The Jiu Jitsu Theory of Education

by Vlad Dolezal on November 30, 2008

Image courtesy of ADD Photography

Woohoo! I found it!

An education system that works! As you might know, I’m a big fan of rebuilding the education system. What we have now does a dozen things reasonably well… but helping students learn isn’t one of them. Thankfully, I recently came across a model of teaching that REALLY works!

My Jiu Jitsu club.

I joined up at the beginning of October. And now, after two months, I figured out what they do so well. And a lot of the things could be transferred to traditional education!

Peer-to-peer teaching

The sessions are formally taught by our sensei, a brown belt (grade 7). But sometimes we split into groups and several are taught by lower grades, like purple belts (grade 4). Also, when we split into pairs to practice new techniques, the grades might go around and help us white belts (grade 0) understand the technique. And when we practice the techniques, sometimes I understand it better than the white belt I’m training with, and sometimes my partner understands it better. So we correct each other, or explain things to each other.

From the moment you start, you will be taught by many different people. Also, as you progress through your grades, you will teach others increasingly often. There’s constantly lots of back-and-forth teaching going on between people. You get to see what kinds of explanations help you learn, and what kinds don’t. You also explain stuff to others, which helps you practice explaining better. And you understand the techniques better through teaching.

Which brings me to the next point.

You are REQUIRED to teach to progress through your grades

Ever since orange belt (grade 2), you are required to teach bits and pieces in the sessions to progress towards your next belt. This has two absolutely awesome effects:

1. Teachings others helps you understand things much better

Whenever I learn a new cool thing, I just HAVE TO teach it to others. Just ask my friend Rich. I will literally call him up in the middle of the night saying “Check this out! I just learned this really cool new thing…”. Whenever I learn something new, I just pick up my phone and start dialing whoever might be interested.
– David DeAngelo

I got to around 1900 rating, and then just leveled off. I didn’t make much progress for months. Then I decided to start teaching others. I taught dozens and dozens of people of different skill levels. And my own success went through the roof!

– Ben Seeley

The first guy above runs a twenty-million-dollars-a-year business (it’s probably more now. That statistic is a bit outdated.). The second guy became a world champion at the game he was talking about within only two years of starting to teach lots of other people.

If we could only make teaching others an integral part of the education system. Maybe we could stop splitting people into classrooms by years. Instead, we would have different skill levels (instead of different years), and we would always mix them together in a classroom. The more skilled ones would help teach the less skilled ones. That would help the higher year students so much more than just sitting quietly listening to some rambling professor.

2. Teaching others since your early years makes you a much better teacher

By the time you get to a blue belt (grade 6), you will have been taught by dozens of people, and you will have taught others hundreds of times. Your average Jiu Jitsu blue belt is much better at teaching Jitsu than most school teachers are at teaching their subject!

In fact, in Jiu Jitsu, a brown belt needs to run his own club for at least two years before even potentially being invited to grade for his black belt. By the time a Jitsuka gets to black belt, he’s guaranteed to be a fantastic teacher.

Sure, some martial arts masters believe a belt should only represent your skill at the martial art, not at teaching others. Let’s not get into a discussion of whether that’s right or wrong. The fact is, Jiu Jitsu masters believe teaching is inseparable from being a martial art master. And I agree. It runs both ways. Teaching helps you become much better. And to be a true master, you need to know how to teach your skills to others.

Some days, we all practice the basics

Sometimes we split into groups by skill level, and each group practices different techniques. But other times, we all train together. Because mastery of the basics is what separates a competent person from a grandmaster.

I was at a major go [a board game of skill] tournament. After the day’s games, I was walking around, and saw one of the grandmasters reading a simple book about go that I’ve read years ago. We strike up a conversation and I tell him I’ve already solved all the problems in that book. He looks at me, and says “So have I. Hundreds of times. And yet I solve them again, and each time, I try to solve them faster and better.”
– Some random go player [sorry, I can’t remember where I read this story]

Similarly, in Jitsu, the black belts still practice some of the same techniques they teach to white belts. They just do them so much better!

Jiu Jitsu students WANT to learn

Learning is an active process. You can not make someone learn. Sure, you can convince students to want to learn by threatening them with bad grades and extra work. That’s pretty much like threatening a slave with beatings if he doesn’t do your work. You won’t get exceptional results and a positive environment that way.

Until you convince students to actually WANT to learn, you’re fighting a losing battle. And the quickest way to make someone NOT want to learn is to force them.

Yeah, I know. It’s hard to reconcile the idea of “education for everyone” with “not forcing anyone to learn”. But I just had to bring this point up anyway. If we managed to create schools where students would WANT to learn (I’ve got some ideas about that), that would be the single biggest step towards a great education system.

Possible objections

Here are a few objections you might have thought of by this point. I’ll try to explain why some of these objections aren’t really a problem.

1. Jitsu is a skill. Schools are about learning information.

This is a good point. Learning skills and learning information are two completely different things. You learn skills by doing. You can’t do information. You learn information by connecting it to other bits of information you already know.

But in this article, I focused on the universal things that are great about my Jitsu club. The things that can be applied to any learning/teaching environment. I skimmed over how the club makes great use of post-practice improvement. Or how the sensei quickly explains a new technique, gives us 30 seconds to try it, and THEN proceeds to explain it in detail. Or how they masterfully break down techniques into simple steps to help us learn faster. Those are all great for learning skills. But I focused mainly on the universal stuff – most of which I haven’t seen myself until two months ago.

Also, schools aren’t just about acquiring information. In fact, the better the school, the more it focuses on skills rather than information. Real maths is about solving problems you never encountered before, not about memorizing algorithms. Real english is about analysing great writers and using that to improve your own writing, not about learning dozens of names and buzzwords. It’s more important to know how to find information than to memorize it. And all of these are SKILLS.

2. You expect 7-year olds to teach 6-year olds?

I have no idea. I’d give it a try. In the current education system, you usually need to get to be a postgraduate student before teaching others. That’s way too late. And even though in some schools a few select students get teaching responsibilities around 15 or 16 years old, that’s still pretty late. There might be a lower limit to how young a child can be before teaching others. But I would try pushing it as low as possible.

3. With all the different people teaching, won’t the students get really confused?

I don’t think so. You have the sensei (the classroom teacher) who walks around and makes sure everybody is doing it right. Sure, a yellow belt’s explanations might not be as helpful as those of a black belt. But they’re still damn good stuff.

How to use all this in our education system

I have a few broad ideas on how to use this in an education system. I won’t go into much detail, because I haven’t figured that out yet.

1. Replace years with grades

Instead of being “second years”, “fifth years” and such, students would get coloured belts, like in Jitsu. That way, smarter students could progress faster, and slower ones could take more time. You would always be learning mostly with students of the same skill level. Everybody wins.

2. Peer-to-peer teaching

Instead of separating classes by skill level (i.e. all orange belts in the same class), each class would contain people from all skill levels. That way, we could get full back-and-forth teaching going on.

Sure, some classes would be specifically for certain grades. But that would be an exception rather than the rule.

3. Required teaching to progress through grades

In Jitsu, you need to be a brown belt (grade 7), before you can run your own club. By the time you get to that level, you have been teaching others for years, and have been taught by dozens of other people. You pretty much know what works for students and what doesn’t. Contrast that with the current education system, where many teachers have no clue on how to make learning fun and interesting for the students.

If we required school teachers to be brown belts at education, we would have a guarantee of awesome teaching.

4. Mandatory grade instead of mandatory time

Instead of forcing students to stay in school for 12 years, I would let them out after achieving a certain grade. Say, a purple belt (grade 4). Sure, they could stay, and for example continue chemistry until they become a black belt. That would be analogous to a student continuing to postgraduate studies instead of dropping out after high school.

Some final thoughts

Sure, there are some things left to figure out. Maybe different belts for different subjects? (I could be a blue belt at mathematics, yet a yellow belt at history). What skills are needed for different belts? What to do about hard-to-measure skills like creativity and critical thinking? (Maybe have the students publish in established periodicals? Like have them get their short story published in a magazine?). And dozens more.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. I’m always open to being told I’m a complete moron and this would never work. As long as your comment is specific πŸ™‚

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

shAdOwArt November 30, 2008 at 17:53

That sounds pretty awesome!

A few thoughts of mine:

Mandatory grade OR mandatory time. Keeping someone in school for twenty years would be pretty harsh. I’m sure even the worst drop-outs (nevermind a different system) could be of some use to society.

“Maybe have the students publish in established periodicals”. Maybe each school could have a magazine of their own reserved for interesting pupil works? Beside the obvious English (or other mother-tongue subjects) essays one could publish beautifully solved math problems, creative drawings or maybe a top scoring or quickly advancing student could share some study tips. Local schools could gang up for a common paper if there isn’t enough resources, or to raise the prestige of it.

Furthermore, if school gets more interesting, more people will study further (and possibly longer) and different jobs will appeal. A person who’ve studied linguistics for 5 years is less likely to be satisfied with a work in a burger bar compared to someone who’ve been there since adolescence.

I think today’s schools are designed to keep society running just as much as educating the people. Today’s society need cleaners and telemarketers to function, a ‘too good’ school would be a threat to it. A huge change in the education might require society in general to change too, and that’s a different story.


Jillian December 1, 2008 at 02:59

Great ideas. I wonder if part of the success of the Jiu Jitsu teaching has to do with the fact that the teacher is (or was at some point) passionate enough about his subject to start his own school? It’s pretty rare to see any kind of passion in a school teacher these days – not that you can blame them when they probably spend most of their time just trying to get the kids to behave.

Along the same lines, ballroom and latin dancing have a peer-teaching system, simply because it’s not something you can do alone! In all the classes I’ve been to, you’re expected to swap partners regularly, even if you came with someone, because it means you’re not picking up your partner’s bad habits. And it’s often much easier to learn from someone a few levels above you than from an expert.


Don Berg December 1, 2008 at 05:19

Interesting ideas. I trained a martial art for about 4-5 years back when I was just discovering my passion for working with kids and also came to appreciate the differences in student attitude. My experiences over about 15 years of leading kids ranged across just about everything you could do with them without being in a formal classroom (which I rejected from the beginning.) I even homeschooled other peoples kids for about 5 years.

While everything that you recommend would be really nice there is a fundamental problem when your students did not make a conscious explicit decision to attend the lessons, then you will always have some problems. The dojo can expect more in the way of commitment and participation.

The worst case scenario when schools fail to get a conscious explicit decision to attend from their students is what I call motivational amputation. You can read about the importance of teaching attitude and motivational amputation here. Motivational amputees are apathetic or simply disengaged from the activities around them.


Don Berg



Bdwho December 1, 2008 at 05:56

My Tae Kwon Do classes use the same type of things. With required teaching and all to get a black belt. One thing that I have noticed though is that as a higher belt that my learning has not really increased. My mastery of basic skills have gone through the roof, I am even employed teaching a class for 4-6 year olds.

You would have to split up each students day in such a way, that after a certain level, they are guaranteed to be in a class with mostly belts higher than their own for at least a portion of the day.

This is not so necessary in martial arts because in many ways “new” things stopped being learned relatively quickly. Yet mastery, true mastery where you understand the mechanics and the why of all your motions, take years of repetition. Yet things like math require new things to be taught relatively quickly. One would have to guarantee that new material never stops flowing, that there is always an opportunity to learn.


Mad Stratter December 1, 2008 at 15:08

Hey, I’m new to this blog, but I really like what I see… enough to subscribe already! Anyway, I think this post has some great ideas that address several of the issues I’ve had with our educational system. In 1st or 2nd grade, I was taken into the “Gifted” program at my school. While the idea is a good one, it was executed poorly. For one or two hours a week, we “gifted” children were taken out of our regular studies to work of projects focused on abstract thought and applied skills, much more beneficial than listening to lectures.

The problems were numerous thought. As this was a public school, we were only given this time 1-2 hours per week. It would have been much more beneficial if we were not considered part of the same “year” or “grade”, but instead broken off into our own individual group that progressed independently.

Also, I noticed that because we were still part of the “X Grade” class, several of my peers took pride in ignorance (a trend that is all to common in Americans, students and adults alike, these days) and downplayed their intelligence in order to be accepted; I think this would be less of a problem if we were allowed to progress independently.

The few hours a week that we had were great as far as allowing us to exercise our mental faculties that were otherwise dormant during boring lectures that many of us felt were below us because they were too easy for us; for a few hours a week, we actually WANTED to learn. The problem is that it was only a few hours a week; I think it would have been much more beneficial if we were taken into a new program entirely.

Back to your post, you said you have some ideas on how to make students WANT to learn? I’d love to hear them… do you plan on posting them soon?


Tedel December 1, 2008 at 19:34

You know? This is a very good article, Vlad.


Sheila Crosby December 1, 2008 at 22:19

There’s a lot I like here – I mean a LOT! But I have two reservations. One is that Judo and similar clubs have fairly small classes; much smaller than school classes. The other is that it would be a royal pain to create the timetable, although mixing up the ability levels would help.


Markus December 3, 2008 at 15:05

Hi Vlad,
great article. I’m always looking for a way to improve my learning skills and really found teaching is one of them.

Regarding 7 year olds teaching 6 year olds. Sure man. I think about my young cousins by now 10, 8 and 4 years. They regularly teach each other new things. Even the youngest can be a teacher.



Vlad Dolezal December 4, 2008 at 17:22

Yeah, good point. We would definitely want to implement some way to deal with people who simply can’t cope. There’s no point in keeping them in schools for twenty years if they could be perfectly useful to society doing some manual job.

And I like this sentence you said – “A huge change in the education might require society in general to change too.”
That might explain why the people at the top don’t want to change the education system. Because they’re quite happy with the current arrangement. THEY don’t want change.

Hey. You said “it’s often much easier to learn from someone a few levels above you than from an expert.” That’s something I also noticed when learning chess. If I watched a game between experts, lots of the moves would make no sense, because they were based on deep strategy that went right over my head. But I learned quite a lot from watching players who were just a bit better than me (if we played each other, they would win about 4 times out of 5).

I think you hit the nail on the head. We can’t do anything unless the students WANT to be taught.

That’s one of the reasons I started a blog. Instead of telling my ideas to friends, and getting mostly “meh” in return, I can get my ideas out to people who WANT to hear them.

By the way, nice website.

That’s one thing I’m still wondering about. Is there some way to map Jiu Jitsu teaching onto, say, maths, or are they so fundamentally different we’ll need a completely different approach? If so, which bits can we still use?

@Mad stratter:
Thanks for sharing the story. Too bad your school took only small tentative steps. I guess they were afraid of too big a change.

My Jitsu club has about 25 people. That’s bigger than most school classes I used to be in. Having that many people in the Jitsu sessions actually helps to mix different skill levels. The same would hopefully be true for school classes, if the teacher delegated bits of teaching to higher grade students, instead of trying to teach everyone himself.

Sweet! Thanks for clearing up my doubts πŸ™‚


Bdwho December 6, 2008 at 02:51

@Vlad Dolezal

I definitely think that skill based courses like math could be maintained. As long as a steady stream of new material came down the pipe it would be no problem. The difficulty would start to arise with the memorization based subjects.

History courses could not survive in their current fashion. There is no way that an AP History class could be taught student to student, at least not in a manner any more effective than the current model. That is not to say that it can not be done but an older student will never be able to bring an expertise to his subject like a high level teacher.

It could be done without doubt in skill based courses, one would have to guarantee new material from upper ranks in a constant manner. But the memorization based classes I have more doubt about.


Jeff December 6, 2008 at 16:24

This is interesting. I have a black belt in jujitsu and interested to hear that the teaching system is used in other martial arts (i.e., the tae kwon do student). It works with large class, I regularly taught classes of 20+ kids and with assistants (e.g. brown belts) have seen it work with 100+.

We all have blind spots and things that came so naturally that we have no idea how we do what we do. So having someone else who can explain a technique is useful. And having to teach through our blind spots erases them.

There is always something more to learn, even in the first techniques. Rolls were taught in the first class and every class opened with rolls, even black belt classes. One evening when I was a 1st degree black belt, after helping teach Yawara, the first list of techniques, to the first two grades, the school head took me aside and whispered to let the others go to the sauna and he was going to teach me the “real” Yawara. We went through the same 20 techniques from a black belt’s perspective instead. And it was different. Afterwards in the sauna he said that in several years, someone will take me aside and teach me the “real” Yawara and they will be right then too and it will be different too.

One of the key things to making this style of teaching work is having a curriculum. You can’t teach black belt things to white belts. The curriculum is an ordering of topics that people have found that works. In my beginning yoga class, too often the teacher, particularly substitutes, will get bored and throw in something they learned at some advanced workshop they just went to. Doesn’t work very well and often leads to injury.


Vlad Dolezal December 6, 2008 at 21:50

Hey! As you said, “We all have blind spots and things that came so naturally that we have no idea how we do what we do.” I found the exact same thing true in maths. It was one of the subjects in high school I could never help people with… because to me it was just OBVIOUS. I had no idea how to explain it.

And as for yoga, I used to go to a club for a few months. I actually started to find it a bit monotonous – always the exact same poses. It would be nice if the instructors swapped out one or two of them for something that trains the same muscle groups, just to add variety.

By the way, great story about Yawara :). That’s one of the most awesome things about learning some skill to mastery. You revisit the exact same concepts over and over as you progress, but you see them in a new light every time.


Bdwho December 7, 2008 at 19:28

I would just like to say how impressed I am with this blog as well as this community. I have seen a couple of your other works on this site, you are in the top 1% of quality. This community also brings something very different to the table. A group that doesn’t just go LOLOLOLOL. But actual conversations that add to the original post. You even use proper punctuation and grammar.

Truly this blog and community are something special.


Susan Walsh March 28, 2009 at 22:39

You all don’t realize that if the “required teaching” to get the black belt is on a “volunteer” basis, and the “volunteer teaching” is there to meet some of the labor needs of the school, it violates the US Labor Code. A commercial business may not use volunteers legally, only a non-profit organization. And if those volunteers are used to meet labor needs of the school (if it can’t function without all the volunteers assisting in the classroom situation), than it is violation of the labor code. Check it out. If you pay the teachers, that is a different story. Not the “they pay you to teach them to teach for you for free–so you make the money off the students they teach.”


Vlad Dolezal March 28, 2009 at 23:17

I see what you mean. No, I wasn’t proposing to force “volunteers” to teach only to meet the labor needs.

I meant genuinely letting kids teach one another, because it allows better education for everybody involved.

I recently saw a great youtube video where Thom Hartmann talks about education. One of the things he talked about was his visit to a school in Taiwan.

In that school, he watched the teacher teach some science course. Towards the end of the lesson, the teacher summed up the whole lesson in 5 minutes on the blackboard. Then he asked the students if they understood it.

About 5 or 6 of the class of 30 stood up. The teacher then had them teach the rest of the class in groups, while he walked around and helped them out. And as students understood that day’s lesson, they too stood up.

At the end of the class, everybody was standing up.

Watch the whole video here:


Susan Walsh March 29, 2009 at 00:08

I can understand that approach, I only object to the many martial arts schools that seem to make it a requirement in order to get your belt. It seems to have become the norm. You can find all kinds of websites telling/advising how to start a school, how to run a school, and they almost always mention the student teachers/requirements for black belts. I’ve learned from experience that this can easily be turned around into servitude to the school where their response is always “for the betterment of the school and the student,” “instills the sense of community,” “teaches them to give back.” That is all well and good when it isn’t required, or even expected. You shouldn’t be making money off of students–in otherwords, if you can’t run the school without all the help of teacher assistants, then something is wrong. Thanks for your words though, and I’ll be sure to check out the video. I definitely believe in helping out, but not when you are taken advantage of.


Vlad Dolezal March 29, 2009 at 00:30

Ah okay, NOW I see what you mean πŸ™‚

I just read some time ago we should always listen open-mindedly and not assume anything. Sure enough, I assumed you were talking about education. Shows even I’m not perfect. (Gasp!)

To be honest, I haven’t been to enough different martial arts clubs to be able to compare. At our club, everybody who does any teaching is more than happy to. (Of course, our university club is run by the students… for the students. Nobody is making a profit, all the money goes back into the club. Even our sensei is a volunteer.)

So I don’t know what it’s like to be forced to teach others and be taken advantage of.


Champion Karate West May 20, 2013 at 18:11

Brilliant article. I have found one thing in my years of teaching and that is that I am a better student as I learn to teach. I can learn more from the experience of teaching and interacting with students than I ever would from strictly learning from my own teacher. And this has been true across MANY areas of my life. Thanks for this post!


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