Rhizomatic Meta-Learning III: The Few Fundamentals

Dan John has a prominent place in the pantheon of people who have influenced me profoundly. As well as teaching me about teaching, and exposing me to the value of lifelong-learning, tenacity and commitment, he also—via his books—showed me what grace is. In his book, Intervention, one of the principles is “Constantly strive for mastery and grace.” Why? I’ll let Dan explain:

“…the best performances have a silken easiness to them that defies explanation. For me, true mastery is so graceful and grace-filled that someone who is unaware of what is optimal will still appreciate the moment.”

Dan is hinting at the causal relationship between grace and mastery; by striving for the former, you approach the latter.

But how do you “strive for grace”? Again, Dan has the answer, and it’s found in another principle from Intervention: “Fundamental human movements are fundamental.” The basics are the foundation upon which everything rests. Failure to master them means an inability to achieve true mastery. Dan puts these principles into practice using the following model:

The idea is to have every person move from left to right, from basic to advanced movements. Each person has to achieve, at the minimum, competency in each column before they can progress to the next. If they don’t, and they skip steps in the progression, what happens? They slide back down when their weakness is exposed. If a person can’t perform a basic, bodyweight squat (a “pattern” movement), then when you put three hundred pounds on a bar and get them to do an Olympic lift (a “dynamic” movement), they’re going to, eventually, have problems.

This is perhaps easier to illustrate using three images:

This structured progression from basic to advanced is the keystone of the first model of meta-learning, Top-Down. If we take Dan John’s table from Intervention, turn it on its side, and change some of the information, we get the following:
The learner starts with basics, with fundamental concepts, and then progresses once a certain level of competence is achieved. Of course, there’s constant revision; the fundamentals are never fully grasped. All that happens is that as a learner advances their training places less emphasis on the fundamentals. The beginner spends nearly all his time learning basic concepts, on the few, big blocks. The advanced trainee spends maybe half his time on the basics. The rest he spends on specific, tailored, advanced concepts and scenarios.

Another representation of the top-down model comes courtesy of Ido Portal. Now, I haven’t been to any of his seminars, but I have done some research and one of the diagrams etched onto the wall of his training centre in Tel Aviv is the following:

It’s the same process. To begin with, you isolate a basic concept. Then you combine it with others. And finally, using all of your understanding, you improvise and create spontaneously. 

That is the Top-Down model of meta-learning. The few fundamentals are a prerequisite to understanding and navigating the near-infinite number of advanced scenarios.