The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Those that can do those that can’t teach

For a long time I, like I believe many people, took this to mean that those that were good at doing something did just that, they got on and did it. Those that could not do it made their way by teaching it. It conveyed a sense that those that were teaching were in some way deficient in skill and/or knowledge.
Now of course there are people who claim to be teachers of various subjects who should not be teachers, who have neither real skill nor real ability to improve others. However there are many good teachers who themselves are not at the top the game in their chosen field.

Over time and the more I have taught and watched others teach and learn and read and researched, my opinion of this of old piece of advice has changed.

The skills of doing and teaching how to do are different things, they require different skill sets. Just because someone is a skilful martial artist for example, doesn’t mean they are going to be good teacher.

The obvious examples of the difference between those that do and teach are world class sportsmen/women and athletes. Their coaches generally are not world class in the activity themselves, though some are, far more often they have been good but not at the top level. However what they do excel at it is getting others to be the best.

The greatest reason for this is that when one reaches near peak performance of a skill, you become increasingly unaware of the precise details of what and how you are achieving it, this has ceased to be a cognitive thing and is happening on a deeper neurological level. The ability to analyse moves and actions and to put that understanding in to words or to help someone else will not be there. In fact that awareness is there while performing a task is there, it is actually likely to inhibit the highest level of performance.

A personal example is doing and teaching shoulder rolls, I have done…. Well so many I can’t think how to count them. I am not aware of all the details of what I do when I roll anymore. Sometimes when I am teaching rolls or for some reason I think about rolling while doing one, it does not work, it hurts a bit. I end up engaging mentally in the process, or re-investment as it is know in sports training, more than I should, the result, it doesn’t work as it should.

How one does something at a high level may be markedly different from the way one does it while learning, so doing as a master does it may not actually be the best way to do it a lower levels of proficiency. It certainly may not be where you need to be on the journey of acquiring skills. It could in fact be counter-productive to properly acquiring the skill. So another part of being a good teacher is seeing where the student is and ensuring that they are doing things appropriate to their level. This is something that the master practitioner may not be able to do.

Also at some point you have to stop teaching, they have to get on with it and gain understanding through their own experience. Really calling someone a Teacher is a misnomer, a better word is Guide. Teaching implies that you are giving them something that they do not already have or that they can’t get without the Teacher. When really you are guiding them to let the kill out, to get them to find it in themselves.
Going back to learning how to roll, once I have shown you what to do, and watched you do some and given advice on those, the next phase lies in you doing it and gaining experience and understanding from that. If it hurt, felt rough and disorganised, then you didn’t do it well. No pain, felt smooth, then you did it well. Of course the value of the guide is that they can see what you did and can observe the things that are off, using their own experience, to help frame your experience. However I can tell you all day long what is wrong or right, but until you can feel the difference and act on it yourself it won’t really mean anything to you.

Often the skill of the teacher is not what they say, but what they don’t say. Someone does not necessarily need to do all the things that were wrong just the one or two key points. The student doesn’t need to know everything that you know they need the one or two things that will help them now. What is important is where they are on their journey now, not where you are on yours.

So if you want to judge a teacher, do not necessarily look at how good they are with the skill, look at how good their students are, and if you really want to judge how good a teacher they are, don’t look at the best students. Look at the average in that group. Its easy to teach people who have lots of ability, but only a good teacher can really raise the levels of everyone. Also don’t judge the teacher on how much they talk, or how much information they can regurgitate, but how simply they pass the appropriate information on to the students.

Perhaps the old saying should be changed to
Those that can, do.
Those that can teach, teach.



  1. I found this interesting. I have taught in many different environments, in an diverse range of subjects ranging from sound engineering to sword play. I have also of course learned (or not) from many teachers.

    Firstly I have to agree that teaching is a skill in and of itself. as you say, it is more than simply passing on information. It is a process of guiding students on a journey. In many ways you do not actually teach, but create an environment within which the student can explore the subject themselves.
    By doing this it can often be the case that the teacher also learns. That to me is one of the main key things. To be open to the fact that your students often have something to teach you.

    One of the first things I learned, is that you do not need to know everything about the subject you are teaching. I was told "keep one step ahead of your students and you'll be okay" When teaching at the Leeds Collage of music, I often found students towards the end of their courses were pushing me to the point that we were together learning something I did not know. I found my students respected me saying "I don't know" and enjoyed the shared process of investigating whatever that may have been, together.

    This has translated to my training group, to start I can certainly aid a student in the basics...but all to soon I am asked questions to which I have no answer. So off we go learning together.

    Teaching is learning, if you think otherwise, you have much to learn :-)

  2. Those that can do; those that can't teach.

    To me this statement is more about real world experience vs. academic knowledge. Just because you are good at getting information/skill across to someone doesn't validate the lessons as useful in the real world. There are those that teach from what they have done and those that pass on second or more hand knowledge. Maybe it should be:

    Those that can do.
    Those that can't shouldn't teach.
    Those that have done it hopefully have the skill to teach it.

    Ps. If you and a student of yours are both learning something for the firstime, then you are both students, unless you are teaching them how to learn something on their own.

  3. Yes someone has to have done it to teach it, not just read a book. However just because someone HAS done it doesn't mean that they can teach, and as I mentioned, research has shown that in fact the higher level of performers are that for the very reason that they are less aware of and able to pass on the fine details what makes them that good.

    As we are here dealing with the practical elements of historical combat, everyone should be doing it and doing it more than reading about it. More experience leads to more insight and understanding, however REAL experience is a little thin on the ground! 8') Practical experience, yes, and is vital. Even if someone has "real" experience it may not be the right thing for everyone.
    There is no right or wrong there is what has worked and what hasn't, and that could be to do with luck as much as skill.

    A teacher and a student can be approaching a subject for the first time, Medieval grappling for example, but if the teacher has more experience, in general movement/fighting skills or another form of grappling, they will make connections and get insight quicker than the student, still making them the teacher in the proper IMO, sense of Teacher as Guide. again this is what makes the teacher different from the student.

    Of course we are all learning, if I met someone who said they had learnt all there was to know on a subject then I would not take the seriously as a teacher.