Thinking of Your Dancers As Learners and Not Only As Movers

In my research for my doctoral dissertation, I’ve been looking into the teaching for understanding framework, with the intention of studying this instructional model as it relates to dance education.

Earlier today I was re-reading part of a book from my graduate studies: Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids by by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe. Below are some of my favorite points from the first chapter of the book.

The text states, “In effective classrooms, teachers consistently attend to at least four elements: whom they teach (students), where they teach (learning environment), what they teach (content), and how they teach (instruction). If teachers lose sight of any one of the elements and cease investing effort in it, the whole fabric of their work is damaged and the quality of learning impaired.” (p. 2)

I appreciate this statement because I feel that often, dance educators are taught to focus on transmitting content–information about how to perform specific dance movements–and they are not ever taught to also be equally and as deeply focused on their students, the environment in which they are teaching, and they way they are making information accessible to students in the dance classroom. Later, we come to learn that the concept of “understanding by design” or “UbD” “emphasizes how we teach, particularly ways of teaching for student understanding . . . the ‘what’ and ‘how'” (p. 2).

Many dance educators will likely walk into a studio or a space where they will teach dance feeling entirely comfortable with the “what” that they will be teaching. Not focusing on the “how” of teaching, I believe, can make teaching dance to diverse populations of students or teaching dance in non-traditional environments (e.g., in an elementary school cafeteria, on a middle school blacktop, or in the extra classroom that is typically reserved for visual arts classes) particularly challenging for dance educators, especially those who are in the first few years of their dance education practice.

We learn in the first chapter of this book that Understanding by Design is essentially a curriculum design model and that Differentiated Instruction is an instructional design model, with a focus on “whom we teach, where we teach, and how we teach” (p. 3) and ensuring “effective learning for varied individuals” (p. 3).

There are 7 “axioms” and “corollaries” presented that show how the two concepts are related:

Axiom 1: “The primary goal of quality curriculum design is to develop and deepen student understanding” (p. 4).

  • Students will grow at different rates and each student requires a different kind of support in order to develop their understanding of concepts.

Axiom 2: “Evidence of student understanding is revealed when students apply (transfer) knowledge in authentic contexts” (p. 5).

  • “The most effective teachers use the evidence of variance in student proficiency to provide opportunities and support to ensure that each student continues to develop and deepen knowledge, understanding, and skill from his or her current point of proficiency, interests, and learning preferences” (p. 5).

Axiom 3: “Effective curriculum development following the principles of backward design . . . helps avoid the twin problem of textbook coverage and activity-oriented teaching in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent” (p. 6).

  • This point, and the phrase “activity-oriented teaching in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent” causes me to think of how many dance teachers out there approach dance classes for our youngest students, between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Often, I see dance classes for this age group that are focused on activity facilitation, more so than the classes are focused on purposeful learning objectives and creating intentional educational experiences for the students.

Axiom 4: “Regular reviews of curriculum and assessment designs, based on design standards, provide quality control and inform needed adjustments. Regular reviews of “results” should be followed by needed adjustments to curriculum instruction” (p. 7).

Axiom 5: “Teachers provide opportunities for students to explore, interpret, apply, shift perspectives, empathize, and self-assess. These six facets provide conceptual lenses through which student understanding is assessed” (p. 8).

Axiom 6: “Teachers, students, and districts benefit by ‘working smarter’ and using technology and other vehicles to collaboratively design, share, and critique units of study” (p. 9).

  • “A routine part of collaboration in academically diverse classrooms should occur between teachers and specialists who have expert knowledge about student needs and instructional approaches most likely to respond effectively to those needs” (p. 9)
  • I feel that in typical studio-based dance programs or recreational dance programs, there is an assumption that the dance teacher is the expert; though this is not always the case. Early career dance teachers often do not have a significant amount of teaching experience, if any, and it is rare that these early-career dance teachers–unless they have gone through a classroom-focused teacher training program–have been trained in differentiated instruction. However, I understand the challenge of having expert educational specialists on-hand as a studio owner or dance education entrepreneur. I believe that the best way to solve this problem is to ensure that more dance educators who are teaching dance to children have a background that includes an understanding of the art and science of education itself, including fundamental theories about teaching and learning.

Axiom 7: “UbD is a way of thinking, not a program. Educators adapt its tools and materials with the goal of promoting better student understanding” (p. 10).

  • “Differentiated instruction is a way of thinking, not a formula or recipe. Educators draw on, apply, and adapt its tools with the goal of maximizing knowledge, understanding, and sill for the full range of learners” (p. 10).
  • Effective differentiation guides educators in thinking effectively about whom they teach, where they teach, and how they teach in order to ensure that what they teach provides each student with maximum power as a learner” (p. 10).
  • The above statements explain what my primary goal is for dance educators who are teaching elementary-school aged children. I believe that it is essential that dance educators are viewing each of their students as learners and that the responsibility of educating and facilitating understanding for those learners holds significant weight when planning and preparing for dance classes.

Remember, to read more about the ideas presented in this blog about Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction, check out Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids by by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe.




Published by Dance Daze, Inc.

High-energy, engaging dance education programs for children!

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