015 - The White Belt Experience

In this episode I explore learning and teaching techniques in the martial arts, from the perspective of the beginning student and from the perspective of the experienced instructor. I extract a number of important training principles from this exercise that I hope to incorporate in the Argument Ninja training program.

In This Episode:

  • Review: What is "Rational Persuasion"? (2:30)
  • Reminder: Our Children Are Watching (7:20)
  • The White Belt Experience (10:00)
  • Training for Skill Development: Analysis, Synthesis, Repetition, and Internalization (13:00)
  • Training for Combat: Objectives, Strategy and Tactics (17:30)
  • Training Through Time: Cumulative, Incremental Progress (25:15)
  • Training with Inspiration: "Beginner's Mind" (30:30)
  • Summing Up (37:45)
  • The Instructional Design Challenge (39:00)
  • How Classroom Teachers Solve It (42:10)
  • The Value of a Belt Level System (44:00)
  • How You Can Support the Podcast and the Argument Ninja Program (46:25)
  • Book Me For a Speaking Gig (48:30)


"What’s it going to look like when we’ve raised an entire generation who has been taught that political citizenship isn’t about critically engaging with political ideas, but rather about finding a tribe that gives you a sense of belonging and identity, and adopting the officially sanctioned beliefs of that tribe? What’s it going to look like if our children have no appreciation of how propaganda and the influence industry have shaped their thinking, because they’ve never been shown how the psychology of influence works, or how it can undermine critical judgment, or even what critical judgment is supposed to look like?"

"There is a difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the broader concept. It’s the master plan that creates the conditions for engagement and how the objective is to be realized. But the fight is ultimately won through a set of tactical moves that progressively lead you to your goal. Tactics are the means by which you implement a strategy."

"[Rational persuasion is] not something you should expect to learn out of a book, even though books may be helpful. You can’t learn it out of a book for the very same reason that you can’t learn martial arts out of a book, or how to drive a car out of a book, or how to be a good teacher, or a good scientist, out of a book. These are things we do, we perform, and they require time and practice to learn."

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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 015.

Hello everyone. I am Kevin deLaplante and this is the first episode of the new year for the Argument Ninja podcast.

On this episode I’m going to return to the Argument Ninja training program that we’ve been talking about, on and off, over the course of the podcast.I don’t know if I’ve emphasized this enough, but this is a big project, and it will require a team of people, with different areas of expertise, to make it a reality.

But a team needs direction and a plan to follow. So, in episodes like this one, what I’m trying to do is articulate a vision for how this thing should function, based on my understanding of what’s lacking in critical thinking education, and of what’s possible to achieve, if we put our mind to it and take advantage of the technologies we have available to us.

So, in this episode I’m going to start at the beginning, the white belt level, and talk about the challenges of learning and teaching a complex skill set like rational persuasion. If our goal is to learn the art and science of rational persuasion, what does it mean to begin this process? What are our goals at this early stage in the training, for the student and for the instructor? And how will these goals influence how the learning environment that I want to create should be built?

Our martial arts model is extremely helpful here, because even though we’re not talking about physical training for physical combat, in many ways the psychology is similar, and the objectives are similar. There’s a pedagogy, a philosophy of learning and teaching, that is built in to martial arts training, that I believe we can learn from, and take advantage of, in building the Argument Ninja training program.

So in this episode we’re going to talk about the white belt experience in martial arts, what teaching and learning principles we can extract from reflecting on this experience, and the challenge of teaching not just techniques, but also strategies for using those techniques in different contexts. And we’re going to talk about an important feature of the mindset of the best teachers and performers, the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind”, and how it relates to the study of rational persuasion and the ideals of critical thinking.

There’s lots to cover, I hope you enjoy it. Let’s get started.

Review: What is "Rational Persuasion"?

First off, to help frame the discussion, let me take a moment to review exactly what it is that I’m trying to build here, and why I think it’s important.

The Argument Ninja program is, or will be, a unique approach to developing critical thinking, communication and persuasion skills.

What makes it unique is, as I’ve said, a focus on the art and science of what I’m calling “rational persuasion”.

Rational persuasion brings together what is usually treated as two distinct skill sets: rational argumentation, on the one hand, and persuasion, on the other.

Rational argumentation is about the principles of logic and good reasoning that provide a foundation for making judgments about the quality of arguments — is this argument good or bad, strong or weak? Does it succeed at providing good reasons to accept the conclusion? It includes basic argument literacy, and an understanding of what counts as good reasoning in different areas, like reasoning about generalizations, reasoning about causes, reasoning associated with confirming and falsifying hypotheses, and so on.

This discipline, rational argumentation, has roots going back 2500 years, and some of the smartest minds in history have dedicated time and attention to these questions. There is now a large body of material that has been distilled in a way that it can easily be taught to middle school students.And yet, almost no one is every taught any of it in school. Outside of philosophy departments and certain branches of mathematics, computer science, linguistics and psychology, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

Persuasion, on the other hand, deals directly with human psychology, and the factors that influence how we form beliefs and make decisions. Persuasion science studies these factors within a range of scientific disciplines, mostly social psychology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. There’s also a long tradition of persuasion practice, which is encoded in disciplines like rhetoric, and in the practical experience of people who are in the “persuasion business”, for lack of a better term: salespeople, advertisers, marketers, lobbyists, politicians, social skills experts, magicians, con-artists, and so on.

Persuasion and rational argumentation have traditionally been seen as opposing forces, in many respects. Even though one of the goals of rational argumentation is persuasion, the focus is on persuasion for the right reasons, for genuinely good reasons, and not just persuasion for its own sake. And rational argumentation is fundamentally a conscious, deliberate activity. Conscious, deliberate reasoning plays a role in persuasion, but we now understand that most of the factors that determine how we actually form beliefs and make decisions, and how we respond to arguments and evidence, are unconscious factors — factors that operate below the surface of conscious awareness, and largely outside the scope of our conscious control.

What I’m calling “rational persuasion” is an approach that brings these two theoretical perspectives together, close enough for each side to influence and support the other.

They need each other because rational argumentation, on its own, is often ineffective at persuading people in real-world contexts. But persuasion, on its own, is indiscriminate in its goals, and has no moral compass. If your only goal is persuasion, then mind control methods that bypass conscious agency and treat other people as mere means to someone else’s ends, are just as good as persuasion techniques that respect the rational agency of other people.

When I talk about rational persuasion, I’m talking about persuasion that never loses sight of the goals of critical thinking, which are not about persuasion for its own sake. The goals of critical thinking are to improve the quality of our judgment and our reasoning, and to learn to think independently for ourselves, to claim greater ownership and responsibility for our beliefs and our decisions. Rational persuasion is persuasion that continues to aspire to these goals, even as it deploys methods that exploit what we know about the science and practice of persuasion. So, rational persuasion remains connected to the goals of critical thinking, and it has an ethical dimension, that ordinary persuasion lacks.

If you’ve been following the podcast, none of this will be new to you. But we need to remind ourselves of this bigger picture to understand why the training program that I’ll be outlining is built the way it is.

Reminder: Our Children Are Watching

Let’s not forget that we’re entering what could be the most politically turbulent period in modern history. We have a lot to lose if things go badly. And yet the quality of our public discourse is worse now than I’ve seen it in my lifetime.

The kinds of rhetorical moves that rational debate has historically treated as fallacies, examples of bad reasoning — attacking the person rather than the argument; knowingly misrepresenting the opposing position; changing the subject and avoiding the topic at hand; jumping to conclusions; making contradictory assertions; indulging in stereotyping and insults — these are now being treated as the new normal for political discourse. We’re becoming cynical about even the possibility of respectful, reasoned discussion across political lines.

And it’s worth reminding ourselves that our children are watching all of this, absorbing all of this. What are they learning?

What’s it going to look like when we’ve raised an entire generation who has been taught that political citizenship isn’t about critically engaging with political ideas, but rather about finding a tribe that gives you a sense of belonging and identity, and adopting the officially sanctioned beliefs of that tribe?

What’s it going to look like if our children have no appreciation of how propaganda and the influence industry have shaped their thinking, because they’ve never been shown how the psychology of influence works, or how it can undermine critical judgment, or even what critical judgment is supposed to look like?

People talk about education as a solution to these problems, but public education was never designed to address the kind of breakdown of public discourse that we’re witnessing. That is not the way forward.

My proposal is that we take this issue into our hands, and work to create institutions and learning resources that are designed to address this problem, that can be scaled and made available to the masses, not just economic elites.

What I’m trying to do here, on this podcast, is outline a proposal for such an institution. An online learning environment that is designed to teach the background knowledge and the skills that enable independent critical thought, and the ability to engage constructively and persuasively with real people in the real world.

Anyway, this is all just a reminder of what this project is about. My martial arts model is just that, a model, one of many that could be used to organize and structure a learning environment.

But I think it’s a powerful model, and in the rest of this episode I’m going to try to explain a little further why I think it’s a powerful model.

The White Belt Experience

Let’s start with this idea of the “white belt” experience and white belt training.

Before I talk about white belt training in the Argument Ninja program, l want to talk about white belt training in the martial arts, and see what we can learn about how one can approach the teaching of a complex skill.

White belt training in the martial arts differs from style to style, of course. Judo is different from jiu-jitsu, jiu-jitsu is different from taekwondo, taekwondo is different from muay thai, and so on. But there’s also a lot of commonality in the beginner’s experience, and in the approach to training.

The first thing you learn, for example, is that the training hall is a special place, and there are expectations about how you behave in that space.In an earlier podcast I called this a “ritualized” space. You learn to respect the dojo and how to show respect to your instructors and your fellow students.

In a class there’s always some kind of structured warmup routine. This is to help prepare the body for physical activity, but it’s also used to focus attention on the training to come, so that by the end of the warmup, your mind is on the task at hand rather than the text message you received before starting.

When the class begins, you usually start with reviewing and practicing basic techniques. In taekwondo you might start with horse stance/ middle-punch, and then work through your basic blocks and strikes and kicks.

In jiu-jitsu you might start with break falls, forward rolls, backward rolls, stand-to-base, sprawling, shrimping, and then practice some basic techniques with a partner: bridging, hip escapes, side control escapes, scissor sweeps, and so on. My son tells me that in his jiu-jitsu class they tend to move right into drills with a partner, but I know some programs that always start with basic skills, like doing scales in a music class.

After the warmup and practice review is over, the instructor usually has some plan for the remainder of the class, either to introduce a new technique or focus on a particular skill set.

In taekwondo we would usually alternate between days where we worked on techniques and days where we worked on forms, or katas, as they’re called in the Japanese traditions. Some days we’d focus on stylized sparring. Some days we’d do free sparring with protective gear.

In jiu-jitsu the instructor might demonstrate a new technique and then you’d break off and practice it. Sometimes this takes the form of controlled grappling, where you alternate roles with your partner. And some days you might do true free sparring, but when this is introduced to white belts varies widely across jiu-jitsu schools.

So, that’s what a basic martial arts class looks like. And of course it’ll look different if you’re training in a traditional martial art or training in a system that puts more emphasis on real-world self-defense techniques.

Now I want to talk about some of the thinking that goes into planning a class, or a sequence of classes, from the instructor’s perspective, someone who has a longer perspective on where the instruction is leading and what they’re trying to achieve, beyond the white belt.

Training for Skill Development: Analysis, Synthesis, Repetition, and Internalization

For example, a very common instructor technique is to move back and forth between analysis of a technique —breaking it down into simpler steps or components — and synthesis — showing how the components come together to form one fluid movement.

So, for a basic front snap kick, for example, you get into a particular stance, like a fighting stance (step one), and then you raise the knee and chamber the leg (step two), you extend the lower leg, and present the right striking area on the foot (step three), then you retract the lower leg with the knee still up (step four), and then recover into an appropriate stance (step five).

That’s analysis, breaking the movement down into component parts. If you’re just starting out, you need to think about each of these parts of the movement, and you might do drills where you focus on the execution of each of the parts. You might do it in slow motion, or on a beat, so each of the parts gets some attention.

And then you work on speeding it up, and thinking about the transitions between each stage of the movement, so that the resulting movement has speed and focus and power. That’s synthesis, bringing the parts together to form a unified whole.

I want to highlight that this is a basic teaching technique — repeating cycles of analysis and synthesis. Break a movement down into its component parts, understand the parts, and then understand how the parts interact to create the desired movement.

And then you repeat this process.

Repetition is important because what you ultimately want is for the student to internalize the movement as a whole, as a kind of body memory, so they don’t have to think about the component parts, they just execute the movement.

So, analysis, synthesis, and repetition. This is a technique for learning any complex skill, not just martial arts.

This is how you learn how to swing a tennis racket, drive a golf ball, kick a field goal or swim the front crawl.

And this technique doesn’t just apply to learning basic movements. It scales.

For example, the first form you learn in taekwondo is called kicho il bo. It’s a sequence of 20 steps, performed in an I-shaped pattern, that includes all the techniques of walking, turning, blocking and punching that white belts need to know.

To learn this form, it’s the same process: analysis, synthesis, and repetition. With enough repetition you can do the form without consciously thinking about the individual steps. It becomes internalized, the same way that your fingers know where to go when you’re typing on a keyboard. When I type a sentence I don’t have to think about where the letters are, my fingers just know where to go.

When you’re free sparring, the goal is more challenging, but the process is similar. You want to get to a point where you can assemble sequences of moves that advance your position, that are responsive to the combat situation and what your opponent is doing, without consciously thinking about them.

It can take a lot of time and practice to get there, but the training process is similar. Your instructor will help you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a position, identify your best options from that position, and give you opportunities to practice executing those options. Do this enough times, and you start to see how the sequence of moves will go even before it begins, and your body will learn how to execute those moves without thinking about each individual step in the sequence.

This last part, the part about internalizing the skill set, is easy to overlook, but it’s very important, because it’s what we’re ultimately going for if we’re thinking in terms of skill development, and not just knowledge transfer.

That’s why I think of this training method in terms of four components: analysis, synthesis, repetition, and internalization. We’re not practicing just for the sake of practicing; we’re practicing to learn a skill that will eventually become an extension of our will, how we engage with the world in a real-time basis.

If I have to consciously think through every movement in advance I’ll never win a sparring match, and I’ll never be able to defend myself in a real world situation.

If a tennis player has to think through every stroke she’ll never win a tennis match.

What we’re going for isn’t just theoretical knowledge — we’re trying to develop a capacity for intelligent, skilled action.

This is a model of teaching and learning that I think we need to apply more often to teaching skills that have a conceptual component, like argumentation and persuasion.

Training for Combat: Objectives, Strategy and Tactics

Now, another set of skills that you need to learn in martial arts is strategy and tactics, and it’s another reason why martial arts is a useful model for rational persuasion. Strategy and tactics are a fundamental part of rational persuasion, but they rarely get any attention when you’re learning this material in a strictly academic context.

Strategy and tactics are defined in relation to the objectives you’re aiming for. These objectives are stipulated in ritualized combat or ritualized game play. Both sides are trying to win and avoid losing, and both sides understand how that occurs. In a sport martial arts tournament there’s a point system associated with successful moves and techniques. In a sport like football there’s a scoring system. In chess there’s the draw and there’s checkmate.

In real self-defense situations, or in real world combat situations, the objectives aren’t always so clear, because actions don’t unfold in a ritualized space according to rules that everyone agrees to follow. When injury and death are a real possibility, you need to choose your objectives carefully. We’re going to come back to this when we talk about strategy in rational persuasion.

When your objective is clear, then you can think about a strategy for realizing that objective.

Now, there is a difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the broader concept. It’s the master plan that creates the conditions for engagement and how the objective is to be realized. But the fight is ultimately won through a set of tactical moves that progressively lead you to your goal. Tactics are the means by which you implement a strategy.

So, if we’re talking about a taekwondo tournament, the objective is clear — you want to win your match. Strategy is something you can plan ahead of time, based on your knowledge of your own skill set and the skills of your opponent, if you know them. If you know that your opponent prefers kicks to hand techniques, and if he tends to kick high, you can use that information to plan a strategy against him. He may be vulnerable to a move that closes the distance quickly after a kick. There may be more than one way to take advantage of a weakness. Your choice of technique, how you actually exploit the weakness, is a matter of tactics, not of strategy.

If you’re rolling in jiu-jitsu, strategy and tactics are everything. For example, just like in chess, where the pieces have point values and different positions on the board have different degrees of advantage, in jiu-jitsu there’s a hierarchy of positions that you can rank order in terms of most advantageous to least advantageous.

When your opponent is rear mounted on you with hooks in and you are face down on the ground, that’s about the worst position you can possibly be in. All of your weapons and defence are pointed away from your opponent, you can’t see what she is doing and her weight is on you. That’s her most advantageous position.

Next best, for her, is if she’s in mount and you’re facing up. After that, next best is knee on your belly, then side control, then half mount, and so on.

So, one element of strategic awareness that a beginning jiu-jitsu student needs to learn is this positional hierarchy, why a particular position is more or less advantageous than another, and that you can improve your position in the match by moving upwards to the next favorable position in the hierarchy.

At any point during a match we should be able to freeze the action and the white belt, should be able to identify which position the combatants are currently in AND see where each must move in order to attain a more favorable position.

With that understanding, you now have a strategy to not only survive but also to escape, advance your position and attempt to gain a dominant position over your opponent step by step. Now, how you go about doing this is a matter of tactics and technique, but the basic idea of moving up the ladder to improve your position is part of strategy.

I’ll give another example to illustrate the difference between objectives, strategy and tactics. Consider a serious, life or death self-defense situation where a weapon is involved. Your objective may be to survive the encounter unharmed, and running might be an effective strategy to do that. But if you’re with a partner or your children, that might not be an option for you because you’re not going to leave them at risk.

So, if you’re in imminent danger and you can’t avoid hands on, here’s a possible strategy. First priority, neutralize the threat, in this case the opponent’s weapon hand. Second, attack a vital target, like the eyes, the throat or the groin. Third, ensure the opponent can’t continue fighting by taking his foundation. I’m not saying this is the best strategy, since context is everything, it’s just an example of a strategy.

Now, note that nothing has been specified about how you’re going to neutralize the threat, attack a vital target, or take the foundation. These are elements of tactics, and there may be more than one technique that will do the job, so it leaves open options to choose from.

So for example, you might trap the opponents’ weapon hand, strike his eyes with your fingers, and dislocate his knee with a kick, in that order. Those are tactics you might use to execute this strategy.

And notice how you need both strategy and tactics in order to succeed. A fighter who develops good strategy but can’t execute it tactically isn’t likely to succeed. And good tactics won’t save you if your strategy is ill-conceived.

So, just to sum up, training in the martial arts involves not just learning how to execute techniques. It also involves thinking about your objectives, how to devise a strategy for realizing your objectives, and how to deploy tactics for implementing your strategy.

These concepts form another hierarchy: objectives, strategy, tactics.

I think this is also a very useful model for training in the art of rational persuasion. It’s not just about techniques. You also need to think carefully about what your objectives are, when you’re going to engage with someone. What are you really trying to achieve? Once you’re clear on that, then you can think about a strategy for achieving those objectives, and tactics for implementing the strategy.

In martial arts training, you start learning these elements from the very beginning, because it frames the whole context of what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

In my rational persuasion program, I would want these elements to be introduced from the very beginning as well. Especially this part about getting clear on your objectives, because a great deal of failure in this area, a great deal of unsuccessful persuasion, stems from a combination of confusion about your own objectives, and ignorance about what objectives are realistic to pursue, in the context at hand.

For example, if my objective is to get someone to admit they’re wrong about a position that is important to them, over the course of a single coffee conversation, that may not be a realistic objective, given some very basic facts of human psychology.

But if my objective is to plant the seed of an idea, that might grow over time, and eventually result in a change in their position, that might be a more realistic objective. And my strategy for how I approach the conversation will be very different if this is my objective, rather than trying to force a change of heart in a single meeting.

That’s all I’m going to say about strategy right now, but just a heads up — next episode of the podcast will be devoted to this question of objectives, strategy and tactics in rational persuasion, so keep an eye out for that.

Training Through Time: Cumulative, Incremental Progress

Another training principle I want to talk about has to do with the role that cumulative, incremental progress plays in the education of a martial artist, and in the learning of any complex skill set.

Training in martial arts is cumulative in that the skills and concepts that are introduced at one stage continue to be relevant and used at later stages. Your white belt skills are used in yellow belt training, your yellow belt skills are used in orange belt training, and so on, all the way up. At no point are you allowed to forget how to do a move that you’ve learned. And you’re required to regularly practice and review every skill that you’ve acquired.

This practice of cumulative training makes it possible to learn very complex concepts and skills that can be expressed in intelligent action, in performance. It’s very different from the training one might receive, for example, at a one-day seminar, or a workshop, where you’re given a lot of information and maybe some opportunity for group discussion and exercises, but it’s not enough to convert any of it to a skill. Seminars and workshops can open your eyes to new ideas and new possibilities, and they can set you on a path that might eventually result in real learning, but they’re not a substitute for the kind of learning that results in new skills.

Another feature of cumulative training is that it allows complex skills to be learned in an incremental fashion, one component at a time. You break down the skill into component parts, learn the first component, practice the first component, then learn the second component, learn how it relates to the first component, and so on. Then at some point you learn a skill that combines these components, and that becomes its own skill, a modular unit. And as the process continues, you create other modular skill units, and then you learn to assemble those into more complex skills, and so on.

This is the process of analysis and synthesis that I talked about, but extended over time.

The secret of cumulative, incremental training like this is that you can distribute the learning process for a high-level skill over months, and even years.

Imagine a complex skill like a slinky, all coiled up. That’s the final skill, and each of the coils is a skill component that contributes to it. Now you can extend the slinky, hold it by one end and let it uncoil to the ground. The final skill requires all of these components working together, but it’s way too complex to learn all at once.

So what you do is extend the slinky along the ground, horizontally. And imagine that the slinky is extended over time. The learning process begins at one end, with your white belt skill elements, and as you learn new skill components, you’re moving along the spiral, engaging in repeated cycles of analysis, synthesis, repetition, and internalization.

What beginners often don’t realize is that the training they’re doing, even though it has short-term goals, like learning the basic white belt techniques, is also laying the foundation for learning more complex techniques that they will only come to fruition much further down the line.

This is obscure to the beginner, because they’re not yet in a position to see exactly where the training is headed, or the rationale for the ordering of the steps. But they can see how more advanced students perform, so they don’t have to take the wisdom of the training process purely on faith, they can see the results. That’s very helpful.

And like I said, this isn’t particular to martial arts training. This is how most complex skill sets are learned, especially if there is a performance element to it, where the skill is expressed in controlled action, intelligent behavior.

All of this is very obvious if you’re in the business of teaching and learning these kinds of skills. Martial arts, dance, music, sports, painting, acting … these all involve complex skills that are expressed in behavior, in performance, and that take a great deal of repetition and practice to master.

The suggestion that I want to put forward, and that I’m going to explore further, is that we should think of rational persuasion as a complex skill set that is expressed in performance, like martial arts, and like these other examples … and that therefore requires the same kind of cumulative, incremental training to properly develop.

It’s not something you should expect to learn out of a book, even though books may be helpful. You can’t learn it out of a book for the very same reason that you can’t learn martial arts out of a book, or how to drive a car out of a book, or how to be a good teacher, or a good scientist, out of a book. These are things we do, we perform, and they require time and practice to learn.

Training with Inspiration: "Beginner's Mind"

There’s one more concept that I want to talk about that is very important when we’re considering what the early stages of training is like, and one of the biggest challenges of the beginner’s experience.

It’s about establishing the right mindset for success in this kind of environment, where the learning curve is long and requires discipline to sustain. It can take a long time to get from one end of the slinky to the other.

I’ve talked about this in other episodes, but one of the biggest obstacles to advancing in the martial arts is fear that is attached to the ego and one’s self-image. If you have an image of yourself as strong and tough and able to handle yourself (maybe you’ve been studying some other martial art for many years) and you start a discipline like jiu-jitsu, you’re going to quickly learn that all your strength and toughness won’t prevent a smaller and weaker person from submitting you, over and over again, and you will be powerless to stop it.

To carry on and advance, you need to come to terms with your status as a beginner, as someone who still has a lot to learn, and who wants to continue to learn.

Now, as a beginning while belt it’s fairly easy to come to terms with this, because it’s all so new.

The challenge is that as you get better, as you advance in the discipline, the temptation to view yourself as skilled and accomplished, as no longer a beginner, becomes much stronger. If you can dominate lower ranked students in grappling, that can feed your ego, make you feel skilled and powerful.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about your abilities, but if your ego is in the driver’s seat too much, it almost always becomes an obstacle. It can make it much harder to progress beyond a certain point.

I’ve seen this many times with students in academia, usually smart undergraduate students who are better writers and better arguers than their classmates, so that it’s obvious to everyone that they’re among the best students.

Among this group of smart students, there are always a few who are extraordinarily confident about a particular set of views that they’ve brought with them to the class. And that confidence can end up being an obstacle for them, because they struggle when they’re exposed to material that requires them to think in a new way about these issues.

In the Buddhist traditions, and the martial arts that have been influenced by Buddhism, there’s this concept of “shoshin”, or “beginner’s mind”. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

This phrase is used in the title of the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who says the following about the correct approach to Zen practice: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”.

In my experience, the best teachers, and the most accomplished performers, have this quality of beginner’s mind. No matter how advanced they are, they always have this feeling of being a beginner, because their vision of what is possible always remains far ahead of their actual ability, so they continue to see new ways of doing things that haven’t been explored yet.

I remember watching the Academy awards when I was younger and Akira Kurowasa, the great Japanese filmmaker, was receiving a lifetime achievement award, and he said something in his speech that struck me.

So I looked it up on YouTube to refresh my memory. It was 1990. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg came out and did the introduction together. Spielberg called Kurosawa “our greatest living filmmaker” and “one of the few true visionaries ever to work in our medium”.

So 80 year Kurosawa walks up to the podium, and he says this, through a translator:

I am very deeply honored to receive such a wonderful prize. But I have to ask whether I really deserve it. I’m a little worried. Because I don’t feel that I understand cinema yet. I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema. Cinema is a marvelous thing, but to grasp its true essence is very very difficult. What I promise you is that from now on I will work as hard as I can at making movies, and maybe by following this path I will achieve an understanding of the true essence of cinema.

I remember watching this and admiring the attitude that Kurosawa displayed here. Profound humility in the midst of praise. Now I see that this kind of humility isn’t an accidental feature of his greatness, it’s a key to understanding his greatness, and the greatness of so many others who are true pioneers in their fields.

Notice what it is Kurosawa says he’s pursuing. Not to make popular films or critically praised films. He wants to understand the essence of cinema, as an art form. It’s an abstraction, almost a philosophical ideal.

Ask Einstein or Stephen Hawking what it is that they were pursuing when they were working days and nights for years, doing their original work in physics. Not recognition from their colleagues, not a Nobel Prize. They wanted to understand, as they might say, the mind of God. Not the personal God of theism, neither of them are theists — they’re talking about the intelligible order of the universe, the principles upon which the laws of the nature are founded. And every great physicist, from Newton and Einstein to Hawking and beyond, has expressed this feeling of humility in the face of this goal, of having only scratched the surface of the kind of understanding that they’re actually seeking.

In martial arts you often see this same attitude in the founders and leaders of schools, and I’ve given some examples of this in past episodes.

Part of this attitude is a belief in an ideal that is intrinsically motivating, that drives one to pursue it, yet is unattainable. You may strive for perfection in a certain area, but you’re never going to be perfect, and you know that — but you pursue it anyway.

Within any practice there’s room for different kinds of ideals. Kurosawa’s vision of the essence of cinema may be different from Martin Scorsese’s. But these visions play a similar role in their practice. It helps them to maintain a state of openness, a beginner’s mind, and it compels them to keep making better and better movies.

The practice of rational persuasion, as I envision it, has a set of philosophical and ethical ideals at its core, that can play a similar role for those who resonate with them.

For me, these ideals are centered on the concept of what it means for human beings— with our biology and our psychology and our social nature — to also be independent critical thinkers with a capacity for reason and reflection.

It’s this complementary duality that makes us unique on this planet, a species capable of great dreams and great accomplishments, able to unlock nature’s secrets from this tiny corner of the universe — but also capable of profound cruelty and evil.

The struggle to understand this duality, and to find ways to nurture and empower our positive capacities, is what drives me, and what can bring me back to a state of “beginner’s mind” if I just dwell on it a bit.

For you it might be something different, some other ideal that motivates you. That’s okay.

That’s the thing that will push you all the way down the slinky.

Summing Up

Let me sum up the key points from this discussion so far.

What we’ve really been looking at is a model for how complex skills sets can be taught and learned.

The first principle we looked at is a learning principle that can be applied to just about any complex skill. It’s the four-step sequence that I called “analysis”, “synthesis”, “repetition” and “internalization”.

The second principle applies to skill sets that have a strategy component. Define your objectives, develop a strategy for achieving those objectives, and then choose a set of tactics for implementing your strategy. You need to teach these performance elements as well, not just techniques.

The third principle is about the value of cumulative, incremental learning. You need this when you’re dealing with skill development of any real difficulty. If knowledge transfer is your primary goal, you can achieve this fairly quickly. If expressing that knowledge through a skilled activity is your goal, that always takes longer to learn.

The fourth principle is about the importance of having core values or ideals that motivate the learning process, and that can keep you open and looking for new ideas and new ways of thinking, no matter how advanced or skilled you are. That’s the idea of “beginner’s mind”, which is something I see in the best teachers, and the top performers, in many fields.

The Instructional Design Challenge

So the question for me, in designing the Argument Ninja training program, is how do I develop a learning environment that incorporates these principles? Thinking about how martial arts programs have solved this problem is, I think, a useful heuristic, but the skill set that I want to teach, rational persuasion, is it’s own thing; it has similarities to traditional martial arts but it also has important differences.

One big difference is that there’s a significant knowledge component in rational persuasion that doesn’t have any obvious counterpart in martial arts.

At some point, for example, students needs to be introduced to dual process theories of reasoning, which are sometimes called system 1 vs system 2 reasoning, or type 1 vs type 2, or “fast” vs “slow” thinking. And there are superficial versions of this that you can teach, and there are deeper and more realistic versions you can teach, and for some purposes you may want to go a little deeper to really understand why, for example, a persuasion technique works in some situations but not in others.

And that’s just an example. There are lots of knowledge components like this that don’t have any counterpart in a physically oriented skill-based discipline like martial arts.

Another difference (well, it’s not really a difference ...) is that, as I’ve argued in an earlier episode, what’s required for skill in rational persuasion is something closer to mixed martial arts. This is because there are different approaches to persuasion and argumentation that may be useful in some contexts but not in others, just as there are styles of martial arts that are more useful in some contexts than in others. So you need to train in different styles to become a good all-around fighter, or a good all-around persuader.

And, for each of these approaches to rational persuasion, there’s a knowledge component, or a conceptual component, that goes along with it. If I’m going to teach you how to use Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence, we need to go through them first, and the student needs to put in some effort to understand them.

If I’m going to teach you how to use Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations theory to make your moral arguments more persuasive, you need to be introduced to moral foundations theory.

If I’m going to teach you how to use Socratic methods as a tool of persuasion, you need to learn about Socratic methods.

If I’m going to teach you how to construct good counter-examples to an argument, you need to understand the basics of argument analysis first.

So the challenge is how to handle all these learning and skill components so that they don’t multiply out of control and it all becomes a confusing mess. How do you keep the learning experience organized and under control, so the student, at any given time, has just enough information to be useful without being overwhelming, and just enough manageable tasks to complete and skills to practice and review, so that the experience is challenging, but the student is also getting positive feedback and has a feeling of accomplishment and mastery?

That is the instructional design challenge, not just for me, but for any teaching situation that involves a lot of content and a lot of skill requirements.

How Classroom Teachers Solve It

Classroom teachers solve this problem in a very hands-on way, because they’ve got a curriculum to cover, classroom time to break the content down into manageable chunks that are delivered several times a week over a span of several months, and they have assignments and tests, which they can administer along the way at any time of their choosing.

But I don’t have this option. What we’re imagining for the Argument Ninja program is an online environment that could be managing thousands of students, tens of thousands of students, at once. The instructional design problem has to be solved in the organization of the online experience, and the constraints that are imposed on that experience.

Classroom teachers also have another tool for managing long-term skill development — the grade level system. From primary school to high school, grade levels are tied to the student’s age, but their main advantage is that they let you manage the teaching of complex skill sets over an extended period of time. They let you stretch the slinky across years, not just weeks or months.

In adult education the grade levels are no longer tied to age groups, so in college and university you can have 18 year olds and 80 year olds in your freshman psychology class. But sorting students into grade levels serves the same function. It’s a tool for controlling the flow of information and the pace of skill development to a rate that makes it manageable to teach large numbers of students at the same time. At any given time, the people in your learning community — the peers in your class, or your grade level — are roughly at the same level.

I say “roughly” of course because there will always be more advanced and less advanced students in the same grade level. Students come to these classes with a wide range of aptitudes and background knowledge.

But you won’t have first year students in the same class as advanced graduate students. It keeps the variation within bounds.

The Value of a Belt Level System

Now, this way of managing complex skill development also applies to martial arts. Belt ranks in martial arts are roughly equivalent to grade levels. But the students aren’t as isolated by belt rank as they are by grade levels in school. If a martial arts school is small the classes can look like the old single-room schoolhouses where you’d have one row of desks for each grade level, and the teacher would assign different work for each row. But in those old school houses you would also see older students helping younger students with their work, and this is one of the nice things you see in martial arts studios too — higher belt ranks helping lower belt ranks. Which is really great when you see it.

However, if a martial arts school gets really big, and you’ve got 50 white and yellow belts showing up, they usually split the classes into lower belt and upper belt classes. You need to do this to ensure that everyone gets enough of the right kind of attention. If you’ve got 50 white and yellow belts and five blue belts, the blue belts are going to get the short end of the stick.

So a certain degree of grouping makes sense. And the belt levels themselves make sense, with the requirement that you need to demonstrate a certain level of familiarity and competency within your belt level requirements before moving on to new skills.

Some kind of level system makes even more sense, I believe, in the online learning environment that we’re talking about, for the Argument Ninja program. It’s a tool that can be used to organize a curriculum and manage the instructional design challenge.

Consulting Instructional Design Experts

But at this point I would want to consult with online learning and instructional design experts, to get their feedback, because it’s not like this is a new problem. There are people who job it is to solve these kinds of problems for organizations. Experts on gamification in online learning, for example, will certainly have advice to give. So the mechanics of how all this should go is still very much an open question for me.


Okay, well I think that about covers the topics I wanted to cover on this episode.

Next episode, like I said, will be devoted to persuasion methods and strategies. I want to show you some examples of how theory and practice intersect, and why it’s important for strategic purposes to have multiple models of persuasion in your mental repertoire.

How You Can Support the Podcast and the Argument Ninja Program

I’d like to remind listeners that I’m pursuing this without the support of a salaried job. I quit my salaried job to work on projects like this full time. I earn some money from the Critical Thinker Academy and from patrons who have pledged a small monthly amount to help support the work, but this is a project that needs more support to become a reality.

So I ask you, if you’re not already a patron:Are you concerned about the quality of the public discussions that we’re having right now? Would you take advantage of a resource like the Argument Ninja program, if it was available? Would you want your kids to take advantage of it?

If your answer is yes, then pledging as little as $3 a month on Patreon, or at any of my support pages, is an easy thing that you can do to ensure that this project becomes a reality.

I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to continue to develop and share these ideas. But I can’t make them a reality without your help. With enough support, from people like you, we can create something special, something unique, that might have a chance of making a real difference.

If you’re familiar with Patreon, you can find my Patreon support page at patreon.com/kevindelaplante.

You can also visit the support page at argumentninja.com/support.

At both places you’ll find options to pledge as low as $3 dollars a month, or as high as $25, $50 dollars, or even $100 dollars a month. And yes, I do have patrons who pledge at these higher levels.

At any pledge level of $3 or above you get access to all of the 20+ hours of video content over at the Critical Thinker Academy, but if you’re a person of financial means, and you care about these issues and want to make a real difference with your contribution, I can tell you that these higher pledges are very significant, they make a real difference. They open up possibilities, they accelerate development, and they inspire other people to pledge at higher levels as well.

Final Note: I'm Booking My Speaking Schedule

Before I go, I want to make another pitch. There are people who listen to this podcast who see the importance of these issues, and who have connections to business and government entities.

Just this past week I was approached by a representative of the National Conference of State Legislatures to see if I would be willing to run a one hour session on critical thinking at the next Legislative Summit meeting in Boston this coming summer. This is an annual four-day meeting where United States legislators and legislative staff come together to work on the nation's pressing issues, share experiences and influence federal policy.

Last year the summit had over 20 speakers, which included a number of high profile business and media leaders, including Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation, and Ted Koppel, the former anchor and managing editor of Nightline on ABC.

Obviously I said yes. This is a big opportunity to share these ideas with an influential audience. And six months into the Trump Presidency I’m sure there’ll be a renewed interest in some of these topics.

But my pitch is to those of you listening who may be looking for speakers for events at your business or organization. I’ll just raise my hand and say that I’m available, and I’m booking my speaking schedule for the next twelve months. I’ve spoken in the past to a number of organizations about cognitive biases and critical thinking, but I’m happy to talk about critical thinking more broadly, or specifically about the art and science of persuasion.

So think about it, and if you’d like to chat about a speaking opportunity you can reach me by email at kevin @ criticalthinkeracademy.com.