Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
As humans, one of our favorite things is to become better at something, and children are no different. But as we all know, it takes time and effort to become good, to really master something. One way that many educators make that path easier to walk is by breaking it up into different skill levels. Whether it's music lessons, swimming, or karate, different classes for skill levels is common. And yet, are we educators really making the most of it? If you’re a program director or curriculum designer, here are four tips to make sure you are getting the most out of it:
1. Make each skill level meaningfully different
Kids won’t feel like they’re getting better, or feel motivated to reach the next level, if all the skill levels feel essentially the same.
So how then to make the different levels feel different? First of all, you don’t need to pretend that the ‘other skill levels’ don’t exist. Quite the opposite, you should mention the higher skill levels frequently. The best way to do this is to frame the higher levels as positions of leadership, a goal to be aspired to. In turn, you should always. This can be easier than you think. In my white and gold belt karate classes, I say things like, "Who's sitting up like a future green belt?" or “Wow, look at how focused Timmy is! I bet he’s on his way to to the intermediate class.”
Kids should also know up front that more will be expected of them at each new skill level. And because of that, it's appropriate to give higher skill levels more freedom and responsibility. For example, in my intermediate class I let the kids run more often during games. Why? They’re older, more coordinated, and they’ve proven to me they can do it and still look out for one another’s safety.
2. Have a test to advance
When moving from one level to the next, have a test for advancement with specific, non-wishy-washy requirements. This works out much better than just moving kids along when they reach a certain age. Instead, if age is an important consideration in your program, take age into account when setting your goals.
The test should be challenging, yet reasonable. The way I accomplish this is that in my beginner karate classes, for a five-week cycle, I work on "one piece of the bigger pie".
Then, to get to the intermediate level, I test my beginner students on “the whole pie”.
This way, the test material isn’t really "new", but the test itself is still uniquely challenging. As an added bonus, kids will feel great when they pass such a test, and that’s a good vibe to have just before they make the jump to a new and more difficult class.
3. Have a concrete representation of level
For martial arts programs, you probably already do this, because you probably have belts. I cannot stress enough that every program, not just karate, should have some kind of concrete recognition for ‘leveling up’. If it’s all you can muster, a diploma is okay, but words on paper are still pretty abstract. Instead think of The Boy Scouts, and how successful their merit badge system is. There’s something about the way you can hold it in your hands, the picture on it, and the way you can wear it for the world to see. The physicality of it and the social acknowledgement just makes it feel more real.
So when your kids advance, give them something they can really hold or wear with pride—whether it’s a pin, patch, belt, etc. To make these insignia extra meaningful, have your instructors wear them also. This sends the message that, "Yes, we are the higher skill levels, but we're all working our way up the same ladder, trying to be our best."
4. Have built-in review
A master musician doesn't forget their beginner scales. Whatever your program is, it’s probably similar in that "advanced" kids aren't supposed to forget the stuff they learned as "beginners". Hopefully the more advanced curriculum requires the kids to regularly apply their basics—otherwise, why did the kids learn it in the first place? But even so, it's never a bad idea to really revisit sound fundamentals.
Revisit these basics in a structured way, with a specific time and format for how you will review them. If you plan to just, "Review whenever you have time", that time will never come. Learning environments are usually hectic places, and this means you can't wait for the perfect moment when you don’t have anything else to do. Set aside just a little bit of time, and it will go a long way.
Do you have more ideas about setting up a multi-skill-level curriculum? I'm always on the lookout, so please share in the comments.