Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How much?

We're almost to the end of the semester. Soon it will be time for the evaluations again. I can't wait!

We did a couple of things a little differently this semester, so it will be interesting to see what, if anything, that changes in the reviews we get.

The main things I've been thinking about:

How much does someone need to know in order to be able to do the things they need to do?
How much intellectual understanding is necessary, and why?
How does the progression of the class change, depending on the goal of the class?
What level of precision is reasonable to expect in 12 weeks, and how is that affected by whether or not the student will be continuing?

The university PE classes have always been sort of the "odd man out" in our overall program. These people will almost all NOT be continuing students. They take one class, for a semester, get their credit, and move on. They aren't really dedicated to the sword, and most of them don't want to put in the effort such dedication would require. They want to pass the class, maybe. They want to be able to say they "fenced in college."

For the most part, that's fine. In the fire service, this class would be at the "awareness level." Learn enough about it that you can recognize it, know what it is, and know who to call for additional help, but no real training to deal directly with the situation. These students will have seen a little fencing, learned a little about it, tried it on for a day or two (like a level A hazmat suit) to see how it feels, but they aren't likely to ever need to use it.

We show them a lot of things, but don't expect much, if any, technical precision in any of it. Enough that they aren't an immediate danger to themselves or others, but not enough that they can perform any of the techniques at anything close to what they would need to defend themselves. We simply don't have the time to do that, nor do they have the interest, most of them, to sustain that level of training.

Our introductory class elsewhere has a slightly different purpose. It is designed to give the student enough exposure that they can decide whether or not this is something they are interested in enough to continue. It is also designed to support and be preparation for the continuing classes that follow it.

What this means is that we require a higher level of precision, right from the start. We introduce things more slowly, giving more time to work on each skill before moving to the next. If we didn't do that, we'd have people slogging through a bunch of uncoordinated movements, none of which would build towards the goal of learning to fence. We still need to have things move along relatively rapidly, in order to reach that goal of helping people decide whether this is for them. It is a different balance of information/precision than the PE classes.

Once a student finishes the introductory class, and chooses to continue, indicating that they have made a commitment to fencing, the continuing classes move at a MUCH slower pace than any of the introductory classes. NOW, we're trying to gain skill. This requires much repetition, and time to integrate each skill. There is no point to moving ahead more quickly, since the results would be counterproductive.

Back to the classes this past semester and my questions.

How much does a PE student need to understand, in order to do what they need to do?

That has to start with an agreement of what they need to be able to do, and the answer is... not much.

What I would like the class to be able to do:

1. Not hurt anyone.
2. Have some semblance of moving without undue distress, and without falling over.
3. Try a few things with the blade that suggest the skills of fencing.
4. Have fun doing it.
5. Gain an appreciation of what is involved in being able to do this at a high level of skill.

Some of these are easy to evaluate, others take some consideration.

The first one- not hurting anyone - is easy to evaluate.

The second one takes some decisions about what that means. At what level will I make corrections, and what will I "let slide"?

As we introduce each skill, we give a lot of feedback, both to the group as a whole (because they all make similar mistakes) and to each student (to point out to them specific things they need to focus on). We describe and demonstrate each skill, facilitate practicing it, and keep reminding them of the details. Most students, after some practice, will begin to incorporate the skill, and begin to self-correct. But not all of them. Some will, even at the end of the semester, still make fundamental errors, things we have pointed out and corrected over and over and over, either unwilling or unable to make any changes.

In the PE classes, as long as they aren't dangerous, we don't care. We don't have the time to continue to give individual corrections to someone who is not invested enough to make changes. At that point, people who are making an effort- and that is easy to see- will continue to get as much individual feedback as we can provide. Those who are phoning it in can do whatever they do, as long as it's not a safety issue. They will get reminders, but they will be broad concepts, not specific details, since they can't process any details for skills they aren't even beginning to do.

In the other intro classes, we continue to try to give a lot of feedback, to a point. Some students will clearly not be making an effort- but they also usually stop showing up to class. In these classes, they aren't concerned about a grade, so if they decide they aren't interested, they just quit. Anyone who still shows up is making at least that much effort, and almost all of the time, will be making improvement in each class. Those who are not- and there are usually one or two- are probably there because their parents make them go. We'll give them some reminders in each class, but if they don't respond, then they just don't.

Once we are past the intro level classes, we give individualized feedback for all students, as much as we can, with the expectation that they will focus on the feedback and make corrections.

When I was a student, rather than teaching, I was hugely impressed by the Master's skill at being able to give individual feedback to every student, at exactly the level they needed in order to work on exactly what they needed to work on. Turns out that although it certainly takes effort and energy, it isn't hard to do, with a body of knowledge that has a clear progression of skills.

The third class goal- trying a few things. That's simple. We do that.
And the fourth, have some fun, that's pretty clear, too.

But the fifth one... gaining an appreciation of what is involved. I'm not sure we ever really meet that goal. Some appreciation, sure. Real appreciation- I don't think it's possible at this level because there is no frame of reference. I need to think about that one some.

This semester, one of the things we did differently has to do with how much theoretical knowledge we presented in the PE classes. We skipped some stuff we have introduced in all the previous semesters, information that is critical to understand if you really want to learn to fence. It was an experiment. It felt... awkward. Odd. Incomplete. But that is probably because I have ALWAYS had that included, whether in a class I've taken, or one I've taught. Force of habit, or of expectations. My question became whether the CLASS missed that material, or if only I did.

The answer surprised me somewhat.

Looking at their level of understanding, compared to previous years, they clearly understand way less. We didn't teach it to them.

But looking at their level of physical performance... it was the same, and in some cases, slightly better. Granted, "slightly better" is probably a score of 5% rather than 4%. They don't have any real skill to speak of, so there is not a lot to compare. The important thing is that their skill level was NOT worse. This suggests- but does not prove- that the information we omitted was not necessary at this level.

I suspect that their level of enjoyment of the class is unchanged. They can't miss what they don't know exists. I will be interested to see if we get any clues from the evaluations about the overall level of enjoyment of the class, compared to previous semesters.

It might be worth continuing this experiment. Do they actually enjoy the class more, and feel like they have gotten more out of it, if we don't clutter their brains with too much theory? Do they WANT to understand more (quite possible), but need to understand less? Is it more important for them to experience the scientific nature of the way everything works together, theoretically, or is it more important that they make some broad movement attempts, and feel how that feels?

They answer, of course, is yes. Or no. Or it depends. All of the above, and none of it.

It's ALL important, and necessary, for someone who wants to be able to fence at a high level of skill- and why would anyone want to do it any other way?

But it is, perhaps, not all important for a PE class.

I need a larger sample size to begin to evaluate this.
And I need to get past my own biases and preferences and intellectual overattachments, too.

I mean, really. Look at this overly long vomitosis of wordiness. I overanalyze everything.

Maybe, just maybe, NONE of the theory, none of the explanation, is really important, in the grand scheme of things.

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