023 – The Argument Ninja Difference


I’ve learned over the past year that I’m not the only one talking about the failings of traditional schooling.

I’m not the only academic talking about developing online courses for the public that they can’t find anywhere else.

I’m not even the only one using the language of martial arts in this context. (e.g. Jordan Peterson, Thaddeus Russell, Mixed Mental Arts ….).

But I realize that even among my audience, it may not be clear how the Argument Ninja Academy is supposed to stand out — how it’s different from what I’m seeing in these other projects.

In this episode I want to talk about these differences. I want to talk about what makes the Argument Ninja Academy special.

There are three areas that I can point to.

The first is the martial arts inspiration for this project. It goes way deeper than just borrowing the language of belt levels.

The second is a unique approach to teaching and learning critical thinking and persuasion skills.

And the third is the instructional design of the project, and the team I’m assembling to help make this a reality. The skill set they bring to the Argument Ninja Academy is powerful.

We’re going to talk about all of this today on the podcast. Specifically, I’m going to talk about

  • what it means to be a martial art
  • the difference between bujutsu and budo, the Japanese terms for martial art and martial path, or martial way, respectively.
  • the martial context of critical thinking, and why this language isn’t just metaphorical
  • my own relationship to the martial arts, and the original inspiration for the Argument Ninja Academy
  • what teaching and learning look like, when you focus on skill development rather than rote learning
  • what I’ve learned from my team partners about thinking clearly and thinking big.

In This Episode:

  • (0:00 – 4:10) Introductory remarks. Others working outside of academia — Jordan Peterson, Thaddeus Russell, Mixed Mental Arts. What makes the Argument Ninja Academy special.
  • (4:10 – 8:30) My thesis: critical thinking is a martial art. The definition of a martial art.
  • (8:30 – 12:00) bujutsu vs budo: the complementary faces of every traditional martial art. Examples: jiu-jitsu vs judo; kenjutsu vs kendo
  • (12:00 –  14:00) Does training for combat always involve training in the arts of physical violence? Consider skills related to situational awareness; de-escalation; psychological operations
  • (14:00 – 18:34) What is the “martial context” of critical thinking?
  • (18:34 – 19:40) The path back: reclaiming our autonomy, agency and authority over our own minds; avoiding the worst of the harms that we inflict upon ourselves
  • (19:40 – 20:15) How learning and teaching critical thinking is different when you view it as a martial art
  • (20:15 – 31:10) My experience with the martial arts, and the inspiration for the Argument Ninja Academy
  • (31:10 – 38:40) Introducing my team members: John Lenker (lenker.com)
  • (38:40 – 40:00)  Introducing my team members: Julie Dirksen (usablelearning.com)
  • (40:00 – 41:05) Clarifying mission, audience and learning objectives; defining core skills and curriculum elements
  • (41:05 – 44:25) The real challenge: designing an infrastructure that supports learning
  • (44:25 – 48:15) Lessons about mindset and the importance of thinking big
  • (48:15 – 49:00) How we envision the development process unfolding
  • (49:00 – 49:30) How you can support this project

Quotes:

“This is the martial context for critical thinking. This is the bu in bujutsu, the bu in budo. It begins with waking up to the reality that the persuasive environment in which we live our daily lives is not a benign environment, or even a neutral environment — it’s an embattled, contested, potentially very dangerous environment.

To reclaim our autonomy, to reclaim our agency, first we need to open our eyes, and become aware of the reality of our situation.

Next, we need to understand that we don’t have to be victims. We have options. There are steps we can take to protect ourselves. There are skills we can learn to empower ourselves.

There is a path that leads back to agency, autonomy and authority over our own minds. This is the path that gives us a fighting chance to avoid the worst of the harms that we inflict upon ourselves.

This, in a nutshell, is what I’m trying to create with the Argument Ninja Academy. A resource that can equip us to not only protect ourselves, but to master ourselves, and thereby shape the path forward.”


References and Links


CLICK TO VIEW TRANSCRIPT

This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 023.

Hello everyone. Welcome back to the show. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante.

I’ve learned over the past year that I’m not the only one talking about the failings of traditional schooling. I’m not the only academic talking about developing online courses for the public that they can’t find anywhere else.  I’m not even the only one using the language of martial arts in this context.

Psychologist Jordan Peterson wants to use the 60,000 dollars a month he earns on Patreon to bring, in his words, “accredited online humanities education to as many people as possible around the world.”  He wants to “take the humanities back from the corrupt postmodernists, and offer education of the highest possible quality everywhere at 1/10 the price or less”.

That’s very ambitious. On a smaller scale we have someone like Thaddeus Russell, who is a former academic historian, wrote an iconoclastic history book titled A Renegade History of the United States, hosts his own podcast, and wants to offer full courses as part of his own “Renegade University”.

Then there’s the Mixed Mental Arts community, spearheaded by Hunter Maats and Bryan Callen, and the Mixed Mental Arts podcast, which is producing content to foster a new form of cultural and critical thinking literacy, again, outside of academia, and they’ve adopted the language of martial arts and even a belt system for marking progress through a set of important ideas.

So there seems to be something in the air that’s being driven by a number of factors. The most recent iteration of the culture wars in North America, and the cultural polarization in the wake of Trump, is certainly part of it.  The rise of podcasting, and alternative media in general, has played a big role. I think we have to give some credit to Joe Rogan and his huge platform for helping to stimulate a new public interest in science and politics and philosophy. And credit to Joe for attracting a cohort of oddballs who groove on combat sports and physical culture and also groove on academic topics and intellectual life.

I find myself, and the Argument Ninja Academy project, smack in the middle of all this. But I realize that even among my audience, it may not be clear how the Argument Ninja Academy is supposed to stand out, how it’s different from what I’m seeing in these other projects.

So in this episode I want to talk about these differences.  I want to talk about what makes the Argument Ninja Academy special.

There are three areas that I can point to.

The first is the martial arts inspiration for this project. It goes way deeper than just borrowing the language of belt levels.

The second is a unique approach to teaching and learning critical thinking and persuasion skills.

And the third  is the instructional design of the project, and the team I’m assembling to help make this a reality. The skill set they bring to the Argument Ninja Academy is powerful.

We’re going to talk about all of this today on the podcast. I’m going to talk about what it means to be a martial art. I’m going to talk about the difference between bujutsu and budo, the Japanese terms for martial art and martial path, or martial way, respectively. I’m going to talk about the martial context of critical thinking, and why this language isn’t just metaphorical.  I’m going to talk about my own relationship to the martial arts, and the inspiration for the Argument Ninja Academy. I’m going to talk about what teaching and learning look like, when you focus on skill development rather than rote learning. And, finally, I’m going to introduce my team partners for the first time, on the podcast, and talk about what I’ve learned from them about thinking clearly and thinking big.

Critical Thinking as a Martial Art

Okay, we’ll start off with the martial arts inspiration for the Argument Ninja Academy.

I hold a very strong view about the relationship between critical thinking and martial arts. I claim that we should regard critical thinking as a martial art. Literally.

Now there’s a long history of using martial arts analogies and combat metaphors to talk about various aspects of verbal debate. That was a “knock out” argument. He’s “dodging” the point. Rhetorically, she’s “slippery”, “hard to catch”. That objection was “devastating”. The debate was a “draw”.  Training in rhetorical and debate is like learning “verbal judo”.  And so on.

But when I say that we should treat critical thinking as a martial art, the first response is “sure, fine … but not, like, literally, right? I mean … you’re not hitting anybody. Nobody’s getting physically hurt in a verbal argument.”

So this response basically says that martial arts involve physical contact in some way. Maybe physical contact with an intent to harm?

What is a Martial Art?

This line of objection sets us down the path of trying to come up with a definition of a martial art. This is tricky. Definitions need to capture a wide range of practices and a wide range of intuitions.

The exemplars, the most recognizable examples, are martial arts traditions that originated in China and spread to other asian countries: Japan, Korea, Thailand. Kung fu, karate, taekwondo. Jiu-jitsu. Judo. Aikido. Muay thai.

Now, do we include western boxing? It’s not an exemplar that immediately comes to mind for many people, we don’t commonly use the term “martial art” to describe it. Unless you’re talking to mixed martial artists, and then boxing is treated as an essential part of MMA training.

Restricting martial arts to styles that come out of Asia seems arbitrary and overly restrictive. It seems that any form of structured physical combat training is a candidate for a martial art.

Now, do we include weapons training? Is learning how to shoot a firearm a martial art?

Again, not a common exemplar, but ask a military combat trainer and he’ll say hell yes, training with a knife, training with firearms, these are all important components of a holistic approach to martial arts, self-defense and combat training.

Here’s another question. If you practice a martial art, but you do so without any particular interest or focus on combat, are you still practicing a martial art?

I know people who train in taekwondo three days a week, but the studio they train at spends almost no time on free sparring. Virtually the whole program centers around learning to execute the techniques and the forms with precision and power. Free sparring is an optional class they hold every other Friday. It’s not required for belt testing at any level in the program.

Now, is this still a martial art?

When I was in China a saw groups of older women in the park doing tai chi every day. Very slow, graceful movements. These ladies are not training for combat. They’re training for physical health;  the benefits of a meditative practice; longevity.

Is this a martial art? Well, every definition of tai chi you’ll encounter classifies it as a traditional Chinese martial art. And every definition of taekwondo you’ll encounter classifies it as a martial art.

It would be odd to say that these don’t qualify as martial arts simply because they don’t focus on training for realistic combat situations. It’s more natural to say that within the category of martial arts there are some traditions that focus more on combat and self-defense, and some traditions that focus more on other benefits of martial arts training, like health, physical fitness, sports competition, or personal development.

This is actually a very common distinction that is most apparent in the martial arts that come out of east Asia, but it some some respects it’s common to all warrior cultures and warrior codes.

Bujutsu vs Budo

The Japanese have terminology that helps us see this.

In Japanese the generic term for a martial art is “bujutsu”. “Bu” means “martial”, or “pertaining to war, or combat”. “Jutsu” means “skill”, or “technique”, or “art”. So “bujutsu” means “martial skill, or martial art” — skill in the art of combat.

But there’s also another term, “budo”. “Bu” once again, means “martial”. The word “do” means “way” or “path”. So “budo” is the “martial way”, or the “martial path”. Budo refers to the goals and values of martial arts practice that are aimed at personal development, spiritual enlightenment, virtue, wisdom, and so forth.

When a martial art has the word “do” in its name, that’s a sign that the art has been reconceived as either a nonlethal combat sport or a practice that is no longer fundamentally oriented toward preparing someone for realistic combat. It’s oriented toward something else.

Historically, jujutsu, for example, emphasized skill in realistic combat situations. Judo, an offshoot of jujutsu, was developed by Jigoro Kano to promote personal development, and to ritualize the combat elements in a non-lethal form, for the purpose of cultivating these non-combat skills and virtues.

Kano was explicit about this. Here’s a quote:

Since the very beginning, I had been categorizing Judo into three parts, rentai-ho, shobu-ho, and shushin-ho. Rentai-ho refers to Judo as a physical exercise, while shobu-ho is Judo as a martial art. Shushin-ho is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue as well as the study and application of the principles of Judo in our daily lives. I therefore anticipated that practitioners would develop their bodies in an ideal manner, to be outstanding in matches, and also to improve their wisdom and virtue and make the spirit of Judo live in their daily lives.

So Kano distinguishes Judo as physical exercise, Judo as a combat art, and Judo as a guiding philosophy for daily living.

Just one more example, so you see the point clearly. In Japanese, “kenjutsu” is the “art of the sword”. To practice kenjutsu is to practice the art of lethal combat with a real sword. “Kendo”, on the other hand is the “way of the sword”. Kendo is a ritualized sport that uses protective gear and bamboo swords. You don’t practice kendo to learn how to literally kill with a sword. You practice it for other reasons.

For me, bujutsu and budo are the complementary faces of every traditional martial art. When we’re focused on realistic training for combat, we’re doing bujutsu. When we’re focused on cultivating the higher goals and ideals of the martial art and incorporating them into our daily lives, we’re doing budo.

Keep this distinction in your back pocket. It’s important for how I think about critical thinking as a martial art.

Does a Martial Art Require Physical Contact, or Physical Violence?

Now, let’s push the objections a little further.

Question: Does a martial art require physical contact between people? Does it require that I put my hands on you? Because if so, that would rule out critical thinking and persuasion as a martial art.

In most of the exemplars of martial arts the answer is yes, they involve physical contact. But we’ve already agreed that weapons training counts. So the physical contact can be at a distance, and mediated by a weapon — a bullet, leaving the barrel of a gun. A firearms expert is a kind of specialized martial artist.

But let me put the question differently. Does training for combat always involve training in the arts of physical violence?

Well, let’s think about this. In combat, there are a ton of skills and techniques that one can deploy, that don’t necessarily involve inflicting physical violence.

In face-to-face situations, learning to develop situational awareness and identify threats is a crucial skill. Doesn’t involve inflicting violence. Learning how to de-escalate a situation, how to manage the psychology of a confrontation in order to avoid physical violence, that’s a crucial skill too. It’s a martial skill. But it doesn’t involve inflicting violence, quite the opposite.

And there are whole branches of the military devoted to psychological operations. Which seem directly relevant to war and combat, but which involve the application of persuasion psychology to the conduct of military and political campaigns. You can do psyops more or less skillfully, more or less artfully. One could argue that that’s a martial skill as well; a martial art.

The Martial Context of Critical Thinking

So, obviously I’m pointing us in the direction of a more expansive conception of martial arts. The question is whether it’s expansive enough to include the practices that I’m concerned with — namely, persuasion and critical thinking.

I think it is, but there’s a final objection that I need to address.

The objection has to do with what we mean by the “martial context” of martial arts.  The word “martial” means “relating to war or combat or the military”.  In almost all the examples I mentioned, there’s either a direct connection to combat or war, or an indirect connection, like with the historical origins of martial arts like tai chi, that may not be oriented toward combat today, but at one time were.

So what could possibly count as the martial context of critical thinking and persuasion?

Here’s how I answer that question. I view the martial context of critical thinking and persuasion in terms of the real threats of harm that are posed by the persuasion environment that we live in, and the agents and institutions who structure that environment.

We need the skills of persuasion and critical thinking to protect ourselves, and the people and institutions and values we care about, against these threats. The more seriously we take them, the more natural it is to see the context of critical thinking as a martial context, and the art of critical thinking as a martial art.

Just think of the magnitude of the harms that can result from bad decision-making due to false beliefs and faulty, biased reasoning.

Relationships are destroyed because someone made a bad decision. Livelihoods are lost because of poor planning. Businesses are ruined by mismanagement. Avoidable disasters are suffered. Lives are ended.  Wars are waged. Futures are lost.

It’s impossible to put a price on this. Most human tragedies are the result of a combination of ignorance, short-sightedness and inability to manage our most self-destructive impulses.

These consequences are tragic, but they don’t just happen to us. Human beings, and the institutions and social structures that we build, enable them, sometimes intentionally. I’ve said many times that we live our lives in environments that are increasingly hostile to critical thinking and good reasoning, environments that make us increasingly vulnerable to these kinds of harms.

The key concept here is the reality of persuasive messaging that is designed to influence our thoughts and actions, often by targeting our fast, automatic, heuristic thinking, and bypassing our slow, conscious, deliberative thinking.

Think of the sum total of the persuasive messages we receive every day, from family and friends, from co-workers, from watching television, reading magazines and newspapers, browsing YouTube, checking Facebook, checking Twitter, and so on.

When you’re subject to this constant bombardment of persuasive messaging, you’re faced with a serious challenge. How should you act, how should you respond, when all these different parties are trying to capture your attention, provoke certain feelings, entertain certain ideas, make choices, that are intended to fulfill the goals of these other parties, others that are not you, that generally don’t have your best interests at heart, and don’t represent the values you care about?

If you’re completely passive in the face of this, then, quite frankly, you run the risk of losing your mind. Your thoughts, your beliefs, your feelings, your decisions, are no longer your own. It won’t feel like manipulation; it’ll feel like it always does — that you’re exercising your own free will when you purchase this product over that product, or vote for this candidate over that candidate.

But if you remain passive in the face of all this targeted persuasive messaging, then this feeling of freedom, this feeling of autonomy, is largely an illusion.

You become a game piece in a board game who thinks that every move it makes is a free choice, when the reality is that you’re being moved around by outside forces, the real players of the game.

This is the martial context for critical thinking. This is the bu in bujutsu, the bu in budo. It begins with waking up to the reality that the persuasive environment in which we live our daily lives is not a benign environment, or even a neutral environment — it’s an embattled, contested, potentially very dangerous environment.

To reclaim our autonomy, to reclaim our agency, first we need to open our eyes, and become aware of the reality of our situation.

Next, we need to understand that we don’t have to be victims. We have options. There are steps we can take to protect ourselves. There are skills we can learn to empower ourselves. There is a path that leads back to agency, autonomy and authority over our own minds. This is the path that gives us a fighting chance to avoid the worst of the harms that we inflict upon ourselves.

And this, in a nutshell, is what I’m trying to create with the Argument Ninja Academy. A resource that can equip us to not only protect ourselves, but to master ourselves, and thereby shape the path forward.

What It Means to Teach Critical Thinking as a Martial Art

This is why I view critical thinking, and the skill set that I want to teach at the Argument Ninja Academy, as a martial art.

Now, I started this discussion because I want to talk about what makes the Argument Ninja Academy special, what makes it different.

What I’ve just said is all part of it. But it’s not the only part.

Another part has to do with how I think about the curriculum and the whole teaching philosophy behind the program, once you take the martial arts viewpoint seriously.

Once I started thinking of critical thinking as a martial art, the next question for me was, how would I teach critical thinking differently, if I taught it as a martial art?

And here I think some background is helpful. You should know something about my own history with martial arts, so you really understand where I’m coming from.

For many years when I was working as an academic philosopher I would take my daughter after school to her taekwondo class, three times a week. She started when she was six years old, and by the time she was twelve she had earned her first degree black belt.

So that’s six years of me, teaching philosophy in a university classroom, and then coming to a martial arts studio and watching classes being taught there, starting from white belt and going all the way to black belt.

I saw how etiquette and courtesy and respect were maintained in the training hall. I saw the stripe tests, I saw the belt tests. I saw the sparring competitions. I read the big school manual that had all the Korean terms for the techniques, and photo breakdowns of all the forms, and essays on the philosophy of martial arts and taekwondo.

And this experience of observing martial classes over an extended period made me reflect on two things.

First, it made me reflect on my own relationship to the martial arts. When I was younger I studied judo and karate. I’ve always been fascinated by the combination of physical skill development and philosophical overtones that you see in most traditional martial arts.

As a kid in the 70s I was a huge fan of the KungFu tv series that starred David Carradine. And even though I looked forward to the one or two inevitable fight scenes in every episode, I was just as drawn to the depiction of training and life in the Shaolin temples, and the idea that training in the martial arts includes training the inner self, developing a certain kind of control and self-awareness, as well as training the body.

Along the same lines, when Star Wars came along I was ten years old, and I found myself drawn to Obi-Wan, and the image of the wise old mystic who could still handle himself, and who had a strange power that came from his insight into the deeper nature of reality. And then Yoda showed up, who was even further along that spectrum. The only Star Wars poster I ever owned was a Yoda poster.

And the second thing that I reflected on, as I sat watching my daughter’s taekwondo classes, was my own experience as a classroom teacher in a university setting.

I found myself paying attention to the teaching methods that were being used in the studio, and admiring how effective those methods were in leading students through a process where they start off as complete beginners, and eventually learn to assimilate a complex set of physical skills into their minds and their bodies. It takes time, but I saw it work, over and over.

And it made me reflect on the teaching methods I was using in the classroom, teaching philosophy and critical thinking. A lot of our attention in higher education is focused on imparting in students a certain kind of conceptual understanding, which is valuable as far as it goes. And I asked myself, what skills, beyond this, are my students actually learning?

In my more cynical moods I would question whether I was teaching any practical skills at all. But I came to realize that I was teaching real skills, skills that historically have been very important, and are still very important.

What I was teaching was a style of reasoning and argumentation that is central to the development of philosophy and science in the west. Through the curriculum, and the classroom dynamic, and the assignments that students had to complete, my students learned a set of reasoning skills and habits of thought, and they internalized a set of norms for how rational, productive communication is supposed to work. And this included norms of communication in supportive, cooperative contexts, where you’re reasoning dialectally with other people toward a common goal, and norms of communication in more oppositional or antagonistic contexts, where you’re engaging with a skeptical audience who has their own point of view that they’re invested in.

What I came to realize is that, what I was doing wasn’t all that different from what martial arts instructors do. I’m teaching a kind of martial art. It may not involve physical combat, but it can still be combative. More than one person has used the phrase “logical self defense” to describe what you learn in a critical thinking class.

This is when my thinking on critical thinking started to change. I began to think of it more and more by analogy with the martial arts.

For example, I realized that the martial art that I was teaching was a lot like many traditional schools of martial art in that it was designed around a ritualized model of combat, or in this case, argumentative engagement. This is a model where all parties agree to follow certain rules, and are socialized to respect those rules. These rules are the conventions of argumentative academic writing; how to present arguments in front of academic peers, and how to handle objections; how to present constructive objections of your own; what counts as success or failure in this context; and so on.

And I also realized that, while these skills may be very effective in the academic contexts that they were designed for, they may not be effective at all in ordinary non-academic contexts that we encounter in our daily lives, where the norms of communication can be very different.

This is where the metaphor of the dojo vs the street comes, that I’ve used many times on this show. You learn to train in a certain style of martial arts within the confines and the rules of the dojo. But the rules are different on the street, and if you want to be prepared to handle yourself outside the dojo, you need to train for that as well.

So I’m sitting in my daughter’s martial arts class, and I’m thinking about all this, and then one day I had this thought. What if this martial arts studio was actually a critical thinking studio? A place that taught martial arts for the mind?

What if people came to this studio to learn how to improve their thinking, improve their decision-making? Become more critical consumers of information. Learn to communicate more effectively, more persuasively. Learn the art of constructive argumentation. Learn to recognize and overcome biases that hinder their own thinking, and the thinking of others.

And what if this distinction between training for the dojo and training for the street was built in to the program?

I see this distinction now in terms of the two concepts I introduced earlier, bujutsu and budo.

Consider the skill of argumentation, for example. When you use argumentation as a tool for social persuasion in realistic environments, sometimes hostile environments, that’s bujutsu.

When you use argumentation as a tool for improving the quality of your reasoning and decision making in your daily life, or for the pursuit of truth and knowledge and wisdom, that’s budo.

Similarly, when you study human psychology and cognitive biases, you can use that knowledge in a persuasion context to defend yourself against persuasive strategies directed at you, and to craft your own persuasive strategies. That’s bujutsu.

But you can also use it to develop an awareness of your own limitations and biases, to improve the quality of your thinking, to pursue truth and wisdom, and to become a more independent critical thinker. That’s budo.

I started to imagine what a studio like that could look like — what I could do if this studio wasn’t constrained by an academic setting, wasn’t part of a college or university degree program. Just a place where anyone could walk in and sign up for classes.

The martial arts studio that my daughter trained at had two floors, with two training rooms and some side rooms. In my head I imagined remodeling this space, creating classrooms and a resource library and some side rooms for meetings and presentations and invited speakers, and a little coffee bar with a social space where people could hang out and have conversations.

And on top of that, I imagined building a curriculum that borrowed heavily from the teaching methods of the martial arts. A curriculum that you could break up into belt levels, that people could advance through sequentially. A curriculum that focused on skill development and performance rather than rote memorization. A curriculum that brought together the best ideas from philosophy and the sciences, and the practical arts of persuasion, that bear on the question of how we human beings actually reason, how our brains actually work, and how, in light of that, we can become better critical thinkers and rational persuaders. A kind of mixed martial arts model for critical thinking.

This idea was the inspiration for what I’m now calling the Argument Ninja Academy.

Originally I imagined this as a real brick-and-mortar studio, but over time I realized that I could reach a lot more people if I could implement something like this vision in an online environment.

And so here we are now. This is what I’m trying to do.

Summing Up So Far

To sum up so far — what makes the Argument Ninja Academy different? What sets is apart? Three points.

One, it takes the martial context of critical thinking seriously. Very seriously.

Two, it embraces the dual identity of martial arts, captured by the distinction between bujutsu and budo — martial skill in the form of persuasion and communication skills, and martial path, or martial way of life, in the form of critical thinking skills aimed at improving the quality of our thinking and decision-making, and reclaiming our agency and autonomy as thinkers.

And three, the program is guided by a teaching philosophy that is itself inspired by martial arts training principles, and the experience of learning a complex skill set with a performative element.

On this view, to think that you can learn the skills of critical thinking and persuasion from reading books and watching online videos and answering a few quiz questions — which is how so many people think you can teach this — is like thinking that you can learn to how to play tennis from reading books and watching videos about tennis. Or learn how to drive a car, or become an artist, or a scientist, by reading books and watching videos.

No one makes this mistake with learning to playing tennis or driving a car, because it’s obvious that there’s an embodied, performative dimension to these skills. But people make this mistake all the time with skills that they think of as primarily conceptual or mental. They ignore the performative dimension which is implicit in the practice.

One of the key features of the Argument Ninja approach is that we don’t make this mistake. Our approach is intended to be skill- and performance-oriented from the ground up.

The Argument Ninja Team

Now, I talk about “our” approach, and “we” don’t make this mistake. The final point I want to make, about what makes the Argument Ninja project special, is that there is a “we”, it’s not just me.

Since last January I’ve had regular meetings with two people who bring unique skills and resources to this project, and who are committed to making it a reality and a success.

You’ll hear more about them in future episodes, but I’d like to introduce them to you here.

John Lenker

The first is John Lenker.

Last December, four days before Christmas, I got a notice that one of my supporters had bumped his Patreon pledge to 100 dollars per month.

I get a follow-up email from John Lenker.

He said he’d been listening to the new podcast and really enjoyed the episodes and asked if I wanted to talk about some strategies to help with the money side of things.

I replied, I told him how surprised and grateful I was about his Patreon pledge, and of course I’d love to chat with him.

Then John sent me a longer email, where he elaborated on why he’d chosen to increase his support and why he wanted to help me.

I won’t read the whole thing, John is perfectly capable of answering that question himself, and eventually I’ll have him on the show to talk about all of this. But what I remember from that email was that he framed it in terms of responsibilities that he felt personally.

He felt strongly about the value and the need for the resource that I was describing in the podcast, the Argument Ninja Academy.

He talked about responsibilities he felt to himself, to his family, to his business, to society at large, to my business (as a fellow entrepreneur), and to my family, and finally to me, because, and here I’ll quote: “You’ve been bold and you’ve dared to dream and risk for the benefit of all stakeholders in your work”.

And he admitted that the US election in the fall, and the polarization of the country, and the failures of communication that he saw all around, and in himself, had played a big role in making the issues I was talking about on the podcast relevant and meaningful to him.

As you can imagine I was very moved and humbled by all this. It wasn’t the first time that someone had told me they valued my work. But it’s a very different thing when someone says they value your work to the tune of 100 dollars a month. And they’re not buying a product or a service from you. They’re investing in YOU, they’re supporting YOU, and what you’re trying to do.

I cannot tell you what that meant to me at that time, and what it still means to me.

A couple of days later we had a Skype chat, and we talked about a lot of things.

John, it turns out, was uniquely situated to help me. If you want to see what he does for a living, I invite you to visit lenker.com. He runs Lenker Consulting, and he offers marketing and communication strategies for businesses. He’s got access to a number of different teams that can do the kind of custom work you normally see in a full marketing and design agency, so his services list is pretty long.

It includes analysis and strategy, branding and messaging, advertising, producing broadcast media, copywriting, experience design, talent sourcing and management, content marketing, new product development, web development, and so on.

And he can do all this for a fraction of the price you would pay to hire a full agency.

And on top of this, John has a history in elearning. He used to work for Allen Interactions, which is a well known elearning services company founded by Michael Allen, and they develop custom elearning solutions, games and simulations, micro learning, mobile learning, learning strategy consulting, and so on.

So John’s familiar with the way larger, commercial elearning projects are developed and assembled.

And now it all starts to make sense, why he’s so interested in what I’m doing. Personally, he connects to the vision of the project and the goals of critical thinking. Professionally, he’s in the persuasion business, and he sees the need to make critical thinking skills effective in the real world. And philosophically, he wants to be a part of something that brings real value to a world that is increasingly divisive and unstable, something that serves the public good. He wants to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

And on top of that, he’s got a background where he can realistically imagine bringing his resources to bear to help make the Argument Ninja project a reality.

Now, one of the first things John told me in our early meetings was that to do this right, I needed to rethink what this project could be and what my role in it should be.

Because for my whole career I’ve been doing everything myself. Writing, recording, editing, creating graphics, designing and managing web sites, posting on social media, doing my own bookkeeping … everything.  This is my default mode, and I’m comfortable working like this.

But this project will never become what it could become if I continue to work this way.

John tends to think bigger than me, because that’s what he’s used to. He’s used to managing big, team-based projects.  For him, it’s just obvious that the Argument Ninja Academy needs to be managed as a team-based project. We need web developers to do web development, we need graphics specialists to do graphics. We need video experts to do video. We need instructional design experts to give input on instructional design.

What is my role in all this? If this was a project for an elearning agency I’d be treated as a subject matter expert. I would oversee the creation of content modules and make sure the content is what it should be. But in this case my role goes well beyond that. I have a founding vision for the goals of the project and the curriculum as a whole. And I’ve got practical teaching experience, and instructional design experience.

John also has a strong sense of vision in terms of the look and feel and functionality of the final product, and he’s genuinely invested in its success; he wants “skin in the game”.

So we basically decided that John would function as executive producer of the Argument Ninja Academy, and he would use his resources to manage the project development. I would oversee content and curriculum development, and we would effectively be co-directors of the project.

Now, one of our first discussions was about what to do about me and my funding issues.

We both agreed that over time, those $3 a month Patreon pledges can certainly add up, but it’s not the way this project should be funded.

If we’re looking for Patrons who are specifically interested in supporting this project, we should be aiming for people like John, who have the means and the motivation to pledge at the $100 a month level to support a project with a big aspirational vision like this.

So, what we need to do, in the short term, is work on developing the project to the point where we can present it to a suitable audience, in a way that everyone can easily understand the motivation, the scope and the goals of the project, and have a clear idea of how it will work.

John was confident that if we can do that, it won’t be hard to get 20 or 30 “premium patrons” who are willing to contribute at the 100 dollar level, which would solve my funding problem.

So that’s basically been the plan, since January of 2017. What we didn’t anticipate was how much work still needed to be done in clarifying the scope and the vision of the project.

Julie Dirksen

To help with this, John recommended that we bring another team member into this project, an old friend who used to work with John at Allen Interactions.

This old friend was Julie Dirksen.

Julie is an instructional design expert and consultant. You can learn more about her work at her website, usablelearning.com. She’s also the author of the book Design for How People Learn, which to my delight I recognized from my own bookshelf; I’d bought her book several years ago, and I loved it .

Julie does consulting, primarily in e-learning design, but also in user experience and behavior change. And since the Argument Ninja project is all about skill development that results in behavior change, her background is particularly useful here.

She’s also interested in learning games and using game design principles to enhance learning experiences, and I’m very much in the same camp. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the way gamification principles are organically embedded into martial arts instruction, and one of my goals is to be somewhat intentional in applying gamification principles to the design of the Argument Ninja Academy.

So this is our steering committee, if you want to call it that. Me, John and Julie. Since the spring we’ve been meeting on Skype on a regular basis and trying to set priorities and move the project forward.

Designing the Argument Ninja Learning Experience

Initially, Julie pushed us to clarify the mission and the scope and the audience for this project. Because she knew from experience that that instructional design decisions are often sensitive to these larger goals.

John and Julie both pushed me to identify a set of core Argument Ninja skill categories, and to clarify the learning objectives for these skill categories, to frame them in observable, behavioral terms, so that it’s clear what we mean when we say that a student either has or hasn’t learned a particular skill. This also makes it easier to design exercises and learning interactions that are specific to that type of skill.

I’ve shared some of this work on social media but not on the podcast yet, and I’m going to do that soon in upcoming episodes. We’ve defined a set of core skills, we’ve got a curriculum outline for the white belt program that includes ten content modules, and I’m currently working on videos for those ten modules.

Now, this is where most online courses stop. You’ve got some videos, add a few quizzes and you’re done, you’ve got a course.

But that’s the mistake I was talking about. That would be like inviting people to a martial arts class, and all they do is sit on their butt and listen to the instructors talk and demonstrate techniques. That’s not how martial arts training works.

Creating content and defining learning objectives is just the beginning for us.  The real challenge is designing a learning environment that actually fulfills these objectives, and ultimately building that learning environment.

Think about what this looks like in an ordinary college class; all the different elements of the classroom experience, beyond the content itself.

There’s a place where the students and the teacher gather for a class. There’s a physical environment set up to facilitate teaching. Chairs with writing desks. White boards and media projectors. The instructor comes with a lesson plan.

Part of the class is review and answering questions about material that was previously taught, or homework assignments. Part of the class is introducing new material. Part of the class is discussion-oriented. It might involve desk work with a buddy, or breaking the class into smaller groups and rearranging chairs.

It might involve activities like mock debates, or snap quizzes, or watching videos from the news last night because what’s going on in the world is actually relevant to what you’re talking about in class.

And you meet as a group not just once or twice, but regularly, over a span of months. Students are tested on their knowledge and skills at regular intervals. They get feedback on assignments and quizzes and tests. They may have to do a larger project for the class, an essay, or be part of a group presentation.

Students are expected to do a certain amount of active learning and preparation outside of class hours. And the instructor has to be available to answer questions and give guidance outside of class hours too.

What I’m describing is all part of the infrastructure that supports an effective learning experience. The textbook for the course may define the content that you’re trying to learn, but it’s only one component of the instructional design of the learning experience, and frankly, it’s not the most important component.

The textbook can be well written, but if the class is poorly run, or poorly taught, or doesn’t provide opportunities for students to practice and develop mastery, the class will be a failure. Students won’t learn.

What John and Julie are doing — and others in the future, as we expand our team — is helping to define and ultimately construct the  learning experience for the Argument Ninja Academy, the infrastructure that supports the learning objectives of the program — new skills, new attitudes, new habits, new ways of understanding yourself and interacting with the world.

This takes time and thought and patience, because what we’re doing really is unique in many ways.

I want you to know that that’s what you’re supporting, when you support this project. That’s what you’re supporting when you pledge support on Patreon or share this content or add a review for the podcast on iTunes.

You’re not just supporting me. You’re supporting a vision that is much bigger than me, something that, to quote Steve Jobs, has the potential to make a dent in the universe.

The Importance of Mindset: Thinking Clearly and Thinking Big

I’m going to wrap up this episode with a story about mindset and not restricting your conception of what is possible.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a Skype meeting with John and Julie, and I was walking them through some design ideas I had for the Argument Ninja platform itself. What a class experience will look like, what tools I would like to see built in to the platform.

The big gap, I thought, was what form the learning interactions would take. You take a piece of content, like a video on the knowledge illusion, or Jonathan Haidt’s rider and elephant metaphor, and define a set of learning objectives. And then you build a scaffolding around it that leads students through the necessary steps to learn, practice and demonstrate a new set of skills, pertaining to that content.

That’s a challenging design problem, but it’s what instructional designers do. Now, one of my mental design habits is to think in terms of the tool set that I’m already familiar with, and work backwards from there. Like if I’m familiar with branching scenario interactions that can be implemented in elearning design software like Articulate Studio, I might default to thinking in terms of what those interactions might look like.

One of the benefits of having someone like John on the team is that, because of the size of the projects he works on, he’s used to thinking in terms of the project goals and the user experience first, and to work backward to build the tools and the assets you need to fulfill those goals.

So John says look, maybe we want to create videos for these scenarios. With real people, in real settings. Write scripts and hire a small crew to do a bunch of these.

Maybe we want to build a studio for shooting me on camera, or shoot me in different environments, like Neil Degrasse Tyson segments. Something with production value.

His point is this. Don’t think about budget or tools at this stage, think about the experience you want to create. And don’t restrict yourself in imagining what this could be.

The irony, of course, is that the bigger and more ambitious your vision, the more likely you are to attract serious outside support. People with money want to use their money to make a difference. Show them the difference, show them what’s possible, and they’ll come on board.

This is especially true if you’re applying for grants. It happens in research in academia all the time. I remember one year, early in my academic career, I partnered with two theoretical ecologists to write a grant for a project on biological and social complexity. The National Science Foundation had a pool of money for this category, and we thought our expertise was well suited to it. The grant was to fund a pilot project, the goal of which was to set us up to apply for the main grant a year later, which was for a million dollars over three years.

Our problem was that we weren’t used to thinking about projects on this scale. None of us ran expensive labs. Each of us worked in our offices alone, most of the time, with our books and our computers. We struggled to imagine how we would spend a million dollars.

Our application failed, but it was a good exercise to work through. The projects that won those grants were used to spending that kind of money, they had a vision for why they needed it and how they’d use it. Our application was never going to succeed unless we learned to think bigger.

We don’t want to make the same mistake with the Argument Ninja Academy. John and Julie and I envision this project unfolding in stages, with a high quality pilot project to start, and from there, with something tangible to show and real data on how it’s working, apply for larger grants and other kinds of support to complete and maintain the project.

We’ll very likely wrap this under a non-profit organization shell so that we can get access to certain grants and patronage support. And to signal one of the key goals of the project, which is to produce a resource that serves the public good, not to make us or our investors rich. I don’t have any problem with earning money, but I’m not doing this to get rich, I’m doing this because I want to make something of value that serves a good beyond myself.

I mean, don’t we all, right?

How You Can Support the Argument Ninja Project

Thank you for listening. And thank you for supporting the podcast and my work.

If you’re not already a supporter, and you want to contribute to the vision that I’ve laid out in this episode, please visit my Patreon support page at patreon.com/kevindelaplante.

Special thanks to John Lenker for your monthly commitment of $100 dollars a month, it means a great deal to me. And I’d like to take this opportunity thank our newest $100 dollar a month supporter, Mr. Larry Stuart. Larry and I had a great conversation a month or so ago, and I’m honored by his support and encouragement.

Do you know of someone who you think would be able and willing to commit a pledge at this level? Are you such a person? Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

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