Learning from theory vs practical experience

Normally we probably consider shu-ha-ri [1] [2] to be a matter of the individual and that the training takes place in a controlled setting, the dojo. We could also consider sh-ha-ri as a matter of the setting, or context. When we think of the dojo setting we often presume that everyone is relatively uniform and that there are a number of limits that are not exceeded. Doing ‘shu’, that is, learning form and acquiring structure, and accordingly acquiring a certain sense should be easiest in such a setting.

As with building a bridge or house, one can include specific prescribed elements in the structure (e.g. walls, floors, foundation, windows, scenic places to stand), as well as run controlled tests without extraneous factors. In such a setting the shortcomings of the pedagogy/instruction/theory will be easier to discern. The theory is comprised of the defining the elements, the way the elements are put together, and the tests to check the elements and their synthesis.

In a more chaotic or arbitrary-seeming setting, much of the learning results are likely to arise out of necessity than theory or pursuit of an ideal. Some of the resulting structure may be innovative or ingenious. Some may function but only barely or by luck. Furthermore the resulting structure may be highly specialized to deal with the specific environment in which it finds itself, and have limited adaptability or generalizability for other situations. . If that environment is not specific but wide in scope and deep in degree (e.g. strong earthquakes, frequent hurricanes, freezing winters, etc.) then the corresponding necessity demanded of the structure will be high and, rationally speaking, the resulting structure will not only be generalized and adaptable but excel.

In the case of a student who is ‘raised’ under a teacher who comes from a background of practical experience, the student will likely acquire the teacher’s personal emphases, transmitted implicitly and explicitly. However, depending on how the teacher perceives his own strengths and weaknesses, that is, having practical experience but lacking theoretical concepts and framework, how the teacher transmits his knowledge and ability to the student will vary. For instance, while the teacher may not emphasize certain details, those details may still be crucial or even fundamental. The teacher may have come to embody those details unconsciously and consequently not perceive their significance. Or he may perceive their significance but not fully grasp how he came to embody them. These biased perceptions may leave that teacher with a skewed grasp of what he is transmitting to the student and what he should transmit.

As for the student’s point of view, he may deduce that his teacher is not transmitting everything but still have difficulty discerning what those missing details are and how to acquire them. Of course there is a lot of bridging the gaps, reading between the lines and filling in the blanks that is required of a student inevitably. However, when a student is apparently not succeeding in filling the gaps, there is no one other than the teacher (or possibly seniors) who can know the individual student’s difficulties and have the wisdom and experience to know what those difficulties involve. The most valuable intervention by a teacher is one that opens the student’s eyes to the possibilities that particular core difficulties exist and can be overcome. The most harmful actions by a teacher could be conveying to the student that those difficulties are not important to overcome or that the student is somehow inescapably deficient in having those difficulties (i.e., forever unable to overcome them).

The point would be: If the teacher is unable or lacking in the ability to aid the student in bridging a gap, whether it is due to lack of practical experience or theory, the most helpful action that the teacher could take is to address that lack, while the harmful responses are similar to above, that is, de-emphasizing or denying the existence of those difficulties.

There are several possible ways for a teacher to constructively respond to his own shortcomings. First is to acquire that ability on his own. This may take a long time if he has difficulty learning new material, possibly because his existing knowledge interferes. This may take a short time if his existing knowledge allows him to assimilate the new knowledge more quickly. Also, depending on how he assimilates that knowledge, he may end up like a less experienced person with the same knowledge, in which case he may face a situation in which it is more fitting to relate with his student as a peer or senior, and process that new knowledge together. Even in this case, if the teacher is a good student, then he could transmit something meaningful about the learning process to his student. On the other hand the teacher may end up easily and thoroughly assimilating the new knowledge, in which case he would justifiably be able to transmit that knowledge as his own to the student.

Another response by the teacher could be to direct the student to acquire that knowledge elsewhere. That could involve referring the student to a known resource or simply to explicitly voice acknowledgment of his lack to the student and suggest to the student to find a resource himself.

Yet another response could be to work collaboratively with the student to create a substitute or an original equivalent of that lack.

All of these responses, regardless if the teacher is from a theoretical background or one of practical experience, require that the teacher openly acknowledge that there is some lack on his part. The teacher could further be of help to the student by identifying what that lack is, how it could be acquired, and how much the teacher himself is willing to put effort into the student’s learning as well as of his own continuing learning. All of these responses require some self-awareness and egolessness on the part of the teacher, and accordingly could be cause for the teacher’s blind spots, to which his reaction or response the student is then subject.


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