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In the past (as far as I am aware) people learnt martial arts on a one to one basis (or in very small groups) and would train consistently until they received a teaching certificate. Thus there were no grades, the training could be intense and it could also progress so that the whole sum of the teacher's knowledge could be transferred.
Ian, from the reading I've done recently (especially in Ellis Amdur's new book, Old School and the essays found at www.koryu.com), there were many differences between traditional koryu training methods and the typical, modern aikido training method.
For starters, the total enrollment of the school was small, and there was a lot of one on one instruction with the head of the school. More to the point, the nature of the skill set for the arts seems to be different than modern aikido. I've read a lot of descriptions for traditional schools that read something like, "school-name-here-ryu was founded in 1690 by founder's-namehere. It consists of 64 techniques for the sword with additional training in naginata, bo, and yari." In other words, there seems to be a fixed curriculum.
Aikido, on the other hand, focuses more on principles of body movement, blending, etc. My understanding is that, historically, O Sensei categorized the attacks and techniques he practiced and taught somewhat differently than we do now. The attack and technique naming system that we use today was instituted by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, with input from Tohei and others, during his tenure as doshu.* My understanding is that the standardized techniques are meant to be a learning tool, but the highest expression of aikido is the spontaneous creation of technique.
Now, I have no first hand knowledge of any of the koryu arts, but it seems that the entire curriculum of a koryu art could be transmitted to a student, and the student would get a certificate stating as much. However, with aikido, there is no official certificate stating that one has learned the whole curriculum; probably because there was no full curriculum laid out by the founder.
Regarding instructional techniques: in most cases, the koryu art was taught through kata. In two-person kata, the tradition is that the instructor would take the "losing" side and the student the "winning" side. Today, in aikido, few instructors take ukemi. That's something that I wish would change. I had an 8th dan (Yasu Kobayahsi sensei) take ukemi for me at a seminar, and it was an eye opening experience. My instructor likes to hop in and take ukemi too, especially when we're struggling with a technique and he can't immediately see why. Also, if an ancient art featured the study of different types of weapons, some students would study sword (for example), while others would study jo -- even if the students all started at about the same time. Later, they would switch, and eventually, the whole group would have learned the same things. I guess this would be the equivalent of some people learning ukemi and others learning technique, and then switching the roles after a few months. I prefer our method of switching roles every couple of throws.
Kisshomaru Ueshiba makes the point in his book, The Spirit of Aikido that aikido is in between the koryu arts and modern budo in its approach. Aikido is concerned primarily with spiritual development like modern budo, but lacks competition and relies on kata-type practice like the ancient arts. I do consider our empty-hand, paired practice to be similar to kata practice, but jiyuwaza (in our school: single attacker, any attack, done continuously) and randori (multiple attackers, any attack, done continuously) are more spontaneous expressions of the principles we practice during paired practice.
* Later in the thread, Charles Hill explained:
Pre-war, the founder did have a system of techniques which numbered in the thousands. This was continued by Rinjiro Shirata, and to some extent by Gozo Shioda and Morihiro Saito. At the Aikikai Honbu dojo, the techniques were paired down to what were felt to be the essence of the art. This was due to the influence of Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Kisaburo Osawa, and probably Koichi Tohei (I think.) This was the base of what the post-war students were taught.