By Jeff Wetzler

Several years ago, Aylon Samouha—who co-leads Transcend with me—and I began working with Achievement First on their “Greenfield” school model, which was a “blank slate” R&D process that employed both user-centered and evidence-driven design methods to reimagine k-8 schooling in a way that would prepare A.F.’s scholars for long-term success in college and life (more detail can be found in this case study from year 1 of the pilot).

Early in the process, we all felt strongly that a key learning outcome should be “excellence in enrichment,”—i.e., the opportunity to deeply pursue mastery in a non-academic arena, such as dance, martial arts, performance music, etc. This goal mattered for several reasons: First, enrichment is an often-overlooked aspect of the opportunity gap between affluent and lower-income children. Second, enrichment can be highly valuable in life and for appreciating the world. Third, the act of deep practice to master challenging skills is a great way to develop social and emotional habits.

The same time our team was exploring which enrichment areas to include, coincidentally, my own children—Jacob and Eden—were taking martial arts. Last month, Jacob wrote a 5th-grade essay about the day he took his black belt test. Some highlights included:

“I had seen so many role models I wanted to be like. I wanted to be a black belt, not wear a black belt, to earn one not get one.”

Describing the pressures of the test: “Hard things are just obstacles. They cannot stop us; they can just delay us.”

Regarding sparring: “This is the part when you fight as if it is real, when you have courage. Think about this; you can’t have courage unless you have fear.”

Lastly: “I can stay alive during an eight-hour test, but also I knew that in real life I could use those skills to defend myself…the experience told me that I was mentally strong, because I could remember all those skills. I will treasure that day for the rest of my life.”

Of course, everything I write is clouded by my fatherly pride, so I’m not exactly an objective observer. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to dissect the secret sauce in karate’s power as a developmental crucible. I see seven ingredients:

1) There is authentic adversity to overcome.  My children come home from karate sore, sometimes bruised, and always tired.  The physical risks of karate can only be overcome through focus, concentration, sustained practice, and persistence. These vital habits are honed every time my kids set foot in the dojo.

2) The mastery-based environment is hugely motivating.  Karate students only advance to the next belt level when they have proven they are ready, and they advance at different rates depending on their progress—not based on age or time in the program. They are in class with people older and younger than them, and they realize age is not the determinant. Rather, they see a direct correlation between how hard they practice and how fast they advance.

3) Character is explicitly taught and applied in the context of the work.  Jacob is constantly being taught things like, “there is no courage without fear,” or “when you win you celebrate, when you lose you evaluate,” or “a black belt is a white belt who never gave up.” In a recent tournament, Shihan (the head-teacher) pointed out that winning happens when learners step into the “danger zone,” not when they stay protected in the “safety zone.” These are not just abstract lectures but are directly connected to the immediate challenges at hand, which makes them more likely to be internalized and applied later.

4) The environment is communal with a high sense of belonging. While karate may seem like an individual sport, it is actually highly communal. Our kids feel a sense of belonging at the dojo&mdashso much so that they asked to volunteer in classes for kids of lower belts. Recently, when Eden had a friendship challenge at school, she sought out advice from Shihan, who took great interest and offered sage counsel. The dojo feels like another home to my children, and that sense of belonging creates a vital container in which they can push themselves, take risks, fail, and keep trying.

5) Testing is meaningful. Jacob begins his essay by saying, “Something happens when you are about to take a test; you feel nervous. Some people think nervous is bad. I think it is good.” The test caused Jacob to focus, prepare, practice, and persist through the anxiety that comes with the high-stakes moments that life throws our way. However, the test also felt engaging and authentic — it was clear to Jacob why he needed to do what the test required to demonstrate his mastery.

6) The learning is culturally grounded. Karate emanates from eastern traditions, and the children learn to appreciate the value and beauty in its authentic origins. Everything from the using terms in Japanese to sounds and breathing and physical movements such as bowing helps children appreciate not only the ancient roots but the non-Western cultural grounding of Karate. This situates their learning in a temporal and cultural landscape that is far bigger than their current community — it expands their horizons and enriches their worldview.

7) Teachers are deeply honored. Senseis” are experts in karate, having spent decades honing their craft. They demonstrate, model, teach, coach, counsel, push, challenge, redirect and celebrate with students. They have differentiated roles and developmental pathways – there are lead teachers and apprentices at different levels. And they are shown the respect they deserve – students are instructed to address them as “sir” / “ma’am” and to show honor through courtesy bows.

These seven features may have seen their peak thousands of years ago, but they still have enormous relevance for learning design today. How many of these features are truly present in mainstream K-12 schooling today?

Many have been present for decades in “enrichment”—whether martial arts, orchestra, debate, basketball, or any number of activities that are not front-and-center when we talk about “school”—but all too often, this domain of mastery takes a back seat when we think about school design. Yet, it helps children ignite passion, cultivate confidence, build growth mindset, and foster so many positive SEL skills and life habits. For Jacob and Eden, their experience in karate is shaping their identities and senses of self far more than any other aspect of their education—at least for now.

For more, see:

Jeff Wetzler is co-founder of Transcend, an R&D non-profit whose mission is to accelerate innovation in the core design of “schooling.”  Follow him on Twitter @jeffreywetzler.


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