Sparring and Critical Thinking

Sparring and Critical Thinking

Kevin deLaplante


In my posts titled “The Classroom is My Dojo” and “NEEDED: Mixed Martial Arts for Critical Thinking”, I argued that rational argumentation, as codified in standard critical thinking textbooks and practiced in academic fields like philosophy, can be viewed on the model of a traditional martial art, a ritualized form of reasoning and verbal persuasion.

One of the advantages of thinking in these terms is that it directs our attention to the performance aspects of critical thinking and argumentation.

Yes, to be a critical thinker is to know certain things, and to have certain attitudes and habits of thought. But critical thinking is first and foremost an activity that is expressed through intelligent behaviors — sizing up an audience, asking questions, investigating claims, formulating communication strategies, crafting arguments, responding to objections, etc.

When these behaviors occur in the context of dialogue and debate, it’s natural to think of this practice as a kind of ritualized combat. Hence the value of the martial arts analogy.

I’m not the first person to talk about argumentation and critical thinking in these terms. Terms like  “logical self-defense” and “verbal judo” are not uncommon when talking about argumentation.

And I’m very happy to see more attention being paid to the martial arts analogy by specialists in critical thinking education.

A recent example is a paper by Peter Boghossian and his colleagues written for the journal Radical Pedagogy (Boghossian et al, 2017).

The paper is titled “Critical Thinking, Pedagogy, and Jiu Jitsu: Wedding Physical Resistance to Critical Thinking”.

There are some very helpful ideas in this paper that echo my own perspective on critical thinking education, and that reinforce my view that the Argument Ninja Academy needs to include a “sparring” dimension, where students can practice their argumentation and persuasion skills with other people in a “live” setting.

Even better, the argument of the paper draws explicitly on analogies with martial arts training principles.

In this post I’ll summarize the main idea of the paper as it applies to teaching critical thinking and argumentation.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Reveals the Weaknesses of Traditional Martial Arts

Today, everyone who trains in the mixed martial arts tradition has to learn jiu-jitsu, and particularly the Brazilian form of jiu-jitsu that applies grappling techniques to real-world self-defense and combat applications.

Royce Gracie brought BJJ into prominence in the early 1990s when he entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament and won it three times (UFC 1, UFC 2, UFC 4) and fought to a draw in the championship match in UFC 5.

Gracie defeated fighters specializing in boxing, karate, French savate, Pancrase, and taekwondo, some of whom outweighed him by almost a hundred pounds.

The popularity of BJJ exploded in the aftermath.  Gracie’s success in the ring had a huge impact on the development of mixed martial arts.

One effect of Gracie’s success was that it prompted martial artists to take a more critical look at the training practices of traditional martial arts disciplines, and to reevaluate their effectiveness.

In many traditional martial arts, like karate, taekwondo and kung fu traditions, a large part of the the training consists of performing kata (or “forms”) in which the student performs a choreographed sequences of moves that depict strikes, kicks and blocks against imaginary opponents.

Here’s an example of a taekwondo form:

A step up from katas are ritualized forms of sparring where students pair off and alternate practicing offensive and defensive techniques on each other.

Here’s a one-step sparring exercise in taekwondo:

In neither case are students engaged with opponents who are actively resisting their efforts. Either the opponent is imaginary, or the opponent is functioning more like a dance partner, providing an opportunity to practice a technique in a controlled, predictable scenario.

In some traditions you can them move into free sparring where there is more active resistance. But in many of these traditions that emphasize striking and kicking, like karate and taekwondo, rules are enforced that are intended to prevent injury and conform to ritualized tournament combat for points, rather than tournaments that end in knockout or submission.

So the perception grew in MMA circles that traditional martial arts training isn’t sufficiently realistic to develop genuinely effective self-defense and combat skills.

When Jim Carrey was a cast member on In Living Color he did a skit that parodied unrealistic self-defense training. I still do this move with my son (“You attacked me wrong. You’re supposed to come at me like this …”).

Wrestling and boxing are different in that active resistance is a much bigger component of training. Brazilian jiu-jitsu took its cue from this tradition, and focused its attention on developing and testing techniques that would be effective in realistic combat situations against actively resisting opponents, and in a context where other traditions were ignoring (the ground game).

That’s why it was so successful.

I’ve you never been exposed to BJJ, this video featuring 4th generation instructor Rener Gracie is a good introduction to BJJ principles applied to self-defense. There’s a great discussion of the importance of managing distance, and some fundamental principles of ground combat.

And here’s a good example of active resistance practice between two skilled BJJ practitioners. Rener narrates the video so you get a sense of the flow of strategies and tactics, moves and counter-moves, and just how technical this can be.

Critical Thinking, Active Resistance and “Aliveness”

The main thesis of the paper by Borghossian et al is that

training methodologies similar to those used in Brazilian jiu jitsu and other realistic combat arts like Western boxing, Muay Thai, kickboxing, and college wrestling, should constitute a pedagogical core of college critical thinking courses. (p 22)

I’ve argued for a similar thesis, on closely related grounds.

Borghossian et al point out that there is little empirical evidence that learning the content of a traditional critical thinking textbook (elementary argument analysis, elementary propositional logic, fallacies, etc.) actually promotes the attitudes and skills that make one an effective critical thinker.

This mirrors my own concerns with how traditional approaches to critical thinking instruction don’t adequately prepare students to be effective critical thinkers in real-world contexts outside the classroom.

What is pedagogically more effective is critical thinking training that is more realistic, that involves critical engagement with other individuals who are actively skeptical, actively looking for weaknesses in your arguments — actively resisting.

Boghossian et al point out that in martial arts circles the word “aliveness” has been coined to refer to this type of training.

At its core, aliveness is both a way of engaging a resisting opponent, in other words, a method of sparring or fighting an opponent who actively resists attempts to achieve a victory, and a way of testing ideas and techniques for oneself through the use of a self-correcting mechanism. (P. 27)

I made a very similar claim in “The Classroom is My Dojo” when describing the dual performance elements of rational argumentation and debate:

I’m not the first one to point this out — [rational debate is] not unlike sparring in martial arts.

But the test is occurring on two levels, simultaneously.

On one level you’re testing an idea, an argument. You stress-test it to identify weaknesses and improve it.

On another level, you’re testing yourself, how well you perform “in the ring,” so to speak, in front of a real opponent, not just an imaginary opponent.

The I Method: Introduction, Isolation and Integration

How do you train for aliveness?

It’s a mature form of training that in most cases occurs as the culmination of a learning sequence.

Borghossian et al suggest a three-stage pedagogy, which they call the I-Method: Introduction, Isolation and Integration.

Introduction: Concepts and techniques are introduced to students in a cooperative environment.

Example: Give the definition of the attack the person fallacy. Explain why it is a fallacy.

Isolation: Specific concepts and techniques are discussed within a wide range of applied contexts. Students practice being able to recognize, distinguish and discuss examples. Students are challenged to defend their judgments within the learning community of the classroom.

Example: Show and discuss selections from newspapers, media clips, comment threads, etc, and ask students to determine whether the attack the person fallacy is being committed, and to defend their judgment against possible alternative interpretations.

The Isolation stage is still cooperative but students are not passive, they are participating in an active, dynamic process, and are learning the dialectic structure of claim-argument-objection-reply.

Integration: The final stage in an “alive” classroom pedagogy. I’ll let the authors of the paper describe it.

Students synthesize, fully apply, and completely engage content while drawing upon their existing knowledge in other subject areas to dynamically tackle the subject matter. (In jiu jitsu, this is when opponents spar.)

In the integration stage, it is less important that particular techniques be properly executed, and more important that students demonstrate an understanding of both the activity/exercise as a whole and how that technique may fit into that activity.

All of a student’s reasoning abilities, knowledge, education and experience should be integrated and brought to bear on the specific activity.

Examples of ideal activities for comprehensive integration are structured debates, impromptu and extemporaneous presentations, and having students critique each other’s arguments while the professor guides and models verbal behavior …. (P. 31)

The Challenge: Creating Opportunities for Aliveness in an Online Learning Environment

The goal of the Argument Ninja Academy is to offer an effective learning experience that develops the full range of skills necessary for critical thinking and rational persuasion, in an online environment.

These kinds of integrative activities are relatively easy to implement in a face-to-face classroom environment, but in an online elearning environment that may be hosting thousands of students at a given time, the challenge is much greater.

The considerations raised here suggest that conventional lecture-based teaching methods may be effective for the Introduction phase, but become less effective after that. The whole point is to provide students with opportunities to practice these skills in active “alive” environments. Video lectures won’t cut it.

This is why I’m looking more closely at elearning interactions and designs that break away from traditional lecture based learning, that exploit more complex forms of student feedback, gamification features and social learning experiences.

The goal, ultimately, is to create opportunities for “aliveness”.


Many thanks Peter Bogghosian and his co-authors Allison White, Dustin Sanow, Travis Elder, and James Funston for a stimulating paper!

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