Formal or Informal?

When is it okay to be informal when teaching class?

Or should we always teach in a formal manner?

Do we always need to follow a strict karate class plan?

Or can we make it up as we go along?

Today I’d like to shed some light on these questions and provide you with some answers…

One thing I’ve noticed in my 20+  years of teaching is this…

Structure and Formality go hand in glove…

I think of formality as the basic dojo rules that include how to line up, how and when to bow, when to be quiet and listen, etc.

Then there are a bunch of “structure” rules that you can set and change depending on the circumstances.

Rule # 1 – “As the class size increases there is a need for a more formal structure”

graphLet’s consider two different scenarios.

First, let’s imagine for a moment you have a single student show up for class. Wouldn’t you agree it would be a little weird to run them through a vigorous warmup, pushups, situps, stretching… Then stand right in front of them counting shouting for all their basics… counting again as they run through their fighting combinations and kata? Finally you bow out, and all this time they haven’t uttered a word and all you’ve done is count and barked orders like a disgruntled drill sergeant?

Sure, you might have stuck to your class plan and they got a great sweat but you will have missed a HUGE opportunity…

Shift your thinking….

A one-on-one class is YOUR chance as a teacher to make the transition from “karate instructor” to “karate coach”. This is your opportunity to identify and fine tune your student’s technique. It’s your opportunity to give them detailed feedback, and for them to ask questions that they may not feel comfortable asking in front of others.

Now let’s consider the polar opposite – a HUGE class. Now there is more need for a formal structure because a larger class is generally less intimate. You don’t have the opportunity to be as hands on as often with each person as you do with a small class of say 3 or 4. Imagine a class of 30 or 40 and trying to get to everyone individually and provide quality feedback…

(Isn’t that where the saying, “Running around like a headless chicken” originates?)

Pretty simple concept isn’t it?


Rule # 2 – “The less mature your class, the more need for a formal structure”

If you’re teaching kids and you want them to behave (and learn something)  I believe you MUST have a formal structure. This is mainly because of the short-attention-span-factor, plus younger students need to be kept occupied AND in line. A formal structure enables you to teach respect, focus and enforce discipline. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have fun when you teach; I believe you should. But be sure to stick to a structured format for younger students.

Generally speaking kids respond well to structure because they crave attention and recognition. They want to know they did well. (Have you ever have a student look at you as soon as they complete their technique?)

Now think of the worst behaved kids you know – I bet my bottom dollar that they lack structure in their family life. They haven’t learned how to behave and that’s probably why their parents put them in your class.


Rule # 3 – “The less experienced your class, the more need there is for a formal structure”

And the more experienced your class, the less formal structure is required as more experienced students already know how to act, what to do and how things work.

It reminds me of something one of my sensei used to say, “I give you the ball but you must bounce it”. Students at this level are well and truly capable of bouncing their own ball so a less formal structure can be employed if you see fit.graphexperience


At the end of the day the need for formal structure is influenced by multiple factors – class size, maturity and experience. So there is no hard and fast rule as when to flip the switch from formal structure to informal format. However, when you’re able to identify this point and adjust your teaching method accordingly, this is the time you graduate “karate teaching high school”. It’s when you are able to make the distinction of what format works best for your class depending on the circumstances.

And you’ll know this by the results you get…

If your class is unfocussed and talkative then there is probably more need for a more formal structure. If you feel weird teaching because you’re not being “real” your students will sense it – so it’s probably time to be less formal.

Which brings us full circle back to what teaching karate is all about. Remember, it’s not about YOU – it’s about your student’s development. So who really cares how formal or informal you are when teaching so long as your students are respectful, enjoying class and getting good results?


10 thoughts on “Formal or Informal?”

  1. I’m glad you guys concur… sometimes we get so up tight about how things “should” be done, and we lose sight of the real purpose teaching and training.

  2. I would prefer a formal structure for discipline purpose. Although its very true that kids are not the same some get carried away during informal training which can be destructive. Therefore you need to switch from informal to formal and visa versa at times.


  3. Thanks for the advise…its was good reading…I didn’t realise I was already doing it (haha) thank you


  4. Hi Jason, have to agree with you. Happened last night in class. Only two junior students turned up for class. This was an ideal opportunity to “coach” these two students in areas that were required. This was done in a very informal manner. Thouroughly beneficial for all.
    Regards Alan

  5. I think it also depends on the tradition of etiquette within the karate style. For example if the style demands Japanese formal etiquette at all times, then there will never be any variation towards informality, however small, mature and experienced the group.


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