The Counterintuitive Art of Teaching a Skill at Scale

I started occasionally attending jiu jitsu classes several months ago. In all my time so far, no one ever sat me down and told me the rules of jiu jitsu. There has been no theory, little top-down explanation of terminology, and in fact no “classroom portion” at all.

I’ve had none of the things school taught me to expect from education, and I’m loving it.

What I get to see every time I go to jiu jitsu class is the art of great teaching at scale. The gym’s owner and main instructor has wisely created a teaching model that doesn’t need many of the obvious trappings of “instruction” that we expect when learning a new skill. It lets him effectively get his knowledge into the heads of a large number of instructees of various skill levels – without providing direct instruction to all of us.

In a typical session, the instructor demonstrates a move (that might have some Japanese or Portuguese name I don’t know) and then pairs off students to drill with each other. White belts are often paired with purple belts, experience with innocence. From there, I just watch and try and learn from my partner (with good guidance and corrections from the instructor) – and all of the little things I thought someone would explain to me up front become clearer with time.

I figure out how the warmup routines work. I figure out the etiquette of drilling and rolling. I figure out how to start and stop grappling with someone. I figure out how to take care of my teeth (mouth guard!) and joints (tap early). And I learn all of these things as much or more from my partners than from the instructor himself.

Knowledge comes bit by bit, and I earn it through practice with other students. Even other white belts have a great deal to teach me. And that’s at least one key to teaching at scale: turning your pupils into instructors.*

It’s precisely because there is no great body of knowledge to memorize that pupils can teach each other and grow the circle of experience. That’s a second part of teaching at scale: iteration. If the instructor gave white belts an overwhelming amount of knowledge to memorize, he might crush their confidence or else make them pedantic about rules at a time they should be paying attention to what is happening on the mat (rather than to some concepts in our heads).

We pay attention to what’s on the mat, and then we relay that bit by bit to others. No one gets to stay out of the deep end, and no one gets to escape the responsibility of being a teacher. And, ladies and gentlemen, that is *how* it is done.


*There was some school model in the 19th century that did this in a classroom setting , but I’m blanking on the name. This is not a new concept by any means.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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