I often wonder what traits my students need to succeed, because these are the qualities I must instil. Clearly CfE and my learning objectives guide what the SQA and Scottish Government believe are the most important 4 capacities of learning and the vocational requirements at each age and stage. I wonder if there are qualities I am missing because of exam driven focus. My skill as a teacher and the backing of a top performing school obviously helps attainment, but I have noticed from my reading that researchers are increasingly discovering that what students bring to the lesson matters as much if not more than what I offer in class.
What makes a child do well in school and most importantly in dance?
When I ask parents that question, they always have lots of great answers: a high IQ, a terrific school, well-run lessons, skilled teachers, a creative curriculum, high expectations. Although all these things help, the real secret of great learning lies elsewhere – inside children themselves.
Billy is in the new S1, he brought to my extracurricular dance class I the school I teach a quality I have only ever seen in myself. This unique and clearly dance related quality is yet undefined by CfE. But it is the driving force of my academic attainment and the quality lost as a result of years of mis-direction, over work, cramming and studying!!! Lucus dances ALL OF THE TIME (morning, break, lunch and after school) his passion for dancing is clear. He takes matters very seriously (shoes and glasses must be removed before starting) and he will tell you he is going to run a dance studio when he is older. This strict dance regime has not yet surpassed my own efforts whether it be in time spent dancing or focus on my academic Biology studies. Like my parents and teachers the driving force of Lucus’ efforts are unclear. With such a passion, children with this attitude and disposition that encourage good learning will flourish even in a mediocre school. I note the students I teach in Science or Dance who come with a mindset that hampers learning or does not place importance on Biology or Dance do not make much of even the best educational opportunities I provide.
Numerous studies in the US and elsewhere show that test scores leap, often by more than 10 per cent, when children are encouraged to develop good attitudes towards themselves and their learning. As a result, schools around the world are starting to offer programmes to help their students develop key character strengths.
Parents have been left out of this learning loop, and often do not realise that there is far more to securing a good education for their children than simply a place at the best school – schools and teachers can only turn children into terrific learners if those children’s parents are laying down the foundations at home that will encourage pupils to step up to the challenges of the classroom.
In particular boys participation in dance is low as the media and cultural perception of boys in dance does not live up to the media perception of butch males. If boys are mot encouraged to dance at home they are unlikely to pursue dance recreationally or vocationally.
Returning to Billy, his dance makes me smile he has what might be termed the vogue moves; head rolls, turns, eye contact, wiggley hips and the death drop.
It is characteristically girly and made fashionable by the media. Though it amuses me it also attracts the attention of his peers. They surround him as his unique interpretations are novel to them and they post his work on YouTube. Although currently a positive, I am wise (or old enough) to recognise the dangers of this. So unlike the doubters who encouraged me on an academic route, I am the teacher like in Billy Elliot providing a haven (the dance studio) for Lucus to practice in a positive environment with tuition (lunchtime practice).
There is growing evidence that character traits such as resilience, persistence, optimism and courage actively contribute to improved academic grades. I noted that providing Lucus with space to express himself also resulted in him performing with excellence in Biology (because I quite like that too).
I do not have a favourite student….infact they are all my favourites for different reasons. I identify my six key qualities that foster excellence in dance based on my experiences and students. These are:
1. Joie de vivre
The ability to love and appreciate life might be considered insignificant in the school environment where the focus is on exam results, but love and security feed a host of qualities that great learners need. These include the ability to be open and receptive, to be willing and to feel connected. While Lucus is super eager to show and practice his movement, he contrasts the girls I teach as he does not share the love of learning new reasons or movement from others. He wants to interpret and practice by himself. In a the school curriculum there are few opportunities to learn what you want and when you want due to a packed syllabus and need to attain outcomes. My practitioner enquiry researches how learning can be adapted to suit a new style of learner. As a teacher, identifying mechanisms that cultivate an attitude of appreciation means being able to enjoy the journey of learning, wonder at nature, relish a good story, feel good about achievements, and enjoy the companionship of the classroom. All of which, in turn, feed confidence, excitement and curiosity back into the learning loop.
For years, resilience has been known to be essential for great learning. Resilience helps children think more flexibly and realistically, be more creative and ward off depression and anxiety (Seligman, M). Resilient children give things a try or ignore the opinions and direction of their peers like Lucus. They understand that learning has plenty of setbacks and that they can overcome them. Resilient children talk to themselves differently from non-resilient ones, and do not turn mistakes into catastrophes (“I’ve failed to achieve a pirouette, it’s a disaster. I’ll never get dances!”). Instead, they look at a wider, more positive picture (“Ugh, that was a horrible attempt, and I screwed up, but I did not do enough work to centre my body next time. Next time I’ll do more revision, and it’ll probably be a better paper as well”).
There are many famous pieces of research that show that children’s ability to control their impulses appears to lead to better health, wealth and mental happiness in later life. In school, self-discipline is central.
Great learners need to listen, absorb and think. They need to keep going through difficult patches, stick at hard tasks, manage their time well and keep mental focus. Children who bounce about the classroom shouting the first answer that comes into their heads will never be great learners.
Of course, a joyless, overly controlled child will never be one either. Balance matters. All children need to develop a functioning “internal locus of control”.
Honesty matters for great learning because its opposites – deception and self-deception – hinder progress. Lucus is not yet a successful learner as he state “I’m brilliant at dance” rat than identifying his strengths and development areas to ensure progress “I’m OK flexibility and turns, but I do not remember choreography yet.” I feel this needs to start early. Lucus copies dance steps he has seen online and develops them with his imagination but as no dance training and even when I work with him he rarely copies or attempts sequences or movements that he has not invented. although improvisation is a skill so is development of strength, alignment etc which are the difference between class and video clip learning.
The dancer who speaks up and asks what a word means in a story or how a movement is initiated rather than pretending to know, is already on the way to being a skilful learner. I notice in my classes that honesty allows children to build good links with teachers and mentors. It grows confidence, attracts goodwill, and gives children an infallible compass with which to steer their learning.
Learning anything (piano, chemistry, dance) is about approaching the unknown, and stepping up to new challenges. Great learners are just as frightened of this as others, but can overcome their fear and find focus. I feel my role as Billy Elliot’s dance teacher is to provide an environment (within the dance studio) where all my students experience an ethos where they are able to try, fail, and try again. I feel Lucus’ story is extreme but shows the importance of providing an environment where all students can also navigate school life skilfully. Children need moral courage to turn away from distractions and to be willing to be seen as “a geek” if they want to study or dance, while developing courage also helps them to stand their ground through the temptations of the teenage years.
Great learners are kind to themselves. They understand that learning is sometimes hard, and not always possible to get right, but keep a “good” voice going in their heads to encourage themselves on. A kind disposition also draws other people to them and bolsters their learning through the help and support of others, as well as allowing them to work productively in teams and groups. A kind disposition also feeds listening and empathy, which in turn foster deeper, more complex learning.
All these character qualities are great for learning and also for work and life. They are the skills not taught by CfE but which are key to success. Research shows that they help people build more confidence, face challenges better, earn more money, have more satisfying careers, build stronger relationships, and keep depression and anxiety at bay. However, statistics show that increasing numbers of children are growing up with less ability to control their moods, direct their actions, or show empathy and self-mastery, while many mental health problems, including eating disorders and self-harm, are on the rise. These problems were particularly significant when I taught in Giffnock due to the pressue on students to achieve and maintain high academic attainment.
Just as muscles grow stronger with regular exercise, so character traits are strengthened by thoughtful encouragement and reinforcement. I think Lucus’ eagerness in dance shows the important role teachers and parents have in working together to nurture dreams of children so that they can achieve them in life.