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      Over the past 30 years of instructing Tracy Kenpo, Modern Arnis and Paradigm Escrima, I have come to realize that there is a fairly consistent pattern or sequence that exists with regard to student learning.  This sequence involves four (4) stages or steps which my associates and I refer to as the “subject / material acquisition sequence”.  The four stages are as follows:

      Mechanical: consists of rote memorization of the system basics and foundational movements that the student must learn in order to proceed through the early introductory portions of the system.  The student is learning the stances, stepping methods, evasive movements, hand strikes, forearm blocks, balance points for kicking, simple kicks along with some simple self-defense techniques.  The students must learn how to coordinate their hands, eyes, feet and body as a single unified whole in a reflexive manner without thinking before they move.   

      Technical: involves taking the mechanics that one has already learned and using that previous information to develop an understanding about how and why these mechanics actually work when executed properly.  Within this stage the student is concerned with blending both the art and craft aspects of a particular system, plus improving their performance of each technique.  The improvement involves developing an appreciation for the minute details within the movements of each technique.  The student then learns and refines their own understanding of the techniques through one on one coaching of the newer students at the school.

      Conceptual: taking all of the previous ideas and behaviors already learned, and finding the relationships between them, by comparing and contrasting the effectiveness of these ideas/behaviors for one’s self. This process is always on-going and is “tailored” to fit one’s own physical abilities, body type, flexibility, strength and mental /moral orientation.  Each individual will very likely find within other martial arts systems items, ideas and movements that are similar to what one has already learned or mastered.  The on-going comparison allows each individual student to gain and benefit from a better understanding of their own original martial art system.  The conceptual stage validates the strengths found within one’s own system.  Because the individual student is able to move beyond thinking strictly in terms of definitive set of concrete terms within a single system approach, they can begin thinking abstractly.  This newer style of thinking and understanding makes it possible for the student to develop their own ideas within a particular martial art system.  The conceptual stage allows a student to find a concomitant approach to various martial arts systems such as Kenpo, Arnis, Tai Chi, Pa Qua and Escrima, for example.  There are numerous ways in which various martial arts systems can serve as companions to one another, but only individual martial artists can make these connections for themselves.  The art has to be altered and “tailored” to fit the body and mind-set of each individual person without resorting to cloning and mimicry.  

       Innovation: the student has moved beyond merely repeating the movements as they have been initially taught, drilled and rehearsed.  In this critical stage of development the student is beginning to understand how to mix and match parts of techniques with one another to meet a specific situation at that precise moment in time and space.  The student reflexively understands that he (or she) must act in a spontaneous manner but draws on all of their previously learned movements to fashion a “new” set of behaviors to cope with this specific situation, right here and right now!

      For analytical purposes the four stages are presented as separate and distinct from one another, however, in reality these stages overlap.  A student can be in different phases of 2 stages at the same time.  The transition is not always smooth and seamless. There is not a really clear, definitive demarcation point between each of these stages, nor is every student going to experience the same rate of transition and growth.     

      As a teacher, I know that the above sequence exists, however I present all of my instructional information in small units to my students.  Depending on the topic and the skills of various individual students who I am teaching at a particular moment, I will present 1, 2 or at most 3 units of instruction at a time.  I never exceed 3 instructional units because that seems to be the upper limit that most people can absorb and utilize in a single instructional period.  Once the initial lessons are learned and the students can demonstrate physical control of the material, I will add 1, 2 or 3 applications of the techniques or drills.

      It is very important in my opinion to have a larger, comprehensive curriculum written out.  The three unit lesson plan is worthless if there isn’t a larger plan which supports the smaller unit lessons.  There are a good number of martial arts instructors who literally teach “the lesson of the day” right off of the top of their heads!  They only have a very vague idea about what the end plan or goals are for their instructional ventures and that leaves their students in a bind.  They do not know what they are actually learning and how the various lessons connect to one another.  The lack of perceived connections in turn makes it very difficult for all but the very best students to move successfully through the developmental sequences to mastery of the particular art style or system.

       The lack of long term curriculum planning on the part of many instructors is a reflection on how they themselves were taught the martial arts system that they are now attempting to pass on to a new generation of students.  We all are products of our own past experiences, both good and bad.  Most martial arts instructors in the USA have not been tutored and schooled in the art and science of instruction.  Simply because someone has persevered long enough to earn a black belt/sash, diploma or certificate does not mean that they can in turn properly instruct others in that same art form.  Even if someone were a highly accomplished performer in martial arts tournaments, with an impressive array of trophies and medals, that alone does not qualify the individual as a knowledable or skilled instructor.  All too often the people, who and operate open martial arts schools, while well intentioned, are in fact very poorly prepared for the art and science of instruction.

      In my opinion, instructing others is a noble and honorable task.  However, it is not as easy as it might appear to those who have never tried their hand at it.  This is why I have written this essay on the developmental sequence of learning.  It is not that this sequence of some sort of closely guarded secret that can only be passed on to a select few, lest the martial arts would suddenly become overrun with would-be experts and instructors.  Quite the contrary, the developmental sequence is well known and has been utilized by numerous people in nearly every area of instruction regarding physical skills training.  I am simply putting this information forward in a martial arts context with the hope that my essay will spur some in-depth discussions about how the next generation of martial arts instructors should be trained and instructed in the art of instructing others. 

      Time will be the true test with regard to whether or not some people in the martial arts are able to step beyond their own systems and learning experiences to engage in some serious discussion about how to instruct students.  The individual martial arts systems are not the important thing in such a discussion.  Each martial arts system has a set of drills, forms, techniques and a discussion involving instructional concepts does not have to touch any of those things.

      The real issue involves developing a curriculum plan and establishing a measurable set of goals for each individual martial arts system in general and a particular school setting that strives to teach that art competently.  I have some ideas about curriculum development within the martial arts and I am looking forward to an in-depth, ego-free discussion with other serious minded martial art instructors.


Jerome Barber, Ed. D.

Director and Mataw Guro

Independent Escrima-Kenpo-Arnis Associates

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Mataw Guro Jerome Barber,

This is subject I have commented on in the past but not quite to this degree. As veteran Fire Department Instructor (my day job -firefighter/paramedic of 30 years) I have seen this, made note of it and made recommendations to others. As person who's skills are put into action in moments notice and who life can hinge on bad judgement call I think I can say I know subject teaching to respond to emergency situation. Sometimes falling on deaf-ears as they say. When I laid out my curriculum, I went from simple to complex with building blocks and bench marks in it. It contains technical and manipulative skills with evaluation points. I believe the student should understand why they do what they, how they do what they do, when to do what they do and when not to do what they did. The subject of Arnis de Mano is simple and complex or you could just say simply complex! So you must break each part down to the smallest piece then reconstruct it to learn it. One of things I always remember from instructors training at the Fire Academy saying-you remember 5% of what you hear, 10% of what you read, 20% of what you see and 80% of what you say, see and & do! This concept is what I use in training my students. Some will say you should have them practice something 100s of times, practice for practice sake is just exercise not learning, but practice with education & correction is learning. These are just some of my thoughts on your essay. 

Mataw Guro Marc Lawrence

South Bay Filipino Martial Arts Club

Hello MG Mark,


Thank you for your observations and comments.  Instruction is fairly simple and direct.  The only thing that really changes is the subject matter being covered.  As you noted, you are instructing in both the FMA and firefighting.  In both areas there is a need for a curriculum laying out the information in an orderly manner from simple to complex or as my office mate at the college would put it from and English language perspective, from single letters of the alphabet to single words to phrases, followed by simple sentences, compund senteces, complex sentences and finally compund-comples sentences. 


My essay was relating to the instructional - learning dynamic of martial arts and was not system or stylisticly specific.  It is all the same process in the end, without any regard for a specific discipline, style or topic.  Everyone has to be instructed in a number of areas of life and they must also learn the subject matter in order to use it, effectively, efficently and without thought in a crisis situation.

I disagree with you in one area of your comments.  I believe that practice is very important and it is vital to learning the skills needed to do a particular thing well.  Practice for exercise helps to drive the behvavior into the so-called "muscle memory"; however, if one is not also paying close attenetion and merely going through the motions or seeing the practice as boring, they will not be able or willing to gain the education and corrections that are important parts of the learning process.

One of the things that I stress to my students is the importance of practicing at super slow speeds, without pauses.  This helps them to see and feel their bodies as they move.  It places a lot of emphasis on balance, rotations and shifting from position to position.  Moving at hyper-speed very often masks flaws in balance and bodily rotations of theshoulder, wrists and waist, plus the failure to properly pivot on the balls or heels of the feet in the execution of teachniques.

I do not want my students to constantly practice slowl, but once a month is good.  If someone can move slowly, with balance, power transfers and correct postures, then when moving at speed there will be very little drop-off in effectiveness when they are in a serious confrontation.

Again, I would like to thank you for your observations and comments.  I was hoping that my essay would generate some interest and conversation.


Jerome Barber, Ed. D.

Director and Mataw Guro

Independent Escrima-Kenpo-Arnis Associates



Very interesting discussion Dr. Barber, I truly appreciate the logical thought process of your methodology and reasoning.  Having a background in education I am sure you have heard of the various theories regarding a students preferred method of instruction such as “Blooms Taxonomy” and or “Gardners seven Knowledge Types”; some students may be better at visual, auditory or kinesthetic teaching methodologies than others, do you find that you need to add or tweak your method of instructions for different types of student learners?

Additionally, it seems as martial arts instructors we touch on all methods of instruction during a lesson by telling them and then showing them what we are talking about.  As a martial arts instructor and being formally trained by academia in the fundamentals of teaching I am always searching for effective or a better way of passing on what I have been taught. I also enjoy studying other classical bodies of work that can I apply to martial arts instruction and enhance my own teaching methods. It seems to me that you may be on to a good book, “The Art and Science of Instruction for the Martial Artist”. Anyhow thanks for the post I plan to keep your 4-stages of development on the four front of my mind when I teach my students.


Best regards,

Guro Mike Cardenas

VEA Martial Arts Academy

Thank you Guro Mike, for your post and comments.  To me teaching is a trust issue first and foremost.  Regardless of the subject matter, the student has been placed in my care and it is very important that I give that person my very best efforts to impart the information and understandings that I possess.  In the end it is not about me!  It is about my students!  All of the theories are useful in some regards, but watching, listening and testing are the critical skills that I need to use to bring out the very best that I can in my students.  They are the people who have made the four stages a reality for me.  It is one thing to know something intellectually, it is quite another to positively utilize that knowledge and watch students growing in skill, intellect and confidence.




Jerome Barber, Ed. D.

MG Barber,

Excellent article!  I have seen these same developmental stages in my students and I have also seen many students stall at the technical phase, unable to progress to the conceptual and innovative stages.  As the son of two educators, I have a special place in my heart and a deep respect for good teachers.  They are few and far between and a special breed.  Only an instructor with an overall plan can help students achieve the highest levels of development.  The unstated part of your essay is that we as instructors must always fine tune our lesson plans and revisit that long term goal to make sure we are helping our students.  I am ashamed but honest enough to say that I get lazy sometimes too and lose sight of the overall goal.  Thanks for the inspiring article!  I am renewing my commitment to my students and to my art.

Dear Guro Motta,

Thank you so very much for your very kind and inspiring comments.  You have added a renewed vigor to my efforts as a teacher.  You are absolutely correct I did neglect to mention that individual lesson plans and the overall curriculum have to ve revisited, fine-tuned and corrected from time to time as we grow as individuals within the arts.  I have to say that we all get lazy or complacent from time to time, but that can be easily corrected by watching your students.  When you see them slacking off and short-cutting on their basics, that means that you have done the same thing!  As you take them kicking and screaming back to doing the basic correctly, you'll have to do the same thing!

I love talking to and interacting with dedicated teachers and instructors.  In my mind and coming through the academy, there is a difference in knowledge and experience between teachers and instructors.  Like everyone else who has gone into the instructional arena, I started as an instructor and had to evolve and grow into being a teacher.

Getting your students beyond the technical level is a real challenge for all of us.  It is one thing to recognized and identify the four stages of development, then putting that knowledge and information to work for yourself is a constant challenge.  One part of the challenge is getting the student to recognize the things that are holding them back as individuals.  Each student presents us with a unique set of problems, but the good news is that the students will generally fit into established profiles which we can recognize, if we are alert and focused on out doing our job as teachers.

Early on in my training, Professor Remy Presas told me that one of the best signs of an excellent teacher is when a student becomes better than his/her teacher.  As a teacher that has been my goal... make sure that my very best students become better martial artists  than I have become thus far and I'm still working at getting better.

Thanks you again for your comments Guro Motta and I wish you the very best in your future efforts in life as well as the arts.


Jerome Barber, Ed. D.




Nice article.  I have heard the four stages also expressed as "learn the technique, absorb the technique, dissolve the technique", among others.  As for curriculum writing, I have written and rewritten mine several times over.  Constantly reviewing your curriculum and getting feedback from your students at a certain point in their development is a good idea.  I would add that because Kali involves weaponry, I find that many students have to get past the idea of hitting someone.  To reintroduce this idea, I simply wear the big WEKAF helmet and let them hit me during practice.  I usually see grinning afterwards, which, in my opinion, is a good thing!

Hello Guro Taimanglo,

Thank you for your kind reply to my article.   The four stages hava variety of names but the key thing is that these stages are found in many different contexts and are nearly universal.  If an instructor can recognize the stages and work with his/her studies as the pass through them, everyone benefits.

Reviewing your curriculum and using student feedback is the sign of a serious and thoughtful instructor.  We all change as we get older, gain more experiences and get exposed to other ideas from sources outside of our immediate core system.  How often one needs to review is open to discussion and personal feelings, so I hesitate to put any number on the review process; however, the reviews are both neceaasry  and very useful.

For my part, I believe that hitting is easy.  It really is more difficult for me to teach defensive movements and techniques.  Female  are generally more reluctant to hit someone than men, but females generally tend to accept defensive instruction more readily than men.  Once students get the right body mechanics going and they can see as well as feel the power that they can generate, the smiles are dfinately there and their confidence gets a big boost.  I really like using bags, shields and tires to help my students get their bosy mechanics correct.  I usually spend a month or so on stick swinging in the air and walk mmy students through the bodily mechanics of both punching and stick striking before I have them hitting anything.  I want them to be able to create the swishing sound of the stick and have the sound occur right in front of their own bodies.  That's when they are ready to hit an object.

Hitting a solid object then presents another opportunity for instruction because now the students have to deal with striking through an object, hitting the object with deep penitration or hitting an object and dealing with the rebound effect or the ricochet effect.  They have to be able to handle all of these actions/reactions when stick striking.

Instruction is not a fly by wire activity and anyone undertaking the art, craft and science of instruction needs to be or quickly become aware of the seriousness of this line of work. 


Jerome Barber, Ed. D.



Hi Doc,

Since you've retired from college, you've been cranking out some very nice articles. I like this article and the one you recently posted on your seasianmartialarts forum. Everyone should check the site out because, there are a number of other nice articles and comparisons there.

Briefly, my comment pertains to the ability to recognize an excellent teacher and/or an excellent practitioner.

One of my very first Kenpo karate instructors wanted to recommend me for an instructor position, as he was moving on from the school. I was flabber-gasted. I couldn't out-spar any instructor or some of my fellow students, and I told him that. He and the school's assistant manager pulled me in to the office, and imparted their wisdom to me. Both had seen me teach the kids, and assist with some adults. Under the previous administration instructors were chosen by how well they could spar. I was told, as a result, the quality of the system and the students was dropping. They both agreed it was not how kick-butt an instructor was, but instead, how well he could effectively communicate information to the students.

The assistant manager asked me, "Do you think Angelo Dundee could last one round in the ring with Muhammad Ali?" I said, "No." Then he asked, "Who coached Muhammad Ali to become heavyweight champion of the world?" I said, "Angelo Dundee." He went on to explain to me what kind of student they wanted to produce. He said, "If a student won't accept you as his instructor because you can't beat him up, I don't want him as a member of this school. He just doesn't have the right attitude."

I began to understand the fact that some people are better teachers than practitioners, for whatever reason. This works the other way, too.

I've always felt a teacher should be a respectable practitioner. As Dr. Barber said, "The goal of the teacher is to guide the student(s) to be the best he or she can be." I take this to mean, the instructor should never stop trying to develop himself, while guiding the student. If the student becomes better than the instructor, the instructor has effectively done his job. If the student doesn't become better than the instructor, but becomes the best he can be, the teacher has effectively done his job.

Thanks for sharing your article. Your article helps inspire me and remind me of my goal, as a teacher.

Guro Dave


Hello Guro Dave,


Thank you for your praise and I am humbled by your comments.  You are absolutelly correct, the goal of a teacher is bring out the very best in each and everyone of his/her students.  If you can help the student to become better, to grow, to understand what they are doing you have done a great job.  If the student becomed better than you, that is a great thing.  If the student becomes better than he or she was at the beginning of their training, the teacher has done a great job.  I also believe that if a teacher helps a student to achieve a goal that the student has set, then the teacher has very successful done his/her job correctly.

We are there to help the student and if the student is successful, so are we.


Jerome Barber, Ed. D.


As a student this is something I had not considered. But I think this is something for students to consider also as an overall strategy in the is learning process.

I applaud and appreciate whenever an instructor takes the material from the 'what to do' to the how to do it.

We call this a 'delivery system'.

The 'how' or method of training is so crucial that without it you literally have people fumbling around without purpose.

Thanks so much for sharing this, Guro Barber!



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