© 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved
John (not actually his real name), a single male of 30 years,
joined our school to learn how to brandish a sword, as all students
do. We had different sorts of classes then, catering to different
clientele. We had a class full of males, young and middle-aged. We
had a class solely for females and they were all young females at
that time. We also had classes that were mixed, both in terms of age
We noticed eventually that John always preferred to work with the
females. We steered him into trying the male class, which we thought
he might enjoy since he would be working with other males. He
tolerated the male class but clearly did not enjoy it as much.
A little bit of information about John. John likes to talk. But in
the male class, he did talk but did not get much response from the
other males, especially the older males.
He asked to join the female class. Since he wasn’t fitting in
with the males, we reluctantly agreed. The females did not like this
at all. They would prefer an all-female class but occasionally we had
males in the class. It’s not that they didn’t like males in the
class, they didn’t mind if it was necessary. But they didn’t like
him in particular. They thought he was a little creepy.
Sometimes, I would be teaching and when I made a particular point,
he would jump in and tell the students that he had a similar
experience and proceed to tell them all about it. On another
occasion, a senior student would demonstrate a technique and John
would blurt out “Oh, I’ve seen that one.” In an almost exact
scenario, another student at another time was showing a special
technique to some junior students and John would remark, “Oh, I
know that one.”
On a different occasion, we had a guest instructor come in to hold
a workshop on jujutsu techniques. We were all taught a simple
technique for disarming and subduing an attacker. Simple but
effective. And of course, the instructor asked the students to
practice this technique repetitively, alternating the roles of
attacker and defender. Apparently already bored with this, John
pulled one of the female students aside and proceeded to show her how
an “arm bar” was done like they do in MMA, deciding that this was
a much more effective and flashy routine. Fortunately, I noticed this
and told him to stop immediately before he injured her. All of the
other students had no problem following the instructor’s directions
and were enjoying the workshop and having fun as a whole group
practicing this wonderful art with their classmates. Why not John?
What to make of the curious case of John??
An interesting conundrum.
I did not know what to make of
this strange behaviour and this strange situation until I stumbled
upon an article talking about post-secondary education and why
college students performed so poorly in their first year of studies.
The author proceeded to argue that poor performance could be
explained if we looked at an old theory on learning that focused on
the needs of the learner as a
motivating force determining whether or not successful learning will
This author looked at Abraham Maslow’s
famous concept of a “hierarchy of needs”.
In a nutshell, Maslow postulated that
humans have 5 basic needs:
- Physiological needs:
needs for survival such as food, water, breathing, sex. In other
words, basic physical needs.
- Safety needs:
Once basic physical needs are taken care of, then the individual
seeks security, in many senses. For example, personal security
(predictable, orderly world), financial security (employment, job
security), health and well-being (body, morality).
- Social needs:
need for a sense of belonging and acceptance (friendships,
relationships with large social groups, teams, and organizations,
and small social connections like peers, mentors, family), need to
love and be loved (intimacy).
- Esteem needs:
a need to be respected and to have self-esteem and self-respect. To
be valued. Maslow posited two versions of esteem needs, a lower
version and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect
of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and
attention. The higher one is the need for self-esteem, strength,
competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom.
- Self-actualization need:
striving to realize one’s full potential, to become what one is
capable of becoming.
Very interesting. I had first
encountered Maslow’s theory in my first-year undergraduate course
in Psychology. I had forgotten it since. But it is funny that reading
that article brought me back to looking again at Maslow after all
So why am I bringing up Maslow’s
Hierarchy of Needs
in this discussion? Well, Maslow’s theory talks essentially about
motivation. Humans are motivated by their needs. Needs motivate human
beings to take action. If there is no need, there is no action.
What does this have to do with learning
swordsmanship, and ultimately how does this inform our teaching?
Let’s go back to the case of John,
our mysterious student. Let’s look at the facts:
I think if we look at John’s
case in light of Maslow’s Hierarchy
of Needs, I think it’s
safe to assume that the lower level needs like physiological and
security needs are not the issue. And I do not think this is a case
of a problem with achieving self-actualization. That leaves social
needs and esteem needs.
- he prefers to work with females or
join an all-female class
- he did not “fit in” in the
- he didn’t get any reaction from
- he says “Oh, I know that one”
(even when he doesn’t)
- he says “Oh, I’ve seen that
one” (whether he has or not is not clear)
- when the teacher makes a teaching
point, he wants to tell others a story of how he had a similar
- he wants to show others (or teach
While social needs typically engender a
need to fit in with social groups, our student John is having
problems with males, his own peer group. The males don’t listen to
him or think he’s talking nonsense. They dismiss him as a “big
talker” and ignore him or argue with him if he is too outlandish.
The females are too polite to argue with him directly and also too
inexperienced to take him on confidently. He can say what he wants to
say in the female class with no fear of reprisal. An interesting
social dynamic. Social needs have to do with feelings of acceptance
and belonging. If he wants to belong, especially with the male peer
group, he is going about it the wrong way. I don’t think it is
about social needs.
This leads us to see John’s case as
one involving esteem needs, the need to be respected. Like the theory
said, esteem needs encompass the need to gain the respect of others,
the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, or attention. His
statements of “Oh, I know that one” and “Oh, I’ve seen that
one” could be viewed now as cries for attention, for recognition,
perhaps a desire to be recognized as knowledgeable in some way. I am
no psychoanalyst but in light of this theory, John’s case did not
seem so mysterious now.
Is a theory like this useful for us? It
is, in a few ways.
It is helpful for dojo administrators.
If we understand the student’s motivation for joining, if we know
what he needs, we know how to service that need.
Maslow’s theory is likewise helpful
for teachers. If we know what he seeks, we know how to keep him
motivated to learn. And that is half the battle…
“The more we learn about man's natural tendencies, the easier
it will be to tell him how to be good, how to be happy, how to be
fruitful, how to respect himself, how to love, how to fulfill his
highest potentialities. The thing to do seems to be to find out what
one really is, deep down inside…”
Toward a Psychology of Health
Mr. Tong has a Master’s
in Education in Curriculum Studies.