When my teacher at Exeter Aikido sent me a message one evening telling me I should come to training the next day because I was due for grading, I assumed he meant that he meant I would be grading in the near future and the session would be an important preparatory class. I recall a slight sense of unreality coming over me when our headteacher came to class and it became clear that I was the only person on the mat who wasn’t teaching staff. He asked me what I’d like to warm up with and I said I’d like to do some Jo disarming techniques since I’m quite poor at these in general (the change in the distance and timing with the damn thing is perplexing!). Also, since there aren’t any Jo-disarming techniques (usually) included in our grading syllabus, the fact that we continued doing them for roughly half an hour left me in a slightly relieved limbo – “oh, well maybe I’m not grading and it’s just a coincidence that so few have turned up to class today”. Then we all lined up and bowed in for my grading. The first technique was suwariwaza Ikkyo. My uke came at me so fast and strongly on the first shot that he almost had me in Ikkyo myself before I could correct my balance. It did not really start well…
Today I am writing about testing. When I was young (let’s say seven or eight, since I can kinda remember which school I was in when I thought this, but not what age I was) I developed the notion that the point of exams was to test a student’s use of the abilities they learnt in class in situations which came as random applications of those principles. Basically I thought that a maths exam was testing if you could use maths if asked on the spot without any prior warning. I also used this as a justification for doing no revision or preparation whatsoever. If I prepared for the exam that would spoil the whole point of it, so my young self told everyone who tried to make him study. Of course, now I am aware that most forms of standardised testing and examination are for the purposes of quantifying human beings into useful numerical scales of productivity, or collecting marks of approval in order to progress in a more or less (depending on how cynical you are) machinic society which runs on tick-box multi-choice logic. Testing in such an arena is so thoroughly standardised that from GCSE to university degree, that there is almost no point at which a student is advised to learn something interesting for its own sake as opposed to for some future goal, which reduces learning for the entire duration to little more than drilling, with an almost military efficiency, the things which make up the test which will be at the end. This is not to say that there aren’t people who learn things which fascinate them beyond a syllabus, or teachers who may, as individuals, inspire students to seek beyond just passing the next grade, but at no point does education as an institution (in my experience) encourage this. It therefore becomes the case that testing itself is never so much a matter of being exposed to something which might be unexpected, random, threatening, or indeed, truly testing, as a matter of seeing with how much diligence a student has prepared for something they knew was inevitable. Especially with, for example, five or so years’ worth of past paper questions available online for not only your own exam board but all the various boards in the country, it really does become a matter of how much time you were willing to invest in cramming down your information. At the end of the process, if a student has failed, it’s not because they were tested and didn’t overcome the challenge, but because they chose not to prepare adequately for the test in the first place (or worse, were left unprepared by poor teaching). A pass is business as usual. This is how the logic of examination currently operates, at least as far as I have seen it.
What my young self believed a test was, and indeed believed it should be is nowhere to be seen in this formulation. As David Hayter huskily intones in MGS4: “when the battlefield is under total control, war becomes routine”. Thus when the entire institution of education and examination becomes an enormous controlled environment, it is not the case that passing or failing (from the point of view of the institution) is something to be celebrated or mourned, but simply part of the plan. The grade needs a 40th percentile to separate students who pass from students who fail after all, no matter the circumstances. And even worse, the more money a student pays, the less they expect to be able to fail at all. Thus at university level it becomes expected from the start that teachers should prepare students to pass their exams, which therefore test nothing at all, except the compatibility of the test itself with the materials given to prepare with beforehand. When a student is expecting to be taught how to pass an examination she knows is coming, then there’s nothing to examine except the paradox that teaching spends all its time telling you, as closely as possible, exactly how you will be tested, what you will be tested on, and how to produce the correct answers, yet still calls this a test.
This is not to say that tests aren’t hard for individuals, however. Indeed, this institution, to my mind makes the environment of examination more traumatic, despite being less of a test. For in the case that education and examination are a fully controlled and standardised environment, failure is more heavily punished than success is ever rewarded. The successful simply move on to take the next test. Those who fail, or achieve less according to the systems of examination in place, are excluded from certain pathways forever (see medical schools no longer taking A-level retake results for university courses for example). As such, the examination battlefield becomes a desperate scramble for the individual to learn how most efficiently to produce tick after tick after tick on their paper, hence the immense pressure placed on teachers by students to not so much teach, but produce a passing grade at the end of the class. In short, the student is driven by fear of failure and being left behind, not by any desire to learn or accrue knowledge at all (though I reiterate that there may be many individuals who do very much love learning, this is not what the institution of education itself encourages).
Hence, when in martial arts I hear anyone at all say anything about “training for the next belt” I just kinda want to slap them. Noone in a martial arts class (or anywhere else for that matter) should be “training for the next belt”. A different dye in the cotton and nylon you tie around your waist is not a mark of martial skill. Martial skill is a mark of martial skill, and truly martial situations only arise when the student is tested beyond their limits. Yes, martial arts is for everyone, and anyone at all should be able to learn to become an excellent martial artist, but that does not mean that they should have a long list of techniques, forms, and movements they can read out and do in a controlled environment. It means that under threat of attack to themselves or someone else, in a situation which arises unexpectedly and suddenly, and which may threaten their life, the martial artist should be able to apply the skills and principles they have learnt. That is what it means to be tested. We do not train looking only as far ahead as the syllabus dictates. We train, and learn, firstly because we love what we’re learning, and secondly so that when the completely unanticipated does happen, our skills will not fail us. Gradings which are recitations of movements which the student has rehearsed vigorously and systematically for are not wholly a bad thing by any means. They are extremely good ways of levelling up beginners and instilling basic coordination and movement necessary to begin martial arts. They’re also extremely fun in the right mindset. But they are not tests in the sense I have been using the word here.
When, after the surprise grading I was given by my Aikido teachers, our headteacher told me “you struggled, but it is meant to be a test”, I felt something resonate very strongly in me with what I have been talking about here. Our headteacher, in gradings, is known to ask for a syllabus technique (“katatedori iriminage”) and then immediately after you’ve attempted it say something like “no, the other katatedori iriminage”. This can continue until you have performed all the katatedori iriminage you know, after which he may happily pick an uke, demonstrate a variation you’ve never seen before, and say “that one”. Then expect you to pull it off at full speed with a committed attack. Our gradings also include a section where the student is free to demonstrate 8 techniques of their own choosing. In this particular grading, I am certain I ended up performing at least sixteen, though honestly I lost count pretty soon after 8, which, I think is quite understandable given that I still had dan-grade uke attacking me while I had to come up with something new. I more or less had to mind-blank and hope my body could do the rest on its own. All this may seem quite unfair, in fact, it may seem like it’s impossible to pass such a grading. That all depends on what you consider a fair test, however. If, as discussed above, a “fair” test is one which is under a controlled environment, which the student is thoroughly prepared for, and which they believe, by all rights, they should pass, then of course, this is a thoroughly unfair test. If, however, it is your stance that a test should be something which really tests the student’s ability to apply their skills, then this is exactly what a test should be. A pass isn’t that you perform everything flawlessly (though of course if you did under such conditions, you probably would pass). A pass is that the student, under extreme pressure doesn’t buckle, and is able to demonstrate that the principles of what they’ve learnt are deep rooted and can be relied upon. Even if the grading ends up a messy, unrehearsed, and ad hoc application of whatever can be patched together at the time, that is exactly the point. I could watch all Japan champions perform Karate kata all day and find it beautiful and admire the diligence of their preparation. But in training, I’d rather encounter something every day which makes me question my technique and my ability, which makes me work on something different and new, which is more than one step closer to a new certificate, but instead makes me feel like a drop in the ocean of something much more vast I have to figure out.
Once again, this is not to say that standardised testing is unilaterally wrong. In schools and in martial arts, and everywhere else, it has a place. Systematised learning is an excellent way of developing basic skills with a great deal of efficiency (hence the renown of the heavily structured Yoshinkan Aikido, for example). And of course, you can’t expect every single class to be the radically unanticipated situations which really push the student, since if that were so it’d be awfully hard to learn anything at all. Standardised testing is also an excellent way of measuring students against other students, if, as a teaching institution, you wish to know where best to deliver your attention and which students are just fine learning for themselves. However, the lazy bureaucracy of controlled testing structures should never, to my mind, become the focus of training or learning in general. I think there is much more for human beings to do with themselves when learning than spend their lives aspiring towards the next meaningless accolade. It is in the character of being tested and testing oneself to push beyond the limits of what is expected and planned that this potential can be accessed.
To anyone who has read me before, thankyou for reading again. Sorry for the long silence. I was, contrary to what the above might suggest, thoroughly enjoying my own higher education and martial arts training (though not without difficulty). In any case, I hope you have enjoyed reading. All feedback is welcome and thanks again!
My thanks to Exeter Aikido : http://www.exeteraikido.co.uk/ https://www.facebook.com/exeteraikido?fref=ts
Exeter University Jujutsu: https://www.facebook.com/groups/196427517092370/
Also, here’s a lovely video from Exeter Aikido: