Taekwondo as a ‘natural learning system’ toward mastery.
This thesis investigates the elements of Taekwondo as they relate to inherent human learning systems and behavioural processes. The importance of the alignment of the Taekwondo systemic development process to the inherent processes for learning, behaviour and development in the human system allows for Taekwondo to form a ‘natural system’ for human development.
The human process of learning is based on progressive problem solving utilising an ever expanding set of skills applied as required to solve the problem. In life, humans will explore a skill, test it, apply it under greater and greater levels of ambiguity until the skill has gathered appropriate ‘trust’ and learned to a point where it is integrated as an unconscious skill.
Consider a baby learning to walk – they start by not being capable of standing, let alone walking. Through experimentation, the baby learns to stand, to balance, to shift its weight, and to step. Once it learns to step, it has to go through a whole new process of learning how to apply this step through greater levels of ambiguity – first holding on to something, then letting go, then on different surfaces, etc. In each case, the baby has to learn a skill, learn to adapt it, then to utilise it under increasing levels of difficulty and ambiguity. Finally, the toddler is able to walk on a range of surfaces under many circumstances.
In Taekwondo, the natural learning process is present in the training system. The student learns a technique. This technique is a complex biomechanical action involving the use of balance, focus, creation of force, stability, delivery and recovery. Such a complex technique requires a high amount of conscious effort during the initial learning step . This replicates the above example, where the baby is learning the biomechanical process of ‘stepping’.
This technique is practiced in isolation until it is ‘mastered’ as a stand alone biomechanical process. It is then applied in poomsae, which acts as the first level of increased ambiguity where the skill has to be incorporated into a series with other biomechanical skills.
The next level of ambiguity can be found in one step sparring or non-contact sparring. In these circumstances the skill has to incorporate in a greater level of ambiguity involving timing, distance, use in spatial relationship to another person and under a level of performance pressure. The highest level of ambiguity is contact sparring or combat, where the skill has to be utilised seamlessly under complete ambiguity.
This ambiguity provides a frame for the emergence of ‘unconscious competence’ – where the biomechanical skill has been committed to neurological and muscle memory so that it is encoded as a single ‘chunk’ of instruction. This means that the skill, once triggered, is competed accurately without conscious thought or intervention throughout its execution. This enhances the speed, accuracy, reproducibility and applicability of the complex biomechanical skill. It is only under these conditions that the technique can be used under this level of ambiguity.
The importance of understanding this process is that training students in the progressive systems offered by Taekwondo allows a student to pass through progressive levels of ambiguity with their technique. This allows unconscious mastery of technique as greater levels of ambiguity are introduced into the training process, which are fundamental elements of the Taekwondo traditional training system.
As the Taekwondo system provides a replication of the natural learning frame, the student, appropriately trained, can comfortably work through these learning phases towards mastery and unconscious competence of the skill.
When the system is not appropriately followed, for example where students are asked to demonstrate highly complex skills under high levels of ambiguity (combat or full contact sparring) before they have learned the skill under the lesser levels of ambiguity, then they can exhibit ‘overwhelm’.
In this scenario, the student is not able to carry out all of the conscious processes to deliver the complex skill because it is not being triggered as a single learned unit. This is often seen in students who have learned more complex sparring techniques (Dit Chagi, Huryo Chagi) not applying them in sparring because they have not utilised and experienced them in lower levels of ambiguity and therefore it is too much for them to consciously process the skill.
On the other hand, students who are not encouraged to test out and apply their skills at all levels of higher ambiguity will struggle to truly master the skill at an unconscious level.
It is the responsibility of the instructor to help the students develop skills and experience the use of the skills under conditions of increasing levels of ambiguity. Following traditional training methods acts as a natural learning frame which is congruent with how individuals gain mastery and therefore supports students in developing mastery over Taekwondo techniques in a structured and an appropriate manner.
It is the responsibility of the student to engage fully in the training processes and to utilise the increasing levels of ambiguity as an opportunity to further refine and develop complex technique to the point of mastery.
It is the responsibility of both the instructor and the student to accept that as they learn and master technique, the opportunity for incorrect aspects of skills to emerge (bad habits) is likely. These habits need to be observed and through an iterative process, the correct technique identified and practiced through the escalating levels of ambiguity so that mastery of the correct technique is achieved over time.
In this way, Taekwondo mirrors life. There is no ‘finish line’, only increased mastery of self through continuous and iterative learning, and the capability to cope with increasing levels of ambiguity. The challenge is to help those who follow us to achieve greater mastery and comfort managing in ambiguity. The traditional Taekwondo system provides a natural frame for achieving this.