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Aurora Institute

The Karate Studio: An Excellent Example of a Competency-Based Classroom

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 7.27.02 PMAt least twice a week I have the opportunity to do a formal observation of the karate instructors that help my wife Erica and my two oldest boys, Brady (7) and Cameron (5), as they work towards their black belts. There are so many parallels between how their karate classes are structured and how we as administrators would like to see our teachers structure their twenty-first century competency-based classrooms. I think we can learn a lot from the karate studio environment. Here are some tips I have gleaned from countless karate classroom observations that I have completed:

1.    Embed the School’s Core Values and Beliefs Into the Classroom
As administrators we spend a lot of time working with our schools to develop documents that identify our school’s core beliefs and values and student expectations for learning. These documents are usually printed with catchy phrases or mnemonic devices on eye-catching posters and banners to help our staff and students remember them, but how often do our teachers refer to them in their classroom? At the karate studio, each class starts with everyone (students and parents alike) standing up to face the American flag and reciting the karate school’s core values and beliefs in unison. Throughout class, the instructors regularly refer back to these values as needed during instruction. There is no question that every stakeholder at the karate studio knows exactly what the school stands for and believes in. As a school administrator I am not suggesting that we make our own students recite our school’s core values statement each day, but I do think we need to find better enduring ways to embed these values into the daily fabric of our students’ lives.

2.    Maintain Clear Expectations for Student Behavior
With regard to classroom management, the most effective teachers in my building share one common trait:  Their student expectations for behavior are clearly posted in the classroom, they are referred to often, and they are developed in partnership with students. Such is also true of the karate studio where the dojo rules for both the students and the parents/guests who watch class are clearly posted in the room. If at any time a student or adult is not following one of these rules, the instructor is able to politely redirect them. The instructor also takes time at the end of every class to acknowledge students who have extended these rules beyond the dojo with tip tape on their belts. Parents are encouraged to nominate their children to receive yellow tip tapes, and instructors can nominate students to receive blue tip tapes.

3.    Greet Students at the Door As They Enter and Leave the Class
What happens during passing time at your school? Do teachers wait at the door to greet kids as they come in and out of the classroom, or are they frantically at their desk trying to get ready for their next class? Our school went through an amazing cultural change one year when the teachers in one of our classroom wings made a team decision to be in the hallway by their door to greet each and every student into their classroom during passing time. At the karate studio, the instructors greet each and every person at the door. If by chance someone gets past without getting a friendly handshake and a, “How are you today, sir?” then they make sure to come over to that person to have that friendly exchange at some point during the class. My children love to know that their instructor cares about them. Often their greeting exchange is also an opportunity for them to have an informal conversation that goes far beyond the dojo walls. When students believe the adults in their school care about them, they will experience far greater academic success both in and out of the classroom.

4.    Foster Student Leadership
Every teacher knows the highest level of student engagement happens when students take on a leadership role in the classroom. Regardless of the classroom observation evaluative rubric that your school district uses, chances are the most advanced level of this rubric requires students to be engaged with a high level of leadership. On a day-to-day basis in your school how often are students called on to lead the class in an activity or assignment? How often do they play an active role in developing lessons and the assessments that go with them? At the karate studio, this happens for every student on a daily basis. Even my five-year-old, Cameron, is called upon to lead his classmates (which might include adults, mind you) through an exercise or activity in a small group or in the front of the room. Some students opt to join an advanced student leadership training to be able to act as teaching assistants for the class. All students, regardless of their belt, participate in a weekly leadership class to hone their skills and build up their self-confidence in this area.

5.    Communicate Regularly with Parents
“When teachers and schools establish meaningful, two-way communication with families, parents are more aware of their children’s progress, have a stronger belief in their ability to influence their children’s learning, and become more involved in that learning.” (Epstein, Coates, Clark-Salinas, Sanders, & Simon, 1997). As a young teacher many years ago one of the first revelations I had was that the value of keeping parents regularly informed about what was happening in my high school math classroom. I used to write letters home to each parent at the beginning of a new school year to introduce myself. I would send all of them regular email updates letting them know what was happening in the classroom. I would try to make at least three positive phone calls home each week to students who excelled or who showed significant improvement. My efforts were rewarded all the time because it was never a chore to have to make a phone call home about a negative issue. I always knew parents were on my side because they always felt informed and welcomed to be a part of their child’s learning process. Even though my wife or I are always present to watch every karate class, the instructors still take time to call us at home to share some good news about our children in the dojo or to offer my boys words of encouragement or praise. The karate school sends home a weekly newsletter to update all of us on what is happening in the dojo and how we, as parents, can support our kids in karate. At the end of each class they give us announcements and updates. They are always available to talk to us or answer our questions. As parents we feel like an important part of the learning process of our children, and that is how it should be in every classroom experience.

6.    Make Use of Plenty of Formative Assessments to Chart Mastery of Course Competencies
At my school formative assessment is viewed by teachers as a snapshot or a dipstick measure that captures a student’s progress through the learning process.  Teachers use formative assessments as practice to determine when a student is ready to undertake a summative assessment such as an in-depth performance task or test. So as not to penalize students for their practice, formative assessments carry very little, if any, weight in the final course grade calculation (10% at most). At the karate studio, formative assessment happens every day for months at a time. My kids don’t get graded on their formative karate assessments. They get praised for the things that they are doing well. They get recognition for making growth. They get feedback on what they can do to improve; however, they don’t get a reward for their practice. Opponents of competency-based models worry that if we stop giving credit for formative assessments, our kids will stop trying. My kids try hard each and every day in karate. They keep their eyes on the prize which is their next belt and the honor that will accompany it.

7.    Utilize Summative Performance Assessments to Determine Mastery of Course Competencies
Teachers at my school view summative assessment as a comprehensive measure of a student’s ability to demonstrate the concepts, skills, and knowledge embedded within a course competency. Examples of these assessments include performance tasks, enrichment activities, tests, projects, writings, presentations, or problem-based inquiry tasks, to name a few. If you agree with Ken O’Connor (2009) that, “Grading is an exercise in professional judgment wherein the educator seeks to ensure that the grade each student receives is an accurate representation of his or her performance,” then you can justify why the teachers in my school heavily weight summative assessments as the ultimate measure that determines a final course grade. This same philosophy holds true at the dojo. The true measure of student learning is the belt test that happens a few times each year. Then, and only then, is it time for my children to show what they know and prove that they have mastered the competencies and enduring understandings associated with their next belt.

8.    Move Students Along When They Are Ready
The teachers in my school abandoned the traditional model of giving students a grade each quarter and then averaging the quarters to determine a final course grade. They have started to move away from giving D’s and F’s and instead favor grades like NYC (Not Yet Competent) or I (Incomplete) to indicate that a student has not yet achieved mastery. Our school uses all the grades earned in a course as total points accumulated when computing a final course average. Bramonte and Colby (2012) talk about grading in a competency-based classroom in this way:  “If a student must meet mastery of required competencies and he/she has yet to do so, there should be no final grade until mastery is achieved.” Students are not penalized for taking advantage of reassessment opportunities that each of the teachers in my school provide. Wormeli (2011) validates this practice by saying that, “Lawyers who finally pass the bar exam on their second or third attempt are not limited to practicing law only on Tuesdays.” This same approach holds true in the dojo. My children have the opportunity to advance to their next belt every two months, but only if they are ready. At any point when my children demonstrate mastery to their karate instructors, they may be considered for a move into a more advanced class that will test their skills at a higher level. Assessment and reassessment are built into the karate classroom as a natural part of the learning process. As educators we are just starting to challenge the long-established practice of the Carnegie Unit and the notion of seat time. I predict that in the next five to ten years schools all over our country will redefine practices and policies to allow students to be able to move along when they are ready.

In Summary
Author and educator, William Arthur Ward, once said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires.” More than ever we need our teachers to inspire our students each and every day. They need to lead by example. At the dojo, each class starts with the karate instructor taking a moment to recite their instructor pledge in front of the class. “I will teach this class as if it is the most important class I will ever teach. I am patient and enthusiastic. I lead by example.” Their pledge sums up their personal and instructional goals and what they will do to promote the core beliefs and values of the school that day. Perhaps we need a daily pledge at our school too. I wonder if we can just steal the one from the karate school because they seem to have all the bases covered that we need to move forward. Remember, it’s always about the kids.

Bramonte, F. and Colby, R. (2012). Off the Clock:  Moving From Time to Competency. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Epstein, J., Coates, L., Clark-Salinas, K., Sanders, M., & Simon, B. (1997). Partnership 2000 Schools’ Manual:  Improving School-Family Connections. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University
O’Connor, K and Stiggins, R. (2009). How to Grade for Learning, K-12, Third Edition.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Wormeli, R. (2011) Redos and Retakes Done Right. Educational Leadership, Nov. 2011; pgs. 22-26. Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.

Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.