Of all the issues facing school owners these days, I believe that martial arts curriculum design is perhaps the most challenging.
I say this because curriculum is the heart of all styles and systems of martial arts. Therefore, your martial arts curriculum is likely to be the thing about your school that you are most attached to… making it more difficult for you to look at your curriculum from an unbiased and critical perspective.
Yet, if you want to grow your school, it’s imperative that you take a critical look at how you can improve your martial arts curriculum. And this is especially true if you’re struggling to grow your school, considering that students who don’t enjoy their training don’t renew their memberships.
If It Isn’t Broken… But How Do You Know If It’s Broken Or Not If You’ve Never Really Tested It?
At this point, some of you may already be asking yourselves, “But why would I want to critique my curriculum? If it was good enough for my instructor, and good enough for me, then it’s good enough for my students.”
Well, I’m all for stylistic purity. However, blindly following tradition can also lead to stylistic stagnation. And in some extreme cases, blind adherence to tradition can perpetuate the regression of practical technical knowledge within a style or system. This unfortunate video of a “ki” master getting soundly thrashed by an MMA fighter illustrates this rather effectively:
Martial Arts Curriculum Design As It Relates To Growing Your Martial Arts School
Of course, the martial arts are not all about fighting. Certainly, we all have many reasons for practicing and teaching martial arts that go beyond mere physical prowess in combat. However, I merely present this to illustrate that tradition without freedom to innovate and improve is the equivalent of intellectual incest, and it will eventually make your system obsolete.
Now, since this is a martial arts business blog, let’s regroup for a minute and look at martial arts curriculum design purely from a business perspective. I can tell you with all certainty that if I’d taught martial arts exactly the way they were taught to me, I’d never have owned a financially successful martial arts school.
In fact, I’d probably still be teaching in old run-down buildings and rec centers, boasting about stylistic purity and maintaining the traditions I was passed down… all while working two jobs and wishing that the girls in the dance class before me wouldn’t leave glitter all over my mats.
The bottom line is that the way many of us were taught was not the optimal method of delivering curriculum. We didn’t stick around to black belt because of the way we were taught; we stuck around in spite of it.
The Challenge – Designing A Curriculum That Maintains Both Retention And Program Quality
The thing is, I have been incredibly dedicated to teaching good martial arts from the very beginning of my teaching career. But after failing a few times in starting schools, I discovered firsthand that ignoring the financial realities of operating a dojo can make all other considerations a moot point.
For that reason I decided to observe what successful school owners were doing with their curricula and classroom instruction in order to attract and retain students. One thing I soon learned was that, regardless of style, there were three things that every successful school owner did to keep their students excited about coming to class:
- Student-Focused Instruction: Focusing on the student instead of the instructor;
- Results-Based Learning: Focusing on getting results instead of adhering to dogma;
- Highly Structured Curriculum Delivery: Rather than abandoning the structure of their system, they improved upon it –
Each of these action steps is critical if you want to develop students that succeed within the framework of a curriculum that perpetuates your art. Let’s examine what goes into good martial arts curriculum design as it relates to each of these three critical aspects for student retention and martial arts school growth.
Implementing Student-Focused Instruction
Traditionally the student/teacher relationship in the martial arts has been focused on the instructor. Certainly, you as the instructor are worthy of a degree of respect, and you’re also deserving of the position of leadership in your school.
The thing is, ego can often get in the way of turning out good students, and the traditional image of the instructor as the all-knowing master only serves to perpetuate this. Most of us have either witnessed or been involved in a situation where an instructor purposely stunted a students’ development. This typically stems from a fear that the student’s skill will eventually exceed the instructor’s own.
On the contrary, a good instructor will actually want to turn out students who are better than they are. In fact, I would posit that the mark of a great instructor is turning out a student who achieves a greater level of skill than their sensei.
In my experience, the traditional instructor-worship paradigm inherently hinders this process. Yet, by implementing student-focused instruction, you can circumvent the limiting atmosphere that the traditional student/master model perpetuates, all while actually improving your relationships with your students.
And, just because you trade a negative learning environment for a positive one, it doesn’t mean giving up all tradition and courtesy. On the contrary, you’re simply making a conscious decision to always act in the best interests of your students, and doing everything in your power to make each one feel like they can accomplish what you’ve achieved and more. This attitude is at the heart of what it means to be a good coach, and it will lead to better results from your coaching.
Why Results-Based Learning Trumps Process-Based Instruction
For the most part, the martial arts instruction industry tends to be focused on process-based instruction instead of results-based learning. And, while process-based instruction is incredibly good at turning out cookie-cutter clones of a particular stylistic template, it is not so good at helping people reach their full individual potential.
A parallel example of this can be seen when comparing the public school system approach to education versus the results that top charter school systems like KIPP achieve. When students are placed in results-based learning environments like KIPP, those students who invest themselves fully in the program are able to achieve results that are on average much greater than the results students in traditional public schools achieve (read “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell for more on this).
The reason for this is that successful charter school programs like KIPP operate outside the traditional structure, which has allowed them to break the mold and adopt teaching approaches that focus on getting results. Instead of being focused on the process as in traditional public schools, schools like KIPP focus on results exclusively (not to mention that they fire under-performing teachers, something that your students are doing every time they leave your program for another studio).
What I’m saying here is that it can be beneficial to step back from your curriculum and disentangle yourself from “the way it’s always been taught,” in order to examine alternative ways of teaching that may result in greater personal performance for your students, and enhanced retention numbers for your school.
Additionally, we have to understand and accept that we’re dealing with an entirely new generation of students who learn quite a bit differently than people my age (40-ish) and older did when we were coming up through the ranks. This new generation has been raised on technology and media, and thus they present unique challenges that must be addressed… that is, if you want to retain more students and turn out black belts who are worthy of carrying on your school name.
Enhancing The Structure Inherent In Your Style
Once I decided to focus on results instead of adhering to outdated processes, I was free to adopt the best approaches and technologies I could find to help my students succeed. And, a great many of the changes I implemented had to do with reordering and restructuring the delivery of curriculum components within the styles I teach.
Almost every traditional style is inherently structured, both in curriculum as well as in content. However, questioning the ordering and structure of technical knowledge within the style you teach can often lead to leaps in your ability to confer that knowledge on your students.
However, I want to emphasize that reordering and enhancing the structure of your style (the order and pace of curriculum delivery) is definitely not abandoning that which defines your style. Take for example the implementation of a rotating curriculum.
When I was first introduced to the idea, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I mean, how could you have every student in your class learning the same material at the same time, regardless of belt rank?
Yet, after examining how other schools and instructors were implementing the concept, and after seeing the results in the quality of their students, I could only conclude that it was a much more logical system of curriculum delivery than the system I had been using. (You can read more about this in my Kindle book on the subject, How To Teach Martial Arts Using A Rotating Curriculum In Your Karate School.)
By enhancing the structure of my style, I developed my own “system” or approach for teaching that allowed me to improve student outcomes and retention while maintaining the heart of the style of the art I teach. This is what I mean when I say that properly reordering and enhancing the structure of your style does not redefine your art, it only enhances your ability to pass it on.
Again, this goes back to student-focused instruction and results-based learning. Once I decided that my job as an instructor was to turn out the best students possible, and not enhancing and shoring up my own ego, that opened my eyes to a world of possibility in martial arts curriculum design.
I know that many of the ideas I’ve presented here on martial arts curriculum design may be seen as blasphemous by some. However, I can tell you that respectfully breaking with tradition was one of the best things I ever did for my studio.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide just how much you want to innovate new ideas and methods into the traditions of the style or system you teach. However, I urge you to consider that innovation in curriculum design does not necessarily equate to abandonment of your style or system.
I do my best to respond to questions and comments personally, and welcome your feedback. So, feel free to post any questions or comments you have on designing a martial arts curriculum for your school.