Struck with the inescapable knowledge that I’m not getting younger and, therefore, am unlikely to stay fit and healthy without some investment in exercise, I’ve struggled over the past few years to find a form of physical activity that I don’t actively dread. In January I made the decision to try out my local karate club and, thus far at least, I love it. I’ve been going two, sometimes three, times a week and I increasingly find myself looking forward to it. Without really knowing why or how, I’ve suddenly become highly motivated to take regular exercise.

That said, I’m rubbish at it. In my day-to-day life I very rarely spend time doing anything I’m not at least competent at, so deliberately choosing to learn something at which I’m incompetent is an interesting experience. Some of my difficulty is due to a lack of flexibility and strength, and some is due to trying to master physical movements which are unfamiliar. My first few weeks were spent flailing around in a combination of confusion and pain. So, why did I want to persist?

One reason is that I really like the instructor. Sensei Tim is one of the most inspirational teachers I’ve ever had. Not only is he an excellent practitioner of karate (he’s a fifth dan) he’s also very good at breaking down and explaining what he wants us to do. Coupled to this he exudes enthusiasm, humour, patience and the most exacting of standards.

The emphasis in lessons is on mastering the basics or foundations. We go over the same things again and again, and the message is that there is always room for improvement – no one is too experienced or too expert not to improve their stances, punches, and blocks. I’ve been learning keon kata – the basic form of punches and blocks –  and five step kumite – a stylised series of strikes and blocks performed with a partner, both of which must be mastered in order to move to orange belt. This is the foundation on which all else depends.

Most lessons are in mixed classes with students ranging from the very new, to black belts and above. As a new member I’m expected to try my best but there is no expectation that I’ll be able to perform at the level of those with more experience. Sensei Tim will model what he wants, explain how the movement ought to feel, get us to follow him in whole class guided practice, before moving to paired practice in which he and other instructors walk about correcting mistakes and offering advice. When I physically can’t do what he does (most of the time) differentiation consists of getting me to do it as well as I can. Then the expectation is that I should not to fall below this level. Because I want to improve, I do what I’m told.

Which brings me to behaviour. The rules of the dojo are very strict. We bow on entering and leaving and are expected to follow instructions immediately. When the sensei gives an instruction, we respond by saying, “Oss”. Students are only allowed to leave the room with the sensei’s permission and then, on returning, are expected to kneel in view of the sensei until invited back. Although many of the students are in their 60s, most are a lot younger but no one ever misbehaves. I once saw Tim ‘tell off’ a younger student who wasn’t behaving in quite the way that’s expected. Tim leaned down and quietly said, “That’s not what we do in karate, is it?” The student immediately and without complaint fell into line. The idea that any student might complain or argue is unthinkable.

Karate, or at least shotokan karate, the style followed by the Karate Union of Great Britain is very formal, and, as instructions are often given in Japanese, there’s a whole new vocabulary to learn. I can now count to ten (Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku. shichi, hachi, ku, ju) and know that gedan barai means downward block, choku zuki is a straight punch, mawatte is turn round, and yame means stop. Although all of this felt alien and off-putting in my first few lessons, knowing the lingo and doing what everyone else does is now a point of pride – a marker of belonging.

Obviously enough, the dojo is not the same as the classroom and learning karate is not the same as learning academic subjects at school, but there are, I think, enough similarities that we can learn something from how karate is taught. Here are six lessons from the dojo that might hold us in good stead at school:

1. Don’t forget the foundations – black belt or white belt, every student of karate has to practise the basics. As we progress we move to much more advanced techniques, but always return to the foundations. In school, we’re often in a rush to move on. Pupils sometimes struggle precisely because they haven’t mastered the basics. That doesn’t mean they’ve not been taught the basics; it doesn’t even mean they don’t know the basics, it just means they could know them better. Maybe every curriculum should periodically return to its foundations to ensure that everyone is improving at those things on which late success depends.

2. If instruction is clear everyone knows how to improve – karate lessons consists of clear, explicit instructions, followed by lots of practice. No one is expected to guess anything, just to remember what we’ve already been told and shown. The sensei never gives an instruction without breaking into smaller parts and modelling how to do each step. If anyone goes wrong, they’re promptly corrected. In school, too often children are unclear about what they’re supposed to be doing. Teachers are sometimes guilty of assuming that everyone knows what we mean. By clearing explaining what pupils should be doing, checking to see if instructions are remembered and by breaking down expert performance into clearly modelled chunks, everyone can see how to improve.

3. The activity is the curriculum – we spend lessons learning karate. This is broken down into lots of little activities. Sometimes we play games, sometimes we work in pairs, sometimes we work as a whole class, by the count. But, whatever we’re going, we’re learning karate. There are never any activities that are not directly and explicitly focused on improving our karate, and they’re always challenging. In school, sometimes it’s not clear how the activities in which students are engaged will help them get better at the subject they’re supposed to be learning. Too much concession can be made for what we think pupils will want to do, sometimes we are almost apologetic that the less exciting aspects of our subjects must be taught. There is never any such concession in karate: everything is focussed on getting better.

4. Motivation comes from success – even though I’m still terrible at karate, because of the structure of lessons, I’m improving. Each time I make an improvement I feel motivated to work harder. My successes are noticed by the sensei and I’m told exactly what I’ve done well and where I need to improve further. Improvement comes at a price – I’m often exhausted at the end of a class and spend the next few days aching but I know this is because I’ve worked hard to improve. In schools, too often teachers assume that in order for pupils to be willing to work at improving in the subject they’re learning they’ll need coaxing with rewards or persuaded by engaging in fun activities designed to increase situational motivation. But, if pupils know how to improve and can see themselves getting better, they’ll be more motivated to work harder. We shouldn’t expect pupils to become successful through motivation, instead we should accept that motivation comes from the knowledge we are improving.

5. Behaviour and attitude come from culture – behaviour in the dojo is as close to perfect as is possible. Respect is absolute. But more than that, there’s an expectation that everyone pushes themselves to go beyond their current best. It’s not just that we’re compliant and obedient, our attitude to learning is excellent. If someone were to mess about or not push themselves, we wouldn’t tolerate it. In school we sometimes have low expectations of what children are able to do. Whatever we accept becomes acceptable, whatever we permit we promote. If we accept that sometimes children don’t do their best work and that sometimes they’ll chat and mess about with pencil case, we’re subtly communicating that that’s OK. Group leaders have an enormous impact on the culture of a group and, fortunately, group leaders do not have to be group members. We all aspire to be As teachers we set the weather for the culture within our classroom – if high expectations are culturally normal, the vast majority of pupils will want to fit in. But no one ever rose to low expectations.

6. Teaching skill is multiplied by subject expertise – in karate lessons, the instructor is unashamedly the expert. Although Sensei Tim is a wonderfully warm human being, this would count for little if he wasn’t also bloody good at karate. He knows his curriculum inside out. Some lessons are about ‘teaching to the test’ but in other lessons he’s clear that while we won’t a particular technique for gradings, it will help us get better. The personality of the teacher and the subject expertise are both important. In schools, too often teachers spend time on generic teaching strategies with the often unspoken message that their subject expertise is secondary, if not irrelevant. A good teacher is not just someone who can teach, but someone who has something to teach. At least as much commitment ought to be given to developing teachers’ subject expertise as on pedagogical techniques.

None of these things are particularly surprising or mysterious. This is what happens in the best classrooms in every school anywhere in the world. What’s impressed me so much about my karate lessons is the powerful multiplying effect that combining all these rather obvious ingredients can have on behaviour, attitude, motivation and progress.