The ‘Dojo’ Model for Student-Led Learning

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Stephen Downes’s column in The Huffington Post has become a routine stop for me. His topics and comments are always probing the edge of ideas, inviting us to look over there, and from there, back to where we were. His latest, “The Role of the Educator” (5 Dec. 2010), doesn’t disappoint. If the role of educator is changing, then what is it becoming? What are the possibilities? Downes comes up with a staggering list of 23 roles, yet it’s obvious that this is just the beginning of a list that stretches to infinity.

And, as usual, he makes me think.

Yes, we definitely need to begin to explore all the developing roles of educators because the breadth and depth of our visions will determine the course of our schools and colleges. Perhaps the strongest influence on curricula and pedagogy is our conception of the teacher’s role, i.e., form follows function, and if we believe that the instructor’s function is to lead or guide a group of students, then much of the form of teaching and learning has been predetermined.

However, if we make an adjustment and switch our attention to the potential roles of students, we get a different picture. For example, what kinds of educative behaviors can we expect from a self-motivated, independent learner who’s at home in the virtual world? Will these behaviors differ from grade level to grade level? What about students who aren’t as motivated? Or who aren’t as comfortable online?

In all of these cases, though, we’re looking at individual students, which begs the question: Can we arrive at even more and better variations by developing student-centered models based on the behavior of students in formal group structures?

I’m thinking of athletics and how teams are run. Much of the leadership is provided by upperclassmen, and team captains are often selected by the players. Coaches do much of the teaching, but much is left to the players, albeit in less formal sessions.

I’m also thinking of martial arts training, and more specifically the culture of the traditional Japanese dojo. (A dojo is, literally, a place for learning the way.) For example, in karate training, much of the formal learning is built into the system through a student ranking structure based on levels of demonstrated proficiency. Every student is both a kohai and a sempai. A kohai is a “junior” or someone with lower ranking or less experience; a sempai is a “senior” or someone with higher ranking or more experience.

Sempais are expected to be responsible for kohais under them. The sempais are also kohais to students with higher ranks or more experience. Thus, these titles are relative: every student is both a student and a teacher in the continuum of ranks.

Ranks are usually identified by colored belts. At the bottom are white belts; at the top, black. Black belts, too, are ranked, thus extending the kohai-sempai structure into the advanced levels.

Belt ranks are earned via satisfactory performance in public examinations that require the demonstration of various skills. The skill sets are increasingly complex from rank to rank. Thus, ranking is based on ability that’s proven in front of all the students and instructors.

This system also ensures that an instructor is always present. For example, if the top instructor, the sensei, is absent, the highest ranking student present runs the class. If none of the black belts are there, then the highest ranked brown belt takes the lead. Even when only two white belts show up for class, training continues. The student who has trained the longest will lead the “class” of two.

Compare this to a typical class in most U.S. schools and colleges. When the teacher is not present, nothing happens or, worse, chaos reigns. In colleges, students are usually free to leave if the instructor fails to show up after so many minutes. This never happens in a dojo. In fact, when only one person is present, s/he will follow the same training ritual, assuming the role of both student and teacher.

The typical training session is led by the top instructor (sensei) or her/his assistant. However, the session is usually divided into parts, each devoted to specific skill sets. When this happens, the highest ranking person becomes the instructor for each small group. Students are sometimes paired off, with the sempai giving one-to-one pointers to the kohai.

Before and after classes and during breaks, kohais often seek out sempais for individualized lessons. This request is an honor for the sempai, and s/he seldom if ever refuses to give as much time as needed. In this way, those who are less proficient receive extra help.

The sensei also honors this system of learning by playing the role of kohai to instructors from other dojos who have been invited to provide training. And the sensei also routinely returns to the dojo of her seniors to sharpen her skills. When she does this, she becomes a student. Thus every martial artist is a lifelong student and teacher.

Can this model be adapted to or adopted by schools and colleges in the U.S.? Can this model be used effectively in completely online classes?

I’m not sure, but I think we have many more options — and opportunities for success — for education when we also focus on the formal roles that students can play in teaching as well as learning. Much has been written about the beneficial effects of peer instruction, and this dojo-based model has, over centuries, proven effective for the martial arts. Adjusted to academics, perhaps it could be just as effective, providing a sustainable and highly effective model for the 21st century.

16 Responses

  1. Jim, that’s a fascinating thought. Because of the huge disparity between typical student and teacher, it may be difficult to duplicate fully in a typical K-12 classroom. It may even be difficult until graduate school, where a somewhat informal version reigns, at least where I was during my graduate and postdoctoral days.

    It would be as though your dojo was populated by a high-level black belt and plenty of white, orange and yellow belts. After a year, you might get a few blue belts and a couple of green belts. I just don’t get a good feeling for that system. IF (big if), you could instill the same sort of discipline in classrooms that you have in dojos, then you’d have some hope.

    Despite my concerns, I see another possibility. I have frequently bemoaned the lack of a master-apprentice system for teachers. Why all teachers are more or less required to find their own way always baffles me. The dojo system is the master-journeyman-apprentice system raised to a much higher power.

    One problem that besets schools remains how to reward teachers. Using student test results, except for the absolute crudest estimates, has been shown to fail. While I’m hardly suggesting that teachers wear colored belts around their schools, I can see a hope for such a system in training teachers.

    The highest ranks would be rewarded with the most pay AND access to the most difficult classes. Only by mastering very difficult classes could teachers move on to higher ranks. The unions would have to give a little on teacher time, and the schools also would have to bend a bit. For example, unions typically don’t allow teachers to work, except as they voluntarily choose, beyond school hours.

    I like this concept, but don’t know how teachers would react. If you’re a K-12 teacher, shoot my thought down, or, at least, tell me how you feel about it.

    Back to the students, I like the feel, but believe that this idea would require lots of refining.

  2. Harry Keller: “It may be difficult to duplicate [the dojo model] fully in a typical K-12 classroom.”

    Hi, Harry. I agree. It would be difficult if not impossible to adopt this model for academic purposes. However, I’m wondering if some of the ideas in the model could be adapted to hybrid or online instruction and learning.

    My thoughts are running along the lines of students helping and being helped by peers. For example, in a writing class, students could be ranked according to achievement on class standards, and those with higher ranks would routinely help those with lower ranks.

    If a student is unable to help a lower ranking peer, the two would approach a higher ranking classmate. If the third student can’t help, then the three would approach an even higher ranking student. Etc. In this way, problems are solved somewhere in the chain. If not, they end up at the teacher’s desk.

    This system would spread the task of teaching through the entire class and not rest solely on the instructor. The benefits of students serving as mentors are well documented, and there’s evidence that some students actually learn better from peers. The benefits for the teacher are obvious.

    This is a multi-tiered system so it’s not a matter of black and white, expert and novice. Thus the only person who needs to know it all is the teacher. Students will then range downward, with the last knowing the least.

    This means that nearly all the student will have something to teach classmates.

    One of the major problems with online teaching is the instructional load. The instructor simply can’t be everywhere with everyone at the same time or within a specific period. A tiered mentoring system such as this might be helpful.

    I don’t think colored belts would work. But ranks could be managed in other ways.

    Re appropriate levels: I’ve seen this tiered system work with children in the dojo. Young children are actually a lot more capable than we think they are. They enjoy helping classmates, even if the task is of a lower order, and they enjoy learning from classmates.

    In the 3rd grade, e.g., students might help one another with a science experiment. Those with higher ranks would keep an eye on lower ranking peers and give advice or volunteer suggestions. The teacher would then be free to roam the class, intervening when needed or asked.

    Writing teachers are familiar with peer feedback groups for reviewing drafts so we probably have a better idea of how a mentoring system might work in a classroom setting. The new twist in this dojo model is the ranking and how it might be applied in the feedback process. -Jim S

  3. […] alternative perspective on MOOC by Jim here referred to the dojo model for student organised learning.   To what extent would it be applicable […]

  4. If you are only going to look at K-12 education as that which occurs in a room of kids all the same age then there are some challenges in the use of a dojo approach. But what about the one teacher school? Or other vertical groupings?

    My most satisfying, gratifying K-12 adventures happened in a large room with 60 kids aged 4-16, a co-teacher, 2 teachers aides, student teachers, parent volunteers & community talents. (Not all of the time of course – that took teacher-as-manager to

    After less than 6 months of negotiations, trials, & design I could walk out of that room with my co-teacher & sit on the veranda with a coffee & (horror) a cigarette & not be needed by anyone in that room or outside it doing projects & art & climbing trees.

    This was sustained for 3 years & became easier & smoother & vigorously survived the departure of my co-teacher at the end of the 2nd year. She was not replaced so that left a pupil teacher ratio of 1-60+. However by then the degrees of autonomy exhibited by those kids who had been with us for two years was outstanding & I know I could have gone & the kids would have modified & fabricated & gone right on learning.

    This was in 1979-82 & I thought we were riding on a wave of exciting change – even had an Apple IIe & TI Speak & Spell in the room. Occasionally see some of those kids with their kids. They speak well of those times & want it & more for their offspring – looking looking.

    • mizminh, thanks for sharing this inspiring, fascinating account of how students can become part of the teaching as well as learning process. Your example of a student-sustained teaching-learning environment is a reminder to all of us that the ultimate goal of education is to empower our students to become independent learners and to realize that learning and teaching are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps the most effective path to mastery is to teach the skill or concepts to others.

      You also underscore the notion that vertical age groupings (a wide range of ages in a class) of students may provide a more natural environment for student-led forms of learning. In other words, horizontal groupings (students grouped by age) aren’t the only way to envision schooling — and other schemes may be just as if not more effective.

      Please consider developing your comment into an article and submitting it to ETCJ for publication. Email it to me at -Jim S

  5. […] Downes referenced Jim Shimabukuro’s post on dojo model for student led learning. Jim refers to karate, but my experiences of taekwondo are […]

    • Nicola, thank you for the pingback. I visited your blog and read your post “Lurking, liking, learning martial arts and learning online.” I agree that taekwondo as well as other martial arts such as judo, kendo, and kung fu use similar student-empowering approaches. I didn’t mention them in my article because I’m not as familiar with them. Thank you for sharing! -Jim S

  6. As an classroom teacher I knew I was successful the days I left the classroom for a workshop or other professional activity and my students took charge. They took over as the teacher. My role was to spark their desire to learn and provide the learning environment necessary to support their needs.

    • Norton, I feel as you do. When students reach a point where they feel as though they share in the “ownership” of the teaching-learning experience, then we, as teachers, have succeeded.

      In college, I felt this is what separated the good from the great teachers. The great ones guided the class discussions to the point where they could quietly step away from the front of the room to the side and, sometimes, to the back — leaving the discussion in the hands of the students.

      For students, these became the classes that they wouldn’t miss for the world. They arrived excited and left even moreso.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Please consider writing a narrative about this experience and submitting it for publication in ETCJ. Email it to me at Even if it’s not tech oriented, the idea can probably be adapted for online environments. -Jim S

  7. Hi Jim, apologies for the delayed reply, I follow an excellent Karate blog from a respected Sensei in Hawaii – Charles Goodin:

    Very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year

  8. Hi, Nicola. Goodin Sensei is a highly respected karateka in Hawaii and the world. I’ve never met him personally, but I know who he is via the web and publications. I admire his open, intelligent, and historical approach to the martial arts. In the end, the different schools of karate share the same historical roots, making them more similar than different and, thus, part of a long tradition. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, too. -Jim S

  9. And to you Jim, have a wonderful 2011 !

  10. When I was in 9th grade in the 60’s, the direction threatened to reshuffle the classes of our grade on the basis of some ideal teacher-student ratio, In our class, we did not want that: we were getting along fine. The direction compromised: there would be no reshuffle as long as no one failed.

    So without knowing about dojos, we set up a sempai-kohai like help system for each subject, where the student who was best at it coached o small group of the next-best students who coached those who had problems: I was a sempai in Greek and Latin,, and very much of a white belt kohai in math and chemistry.

    Teachers’ response varied: some were interested, some ignored our remedial effort. A few individualist students didn’t participate in the scheme. But the net result was that none of us failed in any of our high school years.

    In 2002, a class at the Bellinzona high school did the same, using first a Yahoo group, and when Yahoo groups got blocked by the server filter in 2003, a mullti-author blog (like this one). They also kept it up until the end of their high school years, with the same profit, but teachers mostly ignored their initiative, apparently due to lack of IT literacy.

    So I guess a Dojo system can work if started by the learners. Of course, the school plays a role in fostering a culture of solidarity, and impressing the general idea that helping the weaker ones is not a waste of time, but on the contrary makes the “sensai” student stronger. However, I’m not sure such a system can be concretely imposed from above.

    Happy New Year to All


  11. Claude, your comment above (and Harry’s earlier) raises the issue of implementation. As educators, in our collective search for best practice, we all too often overlook this critical step, perpetuating the myth that there is an answer for successful teaching. All we need to do is find it, that silver key, and it will magically unlock the barriers to learning.

    The real danger of this myth is that it ignores the harsh reality that an answer is only as good as its implementation. In other words, it’s not the tool so much as the way it’s used. This is true for national, state, local, campus, and classroom practices.

    Teaching isn’t a machine, and it can’t be upgraded or fixed with interchangeable parts. In teaching, moreso than in almost any other profession, the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. It’s often the variables that we haven’t or can’t identify that make the most difference between success and failure.

    And because the process of teaching is more like a fast running stream than a controlled aquarium, pinpointing and accounting for all the key variables is close to impossible. In martial arts, the skill sets are finite, observable, and testable. The same can’t be said for the academic classroom. Nearly all teaching and learning activities are internal and unobservable, occurring within the students’ and teachers’ brains. What we can and do see — the operational variables — are the tips of the iceberg.

    Thus, the dojo model — or any model, for that matter — has to, first, be unbundled, then the parts need to be examined to see how they might be reconstructed to serve the needs of different populations, environments, and purposes. Dropping it whole into another structure or framework simply wouldn’t work.

    Thus, Claude’s example of students mentoring or coaching one another is an excellent application of some of the ideas inherent in the dojo model.

    Claude says that this model probably can’t be implemented from the top down. I believe this is true to the extent that the students have to buy into it, too. If they don’t, then nothing happens.

    However, I believe teachers can tweak the learning environment to apply some of the dojo principles. For example, they could ask students to lead certain segments of learning, selecting those who have proven their mastery. If the segments are also vertically layered, then sempai-kohai pairings could be further differentiated.

    In fact, this senior-junior process for teaching-learning is not new but natural. In most cultures, older siblings often teach younger ones, especially in large families. In neighborhoods, children in unorganized, informal play often rely on this vertical peer mentoring process.

    In most professions, we still see vestiges of this junior-senior peer mentoring. It’s natural for someone new to ask the person with a bit more experience for help. It’s a lot less intimidating than going to the most senior authority. However, this process is usually informal and is rarely rewarded.

    Institutions could more formally and systematically recognize and reward these mentoring activities — they don’t need to issue color belts, but they could offer some other symbol, perhaps material-, color-, and shape-coded to identify mastery in various disciplines at different levels. Seating arrangements in F2F classrooms, too, might be adapted.

    Thus formalized, students could take pride in their mastery level and feel engaged in the teaching-learning process as never before. -Jim S

  12. […] The Dojo Model for Student-Led Learning […]

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