Teaching Tai Chi the Learners’ Way

By: Jim Starshak, Master Trainer, Shawnee, KS, USA
 
This is the link to the eJournal where Jim’s teaching article was published.
 
As a tai chi instructor, one of the most frustrating aspects that you may encounter is when people just stop attending your class.  A typical—yet naïve—response is that tai chi was just not what they were expecting. However, if you are honest with yourself, you will realize that some students stop attending because you have inadvertently imbedded learning barriers into your class.  By consciously addressing three easy steps, you can break down these learning barriers and increase the number of students in your tai chi and other classes.  Specifically, teaching to your students’ learning styles, using an effective teaching method, and offering judicious, positive corrections will distinguish your successful tai chi classes from all the others.
 
Learning Styles:
Over the years I have found that when my learning style and the instructor’s teaching style do not mesh, my learning is impeded and the tai chi class is not fun. On the other hand, when our styles synchronize I am excited about learning and have fun in every class.  Most tai chi instructors are used to teaching multi-level sessions where one person may step further or descend lower in a tai chi movement.  Your challenge, however, is to go beyond these simple multi-level modifications and explore how to reach out and effectively teach to the varying learning styles in your classes.
 
In her book, The Tao of Teaching Tai Chi, Cyndy Fells describes a student’s learning style as their preference on how they want to receive information, which significantly impacts their ability to learn.  For instance, Global learners prefer to initially see an overview of what they are about to learn while Analytical learners prefer to see the new material presented in a logical step-wise manner. Active learners may immediately start mimicking your movements, while Reflective learners contemplate each movement and may even watch the group try the movement once before they join in.
 
Other learning preferences you will have in your class include Auditory, Visual, and Kinesthetic(or Tactile)learners.  Auditory learners need to hear you explain each movement part, are cognizant of your voice changes, and may quietly talk themselves through each step.  Visual learners respond to seeing you demonstrate the parts of each form and through your visual aids such as posters or charts. Kinesthetic learners are hands-on and they learn best by actually doing something.  Kinesthetics may even start moving while you are discussing the tai chi form, but they will become bored quickly if you talk too much.
 
On the surface, it does not seem very difficult to address a student’s particular learning style.  Your real challenge comes from including each learning style, plus some combination styles, in every class.  To become a highly effective teacher, you must consciously teach to each learning style. In his ground-breaking book, Teaching Tai Chi Effectively, Dr. Paul Lam details a simple method that will automatically address the various learning styles in all your classes.
 
Stepwise Progressive Teaching Method:
Using more than 20 years of teaching experience and research, Dr. Lam developed and refined his highly effective stepwise, progressive system for teaching tai chi. The beauty of his system is that it is inherently safe and it works equally well for teaching any other mind-body, movement, or complex skill set.  You will be amazed how quickly your students learn and retain knowledge as you guide them through its three distinct, yet simple, phases: Watch Me, Follow Me, and Show Me.
 
In the Watch Me phase, tell the students what movement they will learn and then demonstrate that entire form while facing them.  This will appeal to your Global learners as they can see the entire picture, including your arms and hands.  Your Visual learners will watch intently, the Reflective and Analytical learners will start to break down the overall tai chi form into individual movement components, and the Kinesthetic and Active learners may start following your movements.  This simple demonstration sets the stage for all effective learning.
 
Next, in the Follow Me phase, begin by breaking the whole movement into small, manageable segments.  For me, either breaking the entire movement into sequential segments or separating the upper body from the lower body movements is most effective.  To preclude issues that some people have with following mirror-image instruction, face away from your students to improve their ability to learn while following you.  Ask everyone to follow as you slowly lead Part 1 of the movement and simultaneously describe their expected actions in simple terms.  This will appeal to your Auditory, Visual, and Kinesthetic learners alike. Repeat this Follow Me segment at least three times as you gradually increase to a normal speed and reduce your talking each time.  This empowers your students to become responsible for their own learning, promotes self-corrections, and encourages participants to “listen” to their own body to foster their internal awareness.
 
Finally, in the Show Me phase, ask your students to demonstrate what they just learned.  I prefer to ask students to try it at their own pace to see how it feels as this will complement their particular learning style and portrays the Show Me phase as individual practice rather than an evaluation. Remember, at this stage of learning it is unrealistic to expect much more than just the general form.
 
If some students do not seem to get it, offer a helpful suggestion and have everyone follow you a couple more times before they show you again.  When they are “good enough”, add Part 2 to the movement and have them follow you through both Parts 1 and 2 at least three times before having them show you how well they learned these first two parts. Sequentially add new material to build on what they already know until the entire tai chi form is learned well enough for this session.  Then, to help with their retention and refinement, do the entire movement together several times alternating between following you and showing you.
 
Judicious Corrections:
Some instructors may have a difficult time with the Follow Me phase because they are not looking at the students and therefore cannot make corrections.  Remember, you are now teaching the “Learners’ Way” and these initial repetitions are critical to allow your participants to actually learn rather than merely follow. You will have ample time for corrections later, but how you present those corrections is just as important as the corrections themself.
 
After the Show Me phase, determine the most important area for improvement – even if it seems basic for you – and then offer just one judicious corrective comment. It is frustrating to students if you provide more than one correction at a time or have them all hold their positions as you go around making individual corrections.  Although most participants respond better to positives, many instructors will initially find it difficult to provide only positive feedback.  With a little effort, you soon will be replacing the negative, “Don’t raise your shoulders so high!” with the more positive, “Let’s all allow our shoulders to sink slightly and see how we feel.” Try it a few times and note your students’ positive response to this simple concept. To effectively retain participants in your tai chi classes, you need to be authentic and caring in every aspect of your teaching; including your feedback.
 
As you can see, we all learn in different ways. By adopting these three easy teaching tools, you will facilitate multiple learning styles, teach the learner’s way, and enable your students’ learning through positive feedback. When you increase your instructional effectiveness, you find more fulfilment with teaching, your classes are safer, and your students’ learning becomes enhanced, accelerated, and more fun.  Try it and see how quickly your tai chi—as well as all your other classes—grow in popularity with participants and management alike.
References:
Fells, Cynthia. The Tao of Teaching Tai Chi.  Park Place Publications, Pacific Grove, California, 2008.
Lam, Paul, MD.  Teaching Tai Chi Effectively.  Tai Chi Productions, Narwee, NSW, Australia, 2006.