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Tieing it all together

Posted Jul 08 2010 3:00pm

In the last article, Adult Learning and BJJ 1 , I discussed the following points:

  1. Adult learning is comprised of three key elements: short term memory, long term memory and metacognition. 
  2. Short term memory is our working space, where we make gains, draw conclusions and learn new things.
  3. Long term memory is where we store skills, facts and the framework within which our expertise is organized.
  4. Metacognition is where we manage our memory, make decisions and set goals.  This is our strategic center.

In this article, I intend to dive a little deeper into how these three key components of learning interact, and how different people can maximize our time on the mats by applying some simple strategies for learning.  I’ll start by discussing what we bring to the table, then the path that information takes from theory to application (and why it often doesn’t make it) and then end by going into the idea of adaptive expertise vs static expertise.

Other than the typical baggage we all carry with us.  I’m talking about other, more productive things, like outside knowledge and experience.   In this section, we’ll dive into expertise and how experts learn differently than novices.  We’ll talk about how teaching a novice like an expert will actually undermine his learning, and vice versa; teaching an expert like a novice makes it more difficult for the expert. 

A common model for competence is what’s often referred to as the ‘ Conscious Competence’ model, outlining four stages of competence through which we all move as we become more adept at any given activity or job.

The four stages look like this:

  1. Unconsciously Incompetent:  In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know.  This is the BJJ like the one that Leslie mentions who says after a round of sparring, “ Hey, I’m pretty good at this; I didn’t have to tap that round .”   This guy is, quite literally, not competent to even analyze his round and doesn’t know it. 
  2. Consciously Incompetent:  This is the stage where you usually blush with recognition at what an asshat you made of yourself.  “Oh damn.  I can’t believe I said that.”  In the BJJ journey, this is right around 2 or 3 stripe white belt and lasts… well, at least through blue belt.  I haven’t been into purple belt range yet, but I’d guess it’s somewhere in the middle purple belt range where we move out of this stage and into the next. 
  3. Consciously Competent:  These are the guys who are really good.  They apply good technique to every situation, have few holes in their games, if any, and can give anyone in the school a challenge.  The difference between this stage and the next is subtle, but distinct.  In this stage, there is expertise, but the skills are applied with intention.  This one is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.  From what I’ve seen and learned, this is the primary distinction between brown belt and black belt.  The brown belt in BJJ can do pretty much everything the black belt does.  There’s just… some inneffable distinction between the way that the two execute the techniques.
  4. Unconscious Competence:  This is mastery, where there’s very little conscious thought applied to the execution of technique.  Watching elite grapplers roll is a great example of this, particularly if you watch them roll with less experienced jitsuka.  I don’t see the distinction between stages three and four very well  until I see a black belt roll with, say, a purple belt.  That’s where the distinction really becomes apparent.    

Of course, BJJ is a complicated physical activity, so it’s unavoidable that we’re straddling different stages.   It’s possible for someone to be very good in some positions and completely incompetent in others.   This, then, is the first thing we bring to the table, and the first barrier to learning is to always seek out what we don’t know.  In other words, we can’t learn something if we think we already know it.  In Saulo Ribeiro’s book, “ Jiu Jitsu University ,” he says that one of the things he does is to get visiting black belts into mount to see how they escape.  Often, he says, they can’t and their response when asked why is that they don’t let anyone get to mount on them.  That’s the real hazard of stage one. 

 Another aspect of adult learning is how we learn when we’re novice as opposed to how we learn as experts.  The difference, simply put, has to do with whether the framework we organize the information into is provided internally or externally.   Also, to be clear, we’re not talking about a binary situation here.  Expertise isn’t on or off.  It’s a sliding scale.  In BJJ, it’s a very, very loooong scale. 

As a novice, we have no frame of reference.  We often refer to fundamentals as building blocks, and talk a lot about building a foundation.  The analogy makes a lot of sense, because that’s exactly what we’re doing.  I mentioned Stefan Kesting’s Roadmap for BJJ in part one.  That’s exactly what his package does, and why it’s so helpful for new jitsuka who are attempting to learn BJJ.  It provides a working model.

Teaching novices without providing this model is counterproductive and often a waste of time.  The technique gets into short term memory, muddles around there for a while until, if we’re lucky, it imprints into long term memory, but ends up filed away and never to be seen or heard from again. 

For the expert, and this might seem a little counterproductive, too much detail can actually be counterproductive.   As we gain expertise, we are creating an internal architecture for storing all of this information.  If I’m taught something that conflicts with my internal model, it causes some amount of conflict that adds to my cognitive load.  Remember, we get maybe five chunks of information at a time to work with at a time in our short term memory, and if one of those chunks is reconciling an inconsequential detail, we might miss something truly critical.

So, let’s take a couple of examples.  A novice and an expert are trying to learn a sweep from deep half guard.  If we’re teaching to the novice, an explanation of what deep half-guard is, how it’s used and when it’s useful would be helpful.  Also, in order to place the technique into some context, we’d need to teach at least some way to get from a familiar position to this unfamiliar one.  So, for instance, a transition from half-guard to deep half guard is helpful.  Otherwise, the technique is unconnected.

Teaching the same technique to a more experienced guy might sound more like, “So, get into deep half guard however you like to get there.  The key to this technique is x, y and z.” 

Another advantage of expertise is that the “chunks” I referred to in part one of this series can be larger.   If  I show basic side control to a white belt, he might take one key concept away, whether that’s hand placement or shoulder pressure, blocking the hip… something.  Probably won’t take more than one or two of these, though.  That’s about it. 

Just don’t let your expertise become a barrier to training. Be open to correction and learning new ways to do things.  

I mentioned in Part 1 of this series that the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn are crucial in this day and age.  It applies as much to BJJ as it does to everything else in our lives.  Things just change too fast to remain stagnant.

Static expertise is essentially becoming very good at something that never changes.  I can type about 85 words per minute.  I have expertise as a typist that can be measured, and, unless someone changes the QWERTY keyboard on me, I can count on this skill.  This is static expertise that requires no real innovation.  There’s no problem to solve or issues to expose.

Adaptive expertise is innovative, creative expertise.  When we hear about someone like Marcelo Garcia taking a position like X-Guard and turning it into a comprehensive game, that’s adaptive expertise in action.  Solving problems or overcoming obstacles in unique ways is adaptive expertise.   While I hate the cliché “thinking outside the box,” that’s really what we’re talking about.  This comes from experimentation and always looking for what we don’t know, and is often found in people who we consider strong critical thinkers. 

The most often used example of adaptive expertise is in the Apollo 13 shuttle.  They were in a situation where they were looking at limited Oxygen and an environment in which the CO2 wasn’t being filtered out, adding up to a potentially very bad day for the crew.  The engineers had an idea to use parts and equipment in a completely new way to create access to filtration that eventually led to the crew landing safely.  The knowledge of not only how to run things, but how things actually worked on that shuttle enabled them to approach the problem from a completely new perspective.

McGyver is the best fictional example I can think of.  That guy could do anything from anywhere with a piece of chewing gum and some dental floss.  The key is working with the end in mind, focusing on the steps only insofar as they lead to a result.  It’s the result that matters.

What happens when we learn a new technique?  How does it go from theory to application? 

Frankly, for most of us, the vast majority of what we learn simply doesn’t.  It gets lost and forgotten.  But not all of it.  Hopefully enough makes it through to keep us coming back for more. 

We start in STM, in our work space, ingesting the information.  If we have no context for the information, this is where is usually stops.   Ideally, we are either provided enough context or can involve our previous experiences enough to provide some context.  This context is critical in taking the information out of theory and imprinting it in a usable way in our long term memory. 

A really common barrier at this stage is cognitive overload – when you’ve got too many details and insufficient context to distinguish those few details that actually matter to you.  From the perspective of the student, what really helps is to identify a few key points you want to take away from the lesson.    Simply put, don’t try to remember everything.  In fact, don’t try to remember MOST everything.  Pick no more than 4 key details to take away.  Absorb those, then the next time the technique rolls around, whether it’s asking someone at open mat or in formal class instruction, look for more.

Once in our long term memory, the challenge is bringing back when we need it and there are a lot of things that can get in the way of this.   How many times have you gone to a seminar, learned some really, really cool stuff, only to find a few months later that none of it has found its way into your game?  I’ve been lucky to take away one or two practical, applicable pieces of information.  Sometimes, it’s a technique.  Other times, it’s a concept.  What’s happening is that there is a disconnect in transferring this information from long-term memory back to my working, short-term memory. 

This kind of transfer failure is more often than not caused by a lack of context.  I mentioned before that we need to have a strong framework within which information can be organized.  The better developed that model, the better we are able to recall the information when needed.

Ruth Clark, in the book Building Expertise, distinguishes between three different types of transfer.  Near transfer, moderate transfer and far transfer.

Near transfer works really well for brand new concepts or techniques.  These are essentially tasks that can be done the same way every time.  Same context and conditions lead to the same steps taken to achieve the same results.  Yesterday at class, we learned a paper cutter from a transition out of side control.   Thumb in the collar deep, control uke’s opposite side arm so that he can’t turn out of the choke, drive blade of forearm across the throat focusing on bringing the elbow to the mat.   That’s near transfer, and the easiest to recall.

Moderate transfer involves some added variables.  Applying the same techniques in varying situations is an example of moderate transfer.  This would be discussions of various entries into the choke.  Setting it up from North/South, or moving out of one technique into the paper cutter.  The key difference between Near Transfer and Moderate Transfer is depth of understanding.  In order to perform the paper cutter choke from side control, I don’t really need to know how or why it works; rather, I need only know how to apply it.  However, if I want to apply it under a variety of conditions, I’m going to need to understand why. 

Far transfer involves judgement, and is the most difficult to facilitate.  Far transfer involves a deep understanding of underlying principles.  For example, learning the ezekial from mount would be near transfer.  Learning the Ezekial choke from mount, and then pplying the same principles to catch the ezekial choke from guard, half guard top, half guard bottom and side control would be a good example of far transfer. 

In this article, the second of three, I looked at the following key points:

  1. The Conscious Competence model, and what we bring to the table: It’s impossible to learn something if we think we already know it.
  2. Novice vs Expert:  How as a novice we have to regulate our learning differently as we shift from organizing new information in externally provided frameworks to internally provided frameworks. 
  3. Adaptive expertise vs Static Expertise: Some people never achieve adaptive expertise, but the best instructors can apply broader concepts in many different contexts adapting to a fluid environment.
  4. The Path to Expertise:  How we have to consciously manage the transfer of information so that it can be translated from abstract theory to application.

In the next article, I’ll go into some of the common problems I’ve encountered in corporate training, along with some strategies for avoiding these pitfalls.

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