Reflective teaching practice and Aikido: Shu-Ha-Ri

In researching names for this blog, I explored a few Japanese terms that spoke to me. In this and subsequent posts, I will explore the three concepts that I believe apply to a reflective teaching practice.

The three concepts are:

  • Wabi-Sabi (the acceptance of transient imperfection, revering authenticity);
  • Kintsugi (the art of embracing damage, and the idea that a damaged and repaired item can be more valuable than the original, undamaged piece);
  • and Shu-Ha-Ri (Learn, detach, transcend).

Today: Shu-Ha-Ri, the learning process, and reflective teaching practice.

Source: Shu-Ha-Ri: The Road to Mastery | AIKIDO-NO-SEKAI

Far from being an expert, or even knowledgeable, about Aikido, my disclaimer before beginning is that I am taking a very superficial understanding of the principle and extending its meaning in a different field altogether. My apologies to Aikidoka who may be offended by my (erroneous) co-opting of this principle!

In teaching a skill,  we often talk about the learner progressing through four stages of competence on their way to mastery: Unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. This model refers to the learners knowing what they know and do not know as they gain competence. It posits that as a learner gains mastery over a skill, they no longer act consciously. As an example, as we learn to walk (a very complicated skill!), we progress through the stages until we no longer need to think about putting one foot in front of the other.

Keep that in mind while we move into a brief discussion of Shu-Ha-Ri.

In the Shu stage, the student is learning by rote, not questioning, and going through the 4 stages of competence. In the beginning, she follows almost blindly as she does not know what she does not know. She practices until she performs manoeuvres exactly like her teacher without thinking  about it (she is unconsciously competent). However, in Aikido – and it would seem in becoming a teacher – the learning goes much further than that.

The Ha stage sees the student detaching from her teacher and beginning to reflect on, and question, the background to the skills she has mastered. She now is asked to think deeply about herself as a practitioner and to adjust her practice to her unique strengths and qualities. Whereas in the Shu stage, she reproduced exactly what her teacher did, in Ha she is expected to do the hard work of making her practice her own, through inquiry, reflection, and study.

“This is the stage wherein it is required to rearrange or reconstruct what the teacher has taught… This includes getting rid of what is thought to be undesirable, unnecessary or unsuitable…More than anything else, it is required to attain a true and unshakable understanding of oneself as an individual. In other words, it is necessary to have a clear vision of one’s own potential and the best possible way to stimulate it.” (

Ri, the final stage, means to transcend. The student becomes an innovator, going beyond the traditional knowledge base to create original work and ideas.

I believe this is the perfect description of what an educator goes through as she starts school, learns about pedagogy, reproduces what her mentors do in the classroom, and then begins to put into practice teaching methods that are in line with her own values, skills, strengths, and passions. If she continues a reflective practice, and surrounds herself with ideas and creativity, she will move into the Ri stage of practice, becoming a “pioneering practitioner”.

“The Aikidoka must now think originally and develop from one’s own background knowledge, using original thoughts about the art and test them against the reality of his or her knowledge of everyday life.”(aikidonosekai, 2014).

Teaching is a skill. It is one which we can learn, and reproduce without much thinking, going through the 4 stages of competence. But without moving into the phases of Ha and Ri, we will never become pioneering practitioners.