A series of short interviews with people who are active in fields where collaborative and peer learning play an important role both in the distribution of knowledge and in the development of their skills.
For this series, we ask everyone the same questions so that we can find and highlight their common practices as well as their unique methods in each field.
Who are you and what do you do?
Paul de Tourreil, instructor of White Crane Kung Fu. I started training in martial arts on a whim, in university. One day, several years into my training, my Shifu walked up to me a few minutes before the class was to start and said, “Paul, you’re giving the warm-up today,” and then walked away. That was the sum total of my transition to teaching. Luckily for me, it turned out that I really enjoyed it, and a few years later, with my teacher’s blessing, I became a full-time martial arts instructor. Over the last two decades, I’ve taught hundreds of adults, teens, and children of all levels.
Tell us about your field, what it’s about and what got you interested in spending the time to master the skills needed.
Kung Fu is the generic term for martial arts of Chinese origin, and there are at least a hundred specific styles. Like many young men, I had long been entranced by the notion of kung fu fighting, which always looked so cool in the movies.
The only thing that mattered was whether you managed to improve some aspect of your own skill, even a little bit, every time you trained.
I remember that on our first day of class, we were taught throat strikes and groin kicks. I thought, okay, they’re not playing around here. Next, I saw an unassuming petite woman completely overwhelm her sparring partner, a very big dude, with an astonishing display of speed and precision. That’s when I realized that things here in the martial-arts world are not really how they initially appear. As a little skinny runt myself, I loved the idea that size did not have to be the determining factor in my ability to defend myself.
I also liked the non-competitive philosophy that permeated the school. No one cared about being the best in the class. The only thing that mattered was whether you managed to improve some aspect of your own skill, even a little bit, every time you trained. Being part of a positive, helpful community whose goal was constant improvement and eventual mastery of techniques and principles is ultimately what kept me interested as the days and weeks became years.
What do you think about the idea of peer and collaborative learning and how do you see it manifested in your field?
The culture of a traditional kung fu school tends to be quite formal and authoritarian, with a Master or Shifu as the ultimate authority. However, the nature of mixed-level group classes means that senior students take responsibility for part of the junior student’s learning process. Learning from peers helps in at least two specific ways. First, seeing several different colleagues demonstrate varying levels of proficiency encodes the notion that excellence is as much a process as it is a goal. Second, watching others each putting their own “spin” on the same moves, as well as having their own ways to explain them, multiplies the windows into understanding the material.
Can you share a personal example of how that form of learning and collaboration has helped you along?
In sparring (free fighting practice) with others of greater or lesser skill, each student is exposed to different, unique takes on the lessons in question.
Having to teach as well as learn also forced me to think deeply about material that I had just assumed I understood.
I once felt that my lack of size meant that it was risky to close the distance against taller, heavier opponents in order to punch, seize, or grapple. But once I took a friendly beating from a highly-skilled student who was even shorter than myself, but had much quicker, more accomplished footwork, I was forced to re-think my assumptions. By observing the strategies that my partner had employed against me, I figured out how to succeed against bigger opponents.
Having to teach as well as learn also forced me to think deeply about material that I had just assumed I understood. It turned out that until I could teach effectively to beginners with a wide variety of learning styles, I couldn’t consider myself to have mastered the material.
This series is greatly inspired by the excellent The Setup.