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December 06, 2017

What Getting Punched in the Face Taught Me about Education, by Jonathan Clemens

When I was nineteen, I started going several days a week to a place where people would kick and punch me and call it “Tae Kwon Do,” the “Way of the Foot and Fist.” When I was twenty-one, I also started going to a place where people would throw me, strangle me, and put me into joint locks. They called it “Judo,” meaning the “gentle way.”  Over the years, I went to more places where people studied things called jiu-jitsu, boxing, kick boxing, Muay Thai, and “mixed martial arts:” a blend of all types of getting punched, kicked, kneed, elbowed, joint locked, thrown, and strangled.

I’m now thirty-five. I have a Ph.D. and have taught classes at the university level, and through my job with Mouse, I work with educators and students to improve STEM learning. But some of the most important lessons I learned about education didn’t come from the classroom. They came from martial arts and getting punched in the face.

I love doing martial arts. While in class I lose myself in the small adjustments and complex body mechanics: trying to make a strike, takedown, or submission click. It feels like working on an intricate puzzle where my motions are the pieces. Even though I’m always dripping with sweat by the end, most of the time it feels like play rather than work. That was the first lesson that martial arts taught me: that no matter how difficult the task, it’s easy to do if it’s engaging.

I never felt like I was having fun while lifting weights or running on a treadmill (though if you do, more power to you). In my mid-teens, I had to drag myself to the gym to do the weight lifting that formed my intermittent workout routine. Conversely, I happily go to the gym to get kicked, punched, and tossed around. It works for me. Whether it’s in exercise, education, or career, finding methods that engage and are fun make the task easy.

The second lesson martial arts taught me is to embrace challenge. I’ve never been a great martial artist. I’m short and stout, and I possess limited athletic talent. In the gym, other practitioners with greater physical ability or skill (or, at this point, youth) regularly get the better of me. I’ve been knocked down, choked out, and forced to submit more times than I can count. That has been a beautiful thing for me, because coming back to the gym day after day when I know it’s going to be tough, when I know I’m going to get punched in the face, has made me better at other aspects of life. When I was in my junior year of undergraduate education, I remember sitting in an auditorium, waiting to take an important midterm. Like everyone else I was studying: frantically trying to cram in those final bits of crucial information. And then, suddenly, I had a moment of calm. I remembered the night before, when I fought three rounds against a 6’8” fourth degree Tae Kwon Do black belt who beat me silly. I thought to myself: “that was hard, and scary. By comparison, this exam is no big deal. I’ve got this.” I aced that midterm in part because I had tested my limits, and by testing expanded them. Embracing rather than shying away from challenge builds confidence and ability.

"But every time I fail, I learn something, and the next time I try I’m better equipped for success. Martial arts taught me that If I fail enough and fail productively, eventually I will succeed."

A great benefit of embracing challenge has been lots and lots of failure, especially in martial arts. The first time I ever sparred I had grandiose ideas about how I would utilize my carefully honed techniques. Twenty awkward and painful minutes later, I was sweating, breathing heavily, and complaining to my senior classmates that nothing I did seemed to work. They gave me pep talks. They smiled and said things like: “you should’ve seen me the first time I sparred. I was terrible!” And: “Stick with it and don’t get discouraged. Don’t expect to be great right away. Listen to critiques of what you’re doing wrong, and just try to improve a little bit every day.”

I listened to them, and I tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried and failed. And, slowly, I learned from my failures and I improved. A few years later, I was the senior student. When I fought newcomers and they came up to me after class, frustrated, and said that nothing they did seemed to work, I smiled and told them: “you should’ve seen me the first time I sparred. I was terrible.”

Through that process, I learned a third lesson from martial arts: to accept and learn from failure. No technique looks good the first time someone attempts it. It takes hours and hours of repetition, adjustment, and experimentation to master even the most basic skill. It takes even more time to properly put a skill into practice. It took me eight months of trying before I threw my first opponent in Judo sparring. In boxing, I got punched in the face hundreds of times before I learned how to block and avoid (some) strikes. I still constantly leave myself open for takedowns in mixed martial arts. But every time I fail, I learn something, and the next time I try I’m better equipped for success. Martial arts taught me that If I fail enough and fail productively, eventually I will succeed.

The fourth lesson martial arts taught me was that personal growth and learning are best achieved by leaving the comfort zone. My first martial arts teacher used an adept metaphor. He described a caterpillar in a cocoon. The cocoon is safe and warm, and the world outside of it is scary. And some caterpillars think: “I just want to stay here, where it’s comfortable.” But to become a butterfly, the caterpillar must be brave: to emerge from the cocoon and boldly go out into the world. Only by leaving its comfort zone can it reach its potential. In martial arts, this means testing techniques and strategies in uncomfortable and intimidating situations. It means not just practicing skills, but also putting skills into practice. There's an adage in boxing that "pads don't hit back:” meaning that drilling techniques is not the same as applying them against an actual opponent. To be the best martial artist I can be, I needed to test my skills against national champions and Olympians. I had to fight people much larger and stronger than I was. I had to try styles that I didn’t know or understand, and to get beat up by people who did. I had to spar two or three people at once, and to develop methods to deal with those situations. When something didn’t work, I’d get punched in the face or kicked or thrown to the ground or choked: all of which were excellent motivators to iterate something new. But to get to that point I had to first I leave the comfort zone of what I was already good at and what I thought I knew.

"Education is not only a means of training skills and knowledge, but also as a process of becoming. It’s about being the person we want to be, and being a positive influence on our community."

When I started teaching, I used all of these lessons to inform my approach. I did everything I could to make my classes engaging, and to avoid the passive, lecture-driven model of education that I grew up with. Whenever possible I gamified lessons, staged debates, and diversified course materials to include audio and visual as well as textual sources. I calibrated my requirements to be difficult but not punishing: to challenge students to succeed while simultaneously allowing them to fail without harsh repercussions. I asked them to try new and unfamiliar approaches, and to test those approaches practice. I found that the things that helped me learn helped others learn as well. Not everything I tried worked, and not every lesson was a winner. But a lot of it did, and I was better at reaching students for the attempt.

Education is not only a means of training skills and knowledge, but also as a process of becoming. It’s about being the person we want to be, and being a positive influence on our community. To become, we must push our limits. We must try new things, and discover our passions. We must fail repeatedly in service of a greater goal, and to use those failures productively. We must get punched in the face: preferably in the metaphorical sense. And we must use that experience to learn. Martial arts taught me that, and I hope I can pass it on.

By Jonathan Clemens, Mouse Learning Network Manager

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