Embracing uncertainty: the challenges and opportunities in dance teaching and learning
A piece by Karen Berry, Teacher Training Manager at The Royal Ballet School
This year, the only certainty has been uncertainty. COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities within ourselves, our businesses and our industry, creating some very real and significant concerns for the future. Although hugely unwelcome, the pandemic has provided us with a unique awakening in all areas of our lives. It has also revealed some deep truths and exposed how we respond to change. Uncertainty is a natural and an unavoidable part of life and in fact very little about our lives is constant. However, we often refuse to acknowledge or act upon the inconsistencies. Taking away what is familiar challenges our thinking and can force us to consider different perspectives and reconnect to our priorities and goals.
Reflect and review
For dance teachers, the current situation reminds us of some core values: why we teach and why our students want to dance. Now is therefore an ideal opportunity for us to reflect, evaluate and review our goals and practices to ensure we are true to our values. We need to determine how best to equip our students with skills that will not only maintain drive and passion but allow them to accelerate their learning, despite the challenges that lie ahead.
Dance training is already overdue a serious review: especially in relation to learning from a psychological perspective. Our profession has been slow in acknowledging research from sport science and educational psychology. This has resulted in many teachers lacking the essential tools that would enable them and their students to not only manage change but instigate it. Tools such as how to develop resilience, autonomy and harnessing the power of the mind can make a significant impact on learning and performance.
Teachers must give equal attention to the development of the mind and the body as we can often be guilty of focusing on what we ‘see’. For example, we may focus on a dancer’s placement, turnout, elevation, lines and expression rather than the many intangible processes responsible for producing what is seen. Consider the following analogy: regardless of the quality of the hardware of your computer, it is useless without the necessary software to operate it. Resilience and autonomy are the essential ‘software’ for realising students’ ultimate potential.
Learn how to learn
Only when we teach our students how to learn can they fully reach their potential. Albert Einstein remarked on this over 100 years ago – ‘I never teach my students – I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they learn’. Effective teachers are not concerned about how well they teach, but how well their students learn. Regardless of age or ability, we should not dictate but encourage our students to make their own connections and meaning in what they do. Higher order thinking skills must be developed to promote deeper understanding and avoid superficial learning. This will have an impact on teaching styles, affecting questioning and feedback strategies where the role of the teacher is to empower students to become autonomous learners.
Teachers should create a learning environment where students experiment and try without the fear of being judged. Students should be encouraged to determine strategies of how to overcome difficulties and challenges: solutions are found rather than told. Self-assessment and reflection opportunities should be regularly provided, where students are encouraged to ask questions. Support needs to be carefully calibrated to create enough independence to ensure the development of students’ self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Developing autonomy will enable students to apply feedback quickly and effectively, relying on their own intrinsic feedback rather than that of the teacher. Students will be empowered to monitor and self-regulate their own learning and to develop their own strategies for self-improvement. The ability to take your students to the state of autonomous learning is the ultimate goal for any teacher.
Foster a ‘growth mindset’
Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit from 2016, states that the secret to achievement and success is not innate talent but grit – ‘passion and perseverance to long term goals’. Achieving ‘grit’ in dance teaching and learning requires developing intrinsic motivation, resilience and autonomy not just in our students but in ourselves. We must promote students’ long term and continued enjoyment, engagement and participation in dance. Research from Price-Mitchell in 2015 highlights that resilience enables us to adapt to change more effectively. Resilience and what psychologist professor Carol Dweck defines as a ‘growth mindset’ are inextricably intertwined:
‘In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.’ – Carol Dweck 2015
Dweck believes that talent is intelligently applied effort in disguise. A growth mindset not only accelerates and promotes deeper learning, but can help avert many students from stopping when training becomes hard or demanding. This enables them to face and welcome challenges rather than shying away from them.
Strategies to foster a growth mindset would include praising effort over outcome and in particular the strategies used by students and the progress made in the pursuit of that outcome. Teachers should focus on what students can become or can do in the future, rather than what they can’t do now – it’s just that they haven’t learnt how to do it ‘yet’. By focusing on the word ‘yet’, students are less concerned with the ‘now’ and more concerned with the actions and pathways they need to take to improve. Creating goals that are just outside their reach, known as ‘deliberate practice’, will also help foster resilience. If the past six months has taught us anything, it’s the necessity of cultivating a more expansive growth mindset in yourself and your students. A growth mindset makes it possible not only to weather the crisis but to come out of it stronger.
The coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated how our lives can change quickly and unpredictably. We can’t and shouldn’t try to avoid change, but we can control how we react to it: we need to embrace transition and see challenges as opportunities to thrive upon rather than obstacles to overcome. I strongly advocate for our profession rejecting the know-it-all mindset and embracing a ‘learn-it-all curiosity’ (Nadella, 2014)*. It is important to push boundaries and question past and current practices: how have these practices served our past and current students, and do they prepare any prospective dancers to meet the undeniable challenges that lie ahead for our industry? By developing autonomy and resilience in our students we will enable them to prosper and thrive in the face of challenges. Autonomy will help to ensure we all continue to learn and prosper from the love of dance, helping to secure the viability of our profession now and well into the future.
* When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he inherited a firm fading towards irrelevance, plagued by internal fights and inertia. After reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, it inspired him to change the company around from what he stated was: a historical ‘know-it-all’ culture to an organisation that epitomised a ‘learn-it-all’ curiosity.
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