My martial arts instructor does something that I’ve rarely experienced from teachers in combative training: he asks questions. I do not here refer to when he inquires necessarily for his own education, nor am I speaking of questions of the purely rhetorical nature, but the type of question which I am referring to is the Socratic.
The Socratic method of teaching (when done correctly) is a sort of cooperative argumentative dialogue. Here the teacher asks questions, and based on the response of the student, will adjust and prescribe further questions, until they’ve lead the student to the answer which they are driving towards. Rather than the student passively listen, they are required to actively wander through the difficulties of reasoning themselves so that when they arrive at the answer, they understand in a way that blind memorization cannot grant. Furthermore, the student will likely fail to perceive and respond correctly at certain points of the conversation, which exposes their ignorance in such a way that the teacher can respond and address said ignorance specifically. Conversely, when one listens to a simple lecture, the teacher has no idea what specific areas the student needs extra emphasis on, or is completely bewildered by. Without the feedback given by the Socratic method, the lecturer must anticipate as best they can what to focus on and how.
In martial arts, conversation is often rare. Because the education is primarily physical in orientation, many schools spend little time attempting to apply articulation of any sort, preferring rather things like technical demonstrations and obedience via rote memorization. Complicating matters further, there are often language barriers which would prohibit discussion, and philosophical and cultural carry-overs which emphasize obedience and minimize the importance of actual understanding.
There are certainly times in which following orders without discussion is in order, and the military gives many great examples of such. Yet while martial artists participate in quasi-military activities, martial artists are often not in the military, and less often are they studying martial arts in a military setting which requires such strict, unquestioning obedience. Furthermore, action-without-understanding is generally necessary in the military due to the contextual constraints placed upon time. Whenever possible, even the military seeks to grant understanding in addition to enabling action, such as in the case of officer training.
Therefore, the martial artist too will benefit from the character-developing practice of the Socratic method when it is possible. It grants an opportunity to understand more deeply what one is doing through participation, and invites one into a deeper connection through exploration, along with humbly exposing one’s deficiencies so that the teacher can handle them on an individual basis.
Moving beyond discussion, the principles of the Socratic method can be applied to practices in martial arts as well. A student can experiment with how best to apply a technique, and based on what they expose in the experiment, the teacher can asses what kind of feedback to give, again leading them toward the correct answer, allowing the student to own their own exploration with active interest, understanding, and growth. An example of this would be a workout with focus pads. Let us say that a student has been told that they need to work on being more fluid in their footwork. The teacher can then hold focus pads, moving around the floor with the student while they practice striking while moving fluidly. The teacher can then begin to throw light strikes with the pads when and where the student is failing to move fluidly. The student will have to work out what is going wrong, to ultimately come to the answer on their own, which the teacher is attempting to lead them to.
On a deeper level, in some ways, this is the kind of exploration offered by great somatic teachers such as Moshe Feldenkrais in what some people would now describe as proprioceptive awareness training. His “Awareness Through Movement” classes have helped people develop “flexible minds” as he would say, which in turn help them develop flexible/functional bodies. Feldenkrais’ method for doing this is primarily by leading people to explore their skills of attention.
In all of these cases, one has to be willing to wonder, to explore, to fail, and to humbly learn from failings. And for your teacher, how well they can pay attention to YOU in this process will determine how well they can “diagnose and prescribe” what sort of teaching you need next. When a teacher listens to you and is able to hear and see your failures, they can then tell you to listen to them, not before. A true student is one with a question, but a true teacher is a person who knows best how to question the questioner. The teacher cannot only know what they themselves know, they have to know the qualities of the student’s ignorance, that they may prescribe the proper teaching. Did Jesus Christ not exemplify this while He walked this earth? We get so excited to teach sometimes, and begin to impart our wisdom without first checking to see if the student knows, and how that student knows. We have to listen to ignorance before we can teach, whether we are teaching others or even when we are teaching ourselves. Babies learn to crawl and then to walk by first learning their limitations; that is, listening to their bodily ignorance, then they begin to explore solutions, listening to the feedback of their own body. Nobody really teaches them. They cannot understand speech. They can only look, and feel, and take that feedback and press on asking bodily questions in their own little socratic exploration.