A curriculum is a godsend to anyone who has a chance to seriously use it. Some might reflexively scoff at such a confined approach, but the most successful (though not necessarily the most effective) martial arts have clearly defined curricula to work from. I’m not talking about flash-in-the-pan success such as Americanized Krav Maga, but enduring successes such as those of Kodokan Judo, Parker Kenpo, Brazilian JiuJitsu, Shotokan Karate, Gouren, Boxing, and others.
If we are to see the recreation and further development of the Historical European Martial Arts succeed, we too need to embrace the ideals of solidly defined, clear curricula.
As I see it, there are three things that most define good curricula – content, advancement/reward, and refinement.
You actually have to have something to teach, that much is obvious. When I began Goldsboro Sword Guild with my friends in North Carolina, we had no curriculum. Our first practice, we did much more standing around and a little bit of bind-and-wind than anything else. It was a short practice that didn’t see much happen, sadly. After that, I went home and looked up videos, talked to the HEMA Alliance forum, and asked some questions. I developed a modest drill based on footwork and changing guards while taking steps, using a rope along the ground to determine where we were placing our feet. One small change, and yet our practice THAT day lasted two hours. We had something to learn, something to focus on, and just that little bit of structure gave us the focus to do what we needed to do.
So the first thing you must do with your curriculum is find some content that will inform it. Choose a series of youtube videos recommended by a source you trust, or a series of plates from a manual, or a handful of exercises from your group’s teacher. Have something to do.
Then, structure that material into discrete sections or lessons. We didn’t fool around as much our second lesson because we had a specific piece of material to focus on. We didn’t do any binding practice because it wasn’t in the lesson, and we were focusing on our footwork drill. This mental trick will allow you to more fully dive into a specific lesson.
Advancement and Reward
People like to feel that they have accomplished something, and it is good and proper to recognize them for it. As your curriculum grows, you will naturally find success points that you can stop at.
Say for example you have a module on cutting, wherein you spend an entire month focusing on cutting technique with sharp weapons. At the end of that month, one of your students has learned to perform every cut in the module flawlessly, again and again. REWARD that student. Acknowledge their success, either with your club’s achievement patch or by buying them dinner at the monthly Chili’s get-together. Have discrete levels to break your curriculum into, and have clearly defined parameters for success in terms of rank or reward for achieving them.
The value of rank in particular is a tricky one. Some try to make the anarchist argument that ‘ranks’ simply divide people and they aren’t concerned with rank – they just want to get better at swordplay. This is an out and out ERROR in thinking in the martial arts, and should be discarded straight away.
Rank is not just a bragging right, it is a teaching tool. Say someone reaches the rank of brown belt in Judo. It isn’t simply a set of privileges they gain, but also responsibilities. If a brown belt performs a technique sloppily, the coach will be harder on them. “You’re setting a bad example for the lower ranks,” is a common admonition for brown belts who slack off to hear. The first part of acknowledgment must be reward for work well done, but it goes hand in hand with reminding them that they now have a responsibility to shepherd those who came after them. The ranks also let people who want to learn particular techniques know who they can go to for study help with a particular problem. I don’t go to fellow white belts when I want help with my Ukemi or Kuzushi. I go to the brown belts, the black belts of my club. Rank -simplifies- matters when handled properly.
After you develop a curriculum, you go to a tournament. Your boys all know how to use the zornhau first play, they’ve performed it perfectly according to your curriculum. Then they all get trounced in a zornhau competition – the other people simply blow through your students’ defenses.
Well, that’s what you should be asking, but immediately after you need to ask why it happened as well. Any curriculum must be subject to revision and adaptation in the face of practical results. When something is demonstrated to not be working, or someone points out a source that clearly refutes your interpretation from the original manuals, or even if you feel the pacing of the curriculum is either too slow or too fast, CHANGE IT.
Adapt to the changes in the environment. Don’t trap yourself with a chain to your first curriculum – accept that you know only a fraction of what is possible to learn and be willing to expand or discard your material as needed.
That said, don’t let this admonition turn your lessons into debate sessions. Practice what you believe you know as best you can, and save questions for a designated time rather than the middle of a demonstration and drill.
I have touched on a few issues that can come up with a curriculum. What order to proceed through your material in, what sources to draw from – these are issues I cannot go into here just now. For now, focus on collecting material that you can focus on and learn through in an effective manner. And above all, submit what you have gathered to others to look at, that you may refine it.