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Part 1: Taekwondo as Lesson Study

I wrote this post several months ago, after conversations with a few educator colleagues whose kids attend the same martial arts school. The education my kids receive at World Champion Taekwondo is a marvel - as a parent and an educator, I could not be more impressed.

When I officially launched this blog in March as schools were closing, the timing was not right for a traditional lesson study post. However, I am eager to write more about how WCTKD has rapidly evolved and innovated in the past few months. Not only are their traditional practices worthy of lesson study, their response to COVID-19 is a remarkable case study K-12 public schools could aspire to as the reality of ongoing virtual and blended learning continues into the 2020-2021 school year.

This first post details a routine day at World Champion Taekwondo. Next week I’ll post the second part, which describes how the martial arts school has adapted their practices to meet the needs of their individual students as well as the collective WCTKD family.


Have you ever seen a Taekwondo practice? My sons are 5 and 7 and they take classes three days a week. Observing class with a local principal colleague, we could not help but notice educational best practices abound. Here is a synopsis of a typical 45-minute lesson and the lessons educators can take away.

9:00 - Class begins with a greeting, demonstrating respect for the instructors (usually 2-4 instructors per 5-50 students), the flag, each other, the sacred space within the dojo and the art of Taekwondo in and of itself.

Beginning a lesson with an opening ritual is comforting to students and sends a clear signal about expectations. Do we take time to do this every day? What value could it provide to students? The teacher?

9:01 - An instructor leads students in a stretching/warm up ritual. This portion of class is often led by a novice instructor who receives immediate feedback from the more experienced instructors. (A recent correction - the instructors call out individual students by name to count in Korean. When the novice instructor did not know enough student names to do this effectively, they received public corrective feedback about the importance of knowing all students by name. The students understood how valued they were by witnessing this feedback!) The stretching combination is similar each day. While one instructor leads, the others offer individualized feedback to students, such as corrections and advice.

When a lesson will eventually be differentiated, it is very important to begin with whole group practice. This builds a sense of community among students of various abilities and allows time for repeated practice. Warm up engages the body and brain, preparing for the more cognitively demanding tasks ahead. This is also a time of mindful breathing and quiet reflection, also welcome elements in a classroom!

9:10 - Based on observations of previous lessons, instructors lead a whole group lesson based on a homogeneously identified needed skill. Often the lesson begins with a clear sense of purpose, such as, “We are practicing this today because we’ve noticed many of you need practice with x and y. We see you making z mistake and we think strategy w can help you.” The students are led through a cycle of kicking, form, striking, sparring, breaking, or general agility skill practice. Mondays are usually for cardio drills, Tuesdays kicking, Wednesdays form, etc. but there is no set schedule. The plan can be adjusted based on need and who comes to class each day.

This loose-tight approach to curriculum design is a marvel! The students are very clear on what is expected to advance to the next level. They are motivated to employ technique based on the advice of instructors who have achieved mastery in their field. They follow directions diligently, move quickly and it is very rare to witness off-task or disrespectful behavior because students are motivated and engaged. There is predictability and routine, but also novelty and responsiveness.

9:25 - Students are dismissed for a water break by saying “Thank you, ma’am!” or “Thank you, sir!” There is no dismissal procedure; the class just leaves the dojo, gets a drink and returns. They know where to sit and what to do. They socialize for a moment and are ready for the next direction.

Kids need a break. When expectations are clear, teachers do not need to spend a ton of time redirecting, getting fancy with classroom management strategies, or doing anything other than talking to kids and letting them talk to each other. Also, kids need to move and they need water! Often!

9:30 - Students are divided into groups. Sometimes the groups are by belt color, but even by color there are a variety of ages (sometimes as young as 4 to full-grown adult) and skill levels. Often there are more belt colors than there are instructors. The class is drop-in so the instructors never know what combination of students they will get or even how many students will be in class each day. Regardless, they make a decision quickly, within seconds, and get to work offering differentiated, guided practice with precise feedback and positive reinforcement. The room positively hums at this point.

Fixed groups are the norms in school, but they do not need to be. Flexible grouping is the gold standard of a differentiated classroom. But even within groups, individual students have different needs. If teachers embrace that and move on instead of wishing (or worse, pretending) all kids were the same, we’d be a lot better off! Instructors who know their content deeply know what to look for: signs of struggle, signs of progress, students who need precise feedback vs. students who need time to practice and figure it out.

9:40 - The class is called back together. Instructors previously identified several students who are ready to test for their stripes. Stripes are measures of formative progress. Students earn stripes before they are allowed to test for the next belt, a summative measure. All students watch the test. Testers are given feedback as they test and they are asked to perform several times, even if they are right the first time. They are told to keep practicing and given specific feedback or the entire class celebrates their progress. Students of lower belts see new techniques modeled and they now have something to aspire to.

Assessment, ideally, is a learning process. Formative assessment matters more than summative when the task is challenging but doable. Performing in front of peers is intimidating, but also brings great pride when done successfully. Encouraging others while assessing is often left out of K-12 classrooms. This type of assessment is of the “making sure” variety - students have had plenty of feedback before they get to this point so they know what to expect. Feedback is individualized and students feel a great deal of pride for their accomplishments.

9:45 - Students are asked to stand up, fix their uniforms, and bow to the flag. They also say a formal thank you to the instructors, their parents and each other. This closing ritual ends class every day. It is not uncommon to see very young siblings participating on the sidelines! Students leave smiling and proud, no matter what happened in class that day.

Closure matters. When we rush from thing to thing, we miss an opportunity to celebrate what was accomplished, to say thank you for learning together. I wish I took more time to create closing rituals with my students!

A few more points to consider from a public education perspective:

  • Classes often have as many as 40-50 students with 3-4 instructors. Nothing about this routine changes.

  • Students come and go throughout the week. Instructors never know how many or which students will come to class. Nothing about this routine changes.

  • Instructors are as young as 14 or 15. They are always former students who have earned their black belts and beyond. The routine is familiar to them because they were once students participating in the same class. Students aspire to be instructors. It is considered to be the ultimate honor and privilege.

  • There are almost no materials in class. The class is entirely based on verbal feedback and modelling.

  • Lessons in social-emotional well-being, self-control, respect, kindness, and cultural awareness are embedded throughout class.

  • Instructors know the students personally. They talk with the families and socialize with the students before, during, and after class. The students have a deep respect for the instructors and the instructors respect the students in turn.

  • Students with disabilities are welcome and encouraged in Taekwondo. While their needs are accommodated, they are expected to reach the same fixed performance level as their peers. No compromises are made. These students and their parents often express that Taekwondo is the only place where they are treated as a true equal and they rise to the challenge.

A final note:

The ultimate goal of Taekwondo, in addition to the discipline and skills students develop, is to use those skills in context in a sparring situation. Students are expected to apply and transfer their Taekwondo skills in matches several times a month and they must achieve a sparring stripe to test for a new belt. The students understand that skill practice has a practical purpose and applying skills in context is easier for some students than others.


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