Wax On, Wax Off: Karate Kid’s Lesson About Drilling

How many of you have quite unpretentiously browsed through your favorite streaming service provider looking for something and found a series worth binge-watching? How many of you spent hours and hours watching every single episode of a three-season TV series simply because it made you feel good or nostalgic?

Yes, that was me some weeks ago. The reason why I did was Netflix’ new series Cobra Kai, a spin-off of the popular Karate Kid saga. Back in the day, growing up in the late 80s and 90s, Karate Kid meant a lot to us because it told the story of Daniel LaRusso, a poor kid who got beaten up by other kids led by Johnny Lawrence until he was saved from the bullies by the maintenance guy who happened to be a war hero, Japanese Karate fighter from Okinawa, the legendary Nariyoshi Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi became Daniel’s karate master (or sensei) and taught him the essence of this martial art.

All Daniel-san wanted from his sensei was to learn karate to be able to fight those bullies. Instead of teaching him karate per se, Mr. Miyagi gives Daniel a bunch os chores that make it look like he’s actually exploring the poor boy. Daniel needs to sand the wooden floor, paint Mr. Miyagi’s house, varnish the fence, and, perhaps the most iconic of all, wax his entire collection of cars, including the yellow 1947 Ford Super Deluxe. It’s great to realize that Cobra Kai capitalized on Daniel’s passion for cars and made him a successful car dealership owner in the series.

Image result for wax on wax off gif

One of my favorites scenes in the first movie is when Daniel-san gets irritated and frustrated with Mr. Miyagi’s endless chores. They were both standing in what would later become the Miyagi-Do Karate dojo run by Daniel himself in Cobra Kai. Daniel doesn’t understand why he needs to wax, paint, sand and how that is going to help him with karate. Mr. Miyagi then asks him to show Wax On/Wax Off. You can see the realization in Daniel’s eyes as soon as he sees that all of that work was supposed to create what many refer to as “muscle memory” and sharpen his reflexes. He’s able to block his sensei’s punches and kicks with the movements he learned from all those chores.

History repeats itself. Daniel LaRusso teaches Johnny Lawrence’s son Robby the same way Mr. Miyagi taught him

There are many lessons to be learned from Karate Kid and how Daniel became proficient in the martial art through drilling. Repetition is key when we want to make sure things become more automatic and, thus, require less conscious effort. The so-called “muscle memory” can be developed through a series of intentional repetitions in order to master whatever we are attempting to learn. We do have to be careful, though. First, we shouldn’t call it “muscle memory”. Memories are created in our brain’s cortex and not inside our muscles. Secondly, the type of repetition, duration, and goal are essential for us to develop the skills we want.

I’m sorry, Mr. Miyagi, but you should’ve told Daniel-san why he was doing all those chores from the start


I understand Mr. Miyagi was testing Daniel’s discipline and developing patience (which are definitely important competencies), but he may have done so because of sense of honor and rigid hierarchy. After all, in many Asian cultures (I’d even include our own), blindly following a master’s will and not questioning them is a sign of respect. We’ve tried that in education and I’d say it doesn’t work quite well. It’s best to share our intentions with our students and let them know the importance of practice, particularly drilling.

Why does drilling work?

Put simply, we can say that repetition of tasks make them require less activation of frontal areas of the brain where we can find the working memory system. The first time you try to drive, for instance, requires you to consciously think about your every move in a logical and sequential way. In your head, you’re going like:

“OK, first I need to adjust the mirrors and my seat. Now I need to insert the key in the keyhole and start the car. But don’t forget to make sure the car is in neutral. Next I have to shift to first gear and smoothly release the clutch pedal… and make sure I’m wearing the seat belt.

There are many other steps there, naturally. But just imagine how incredibly ineffective drivers we would be if we had to consciously go through all these steps every time we drive. We wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with someone in the car, listen to music and actually pay attention, or even have a call with our boss on the way to work. That’s why our brains create schemata of these things by turning them into habits and sending them backwards in the cortex, specifically to the parietal lobe. You can read about habit formation here.

By making these things more automatic, we free our working memory to do other stuff. Imagine for a second what would happen to Daniel if he hadn’t internalized all those movements by the time he had his famous fight against Johnny at the All Valley Karate Tournament. What if he had to consciously think of his every move while all those fighters were throwing punches at him? Well, let’s just say he wouldn’t have gotten that far and we wouldn’t have seen the famous crane kick that secured his trophy

Image result for crane kick gif
Daniel-san wins the tournament with the iconic crane kick

Drilling in the English classroom

If you think about our English classes, there are many types of drilling activities we can use. The idea is to reinforce grammar structures or even vocabulary by repeating them in different ways. This is certainly something inherited by us from a more behavioristic approach, particulary the audio lingual method. The main examples of drills are:

Teacher: Johnny lost the tournament

Students: Johnny lost the tournament

Repetition Drill

Teacher: Daniel is a karate fighter (car salesman)

Students: Daniel is a car salesman

Substitution Drill

Teacher: I have karate lessons (Robby)

Students: Robby has karate lessons

Teacher: He fights against the bullies (past)

Students: He fought against the bullies

Transformation Drill

Teacher: Does Samantha study with Miguel?

Students: Yes, she does

Teacher: Does Robby live with Johnny?

Students: No, he doesn’t

Question and Answer Drill

We can combine these drills with images instead of words, Total Physical Response – TPR (such as miming the vocabulary or using thumbs up to indicate an affirmative sentence/ thumbs down for a negative one) or even use the board to turn them into a game-like activity (disappearing drills, for instance, show the full sentence with a gap on the first slide and then some words disappear on the next slide and so on).

When and how often should we drill?

This is the million-dollar question. I see the value of drilling certain chunks in the classroom, especially for more basic levels, but I definitely don’t think the entire lesson should be like this as the audio lingual method normally proposes. The idea of “Drill to Kill” might be one of the underlying principles of elite sports and athletic competitions but not in the classroom when we think about effective and long-term learning. The whole “work while they sleep, study while they party” philosophy has been doing more damage than good the way I see it. We need to take care of our mental health and practicing to exhaustion is not the way to do so.

What then? Instead of going for overkill, I’d say we need to try to follow the idea of spaced repetition and retrieval practice. That means that drilling the same grammar structure for an entire hour in a lesson is normally less effective than drilling it a couple of times in that lesson, doing something else, trying to retrieve it and moving on to apply it in a different context plus getting some sleep and revisiting it with a certain frequency (drilling it again in a different lesson).

A typical audio lingual lesson will introduce the vocabulary and have the students drill (repetition drill), then it will require some substitution drills. It will probably move on to the grammar chunk and have students repeat. Then it will maybe focus on substitution and transformation drills (or even question and answer drills). At the end, there might be a dialogue/role-play activitiy with the chunk and the vocabulary. Students go home, do their homework and come back to class for the whole thing to start again, except that it’s new vocabulary and grammar structures.

Instead, here’s a suggestion:

  1. Present vocabulary and/or grammar structure
  2. Drill
  3. Brain Break – have students stop focusing on the topic
  4. Retrieval practice – allow them a minute to try to retrieve what they have been learning
  5. Vary output – have students make a schematic (graphic organizers) or record an explanation or model of the structure on their phones
  6. Application – have students use chunk in a role play or different production activity
  7. Drill again – drilling at the beginning and at the end may result in better memorization (check out primacy and recency effect)
  8. Assign homework – to be done the next day so they can sleep and add some spacing before retrieval
  9. Quiz – quiz their prior knowledge on the vocabulary/structure in the next lesson
  10. Spaced repetition – schedule two more lessons a couple of days apart to revisit that structure

Final thoughts

Drilling is definitely important if we want to be able to do things more unconciously, that is, on autopilot. Internalizing chunks helps us become more proficient users of an additional language and frees up our limited working memory for new learning. But I suppose there are better ways than simply and mindlessly repeating things to exhaustion. If we look at some principles of the Science of Learning, we’ll realize that we can more often work smart instead of hard.

Another lesson I want to leave you all with is that changing something that has been hardwired in the brain can be quite challenging. Look at Johnny and Daniel’s relationship. After all those years they still basically hate each other and their way of life is sort of reflected on the type of karate they were taught. Cobra Kai’s fierce and cruel sensei John Kreese taught those kids back in the 80’s to:

Strike first

Strike hard

Have no mercy

Cobra Kai’s motto

Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san a rather different lesson:

Rule #1: Karate is for defense only

Rule #2: First learn rule number 1

Miyagi-do’s philosophy

Drilling in an inappropriate way from the start, based on certain convictions may impact our students’ learning curve and beliefs about their learning capabilities for good. Drilling is but a small part of the learning cosmos when we’re going after positive outcomes. Know when and how to do it and be open to new possibilities. Even Johnny and Daniel are starting to come around to what their relationship can actually be like and what is the meaning of karate. I’m looking forward to the next season of Cobra Kai and I hope you are too. I’m sure there will be many wax on, wax off scenes as more and more students join the dojo

7 thoughts on “Wax On, Wax Off: Karate Kid’s Lesson About Drilling”

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