Traditional Teaching and Mentorship: TAO of Teaching

Traditional Teaching and Mentorship: TAO of Teaching

This blog is about education and learning theory as applied to the martial arts. Learning – and teaching are what we do as martial artists so we should all be invested in improving the learning process. In upcoming blogs I hope to discuss a variety of modern, research-based approaches to learning, but since our arts have been passed on for generations it is important to appreciate and understand the genius of traditional instruction, as well. Today I’d like to briefly discuss a traditional approach to martial arts instruction that has a great deal of relevance for modern students and instructors. This is instruction through the sempai-kohai relationship. This is a topic, of course, can be studied in detail on its own, but as we lay the groundwork for our study of learning theory we’ll give a brief review of the particular aspects of the sempai-kohai relationship in martial arts instruction here.


Many East Asian societies have very structured social hierarchies. These social systems regulate almost all cultural activities and are replicated in the dojo. Often the social hierarchy confers respect to seniors and teachers. They are honored and their word is respected. Most of us are probably familiar with the role of the sensei (and its equivalents in non-Japanese martial arts) and have some understanding of the respect offered to teachers by students. However, because of the social distance between the sensei and his or her junior students it can be difficult for them to interact and learn directly from the master. In cases like this another set of social relationships has emerged to facilitate learning. This is the sempai-kohai relationship. The sempai or senior member often has a more direct responsibility over the training of the kohai or junior member than the sensei. While a sensei may have many students, even hundreds of students, over the course of a lifetime a sempai will often just have a handful of learners he guides. And the kohai, while junior to all the teachers and seniors, will consider just a few of the seniors his sempai.

Why is this important for us? Since we are particularly interested in learning it is important for us to understand the systems that facilitate instruction. In traditional martial arts there is often an unwavering devotion to the perfection of technique. Karate masters punch the makiwara hundreds of times to train perfect punches, judoka practice uchikomi or “fitting in” thousands of times to set up the perfect throw, competitors break down their kata and practice them in segments over and over again to obtain near perfect performance. It is the sensei that sets the standard, but for the new student reaching the level demanded by the sensei may seem impossible. It is the sempai who mediates the distance between the demands of the sensei and the needs of the student. It is the sempai who directly challenges and who can be challenged by the student. This is not always gentle instruction, as anyone who’s been invited to spar with the black belts for the first time probably knows, but it is instructive.

This traditional relationship also has a connection to modern learning theory. In modern schools of education it is called mentoring. Mentoring is a term many of us have a passing familiarity with, but in this context it means employing a senior-junior social relationship to facilitate learning. Mentors are more than teachers. They are friends, coaches, and guides. Ann Rolfe, the founder of Mentoring Works, has developed a model to explain the power of mentors. She says that mentors have the ability to guide learners from their current situation to making informed decisions through action and reflection.

Mentors inform every aspect of learning and are often the key to unlocking success for students. These are lessons that modern teachers and students of the martial arts can take from our traditions, mentorship is critical to success in learning and all learning is interpersonal. Whether we think of mentoring in terms of the senpai and kohai relationship or whether we think of learning in more modern terms we teach and learn as members of communities and the relationships that facilitate learning are important for us to cultivate.

The sempai-kohai/mentoring relationship is important in every stage of learning.

Byline: Geoff Wingard, M.A, M.Ed. is History Department Chair at Bangor High School and Instructor of History and Education at Husson University. He teaches Shotokan karate at Heisui Dojo. He may be reached at gwingard@tao-of-teaching.com.

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