In a previous life, I taught computer aided design and manufacturing to high school students at a career and technical education school. Career and technical education, or CTE is the new and improved way to say vocational education. Historically, vocational eduction is thought of as training for a job like welder or plumber. A lot has changed recently in the world of CTE. Today there are a multitude of careers available to CTE students, and they can take courses and vocational training in hospitality, nursing, or graphic design.


It's not the career that defines whether a school is a CTE, it's the teaching methodology and focus. When teaching vocational courses, instructors teach what is called procedural knowledge. Procedural knowledge is the knowledge of how to perform a particular task. If we use a plumbing course as an example, there will be classes that cover all the tasks that a plumber needs to be able to do in the course of his daily work. There will be classes on measuring, cutting and welding pipe, testing systems, installing fixtures and so on. Some schools might also teach the business tasks a plumber might need like estimating, book keeping, and marketing.


There are a lot of advantages to teaching procedural knowledge in a CTE course. By focusing exclusively on the tasks a student will need to perform a particular job, CTE schools can produce a worker ready to hit the ground running very quickly when compared with traditional education. Students leave a CTE course ready to work and productive from the first day. Therefore, might be trained for a new career in as little as 2 years.


So why aren't all schools CTE schools?


To answer that question we need to determine what the goal of eduction is. The CTE folks would tell you that the goal of the educational system is to prepare students for the world of work. To produce workers for industry. But there is another viewpoint.


Since the ancient Roman empire, a liberal arts education has been thought of as the education appropriate to a free person. Students perusing a liberal arts education study philosophy, language, literature, science and mathematics. Students learn how to think and reason, they study ideas and concepts. This type of knowledge is known as declarative knowledge, and differs from the procedural knowledge gained in a vocational education setting.


The goal of a liberal arts education is to produce a well rounded person who can think rationally and reasonably, and adapt to changing circumstances. It's an intellectual approach to education as opposed to a technical approach. Students may still need some form of vocational training even after they finish their liberal arts education.


So if a liberal arts education takes longer to acquire, and still leaves the student without necessarily having skills valuable to the workplace, what are the advantages? With declarative knowledge, a student can develop their own procedural knowledge. It doesn't work the other way around.


Let's go back to our plumber. If she originally took a course at a CTE school, she should have all the skills required to perform the job. After graduation she goes out into the marketplace and gets a job. But while she is busy working, things are changing. Technology and the marketplace create new materials, new rules, and new customer requirements. The skills she learned in school are no longer appropriate to the job. Now our plumber needs to go back to school and be retrained so she can perform these new tasks. If she can't find the time to go back to school, or the changes happen too quickly, she may find herself unemployed and without the skills needed.


On the other hand, a plumber with a liberal arts education (rare, I know) should be equipped with the intellectual tools required to retrain herself. She can create her own procedural knowledge through reflection and observation. The faster the world changes, the more valuable this ability becomes.


So, what does all of this discussion of education have to do with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Whether they are aware of it or not, your instructors typically teach using either procedural knowledge or declarative knowledge. If you know what to look for, you can understand better the nature of their teaching and supplement your own BJJ education appropriately. As an instructor, understanding the different approaches to education can make you more effective in passing your knowledge on to your students.


If your instructor spends a lot of time talking to you about big concepts, like pressure and balance, and strategy, and says things like “it doesn't really matter exactly where your hands are at this point” or “there are a lot of ways to do this from here”. It's an indication that they are teaching you declarative knowledge. They are giving you basic concepts and letting you figure out the details on your own.


However if your instructor primarily teaches you techniques and sequences with a lot of emphasis on exactly how to move and exactly where this hand needs to be on this technique, and if they don't spend much time on conceptual things, they are probably teaching you procedural knowledge.


Which is better for BJJ? It really depends on what you need and where you are going. An instructor teaching you procedural knowledge will most likely get you farther along a lot faster, as long as their technique is sound. You'll learn the proper response to particular positions and be able to execute those movements effectively. Your technique might be a lot cleaner and crisper, especially at lower levels. But you might run into trouble when you find yourself in a position that you haven't been in before, or see a technique that you are not familiar with. You might also plateau more quickly as you advance in level.


If your instructor teaches using declarative knowledge your development might be slower. Your technique might be sloppier, especially at the start because you are making a lot of mistakes and kind of figuring it out as you go. But as you develop, you will find your own game much quicker and you might be better able to adapt to new positions. This is because you understand basic concepts and can use that knowledge to arrive at the proper answer on your own, without having to be taught a technique explicitly. (Using your declarative knowledge about BJJ to develop your own procedural knowledge about BJJ.)


If you want to develop your knowledge outside of class and your instructor teaches procedural knowledge, you can develop your own 'liberal arts education' of BJJ. Study it's history, read books like the Art of War, study strategy and concepts of grappling. Read about other arts and try to find the similarities and differences.


If your instructor teaches declarative knowledge, spend time studying detailed technique videos, watch matches on-line, and read technique books that can help to fill in the details you might be missing.


No matter how your instructor teaches, if you take a well rounded approach to your Jiu-Jitsu education you'll be better off in the long run.


- Bill Thomas