Teaching and the Notion of Kata

The impossibility of simple

26th January 2019. Culling this blog, I enjoy revisiting some of the posts and ideas. Even though most of them are half-baked. They are junctions without signposts from crossroads walked in a time and space long gone. But the tracks are still there. Like footprints in the sand. What I learned, meaning made, knowledge gained, wisdom expanded, new adventures conquered, are all there–as echoes. They have become part of the landscape–Bildung als Lebenstätigkeit.** Tacit knowledge I believe is the term. My mentor calls me an unconscious expert. It is near to impossible to remember distinctions; songs have become an opera; the patterns weave, breathe, move, meander. How do I know that I know? –When I can answer your question? Or when I can answer my own?

This is not a quote, but an addendum with hindsight

The engagement with the topic came about when I wrote a book review for an book about creative learning. I found the notion of kata really interesting, particularly as it initially seems diametrically opposed to North/West European idea and maybe ideals of learning. Or is that so?

Matsunobu’s (2011) chapter on Creativity of Formulaic Learning in which he explains the creativity that is integral to kata. Where self-development happens through imitating and mastering a form (an art), and the ability to shape the art (katayaburí) can only manifest once true mastership is reached, rang true to me when reflecting on the art of teaching (Lupton, 2012).

When entering the life of teaching in higher education, there are certain forms, norms and expectations that need mastery—to negotiate performative institutional structure. In terms of assessment-free teaching there is more freedom. However, maybe more involuntarily than consciously do we mirror forms we experienced. An aspect highlighted by our module leader in the PG Cert: The first task in our first session last year was to think of someone—a significant person, or teacher—in our life who had in impact, who encouraged us to learn, or make learning fun, interesting, lasting.

My person was my granddad, he was a teacher in an agricultural college, he worked with young adults who came from troubled backgrounds and youth prison. His attitude was all about renegotiating identities—he never read his students’ ‘files’. He said: ‘You show me, who you are, not a piece of paper.’—handing over responsibility (what I would now call ownership and control), and acknowledging that making mistakes is part of the process not a dead-end road. Not making mistakes, means you are not doing it right, not trying hard enough.

In a way my kata, if I adopt the principle of the notion, is to mirror my granddad. In my very first formal teaching job, teaching English in a kindergarten, I would call him right after each session and on the way home talk about aspects that went well and aspects that did not go well. He would advice, on the art of teaching. Well, if this and this happens, you could have reacted in such and such a way, improving your art*. So I shaped my teacher-identity to the form, offered by my granddad. It was a comfortable form, that offered safety, trust, warmth.

However, I never stopped at imitation. Once it was successfully mastered. The art intrinsic, and reflection in action began to happen naturally, I would adapt, shape, and change the form, though always remain true to its principles. Eisner (1979) already stated that teaching can never be simply routine. So I am wondering if the aim of becoming a good teacher must always be katayaburí. This is probably the point where my considerations begin to meander away from the Japanese notion; then katayaburí is only something for a selected elite (elite in reference to outstanding abilities), whereas in terms of teaching it is necessity for a true mastership of this art.

-only a citation of inner monologue (the original post from 2014)

5 years later, I am not participating in the postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching in higher education anymore, I graduated. I am teaching on a similar program, and leading a couple of masters level courses. I have moved from teaching students, to teaching colleagues about teaching students. I know, it perfectly aligns with my love for meta-level, and the tendency to sit in thresholds of doors like the cats on our farm, to breathe the space of junctions without signposting. Everything is in flow, but without kata I would not be here.

*He would usually explain the psychology, or pedagogy behind the suggestions.

**An untranslatable venture. Bildung (education: but so much more) Lebenstätigkeit (vital activity the literal and completely wrong translation, life-agency, life-skill, life-activity …. a mix of all of these)

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