Exploring the CREAM Project: Integrating Judo into STEAM Education

Last Friday, I left my office at Sinergie and ventured into IEXS’ Headquarters in Reggio Emilia, Italy, for a 2- hour, hands-on quality time with some of the students currently engaged with CREAM’s CWL Pilot activities. CREAM is an ambitious 3-year Erasmus+ project exploring the possibility of using especially designed Creative Writing Laboratory (CWL) Methodology to teach STEAM subjects. As one of the leading teaching institutions employing advanced didactics in Italy, IEXS is the designated Italian school to put the CWL to the test during the project’s Pilot phase, which is currently running.

1  Introduction to the Cream Project

When we met Federico Semeraro, responsible and coordinator of IEXS teachers for the CREAM project, and his team, we offered a challenge: why don’t we try something unconventional and embed the practice of the fundamentals of Kodokan judo into our CREAM CWL activity? It would be a great way to let students experience a practical, physical demonstration of some basic concepts of Physics, like barycenter, vector, and momentum, in the context of its application to hand-to-hand combat. Hopefully, the students will be inspired to weave their experience into the narrative of their own CWL.

2  What is Kodokan judo and Its Role in CREAM

Kodokan judo was officially established in Japan in 1882. It’s a full-contact martial art; it can’t be practiced unless people touch, grab, pull, and push each other. It takes place in a realm of rules designed to maximize the effectiveness of one’s movements and guarantee the safety and integrity of one’s companion. It’s only possible so long as two people work together. This is the exact same concept behind the composition of the

character expressing the Confucian virtue of rén 仁, which is Kodokan judo’s philosophical and pedagogical foundation. Rén 仁is written by the combination of イ“person” and 二, “two”.

Since there are no strikes and no kicks in the regular practice, judo is predominantly about throws, which means that, much like in life, falling is inevitable. It’s part of the game. However, falling is not associated with “failure”: it’s the indispensable prerequisite of experience. It’s no chance that in public

demonstrations it’s the less experienced of the pair that performs the techniques and the more expert of the pair that falls. When practising, the person that performs the technique is called tori 取, the one that “accepts” the technique is called uke 受. In the simplest possible terms, judo is about exploiting the loss of balance of one’s opponent. It can be as a consequence of me exerting force, or a consequence of my opponent moving. There is no motion without temporary unbalance. Think about how you switch the weight of your body from a foot to the other as you walk. This fleeting instant between the loss of balance and its restoration is where Kodokan judo happens.

3  The Sequence of the Activity

We structured the progress logically. In the previous months Marica, the class’ Maths and Physics professor, introduced the topics of barycenter, balance, vector, and momentum from the theoretical standpoint. In our practical iteration, we are going to a little bit of work on the falling techniques first, then on the way to unbalance one’s companion, then lift him or her using the principle of the lever. Learning to fall properly is a difficult in and by itself, but accepting being thrown by another person is another story. It requires trust, on the side of uke, and responsibility on the side of tori. It’s really about learning to be sufficiently worthy of trust to be able to perform a highly dynamic manoeuvre in a safe and controlled way.

Experienced practitioners instinctively help tori deliver a proper technique by twisting their bodies in a way that resembles a slow-motion video of a cat positioning itself to land on its paws. You learn to be flexible enough so that your companion can perform the technique effortlessly, and stiff enough to protect yourself from the impact. The two of you grow simultaneously, the one who falls, and the one who throws. The technique we selected is called Ō goshi. It’s not very complex, but there are many details in a precise sequence. The way you keep your feet, the way you bend your legs, keep your back straight, rotate your shoulders and use your arms to provoke disequilibrium and generate momentum, turning your head to preserve your own equilibrium.

4  The Day Unfolds: Insights from the Experience with the IEXS’ Students of the CREAM CWL Pilot

So here I am, with some 12 young people about the same age as my eldest son. Perhaps because of the white hair, or the black belt, some of them shy away even from a simple handshake, while others are

typically, distinctively cocky. There’s also a special needs student, which is really good. We start working on the ukemi 受身, the techniques to fall properly. They involve hitting the tatami mat with your arm at a particular angle, to disperse the kinetic energy of the fall. That’s where the fun starts. People just go silent. It’s partly the noise, partly the vibration that propagates through the floor. I can almost hear them thinking: does it hurt? Does he want me to do that? And the answers are: no, it doesn’t, if you know what you’re doing, and yes, you’re doing it right now.

Although a bit recalcitrant in the beginning, it’s the boys and the special needs student that get going first, and try the hardest. The girls recalcitrate a bit more, but in the end they give it a try. They learn how to fall from a sitting position, then a squatting one, then finally standing. As the distance from the ground grows, so is the fear of the fall, and the feeling of achievement that accompanies each successful performance.

Once they’re reasonably comfortable with the basics, we move on to the study of disequilibrium. We start with a quick demonstration, aided by a “volunteer”. If we start pushing each other, in the end one of the stronger of the two is going to win. That would be, most likely, my opponent. He’s younger, fit, and trained. However, if I stop pushing back and retreat while keeping my balance, his own strength causes him to lose balance and lean forward. And at this point, all of his physical strength counts for nothing.

Just a few more moments to show them how to generate vector forces by pulling with the arms at certain angles, and we let them experiment. The students form pairs and start pulling and pushing, making all sorts of mistakes and visibly having a lot of fun. People don’t usually grab each other by the collar and by the

sleeve or, when they do, it’s usually not with benevolent intentions. The next stage, once we have

understood how to unbalance someone, is to apply the technique. There’s palpable incredulity when I lift someone who outweighs me by at least 20 kg with zero effort. We have become a lever, and not just metaphorically. There is no physical distance between us, so what one does directly affects the other.

Ethics through Physics, who would have thought?

Now it’s time for them to make me fall. I know, from experience, that this is going to involve a not inconsiderable amount of pain in the back, but this is a crucial moment. How do you get people to accept going through what they fear? You do it yourself first. You provide an example, a testimony. You are the one who is teaching, but you’re not removed from the reality that you’re asking them to experience. You show them trust in their ability to safeguard your integrity. One by one, they stand up and grab me. It’s difficult to put it in words, but when you’ve practiced for long enough, and especially if you pay enough attention, you can know the other person through the way he or she grips you. You feel where the weight of the body is, and his inner state, mentally and psychologically. They react all sort of different ways. Some of the bold ones become timid. Some show truly remarkable attention. And before they know it, they want to try again, and then again. Which is all well and good, except they don’t know how to control my fall, so I usually hit the ground worse than I would with an expert practitioner, but that’s part of the game. Then, of course, it’s my turn to apply Ō goshi, and things get real.

I’m not dealing with experts, so the movement needs some adapting, but the basics are there, and so is their pedagogical value. The special needs student enjoys the experience a lot, which is both heartwarming and reassuring. One by one, the most confident first, the shier ones after some convincing, all students participate. And the teachers as well, including Federico, Marica, and the other members of the teacher team. Instructors, teachers, and students, we are now bound by the same experience. We know a bit more about each other, and about ourselves. As we part ways with a simple bow, I can’t wait to see what the boys and girls from IEXS will translate this experience into, as they wade through their very first CREAM CWL Pilot.