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References: Takamura, Yukiyoshi: Teaching and Shu-Ha-Ri

Cleanup & edits: thanks Tim!

Kata are patterns of movements practiced by martial arts students; the moves act as the basis for actual application, i.e. fighting or self-defense. The notion of executing kata is analogous to a musical student practicing scales or finger exercises. Note that many professional musicians still practice scales, and professional martial artists still use kata.

Learning music, martial arts, the game of go, new software development techniques, or anything that requires extensive practice to master, can be broken into three levels, or stages, known as shu-ha-ri. These three words are (according to Ward's wiki) roughly translated as "hold", "break", and "leave."

  • shu - In first learnings, a student strictly follows the instructor, replicating each move as precisely as possible. Per the late Takamura, "the student must first resign himself and his ego to a seemingly random series of repetitious exercises." Kata at this level (known as shoden) are specifically designed to get students to focus on basic movements. Some shoden are even designed to create "physical discomfort," in order to reinforce the student's need to master focus. Ultimately, the goal of shu is to ingrain basic moves in the student, so that they do not think twice when it comes time to apply them. Wax on, wax off. Or, "Red, green, refactor."

  • ha - At this secondary level, the instructor begins to grant the student some leeway to experiment and diverge from strict application (but not to the point where the kata no longer resemble the originals). The goal is to open the students' minds to begin to recognize the true usefulness of the thing being mastered. The ha level is where we expect to start seeing light bulbs click on in peoples' heads. After practicing strict TDD for a while, students start to see some of the power of being able to move their code bits around. They learn when they can not test something because it "could not possibly break." Letting students diverge also allows them to note the value in things like consistent test naming, taking smaller steps, or exploring more sophisticated forms like BDD.

  • ri - At the ri level, the student no longer views the rules as constrictions, but instead as having been the stepping stones to learning and freedom. In fact, the student no longer thinks about rules. He or she has ingrained a set of techniques that can be applied at a moment's notice, but has also learned to specialize that knowledge with additional experience-based elements. In some cases, this level may find the master abandoning Red-Green-Refactor to even greater success, for short periods of time. Don't try this before you're a master!

Rules were meant to be broken, but only after you've followed them for a while, to the point of intimate or intrinsic understanding of how they benefit you. Eventually, the essence of the rule has been internalized and the rule (as a rule) has been obviated. At that point, you are able to operate as if the rule were common sense. You are then free to deal with the repercussions of not following the rules.


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