You may have heard the term rotating curriculum thrown around in martial arts circles before but what about a nested rotating curriculum? For years I have been using the traditional linear curriculum delivery model to teach our members but a few years ago I came across something called a rotating curriculum. This made me reflect on the way we currently do things and wonder if we could be more efficient in the way we deliver our martial arts content to our students. More often than not, the delivery of a club’s syllabus is based on how the other instructors in that organisation deliver their content. Most of the time, martial arts instructors deliver their sessions just as their instructors did before them. I know I am generalising a little and not all martial arts coaches follow this path but we all know that coaching methods passed down from coach to coach have a habit of enduring for generations (for good or bad). As more commercial practices are introduced from countries where a martial arts coach is often regarded as professional, they get picked up by other countries where teaching martial arts is still seen as a hobby.
Traditional Martial Arts Liner Curriculum
In the UK at least, the linear model is the standard way that most martial arts clubs deliver their syllabus to their students. Each grade carries its own technical content and everything is structured in a hierarchical sequence with easier techniques in the earlier grades and the more challenging ones held back for later grades, when students have a little more experience under their belt. Grading rotations are usually every 3-4 months and the gradings themselves are often performed on a specific date outside of regular classes. On the day of gradings students pass or fail and the ones that fail normally have to wait for the next grading in 3-4 month time before they can try again. I know that in the US, some clubs grade their students in class and then organise a ‘graduation’ event’. While i know a few clubs in the UK do this too, most still follow the ‘traditional’ method of a formal grading.
If students fail multiple gradings, their feeling of competence takes a hit and their motivation often drops (see my article on Self Determination Theory). To prevent this from happening too frequently most martial arts clubs have created a way of pre qualifying their members before they take part in a grading. The main choices for this are by holding a pre grading seminar (to dry run the grading) or by having students earn belt tips/tags/stripes during the classes leading up to the gradings. There are quite a few different ways of awarding milestones of competence but generally each one will be awarded based on either reaching the required standard on a portion of the syllabus for that grade (such as breaking the syllabus in to three parts and awarding a tip/tag/stripe for each) or for competence in a specific area of the syllabus (such as hand or foot techniques or in the older children sparring, throwing, submissions etc).
I should add a little disclaimer here just to say that although we use this belt tags for the older children, any of our 3-4 and 5-6 year old students can take a part in a grading without having to hit any minimum competence milestones. If we can get them up in front of their peers to perform the content required for that grading, they pass. If they don’t take part, they don’t pass. This is really a subject for another post but we use the gradings in our 3-4 and 5-6 year old programmes to model effort and confidence rather than using performance metrics.
What are the advantages of a linear martial arts curriculum?
- Each element can build on previous knowledge
- Linear progression is easy to understand
- Each specific grade suggests a minimum level on competence
- If a student misses a grading due to not being ready, they can simply attend the next grading (should they be ready)
- The system can work well with older children if you have small classes
- Operating in smaller groups can promote autonomy and responsibility
- People could miss training time and still pick up where they left off
What are the disadvantages of a linear martial arts curriculum?
- If you have open grade classes you can end up trying to teach 10 sets of content to 10 different people in one class
- It can be inefficient to move between multiple groups teaching different content
- You often need more staff to make this system work
- With specific content for each grade, it is easy for students to forget previous techniques they may not have practiced for a long time
- It is hard to maintain a high level of energy in a class where you have many groups working on different content
- It is hard to monitor small groups of young children without direct supervision
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The Martial Arts Rotating Curriculum
The rotating curriculum was created to help busy martial arts coaches maximise their efficiency when teaching medium to large classes. The main idea of a rotating curriculum is that everyone in specific classes is working on the same content at the same time. This makes the life of the coach much easier and also makes the delivery of the content much more efficient.
You start by taking your full syllabus and breaking it down cycles. For systems spanning a large age range, these cycles are often defined as ‘Beginner’, ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Advanced’. Within each of these cycles you would then have separate curriculum rotations. As an example, white, yellow and green belts may be one cycle while blue, purple and orange the second and red, brown and black the third. The side effect of breaking each cycle down in to rotations means that the belt a student wears when compared to other students in the same cycle is more an indicator of how much curriculum they have covered, rather than a direct measure competence (like comparing a white and black belt).
I should say that for implementation in a young children’s martial arts programme with a flat syllabus (similar difficulty level for most of the techniques) you could make a cycle an entire belt range. We currently have 7 belts for our 3-4 year olds (Coloured belt with white stripe) and 7 belts for our 5-6 year olds (White belts with coloured stripe). We have gradings every 3 months which means that a full cycle is actually 21 months. You would think that in this time the children would forget the techniques from previous rotations but as you read on you will see that we have a secret weapon to combat that.
Each cycle would contain a curriculum rotations that would last 3-4 months, depending on how many times a year your student’s grade. Similar to the linear delivery, for the older children you could implement some kind of tip/tag/stripe system. When utilising a rotating curriculum, this measure of competence tends to be based on being able to perform specific sections of content. An example, a yellow stripe on the end of the student’s belt could represent the first 4 weeks of content, green for the second 4 week block and blue for the last 4 week block. This should leave you a week at the end of the 12 week block for catch up and testing on the weekend.
What are the advantages of a martial arts rotating curriculum?
- Everyone is working on the same thing in each class and working towards the same goals
- You need less staff to run a medium to large sized class
- Testing is also much easier when everyone is performing the same techniques
- The system works well for young children where the curriculum is quite flat. By this I mean that the techniques in that cycle have a similar difficulty level
- It is easier for a single coach to increase energy levels when everyone is practicing the same content
What are the disadvantages of a martial arts rotating curriculum?
- You need enough students to be able to break your membership down in to cycles
- If a new student starts mid rotation, they are going to learn some content they won’t be tested on for a long time
- With specific content for each grade, it is easy for students to forget previous techniques they may not have practiced for a long time
- If someone is not ready for a grading or they are off for a significant proportion of a rotation, they will potentially end up repeating one rotation while missing out on another before they move up to the next cycle
- It is a little harder to make the rotations work for dan grades
- If your club is a member of a national governing body, they will probably still recommend using the linear model
- The transition from the linear model to a rotating curriculum can be painful
- The military style delivery can sometimes lead to less coaching and more instructing (by this i mean just barking orders from the front and not doing much actual coaching)
- The sessions can get a little boring for the students if you drill the same content over and over for 3 months
- Standard rotating curriculums often only focus on the technical content
The Martial Arts Nested Rotating Curriculum
Let me start by saying that this is not a brand-new concept but a slight twist on the standard rotating curriculum. One of the problems with the standard rotating curriculum is that students are focused on one set of content for a full rotation and then don’t really practice that content again (at least for a long time). This is the equivalent of cramming for an exam. Not only is it a little boring but it only tends to benefit the short term memory.
For our young children programmes (3-4 and 5-6) we have setup a nested rotating curriculum where in each age group rotates through not only the technical content required for the next grading but the rest of the syllabus too. For example, if the students were working on a hand technique required for the next grading (technique 1), they may also be working on technique 2 & 3 too. The following week they would also be working on technique 1 again but also technique 4 & 5 too. The grading content stays fixed within the rotation, but they also get progressive exposure to the other elements of the syllabus too. While they may not get enough repetitions to become proficient in the short term, it adds variety and delivers content in a way that will help them remember for the long term.
Spaced practice is a learning principle that helps people learn something in short intervals distributed over time. Teaching chunks of your syllabus in one go (like the standard rotating curriculum) may be a good way for students to remember the technique over the short term (like for the next grading) but it’s not an effective method to enable them to recall the techniques years later. Interleaving works in conjunction with spaced practise to help the students remember the content you teach for the long term. You teach a little of technique 1 before moving on to technique 2 and then 3. It sounds contradictory but this is a proven method of enhancing long term learning. Having students recall techniques they have learnt in the past helps cement the memories and make recalling them in future easier too.
As well as rotating the technical content in each cycle, we also have a rotation plan for the physical elements of training too. These are focused on the 8 MAPLE physical skills I promoted in my Session Planning Framework (8 for the 5-6 year olds but 4 for the 3-4 year olds). In the 3-4 year old sessions we rotate between the 4 main physical areas over a 4 week period. In the 5-6 year old classes, the 8 physical elements are paired together and also rotated over a 4 week period. The physical elements are delivered using Functional Movement Patterns and FUNdamental Movement Skill games. This means that the children are not focusing on just one or two physical areas but rotating through the whole range every 4 sessions. Just like the nested rotation of the technical aspects, this variety helps build engagement through variety while helping build physical literacy.
While the linear, rotating and nested rotating curriculum all have their place, my own preference is to use the nested rotating curriculum for our young children’s programmes (3-4 and 5-6 year olds) and for now at least, I will stick with the linear delivery for our Taekwondo and Ju Jitsu classes. I can also see a time when I test out the nested rotating curriculum with the Taekwondo groups below black belt too. In fact, during the pandemic we split our novice Taekwondo classes in to Beginner and Intermediate to make the online live classes a little easier to teach. As a side effect this would make the transition a little easier from a linear to a nested rotating curriculum. As we only run a couple of Ju Jitsu classes at each venue and the syllabus is more hierarchical than the Taekwondo syllabus, I don’t see a time that we will ever change this from the linear model.
I do see a gap in all three of the models I have talked about and this is the lack of in-built differentiation. With a fixed syllabus some students may find the content easy while others may find it too hard. What I am talking about is separate from having minimum standards in your system and more about making sure that students are challenged individualy. This is where something called a spiral curriculum may be able to help. Setting up a nested rotating curriculum plan enables you to revisit different areas of content on a regular basis. With a little thought, I am sure we could also add progressions and regressions to the curriculum. I know this kind of differentiation is normally done during the coaching but having it actually written down in the form of a curriculum supplement may help you build consistency across your programmes while also personalising the challenge point for your students. We talk about ‘person centred’ coaching quite a lot and if we are to truly personalise the service we provide to our members, its changes like this that will make the difference.