Learning Skills Developed
I always look back to how important that experience was to my understanding of the learning process.
Both the violence, which led me to the amazing world of martial arts and all of it’s brain developing techniques, and the old-time radio, which made me understand how good storytelling built the foundation of other learning skills. Especially reading.
Good storytelling technique has been a part of human culture presumably for as long as there have been humans.
Quick Fact. Recently it has been found that the Neanderthals created art in what is now Spain 20,000 years before the arrival of humans. They were telling stories on their cave walls.
When we immerse ourselves in a good story we use all of our mental faculties. We use our auditory skills not only to comprehend meaning, but a good storyteller also incorporates spatial elements. Old time radio used off stage sounds effects to do this, and they were amazingly creative with their low technology methods of doing this.
We use our visual memory skills and visual memory manipulation to envision the scene and the characters. The auditory and the internal visual merge to create an envisioned spatial element as well. All of this together is some very focused cognitive practice. Far more involved than watching something play out on a screen.
These skills are the precursor to reading. When we read we also use all of these skills. Only with reading, we overlay them with an abstraction layer, the letters and words on the page. So it should be easy to see that if we don’t have the underlying skills then when we put an abstraction layer on top it certainly is not going to go well.
Stories and Memory
Another thing that story does is tell our brains that this is something to remember.
In the ancient world recounting stories was vital to survival because they conveyed important knowledge. So when we heard a story our brains perked up. And our brains have been doing this for so long that this phenomenon of enhanced memory is actually innate. We cannot help it.
We pay attention to and remember facts told in stories.
As a matter of fact, if I have done my job correctly in writing this, I have just enlisted that effect for you. Up until just the last few paragraphs this article was all story. Since you have read so far I can, to some degree, assume that the story perked your brain up. After awakening your brain with the story I then gave you the important facts, storytelling is a brain builder. That is a good combination for memory. Because those facts were encapsulated in a story you are far more likely to remember them.
If I had just told you the dry standalone facts about storytelling your brain would have just said “Whatevs” and paid attention to something else. Like the most recent notification on your cell phone. Stories excite our brain and prime it to remember. We can’t help it. They are built into our biology.
“He Doesn’t Have Any Fight”
Those were the words my Grand Master spoke.
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I kept my mouth shut. I was in no position to speak.
The student in front of us was displaying his technique, and the Grand Master was not pleased.
I was a new shifu. Baby black belt is what the senior shifu’s called us new Shifus. Despite the fact that I had worked incredibly hard for a solid decade to attain my esteemed rank, I was nothing to the senior Shifus. And they let me know it, constantly.
I had the privilege of sitting at the table with the Grand Master because I was his favorite. He had taken me under his wing. The ranking Shifus hated me for this. So I watched my step, or I would have to pay later, and payment would be painful.
So I sat quietly and wondered what he was talking about.
Two students were testing in front of us. To me, they both looked very similar. Both had obviously practiced hard. Both moved with speed and grace. Both, to me, fought hard. But he liked one and not the other. I could not discern why.
It wasn’t until years later that I knew. Not until I developed the ability to see it for myself. The skill one had and the other did not was invisible to me. Now it is blatantly obvious.
What my Grand Master was seeing was a very subtle difference in timing and placement of weapons. Yet as subtle as the physical difference was, it revealed a major difference that was going on in one student's brain and not the other.
That difference was visualization.
And, as it turns out, without that visualization skill the student's martial arts skills would be rendered useless. he could train hours per day to no avail. If the time came that he needed to defend himself he would not be able to. And that was why my Grand Master was displeased.
That student's teacher had failed him.
In the ancient forms of martial arts, the mind is trained as much, or more than the body. We learn to understand our own brain and we learn to condition it. We learn to quiet the mind. We learn to focus the mind. And then we teach our subconscious mind to react to a threat long before our conscious mind is even aware of it.
And the only effective method of doing this is telling it a story.
My Grand Master called it, “Painting a picture”.
He would stand in front of the class and describe the scene. His voice would slow and draw you into his story. His arms would draw out the scene as he would cautiously look around as if he was seeing the characters himself. Ready for the imminent attack.
A master storyteller at work.
Once we were all enthralled in his story he would then walk us through each movement we would use to defend ourselves from the imaginary attacker. Alternating between keeping us involved through his story and detailing out our technique. Storytell, teach, storytell, teach...
Not only was he using story to teach, he was also developing our visualization skills. And it is these visualization skills that were the ingredient that made it all work. These skills developed our minds and gave us the fighting skills he was trying to embed in us.
The brain is an odd thing. The brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality. Numerous brain mapping studies have shown this. Subjects brains light up in the same way whether they are seeing an object or imagining that same object. For the brain there is no difference.
In the martial arts, we use this fact to train our subconscious minds. The art of storytelling is used to embed skills deep within the subconscious. And it is this embedded visualization skill that my Grand Master was referring to when he said “He has no fight”. The student was not seeing it in his mind. He was only mimicking the movements of the techniques but it was nothing more than a dance. It had none of the mental training embedded. And to him it was obvious.
The ancient arts have used advanced visualization through storytelling for millennia. They have advanced it, well, to an art. It is critical to training. And these simple techniques are a key to training the mind.
And evidence shows that it is the lack of these same skills that are the root of many learning difficulties in children today.
Storytelling in its best form involves a strong kinesthetic element.
In martial arts, we have fighting forms that re-enact very long fight sequences. They require a highly developed memory to perform.
What is really unique in these is the spatial element. Not only must the practitioner be aware of his own bodies positioning but also his imaginary opponent. All of this changing constantly. It is a complex mental training. All of it using visual and spatial skills. Deeply developing the mind.
Back in these early days, before we knew much about learning challenges, we noticed many of our martial arts students began excelling in academics. It is these forms and the teaching techniques that was eliminating the learning difficulties in our students. And this was long before we realized any of this was happening. We were simply teaching our kung fu. As we did it children and adults alike very obviously developed their minds. Their learning difficulties faded away.
Much more understanding of why this was happening was to come later, but this was the start.
Other Ancient Traditions
Many traditions have forms of kinesthetic storytelling. If you go back just a short time in any human culture you will find some form of kinesthetic storytelling. Whether it is simply highly animated and highly skilled storytellers or the many cultures who have passed on their ancient stories through dance.
In the ancient martial arts, we take this development a step further. In the fighting forms, the practitioner must show an awareness not only of the movements and angles of the form, they must do a few other, very highly cognitive tasks. This includes showing an awareness of every possible attack angle a subsequent opponent may have and also showing an awareness of how each opponent would react to a counterattack.
And keep in mind that that is all done in the mind. It is an amazingly complex mental task that not only involves mental conditioning but also an extreme mental awareness in order to be able to actually change how one thinks and perceives. We actually mentally work on our own neuroplasticity.
This intense mental training puts experts in the ancient arts in a very unique position when it comes to understand and help others in these very powerful aspects of developing cognitive abilities.
Storytelling Vs. Media
The brain is naturally lazy.
Or said in a nicer way, the brain looks for efficiency.
Given a chance not to think and process, the brain will take you up on that opportunity. Cognitive processing is a highly expensive biological process. It takes up huge amounts of energy. Weighing in at approximately 1/50 of a person's weight the brain uses an extraordinary ⅕ of the bodies energy. Ten times the energy per pound of other organs and even muscles unless extremely exerted.
In evolutionary terms, the brain was a very expensive organ. Cognitive efficiency in a world of scarce food was important. Of course, food is no longer scarce for most of us in the Western world. Yet our brain still acts as if it is, conserving where it can.
Because the brain will get lazy if we let it we have to have a little discipline. If we want a fit brain we have to work it. Just like a muscle. And it takes discipline and motivation to do so.
When we watch a story in video format, television, Netflix, Youtube, or any of hundreds of other sources now available to us, the work is done for our brains. We do not have to use our internal visual, auditory, and kinesthetic mental skills to process the story. It comes preprocessed like fast food. And our brain loves this efficiency laziness.
Scientists today often wonder if preprocessed stories (media) have less benefit that kinesthetic storytelling. They say more research is needed. I say research away but the answer is obvious. There is no comparison.
And that, in my opinion, is one of the foundational reasons that more and more children today are struggling. All the fast food versions of stories they consume. Never getting the brain benefits of a kinesthetic story.
Numbers are now exceeding one in five children have a specific learning disability. And those numbers are growing year by year. Not surprising at all considering the lack of developmental activities they get on a typical day.
The Kids That Couldn’t Visualize
Back when Liz and I started teaching martial arts professionally, kids were not allowed in our art. Adults only. This was not the norm for martial arts school. Actually the opposite was. Most schools took advantage of the kids martial arts boom started by the Karate Kid movie. We had stayed traditional and not allowed children.
After some time we eventually did open up children's classes. To do so we had to make some modifications to the curriculum. Our storytelling practices we had been using were a little too reality-based for kids. We talked about terrible things in those stories and didn’t feel that kids were ready for that exposure. So we just changed our stories to ridiculously goofy, and in doing so we made them even more descriptive.
It was fun. Stories of being attacked by evil Big Bird from Sesame Street. Or the terrible purple dinosaur attack. The kids loved it and even helped make up the stories. Their imaginations were incredible. And this methodology worked great. The kids learned the techniques in great detail and could easily memorize the long and complicated forms. We just figured we’d switch out the characters when they got a little older.
A huge percentage of those succeeded. Three of them eventually became black belts. One of them at age 16. The odds of this happening were unbelievable. Typically less than one in a thousand or fewer made it to black belt but here three out of a few hundred made it. Plus many more made it to very high ranks.
As instructors, we were very proud. We were turning out great students and at ages previously never done. Our slight twist on ancient methods was a win. We kept developing it and amazed all those that said it couldn’t be done.
Fast forward 20 years.
I’m testing the new kids and I find myself seeing what my Grand Master saw so many years ago. I realize they have no fight. They haven’t got a clue what they are doing. They can’t visualize. They can’t remember. Certainly, their instructor must have failed them.
I wasn’t teaching kids at the time. I had instructors working for me. So naturally, I assumed my instructors weren’t doing their job well. I thought, “I better put on a gi and show them how it’s done”.
So I did. So did Liz. We jumped into kids classes and started teaching. We were masters at this, so surely we could whip them into shape in no time.
Except we didn’t.
We tried harder. Told better stories. Wilder descriptions. Raised our energy level to the roof.
Neither Liz not I give up easily at anything. So we kept it going. We couldn’t believe how hard it was. We couldn’t believe these kids simply had no imaginations. We kept trying.
Weeks later we saw slight signs of mental life. One child elaborated on one of our stories.
This was a sign that she was getting into it and visualizing. Shortly after a few more did the same. Then after another week the whole class was in on it. Having fun just like the kids from decades ago.
A few weeks more and their technique cleaned up. They started to be able to coordinate their bodies a little better.
Another few weeks and they started to remember techniques better.
Liz and I kept this experiment going among different groups of kids. Our conclusion was pretty obvious. Two decades and children had changed. They did not have the visualization skills. They did not have the coordination skills. They did not have the memory skills.
Those that had not caught on yet complained of being bored. They were simply used to a different type of mental stimulation. Video games and other screens rather than their own minds.
Getting them into their own minds and bodies was a difficult task. It took far more work. But it could be done.
It was glaringly obvious to us that these children did not have the visualization skills, the physical coordination, the proprioception, the memory, or the desire to learn that children from two decades previous had. It could be built into them with a lot of work, but the starting point was much lower. Alarmingly lower.
Have kids changed? Science says it’s inconclusive. Looks very conclusive to me. If I was raising a young one these days I sure wouldn’t wait for science to conclude. That will be far too late for today's kids.
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