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.

Grading and Assessment Newsletter to Parents

I want to thank everyone for attending parent teacher conferences in November. The goal of these nights are to facilitate conversation between teacher and parent about how your son or daughter is doing in school. I hope you found it helpful and informative.

Discussions are also occurring at a larger level in the education world. Most of what you read in the news focuses on dwindling funds for public education and thinking of ways to do “less with more”. Yet beneath these debates are more productive conversations about the daily teaching and learning happening everyday in school. One of the most pressing topics is assessment and grading.

When you and I went to school, and even still today, an A on a report card meant you were working your hardest and learning to the best of your abilities. Here in town, you can walk down the street from Howe to rent movies for free based on how many A’s you receive. Leaving near the Wisconsin Dells, I recall more than one summer as a kid, bringing my fourth quarter report card to get into a water park for free. I cannot remember what I did to get the A or what exactly I learned, other than to meet my teacher’s expectations.

These practices are changing. The focus on how a student is doing academically in education is moving toward growth of the student’s skills and knowledge toward mastery of a standard, such as adding two digit numbers. This is in contrast to getting a grade for turning in quality homework, raising your hand in class X number of times, or reading so many books per month. The former criteria tells you where a student is at in their abilities; the latter tells you more about their work habits, behavior and ability to play the game of school, all thrown together in a pot to concoct an average for nine weeks of work.

A great example of how grading and assessment will look when moving toward a growth model for mastery is karate. Dr. Thomas Guskey, a recognized expert in grades in school, states that went a karate student progresses from white belt to eventually black belt, he or she does not receive a “gray belt”. His example is a clever way of pointing out that an average is an inappropriate way to recognize mastery in an area. That student earned the black belt because he or she demonstrated the ability and knowledge that all students of karate must attain for this level of achievement. It is irrelevant whether it took them three months or three years to get there. The important thing is that mastery was reached, measured with reliable assessments such as a physical demonstration.

As I stated, when parents and teachers meet, the focus is on communicating information about your son or daughter’s learning. My goal for the changes in how grades are reported are that conversations will be more substantial because better data will be shared between both parties. If you have questions or ideas on this topic, I’d love to hear them. Stop by or give me a call.