Shu Ha Ri: Lessons learned from Scrum and Martial Arts

I practice martial arts – not well, mind you, but with enthusiasm. I am also a teacher who devours books for breakfast. Because of my work with a software company, I am also interested in the software development process. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff and J.J. Sutherland (2014) managed to pique my interest in all three respects. On pages 38 – 39, Sutherland introduces the reader to Shu Ha Ri. Since reading about it in Scrum and elsewhere, the connections among martial arts, curriculum development, teaching, and software development have become clear. This post focuses on Shu Ha Ri, martial arts, and Curriculum Development.

What is Shu Ha Ri?

Thanks, Jason Novack, for the image.
Thanks, Jason Novack, for the image.





Shu Ha Ri is a concept that comes from Aikido, a Japanese martial art form.  In the Shu  (learning) state, you are learning the rules and the forms.  You practice them over and over until you do not need to think about them anymore, and you do not improvise. You are in the Ha (innovating) state once you are able to improvise a bit, since the rules and forms are so firmly ingrained.  Finally, you enter the Ri  (transcending) state.  Sutherland says,


[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#000000″ align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”In the Ri state you’re able to discard the forms, you’ve truly mastered the practice, and you’re able to be creative in an unhindered way, because the knowledge of the meaning of aikido … is so deeply embedded in you, your every step expresses its essence (2014, p. 38).” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]


As I read pages 38 – 39 for the first time, I thought, “These are different levels of mastery we can apply to almost anything.” That’s just one more reason that martial arts is suitable to anyone. As one of my teachers, Sensei Steve said to me this past Saturday morning, “Martial arts is for everyone… ev-e-ry-one! Things you learn here you can apply to every other aspect of your life. No one sits on the bench here. We are all needed, and we need everyone else.”

I would add that there are no winners, nor are there losers – at least not in our dojo, as we do not take part in tournaments, and haven’t for decades. Our black belts are not interested in making lower belts look bad (in other words, it’s not unhealthy competition); in fact, they “fall all over themselves and each other to get to a person who needs help,” as Steve put it.

But I digress.

Curriculum Development and Shu Ha Ri

Curriculum development ideas immediately came to mind after reading those two pages in Scrum. Developing curriculum in a K-12 setting is quite different from developing it within a corporate setting. Teaching students how to use a software application is definitely a lot less complicated than teaching a content area! I tried to bring the K-12 curriculum development method to a software company, and for a little while, I thought I had a good grasp of what I was doing. It can essentially work. We can create curriculum using this model, as it is iterative. Here is an example of what I mean, using K-12 ELA Standards.

In Grade 8, students meet the benchmark when they find a central idea in a text with certain skills. By Grades 11-12, they have a more advanced skill set, and meet that benchmark when they can analyze two or more central ideas of a text. The foundational skills they developed, practiced, and honed over the year help them to become more sophisticated, and to integrate new skills into the cognitive toolkit.

Although we could continue to use this model, I think I am making things much more complicated than necessary. Here is how I see Shu Ha Ri applying to software curriculum development.

Shu Ha Ri and Software Curriculum Development

Shu: Learn the rules, and use “best practice” approaches.

Ha: Begin to innovate, to find multiple solutions to the same problem, and to find multiple paths to the same conclusion.

Ri: Use heuristics to fix problems. Use the software in ways that others do not, because it works for you.

I am looking for that “a-ha” moment in which designers and consumers understand what to write and do at each level, and I want its design to be iterative, meaning that for each stage in learning one is “learning by completing” and then revisiting the basics and building upon them (Cockburn, 2006, p. 73).

Shu Ha Ri, Curriculum Development, and Martial Arts

2016-07-08_9-08-38New martial arts students start their training with a white belt, and are in the Shu state of their martial arts practice.

In our dojo, the student is in that state through the first few belts. In that state, or at that stage, students are learning the rules and the basics. They see higher belts performing moves that look natural, but really took years to master, and they know they have to master their basic skills before they can attempt to do anything more complex.

They are also most interested in learning one way to do things. Asking a student to consider multiple options is often going to confuse and frustrate her, because she does not yet know what best practice is. Therefore, the teacher (Sensei) will work on discrete techniques and movements that are easy to understand. In my case, they were not that easy to understand, but for most white belts, they are. Don’t believe me? Ask Sensei Steve about the first time I tried to do a down-block kata. Watch his face. Do you want to know what he said to me? Put something in the comments and I will share it with you.

Throughout the Shu leg of my journey, I have learned the basic blocks and strikes, self-defense techniques, and ground fighting techniques. These basics are the foundation upon which we learn other other techniques and movements. In curriculum development terms, a student (K-12, post-secondary, graduate, or adult) learns foundational skills in a learning progression, gradually adding complexity and sophistication as she develops cognitively. She will need to rely upon these early experiences and return to them again and again.

non prescription clomid for sale online

Bloomtaxonomy-e1445435495371One can also relate this to Bloom’s Taxonomy.  How can one “use information in new situations” (apply) without being able to “recall facts and basic concepts” (remember) (Armstrong, 2016)?  Similarly, how can one “produce new or original work” without being able to use the information in new contexts, or without being able to remember the facts (Armstrong, 2016)?

Here’s an example.

[fruitful_ibox column=”ffs-two-one” image = “” title = “MARTIAL ARTS STUDENT”]

A white belt student learns how to defend against multiple attackers while moving in one direction and repeating the same actions each time. The attackers start in the 12, 3, 6, or 9 position and punch with the same hand each time.

A yellow belt student learns how to defend against multiple attackers while executing two similar yet different techniques, again with multiple attackers at various clock positions, but the attackers punch with either hand.

Students learn the white and yellow belt technique to learn how to move, avoid, and control an attacker’s movements.  These are foundational, and the Senseis intend the students to use them in other contexts when it makes sense to do so.

At the orange belt level, students learn to defend against multiple attackers outside the circle using whichever lower belt technique works, to choose an attacker to focus on, and to integrate the bear hug technique, which is a back attack at the white belt level. As the student moves up in rank, and through the Ha stage, basic and advanced techniques are added to the multiple attack. Executing this technique becomes more complex and takes much more time. Students may also discover different ways of doing things by innovating.  In the Ri stage, students often find themselves debating if a move is necessary, suggesting something different, and saying things like, “For me, this works better.”

[fruitful_ibox column=”ffs-two-one” image = “” last=”true” title = “OTHER TYPES OF STUDENT”]

A person learning Hebrew first learns how to read the aleph-bet with the nikkud (vowel points), and to recognize the letters and simple words in print form.

A person learning Hebrew who knows the letters and nikkud, as well as simple words, then learns to write the letters in Hebrew cursive, with the nikkud, and to make the connection between the print form and the cursive form.

Eventually the person who has learned to read basic words and write in Hebrew no longer needs the nikkud for these words, and has passed over to the Ha stage. She can tell which word she is reading from the context of the sentence. As fluency progresses, the Hebrew speaker becomes more proficient at determining meaning from context. Fluent Hebrew speakers in the Ri stage often find themselves debating the meaning of anything written in that language.


Without those basic skills and the chance to practice to automaticity, a martial arts practitioner and a Hebrew student cannot get beyond the Shu stage of learning. Without that prior knowledge upon which to build new knowledge, the student is without a bridge over which he can cross to assimilate that new knowledge into his thought process. In other words, he’s stuck.

My son Lucas during his green belt test
My son Lucas during his green belt test

To the left is a photo of my son Lucas, taken while he was testing for his green belt. It was a gruesome test; my mother said she would never watch us in martial arts class again! However, he did very well, because he had the knowledge within him. He only had to prove it to himself, and everyone else.

My son after passing his test, and while receiving his green belt
My son after passing his test, and while receiving his green belt

Once that knowledge is present within the student, however, he can cross that bridge to the Ha stage.  In our dojo, when that happens and he passes the test, he earns his green belt.  To the right is a photo (albeit fuzzy) of Lucas receiving his green belt.  Our teachers expect more of him now because of his rank, but not nearly as much as when he makes it to Cho Dan Bo and then Sensei.

When a student becomes a Cho Dan Bo (black belt candidate) and is studying to become a Sensei, she has to come up with her own techniques.  Just like someone at the Ri stage, she is required to become creative, albeit within the bounds of our martial arts style, Kwon Ryu Fu Chi Do (say that five times fast).  Sometimes the student’s techniques are so compelling that they become part of the curriculum!  What an honor!  A student at that level demonstrates that the “knowledge of the meaning of [our style] is so deeply embedded in [her], [her] every step expresses its essence” (Sutherland & Sutherland, 2014, p. 38).

Some Thoughts on the Ri Stage

Cockburn (2006) says that someone at the Ri stage of learning is akin to someone either working on their dissertation, or someone who has already earned a PhD.  Any subject matter expert (SME) is in the Ri stage.  They often know their subject so well that it is difficult for us to separate them from that subject.  They are historians, literary critics, scientists, teachers, software developers, etc.  As I said before, Ri stage practitioners are able to discard the forms, use heuristics to solve problems and gain new understanding, and use the tools of their subject area in ways that others are not able to because it has become part of them.

Not everyone can attain this level of mastery, nor does everyone want to or have to.  Let us return to K-12 education for a moment.  In terms of proficiency levels, these are “Advanced” level practitioners.  Notice that we speak of “proficiency” levels; the goal in standards-based education is to become proficient, which is often the third of four levels.  To become advanced is quite difficult, as it should be, and not expected.

Implications for Software Curriculum Development

Shu: Shu stage students are learning the rules of the software (navigation, business rules, processes, parameters, etc.), and are learning how to use “best practice” approaches.  Learners require new knowledge to be relevant and applicable to their lives.  They need to have a sense of agency – a sense that they can use the knowledge.  If teachers try to teach multiple ways to do the same thing, or expect learners to improvise at this stage, they could discourage learners and affect their confidence.

Ha: Ha stage students are familiar with the software.  They know the basics.  Now they want to build on that prior knowledge.  We can introduce them to new ways to do things, and let them explore possibilities within the software.  Students can fix problems on their own, or describe to others what they believe is wrong.

Ri: Ri stage students are able to use heuristics to fix problems, even complex problems.  They use the software in ways that others do not, because it makes sense to them.  These are the subject matter experts to whom everyone turns when they do not understand something.  It’s probably most difficult to write curricular components (objectives, standards, activities, etc.) for this group, since they are doing things of which we are not aware.

Writing this post has been a terrific exercise, forcing me to stretch my thinking beyond the initial reaction I had when I first read pages 38 – 39 in Scrum (Sutherland & Sutherland, 2014).  There is still more to think about, but this seems like a good start.  What do you think?


Armstrong, P. (2016). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching,

Cockburn, A. (2006). Agile software development: The cooperative game (2nd ed.). United States: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers.

Novack, J. (2016, May 26). Shu Ha Ri: An agile adoption pattern. Retrieved July 8, 2016, from Agile Management,

Sutherland, J., & Sutherland, J. J. (2014). Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in Half the time. United States: Crown Business.

Other interesting items

This presentation proved interesting, too.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s