What does it take to honorably pass a test and earn a new belt in the martial arts? My view is that there are:
- Things to know (we are informed – “I know something new!”), and often…
- Things to be able to perform (“I can do something new!”)
And then on the other hand, there are:
- Qualities built up by conditioning (we are transformed – “I have new capacities”), and…
- Abilities to produce results (we are empowered – “I have new capabilities”).
Sometimes people can learn stuff and not really be able to put it to use. Sometimes people can get things done and not really know why things work. From my view as an educator, both of those scenarios are flawed.
My approach towards rating a person’s advancement in martial arts is to determine the point at which there is sufficient positive (“I grasp the meaning and can perform the technology and show developed capability”) to outweigh any negative lack of knowledge or ability. With that in mind, I think that:
- “F” is where there is so much negative that any possible positive is completely overshadowed – “I just don’t know the material at all, can’t begin to perform it, haven’t developed any new capacities, and can’t produce any results with it.”
- “D” is where there is some positive progress, but still proportionately more negative than positive – “I sort of get it, and sometimes can kind of make it work…” There is not enough positive progress yet on which to build the next lessons.
- “C” is the tipping point where there is more positive than negative – “I got it, and sure, I realize that there is still a lot of room for further development, but I am ready to go on to the next set of lessons.”
- “B” is where there is substantially more positive – really got it to the point that it would be counterproductive to not move on at this point.
- “A” is where there is so much positive that any possible negative is completely overshadowed.
Pass or fail then becomes a decision as to whether the student is ready to move on to a new level of learning/practice for higher knowledge, skill, conditioning, and capability. You pass when your knowledge, skill, conditioning, and capability are seen by the instructor as being sufficient to support advancement into higher levels of lessons, skills, and concepts.
On the other hand, if the student shows a lack of knowledge, skill, conditioning, and capability to the point where it is clear that new higher demands will be impossible to handle, it is better to stay with the current level of material a little longer until knowledge, skill, conditioning, and capability advance to the point where new higher demands are ready to be handled.
Emotionally, this lack of passing can be difficult for a student who sees him or herself as failing. “Failure” is such a depressing dead-end word. It implies that it’s all over and there is nowhere left to go. In contrast, being told you “have still more room for success in this area” is more motivating, and encourages progress.
My stand is that “only an A is a passing grade” is an unrealistic view and counterproductive for most learners. Yes, there may be times where “only an A” might be a reasonable standard, such as training to be a bomb-dismantling US Navy SEAL or an angioplasty specialist cardiologist. But these are classifications of professions in which performance could carry the potential for other people dying if the student was not good enough. I see most martial arts training as fitting into a completely different reality.