By: Dr Paul Lam, Director of Tai Chi for Health Programs, Narwee, NSW, Australia
I have been reading an excellent book about a Chinese factory worker during the time of the Cultural Revolution whosucceeded to become a world famous opera singer. I like to recommend this memoir to you and I used an incident in the book to illustrate the significance of effective teaching. The purpose of the Tai Chi for Health programs is to make tai chi accessible to everyone and effective teaching is an essential part.
In “Along the Roaring River, My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met”, Hao Jiang Tian tells the story of his childhood during those years of turmoil. How he grew up with a prestigious military background and how he and his family were affected by the Cultural Revolution. He had to be a factory worker for eight years, later studied voice in Denver and became a world famous opera singer, with regular appearances in the New York Metropolitan Opera alongside the likes of Placido Domingo.
This book is of special interest to me as I am in the process of writing my memoir. Tian is six years younger than me; I left China just before the Cultural Revolution. However my situation was very different to his in the sense that I was classified as a “bad element” in the Chinese Communist system. My family was identified as “landlords”, reason being my grandfather who worked hard overseas, decided to save and send money home to build a sizeable house. “Landlords” were harshly persecuted. My family and I went through severe discrimination and torture while Tian, coming from a military family, was considered the elite “class” in China. Everyone was categorized into different classes. Wherever you went, and whatever you were allowed to do was determined by the class you belonged, and subjected to vastly different treatment. For example, I was denied a chance to study in high school because of my “bad element” background.
Tian’s father was the musical director of the military ensemble and his mother composed patriotic songs sung throughout the country. Coming from a prestigious family, he was able to have piano lessons as a child. He described how much he hated the lessons. His teacher was skilled but too outspoken for his own good which later got him into serious trouble with the Red Guards. Nonetheless, he was a nice man who utilised the “traditional” strict Chinese method of teaching. Tian developed intense hatred towards the piano. As we now know, Tian obviously had great musical talent. At age 11, his teacher was “imprisoned” by the Red Guards and his lessons terminated. He was overjoyed, although he was too young to understand the predicament of his teacher.
Years later, Tian met up with his teacher. While reminiscing the old days he told his teacher the happiest day of his life was when the piano lessons stopped. He said he was too young to comprehend his teacher’s sufferings and asked for his forgiveness. With tears in his eyes his teacher replied, “I understand, but you were not a good student and I was so tired of you, you cried so much, I tried everything short of hitting you!” At this point I was reminded of so many tai chi teachers with great skill and good intentions who taught with the “traditional” strict method.
Why would a well intended and skilful teacher make a student hate something he had the potential of being a talent? It has much to do with the teaching method. Current studies show effective teaching can help students learn quickly, gain a sense of achievement, enjoy the art, and be motivated to practice… I’m sure Tian’s teacher would have loved to know some of these methods! Judging from the many positive feedbacks from my book “Teaching Tai Chi Effectively”, I am glad to know more and more teachers are seeking effective means to teach tai chi.
Traditionally tai chi is focused on martial art and in recent years the focus is diverted to competitions as well. Traditional methods have served martial artists and competitors well. By ‘traditional’ I mean the strict disciplinary, no pain no gain, teacher orientated methods that are often used by Chinese traditional teachers. Now the vast majority are learning tai chi for health improvement. With this change in perspective, different approaches are necessary. Learner orientated teaching methods along with suitable contents are essential. The world is progressing fast. When I graduated from medical school 36 years ago, HIV was yet to be discovered. Methods we use regularly nowadays if we had known back then would have saved many lives. It would then make sense when we use tai chi for health improvement, we need to be constantly updated to take advantage of new developments. Today most exercise leaders, trainers, and health professionals require regular updates to ensure our clients receive maximum benefit.There is a wealth of knowledge and research to support that learners’ orientated teaching methods are much more effective. Over the last 12 years, I have worked with medical and tai chi experts to create simple, safe and effective tai chi programs for various populations and people with chronic conditions, based on traditional tai chi forms. We selected and simplified the movements which are beneficial for health and deleted the ones which are high risk to ensure its safety element. Together with many of my colleagues, we have refined our teaching and training methods, incorporating modern learning theories and research in our training. Learners are more likely to be motivated to practice, find enjoyment in tai chi, and quickly receiving its many health benefits.
That is why the Tai Chi for Health programs has reached over 2 million people worldwide in a span of just 12 years. It is my hope that different interest groups like martial arts practitioners, or teachers focusing on competitions, or teachers for health improvement will continue to work side by side to deliver more effective ways to help people learn tai chi for their desired purpose. Most of all I am dedicated to make the Tai Chi for Health program accessible to everyone who chooses to learn.