The idea of the academic dojo

Last year (in May 2017) we gave a presentation with aikido master Szabolcs Gollob (5. dan AIKIKAI, EBR Advanced Instructor) about the similarities between recent learning theories of the West and ancient principles of learning in the East. This presentation was the outcome of long conversations about the nature of learning and the differences between the classroom and the dojo.

Let’s start with the most obvious differences in the naming of the two locations. The name of the classroom simply means that it is a place where classes are given. There is no additional information about what exactly happens there. However, most of us have the mental image that there is one person who speaks at the front (hence the term frontal teaching) and all the others listen intently (ideally at least). On the other hand, the name of the dojo, which is traditionally a room for practising martial arts, literally means the ‘place of the Way’.

The term dojo refers to intensive concentration and immersive learning through the continuous practice of a given art.

The meaning of the space also differs in the two cases. While the classroom does not necessarily have any special qualities compared to the rest of the building (school, university, etc.) where it is located, the boundaries of the dojo are symbolically quite relevant. Those who enter the dojo should change their mindset, concentrate and correct their mistakes the best they can in a given moment while being open to learning. In short, they should switch on their mastery orientation when they step in. More importantly (hence the expression ‘the Way’), there is no end to the learning in the dojo, people strive to improve continuously and incrementally, while classes at the classroom have a beginning and ending. The ending signifies that the student has understood the necessary bodies of knowledge or acquired the necessary skills.

martial artsThis “checklist-type” of learning (“learnt it, got the grade/credit, done with it, check”), which is characteristic of our education system, is at odds with traditional and implicit learning theories of martial arts. However, the best in any given field (sports, music, surgery, science etc…) is learning in the “traditional” way. Anders Ericsson, while examining peak performance, coined the phrase ’deliberate practice’ for this type of learning. It requires intensive concentration on practice and a strong determination to perform an activity (a movement, a musical piece, a mental procedure) more and more faultlessly and excellently. A mentor can guide the learner through the process by giving timely and expert feedback pointing to correctable mistakes, as well as by breaking down difficulties into manageable parts (chunks) which can be practiced individually. These parts then can be reassembled, and the learner can reach higher and higher levels of sophistication and understanding in the given field.

So, what are the take-home messages?

Firstly, we can learn a lot by understanding how learning is structured in the dojo ‘environment’. This is paramount since learning in the dojo is much closer to the way how the best train their bodies and minds in most of the fields, as demonstrated by Ericsson’s results. Secondly, as Szabolcs Gollob emphasised in our presentation, intellectual understanding is a barren field without practice, or to put it differently, deep understanding can only be achieved through practice. Thirdly, this type of learning requires certain character traits such as mastery orientation, grit and a growth mindset, which can be cultivated through the very process of practice. So, character development is an integral part of the whole endeavour.

Can we turn our classrooms into academic dojos? We can certainly try to bring certain aspects of deliberate practice into our education system.

Ericsson himself cites several examples in medical education and mathematics where his theory has been applied. At the very least, we can try to teach our students how to practice. This can be something they truly care about. However, this requires that master teachers at universities first become master learners themselves.

by Gábor Király