I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about grades, and ranks. Related to my earlier post on gamification, I’ve been thinking about how we assign value to accomplishments. How do we state ‘this is a 90 out of 100’ and ‘this is a 75 out of 100’? What comprises ‘a hundred’? How applicable is that? Is one person’s 75 equal to another person’s 75? Was the process for one person to achieve 75 equal to the process of another person achieving 75?
What Belt Are You?
This year, I have begun practicing two new martial arts: Ryukyu Kempo and Feng Xiao Zhang Kung Fu (don’t worry if you don’t know what those are). While my goal isn’t specifically to get rank in these styles, I’ve been paying attention to how rank is collated and assigned, and how it differs from other systems I’ve studied (Kajukenbo, Wing Chun, and Iaido).
Rank in the martial arts is a rather contentious issue. It’s actually a fairly new concept, right at roughly a hundred years old. Just about all concepts of rank as we know them today, meaning having ‘a belt in such-and-such style’ goes back to Judo and its creator, Jigoro Kano. Kano conceived what is known as the Kyudan Ranking System; ‘kyu’ meaning the colored belts (blue belt, green belt, etc) and ‘dan’ meaning black belts. The Kyudan system was hugely popular and quickly adopted by many other martial arts, in Japan first and then throughout Asia, and then the world. Today, even the MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program) uses a ranking system not unlike the Kyudan.
There are conflicting accounts as to what the kyu ranks are meant to represent. This is the first major point of contention for many martial artists. It is generally believed that the Kyu ranks (colored belts) are meant to be introductory, to help students learn the very basics of movement, physical activity, and martial arts. It’s during this time that students are taught basics like how to punch, how to land a fall, etc. Supposedly, upon achieving their black belt (or 1st Dan), they then know enough to ‘begin learning the martial art’. This may be apocryphal, however, as there seems to be some conflicting evidence as to whether or not Jigoro Kano intended them to have this meaning.
Regardless, today, black belt signifies a level of competence and expertise. To say someone is a black belt suggests they are supremely capable, often only to be bested by someone with a higher rank (2nd Dan or second-degree black belt, etc).
But looking at the Kyudan ranking system, we can see some problems. Is a Green Belt in Karate equal to a Green Belt in Jujitsu? Is a Blue Belt in kung fu (or blue sash, whatever the styles’ preferred midsection apparel) equal to a Blue Belt in Kendo? What about these numbered Black Belts? Is a second-degree black belt twice as hard to get as a first-degree black belt, or is it an order of magnitude harder (ten times as hard) as suggested by the degree connotation?
What are the qualities that determine someone to earn rank in a given style? Is it performance? Must a person demonstrate a physical ability to perform a certain number of specific kicks and punches (or whatever the style’s preferred techniques)? Must they spar with opponents of a specific rank? Or is it more esoteric? Is it a general attitude and demeanor that the person demonstrate? While not technically a martial art, many professional wrestling schools select students based not on their physical performance or technical acumen but on their attitude under adversity. More than one martial art school has espoused that approach, suggesting that they don’t care if a student ‘wins’ a given fight or succeeds at a specific situation so much as keep trying and striving.
In reality, belts have little carryover, from one martial art to another, and even from one school to another. Instructors are given considerable latitude to grade their students as they see fit, and if conflict occurs, there is remarkably few consequences (in the United States at least) for a martial artist to simply break away from a given martial art and found their own. Terms like ‘karate’, ‘kung fu’, ‘jujitsu’, ‘ninjitsu’, ‘kempo’ and others are not regulated in the slightest. While specific arts like ‘Gracie Jujitsu’ and ‘American Kempo’ may be subject to business laws as intellectual properties, generic terms are more than adequate for most any fledgling art.
But that’s an unregulated industry. What about something that is heavily regulated like, say, education?
Making A Grade
The first documented use of an academic grading system was in 1785, by Yale President Ezra Stiles. He claimed to divide his students into four ranks (optimi, second optimi, inferiors, and pejores). By the middle of the 1800s, universities like William & Mary and Harvard were making use a four-point ranking system, averaging a student’s grades and assigning them a rank based on their performance. 1 was often best and 4 the worst.
Various innovations and variations were attempted until 1897 when Mount Holyoke College used letter assignments to group students: A for students scoring 100-95, B for 94-85, C for 84-75, D 75 (and just 75), and E for anything below 75 and thus failing.
With the coming of the 20th Century and the corresponding boom of schools thanks to public education funding, child labor laws, and compulsory attendance laws, schools began experimenting with methods of grading. Researchers very quickly discovered (much like the belt awarding above), there was tremendous variation between teachers as to how hard or approachable material could be. An 85-point performing student in one class would not be comparable to an 85-point performing student from another.
But students in the top percentile of one class were often somewhat comparable to students in the top percentile of another class. It was for this reason that they pushed for letter grades instead of numerical percentages. Was an 85 in this class equal to an 85 in that class? Maybe or maybe not, but a B in this class was definitely more comparable to a B in that class, regardless of the specific numbers.
Gaming The Grade
Some schools have removed letter grades. One attempt to gamify education opted not to grade kids, nor to penalize them for wrong answers. It gave points for right answers. The more points you got, the better your score. This allowed students to never ‘fall behind’ while still making them aware of their performance. The validity of this approach might be in question, but it’s only one among dozens of methods that are radically trying to overhaul the educational system in the United States.
On the other side of things, martial arts sees students eschewing rank or being awarded rank without merit. Because students competing in jujitsu tournaments are matched by their belt rank, it is a tactic in some Brazilian Jujitsu schools for students to remain low-ranking despite years of experience so that they may compete against less-experienced opponents.
The alternative is martial artists just giving rank away. Since many martial arts award high levels of black belt (3rd degree, 4th degree, etc) in conjunction with the number of students one produces, there is pressure to produce students of rank, regardless of their performance. Not a wholly unreasonable approach as most martial arts espouse the role of teaching a technique as demonstrating true mastery of it, it still leaves some practitioners with an incentive to overlook flaws in their students in order to advance their own careers.
Does It Work?
When you get down to it, grading is ultimately a rather abstract concept. Often times, it is about establishing some sort of optimal or perfect outcome for an event, and judging how close a person comes to that hypothetical outcome. This can easily penalize creativity and innovation, just as it can also breed inaccuracy.
The United States educational system is bogged down in an ever-intensifying system of testing and test-preparation. Standardized tests were initially meant as a way to universal grade students for performance, but a single metric of performance has now turned into an industry unto itself, with anywhere between $400 and $700 million dollars to be made each year (as of 2016).
Teaching is an art. Learning is a skill.
From time to time, it is important that we look at these major institutions of our culture – things so fundamental, we would never even think to challenge their purpose – and ask ‘should it be this way?’
Practicing The Dialogue
Guro Doug Marcaida was once asked about whether or not the knife-fighting techniques he was practicing were effective in a real fight. His response was ‘I’m not worrying about that right now’. He was exploring the way the knife moved, the way he could move with regards to his opponent, etc. He wasn’t concerned with the absolute, maximum effectiveness in that moment. He was simply having fun with it and enjoying the process, confident that should his knife skills be needed, he’d have the ‘fluency to say what he needed to say’.
Belts and grades. Letters and ranks. It’s all abstract representations of one’s performance. Keeping the goal in mind, ‘how well can you do ___’, will ultimately determine whether or not the process is working. While it may not serve every purpose, it will serve your purpose.
What do you want to learn?
Why do you want to learn it?
What is the scenario you are wanting to excel at?
With that in mind, is what you are learning taking you towards excelling at that scenario?