Learning Preferences

150122_LearningI taught my two daughters at home from birth up until last year – some sixteen years of homeschooling in all.  Before my first daughter started kindergarten, I learned about learning preferences from a seminar.  Some people prefer to learn by hearing, some by watching, some by doing.  Over the years I’ve added more to this concept. Some people have a primary preference and a secondary preference, and I’m sure there are some people who can happily adapt to whatever is presented.  There are people within each group (audio, visual, and kinesthetic learners) who like to be presented with the “big picture” first and some who prefer to be given the parts so they can assemble the whole.  There’s yet another layer of preferences!  Some people love collaboration and constant conversation with instructor and peers and some prefer to work quietly, alone, and with minimum feedback.  Putting it all together, you might have a student who prefers to learn by watching, wants to piece together the whole from the parts, and loves collaborating with others.

When I came back to Karate, one of the first things I noticed was all three modes of learning are accommodated, and any other individual learning preferences can be addressed as well.  You see Sensei do the technique, you listen to her talk, you do it yourself.  Academic classes tend to shortchange the kinesthetic learner – one is expected to spend a great deal of time sitting still in a desk.  In Karate, “big picture” people are free to clunk through a technique and refine over time.  “Assemblers” can piece things together at their own pace, and if they’re really struggling, Sensei will come around to help.  In my experience, most Karate classes tend to favor those who want to work alone and with minimum feedback.  If this is the case, students who love collaboration and constant conversation are free to spend time outside of class doing exactly that.  If you’re one of these people you should come early to class, stay late, and find someone to practice with on days you don’t have class.  If you have a learning challenge, you will definitely need extra time.

Finding the label for my own learning challenge was huge. Its name is Directional Dyslexia. Now that I have its name, I don’t have to feel anxious about it.  It’s part of who I am.  If I find myself fighting anxiety, I remind myself to figure out ways to adapt.   I have some tips for those who struggle with directional dyslexia – please see my blog post, “Dyslexia – a Path to the Heart of Karate.”  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, I’ll sum it up.  I have tricks and ways of labeling things other than “right” and “left.”  Bunkai is vital to my kata.  If I’m really floundering, Sensei will come around to me eventually.  Time before and after class and practice time are vital.  In short, I have to work hard.  So does everyone else 🙂

I don’t have much authority to speak on other learning challenges.    I’ve seen people with physical or mental challenges in tournaments and promotions and I can say that there is a lot that can be overcome.  However, ultimately it boils down to the individual.  For some people, Karate simply will not work.  I have an autistic daughter who doesn’t train with her sister and I.  I respect her distaste for violence, and loud noise isn’t her cup of tea either.  She gets enough group learning at school, so outside of school she prefers solitary activities.  No way would she be able to take even the little love taps I get from time to time in class.  I’m a grouch when I’m laid up with an injury, she’s worse.  The most I can hope for is to teach her a few self-defense things.

There’s tons more that goes into learning, but it all boils down to the student’s responsibility to self-advocate and the teacher’s responsibility to be aware that different people need different things.  Group learning does necessitate that each individual adapt, but practice time and individual instruction can be tailored beautifully. We students must structure our own learning process because every single one of us has different preferences, challenges, and needs. Practicing on your own and taking advantage of time before and/or after class to talk to your instructor for a minute or two pays off big time – that’s taking charge of your learning process. I’m very grateful to my Sempais (senior students) and Senseis for being there as much as they can before and after class, and for my older daughter who practices with me.  Help from others is a huge part of success.  Remembering something you’ve overcome is a great thing to do when the gloom of self doubt sets in.


Dyslexia – a Path to the Heart of Karate


When I was six I started taking ice skating lessons.  I earned a patch or two then things started getting harder.  I would try whatever the instructor demonstrated, and inevitably the instructor would frantically call out something like, “No, start with your left  blade!”  Then she’d demonstrate by starting with what looked to me like her right foot (but it was really her left).  The verbal instructions didn’t line up with what my dyslexic brain told me I was seeing.  I’d freeze (pun fully intended).  Which foot was I supposed to use?    I gave up – the cold always bothered me anyway.  Yes, I told this whiney little story just so I could use a bad pun and play on a line from a song in the movie “Frozen.”

I gave up on ice skating but I didn’t have a choice when it came to math.  I had to study math in school.  I am dyscalculic – never put me in charge of cash!  Am I going to whine about dyscalculia?  No, because I got decent grades in math all the way through trigonometry.  I used reams of scratch paper and worked problems slowly so as to minimize errors.  Along about third grade I began to see arithmetic not as a mere collection of facts but an expression of the relationships among numbers.  I started relying less on faulty rote memory and relied more and more on principles.  In other words, I learned to beat my disability by getting to the heart of mathematics.

I also didn’t have a choice about learning history.  I hated memorizing dates.  Unfortunately, below college level a significant portion of test questions was about dates.  Numbers tend to jump around in my head and sometimes I reverse numbers while writing.  I learned to cope with history by memorizing key dates.  I then derived other dates based on the events leading up to and following those key events.  This meant I had to see history as a story.  I had to stop thinking of history as a mere collection of facts.  I thought about what influenced important people when they made decisions and took action.  I used my imagination a lot.  I chuckled nervously as I watched John Hancock sign the Declaration of Independence.  I shivered in the cold at Valley Forge.  Using my imagination to make events come alive made it easier to construct a timeline in my mind.  If I accidentally reversed numbers while writing the date of an event I could easily spot the error because the event wouldn’t fit in with the story of that decade or century.  I was well prepared for writing essays in college history classes because I had long since found the heart of history.

The less said about me learning to drive the better (my poor parents!), but I eventually did that too.  I think my driving record speaks for itself.  I am very appreciative of GPS technology.  Driving should have a heart – after all, some people wax poetic about Route 66.  Me – I just go through the motions of driving.  I don’t look for ways to enjoy it and I’m not about to do anything more with my driving skills than get from Point A to Point B safely.  I hope I never have that kind of attitude about Karate.

Sometime in junior high I decided to try karate and found I liked it.  I still had trouble with left and right.  I couldn’t translate Sensei’s demonstrations into what I was supposed to do.  However, I didn’t give in to despair.  I was shoulder-to-shoulder with students who were learning the same things.  More experienced students were in front of me.  I could watch my fellow students and learn.  By the time I got to the front row I could see how I was doing in the mirror.  Of course there was always the option to ask for help before and after class.  I beat my disability.  Since then I’ve learned more about coping with directional dyslexia.

Life circumstances led to a 27 year hiatus from karate.  I recently joined a different dojo (my former dojo closed down long ago).  I’m learning a similar style but the differences between what I learned long ago and what I’m learning now sometimes throw me for a loop.  Directional dyslexia is still with me.  A good bit of what I struggle with can be addressed by drilling and practicing on my own.  The sheer repetition will eventually get through to me.

So how do I cope with kata when it’s hard for me to tell left from right?  All those twists and turns and which arm goes where while what leg moves in which way?  You might think kata makes me scream with frustration but actually I really enjoy kata.  Bunkai makes kata real and much easier for me to learn and remember!  Sometimes while practicing kata in the garage my daughter and I come up with crazy scenarios involving some pretty outrageous opponents (drunkards, evil clowns, big hairy bikers).  When we put some fun into it, I get those katas memorized all right.

Here are the most important coping mechanisms I’ve come up with for dealing with directional dyslexia in karate:

Don’t whine and don’t refer to your disability.  Instead, ask questions.  “Excuse me, Sensei, may I please see that again?” is a good place to start.  Here’s another example: “Sensei, what does this hand do when this leg comes forward?”

Apply what you learn by practicing with a partner – you’ll need to move slowly so as not to injure one another!  Make it real so it’s easier to remember.

Link movements to what some other part of the body is doing – for example, if my head turns to look at my new opponent coming at me from the left, I look over at him and my arm on the side I’m looking towards will block his attack.  I’ve also learned to translate “left” or “right” to “the side with the leading leg” or “the side with the back leg” while watching demonstrations.

Be patient with yourself.  You can overcome this challenge over and over by allowing yourself some time, working hard, and receiving plenty of help from others.  Don’t undermine this process by thinking you have to nail the technique immediately!

If you just aren’t understanding the movements, try anyway even if you fall behind the count.  Sensei will come around to you eventually.

Ask for help before or after class!  While you’re getting the individual attention, position yourself to watch demonstrations from whatever perspective makes sense. I usually stand side-by-side or behind.

Practice, practice, practice.  All students need this, but I can’t emphasize it enough for those challenged by directional dyslexia

For an extra challenge during practice time, start your kata by facing a different wall than the front of the dojo.  Yes I have done this, so you can too!  Thank you, Sensei Isao Gary Tsutsui for this idea.  Confession – I need to do this more often.

I will always struggle with directional dyslexia.  So be it.  In fact, I’m actually glad for the challenge.  It means I am not just going through the motions.  I am learning to understand what I’m doing.  I’m on a path into the very heart of karate.