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A Samurai's Perspective on the Classroom

EducationWorld is pleased to feature this article contributed by Steven Honeywell, a full-time instructor for Rasmussen College at the Rockford, IL college campus.

Looking to view potential classroom strategies from a fresh angle? If the traditional professional development books and seminars aren’t getting the job done, consider taking the advice of a 16th-Century Japanese swordsman.

Miyamoto Musashi was the most celebrated swordsman of the Tokugawa period of Japan, a time that revered those skilled with a blade. Born at the end of the 16th Century, Musashi spent much of his life in combat. He is alleged to have slain his first challenger at age 13, and fought more than 60 duels—all victorious—before his 29th birthday (Harris, 1982; Musashi, 1982). Shortly before his death, Musashi wrote down his method for conducting battle, now published as The Book of Five Rings. Much like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Musashi’s book enjoyed a renaissance in the business world as a sort of manual for defeating competitors (Chase, 1999). Taken as a metaphor, there are certainly similarities between hostile takeovers on the battlefield and in the boardroom.

But does Musashi’s philosophy carry over into the classroom?

It does. Musashi’s advice was intended for the battlefield, either against a single opponent or in a pitched battle against an army. However, any good and useful philosophy should be adaptable to many situations including the relationship between teacher and student; in fact, Musashi himself appears to approve of adapting his martial ideas to other lines of work (Harris, 1982). This is not to say that the teacher-student relationship should be viewed as specifically adversarial. Rather, Musashi’s basic philosophy is much more universally adaptable than it at first appears (Chase, 1999).

Musashi boiled his basic tenets into nine points contained in the “Ground” section of his book, the first of the five rings. These points are:

  1. Think honestly.
  2. The way is in training.
  3. Become acquainted with every art.
  4. Know the Ways of all professions.
  5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
  6. Develop intuitive judgment [sic] and understanding for everything.
  7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
  8. Pay attention even to trifles.
  9. Do nothing which is of no use.

Each of these points holds some truth in terms of addressing students, dealing with potential problems, and in keeping students involved and engaged in the classroom environment. In essence, classroom engagement is at the heart of Musashi’s teachings in a school environment. A group of engaged and interested students is a group that has no discipline problems, outbursts, or attendance issues.

  1. Think Honestly.

    The more cynical among us might well suggest that true honesty from students is a rare commodity. That may be true, but it is also immaterial. Teachers must be completely honest with their students. Every student must feel at the very least that his or her instructors will treat them fairly and honestly, and at most will act as a given student’s advocate.

    Honesty is most difficult in that moment when presented with a question for which the answer is unknown or doesn’t exist. As the arbiter of knowledge in the classroom, many teachers feel that every question must be answered fully; admitting a lack of knowledge is akin to failing in one’s duty as a teacher. “I don’t know” is a difficult phrase to say, but it is also one that students respect when it is given honestly, and with a promise to look into an answer.

    While true honesty from students may happen only rarely, it will never happen the moment a student realizes his or her instructor has been dishonest in anything.
  2. The “Way” is in Training.

    It is easy to become content with a certain level of knowledge or a certain way of doing things in any profession, no less so in teaching. Specific lessons, lectures, and projects become so comfortable and natural to us that it becomes almost unthinkable to change them.

    Yet, there are multiple ways of teaching any given lesson and many different ideas on how best to instruct students in anything. Continual study is important, not merely to keep abreast of developments in a given field—but  also to see and experience different methods of controlling a classroom, of teaching a lesson, and of engaging a group of students in a project, discussion, or activity. Continuous effort in expanding one’s own base of knowledge about potential methods to reach and engage students, benefits both the instructor and the students in the classroom. Any teacher limited to only one way to teach a particular concept is ineffective, since many students will respond better to other methods. Only by witnessing and experiencing the methods of other instructors can we learn new ways to engage classes and foster learning. As Rosalie Tung (1994) puts it, “Through constant practice and experience, a person can excel…” (p. 57).
  3. Become Acquainted with Every Art.

    This is advice that Musashi followed. While most known as a warrior and master of his two sword style, he was also a talented artist and appeared to both study and appreciates a variety of artistic endeavors (Harris, 1982).

    Musashi’s call to become acquainted with every art is a reminder that as much as we may think it, the world does not revolve around our specific discipline. Becoming informed of other branches of study—seeking out information that does not specifically apply to our selected field-- gives us ways to incorporate these other disciplines into our lessons (Tung, 1994). New technological advances certainly have a place in classes on science and technology, but they can also be brought into English, history, and psychology classes. The development of cell phones and texting as a means of communication, for instance, has created changes in the law, in our language, in how we communicate, in how we act in society, and in our perceptions. Thus, this one item can be incorporated into a variety of classes with which it appears to have only a tentative connection.

    Current events can be used in the same way. How, for instance, will the recent tsunami in Japan affect foreign relations? Trade? Civil engineering projects during the rebuilding process? Communication networks? Personal and social perceptions of future large-scale disasters? Each of these questions ties a real world event to a subject with which it has only a tangential connection on the surface.
  4. Know the Ways of All Professions.

    Zen philosophy favors the idea of multiple perspectives; and that true knowledge cannot come from a single point of view. Being locked in a particular mode of thought cannot lead to knowledge (Tung, 1994). As with his third point, Musashi’s fourth point is a reminder that other professions and people often encounter the same difficulties and situations that teachers do. This means that solutions to these problems can come from other professions as well as from the education and teaching world. The fact that a classroom and a construction site bear little physical similarity does not mean that the techniques used to enhance cooperation, unity, and safety in one cannot be used in the other.
  5. Distinguish Between Gain and Loss in Worldly Matters.

    At virtually all levels of education, teachers deal with issues of classroom management. In every group of students, there are those who will—consciously or unconsciously—attempt to push borders and test limits. In many ways, this part of the teacher/student relationship is similar to a parent/child relationship. The teacher wishes to impose a certain amount of order and structure on the classroom, and the students want as much personal freedom as they can have.

    This is reminiscent of the maxim that any parent of a toddler learns: pick your battles. Students should have some say in the overall classroom atmosphere. It is up to the teacher to determine what rules must exist (gain) and those rules that can be given up (loss) for a particular class or set of students. Giving any group of students some power in determining the atmosphere and rules for a classroom empowers them and gives them more reason to hold themselves and others accountable for keeping the learning environment running smoothly.
  6. Develop Intuitive Judgment and Understanding for Everything.

    Musashi tends to favor a centered approach to all things. In the Water book, he states, “To understand attitude, you must thoroughly understand the Middle attitude. The Middle attitude is the heart of attitudes…[it] is the seat of the commander…” (Musashi, 1984, p. 56). While this part of his discourse is on stances taken with the sword, it is instructive elsewhere. This middle approach allows for the greatest flexibility depending on the situation (Tung, 1994).

    It has been said that no plan survives contact with the enemy; the same can be said of lesson plans. By maintaining and attitude of flexibility, both short- and long-term goals can be reached through adapting to the situation, the students, and the environment as a given day in the classroom develops.
  7. Perceive Those Things Which Cannot be Seen.

    It’s impossible to see someone’s thinking process, and because of this, many teachers don’t give students long enough to answer a question. One common errors of many teachers—both experienced and new to the field—is being terrified of silence after a question is asked.

    That silence is often critical, particularly when students struggle with a difficult concept or problem, and these silences tend to be much shorter than they feel; ten seconds of silence can feel like 30. Students are often just as uncomfortable with these silences and will attempt to answer simply to start discussion again. These answers can often lead to interesting and valuable discussions of what students really know and believe, giving focus to the rest of the lesson.

    Such patience is a difficult lesson to learn, but is central to the Japanese military code of Bushido. It is always wisest to let someone else make the first move (Tung, 1994).
  8. Pay Attention (Even to Trifles).

    With this tenet, Musashi reminds us that often great truth can be revealed in small actions. The devil may well be in the details, but so, too, is success. Similarly, understanding or a lack of understanding can be revealed by a facial expression, a change in posture, or a raised eyebrow.

    Thus it is critical to maintain a level of awareness of the students in the room and their attitudes. Students are frequently unwilling to admit that a particular concept has evaded them, but body language and facial expressions reveal the depth of their confusion. Pay attention to the students just as they pay attention to the lecture. Question them on concepts and learning to garner feedback on how much they grasp and how much they still need. An awareness of where they are for a given lesson and where more work needs to be done insures that time both in and out of the classroom is as productive as it can be.
  9. Do Nothing Which is of No Use.

    Most people object to the idea of busy work. At best, such tasks are time fillers that have no function. At worst, they prevent meaningful work from being accomplished. Most teachers worry that time in a given semester is already too short to accomplish everything; filling this limited time with busy work is counterproductive.

    Students often don’t see the point to a specific assignment or exercise. Allowing them to question why something must be studied or learned and informing them of the value of a given lesson encourages their curiosity and reinforces the value of the learning. Knowing that something has value goes a long way toward reinforcing (or creating) the desire to learn.


Chase, W. K. (1999, August 16). Old book brings fresh perspective to strategic thinking in sales. Business Journal Serving Fresno and the Central San Joaquin Valley, p. 4. Retrieved from EBSCO MegaFILE database. (322500)

Harris, V. (1982). Translator’s introduction. In M. Musashi, A book of five rings (V. Harris, Trans., pp. 1-32) [Introduction]. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press. (Original work published 1974)

Musashi, M. (1982). A book of five rings (V. Harris, Trans.). Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press. (Original work published 1974)


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