

    Alignment is good :).


    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Janet. Interesting information about Australia’s learning culture. Have you read The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley? Some eye-opening stories about school in top-performing countries. There is a cost to being “the best”.


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