Written Tests for Belt Promotions

It’s potentially interesting to note that there have been no written examinations for black belt promotions in America for several years.

I believe that Taido requires intellectual understanding as well as physical ability, and as a result, have always taught in a manner that I feel provides both. When Bryan and I began discussing the possibility of promoting students to black belt, we had no doubts as the quality of our teaching, but we were concerned about the quality of the evaluation.

To that end, we decided that we would require a written examination and essay/creative component in addition to the physical test administered by the american headquarters. I’ve discussed the hokei assignment previously. In writing the theory exam, I wanted to be careful that the questions were actually testing the things I hope to have taught. For those of you with no experience at test-writing, i’ll let you know right now that it is difficult to write a good test – this from someone whose job requires him to do it often.

I feel pretty strongly that rote is awful pedagogy, so I wanted to avoid a test that would allow a passing score by simple memorization. The idea was to attempt to test not knowledge, but understanding of Taido’s theory. Understanding combined with practice leads to mastery (says I). I put this exam together carefully, attempting to focus on open-ended prompts rather than questions with one-word answers. I did include some simple vocabulary, but there was no memorization required.

Instead, I made a provision that candidates could consult reference materials to a certain degree (though they still had to work within a time limit) rather than force them to memorize anything. The catch is that they had to convince me in their answers that they actually understand the concept. I felt pretty confident to judge this because I have read just about everything ever written about Taido in english – at least all of it that has been made publicly available. Besides that, knowing the candidates well gives me an advantage to determine their grok-level.

On the black belt written test I took, I had to write word-for-word the Taido 5jokun. I had to memorize all of the unsoku jigata patterns. I had to know the doko5kai in japanese and be able to explain it in english. Understanding these things has helped me immensely, but memorizing them has done little for my Taido. On this exam, I told the candidates to look up the answers and interpret their own meanings.

The acid test for each prompt I included on this exam was “Will answering this question demonstrate potential for mastery?” In some places it may not be so obvious how that stipulation was met, but as I mentioned, knowing the candidates allows me to extrapolate meaning from the manner in which they responded. Lexical and syntactic decisions betray a lot about the level of a person’s familiarity with a subject (provided you know how to decode that meaning – and I spent a good deal of university study developing just that capacity).

It was interesting to me to read the responses and think to myself “OK, that comes from my article on Taido/Blog”, or “that comes from a pamphlet I printed up a few years ago,” or “that’s straight from Alvar’s .pdf.” I did deduct points in places where I felt that the candidate seemed to value a “correct” answer over their own answer, but usually, I was very impressed to find that, even in cases in which I could see a particular influence, the candidates gave serious thought to the prompts and responded with a Taido answer to the best of their present levels of understanding.

And so that’s how it went. I’m glad we did this test, and will be making similar exams for future black belt candidates from my clubs.

Hokei Assignment

This year will mark the completion of ten continuous years of operation for the Taido club at Georgia Tech. We are the first group to have successfully administered a Taido program in the United States outside of the honbu dojo. We are also the only non-commercial Taido practice group in the country. This year, we will promote our first three black belts, as announced here.

Over the years, black belt tests in American Taido have come to be little more than a formality that occurs after a few years of training. While we aren’t suggesting that the physical black belt test is all that big a deal, Bryan and I have long thought that it should be the final step in a process of black belt candidacy that is at least somewhat transformative to the student. This process should require growth and demonstration of competence in the core areas of Taido practice and philosophy.

Since we see our club as an extended experiment in Taido practice and teaching, we decided long ago that when the time came for our students to test for shodan, we would do things a little differently than they are usually done. Bryan and I have been working for over a year now on a new method of testing students for black belt. I will be gradually releasing the details of our test process on this website as the students work towards their physical examination (date, TBA).

Upon learning of their candidacy for shodan, the three students were informed that they would be required to create a new and unique Taido hokei and write a paper defending it. Here are the guidelines I sent them in an e-mail earlier today:

Your Hokei

Create your own hokei based on the following criteria:

  1. Base your hokei on any one or two (no more) of Taido’s sotai (sen, un, hen, nen, ten). You may use other techniques, but focus on one or two types of movement.
  2. You may use a standard enbusen (layout) from an existing hokei or create a new one.
  3. Performance must last between 2 and 3 minutes in duration.
  4. Your hokei must fit in the space of a standard Taido court.
  5. You must return to genten.
  6. The use of new or interesting technique combinations is desirable.
  7. All strikes must have a clearly targeted opponent.
  8. You must prescribe breathing methods for your hokei.
  9. Your hokei must show understanding of the 10 hokei performance guidelines (ex. You need to have slow parts as well as fast, relaxed parts as well as tense).
  10. Your hokei must also demonstrate your understanding of the doko 5 kai for the sotai you chose.

Your Paper

You must also prepare a paper explaining the thinking that informs your hokei design. here the the paper guidelines:

  1. Successful papers will explain the decisions involved in creating a new routine and how you went about making them in a manner that demonstrates your understanding of Taido.
  2. You should be able to explain: how many opponents you are facing; why you chose certain techniques and combinations; why you breathe when and how you do; and any other pertinent information.
  3. Please do not describe your routine, we will see it for ourselves when you perform it.
  4. Papers will be as long as they need to be to explain the routine. A more straight-forward routine will require less explanation than one that uses a lot of complicated combinations.
  5. Please spell-check and try to follow grammatical conventions.
  6. Be consistent in your spelling of japanese words – it’s OK to be incorrect because you don’t speak Japanese, but please choose one spelling per word and stick with it.
  7. Format your paper in a manner that lends itself to easy evaluation. For example, eight pages about a routine built on hengi will make it difficult to reference your second ebigeri. Use section headings and typographic cues to direct navigation of your paper.
  8. Papers will be submitted to andy and bryan via e-mail in a word format no later than two weeks prior to your physical examination.
  9. Papers, along with our comments, will be posted on the website no later than one week prior to your physical examination.

Your creativity and ability to defend your decisions are the primary evaluation points for this assignment. Have fun.