Children working together successfully relies on them being able to listen, reflect and think deeply about the task or problem they must solve. Creating dances together requires Primary students to not only employ these skills but to apply critical thinking skills creatively to their choreography.
Productive and successful group dynamics among children working on creative problems supports their learning and social development. Group dance projects encourage children to move beyond cooperation to collaboration.
Some groups work together effortlessly while others struggle to achieve even the most basic of outcomes. It’s frustrating for both teachers and students when a group just isn’t functioning!
Here are some key ideas for setting up effective group dance activities in the Primary classroom.
…in collaborative learning, students’ work is intertwined throughout the process, resulting in a product that many hands have made. Patti Saraniero The Kennedy Center
Cooperative learning environments for young dancers
Group dance projects in Primary schools can involve making, performing, and responding to dance. Many people imagine that the children primarily collaborate to choreograph movement. However, these dance projects can involve students in the full range of activities that artists employ in the professional world of dance.
These group dance project could include
children reflecting together as they rehearse for performances,
collecting ideas for choreography,
discussing, interpreting and evaluating other people’s choreography,
collaborating with community artists to create dance.
Working together helps to develop skills in communication, collaboration, problem-solving and time management. By working in creative teams, children have opportunities to compare their ideas to one another and then build on those ideas.
Through discussion and debate they revise and rethink their reasoning and then present those ideas through a range of representations. These ideas may be presented through dance but can also be written, oral, drawn or a combination of these.
The processes of working in groups is an important part of student learning. How we form groups, establish roles, communicate and collaborate, manage time, solve problems and resolve conflicts is all part of learn to work creatively as a part of a group.
When planning for a dance-based group task we need to think about how to best set the students up for success in their collaborations. Here are some suggestions for how to form balanced groups that support children’s individual creativity, personalities, strengths, and skill levels.
# 1 Assign students to teams/groups rather than leave it up to them to form groups. Unlikely combinations of children’s ideas can produce amazingly productive outcomes.
#2 Give students opportunities to work with different genders, skill levels and cultural backgrounds. Children who learn dance externally may learn a whole new way of approaching a movement problem that is not part of a more traditional approach to choreography. Diversity in groups encourages different perspectives and ideas.
#3 Ensure that children have time to adjust to working with their new creative group. They may need some orientation style team-building dance activities to begin the collaboration to really understand different ways of communicating. Keeping groups together for two or more lessons help to establish a deeper understanding of their peers.
#4 The smaller the group size the more successful the collaboration will be. In years 3 -6 it is most successful with three in a group. This allows for interesting choreographic combinations, less complex group dynamics and an easier road to problem solving.
#5 Keep a record of who has worked together previously and some of the learnings that were obvious through those processes. You can do this by encouraging them to keep a dance journal. Activities and PDF layouts for journalling in dance are available as a part of the Premium DTI Membership.
By rotating children through different combinations, you will observe that they are more inspired to try different ideas from the last task and broaden their ideas about dance and movement.
Establish clear project goals and roles
By planning for these group tasks and projects teachers can gradually increase the complexities of the creative problems and prepare children for the collaborative relationships they will encounter throughout the process.
The task should be clearly described at the outset including the goals that the class will set together. Ensure that the class understands not only the skills they are acquiring during the project, but how it is preparing them for real-world collaboration. You may need to highlight how these skills are transferrable to their future endeavors.
Goals should be
Specific – avoid broad sweeping goals. What are they learning by doing this?
Measurable – either with a performance or showing outcome or other presentation methods. This may be negotiated with the class.
Achievable – don’t go overboard, focus on what is most important.
Relevant – needs to align with your objectives and be relevant to learning about dance.
Time – be realistic about how much time the children will need to be successful. Set milestones for larger projects.
Roles within the project
Establishing roles within a group project is particularly important for larger tasks but may not be necessary for shorter dance tasks. These roles can be negotiated by the class as a group at the beginning of the project.
Professional dancers often collaborate with their choreographers, putting forward ideas and movements or improvising large parts of the choreography in response to the choreographer stimulus. The last word on the decision about the work however, rests with the choreographer. Duplicating these processes in a Primary dance classroom are difficult and may lead to much heated discussion.
In younger children where you are only in groups of 2 -3 these roles are less important. However, if the dance project is in larger groups with older children and unfolds over a longer time frame you may need to consider assigning roles that are applicable to your objectives. For example, a larger community dance project may need initial research, idea development, gathering choreographic stimulus, music creation, costuming, set design, rehearsal direction, advertising/marketing, stage managing.
What is important is that across time each child can lead a task or project. The class needs to understand that the leader is a negotiated position not an arbitrary decision.
Uncovering effective communication
Open and respectful communication skills should be practiced throughout the year with each class developing their own set of guideposts as relationships develop. To assist with this, create detailed guidelines as a class, then have each group come up with their own rules that they share.
You might like to think about some dance-based activities that promote active listening to assist with communication skills. Skills like moving into groups quickly and quietly, speaking softly, taking turns, staying with your group can be a part of general classroom behaviour.
When teaching at a school where many different languages were spoken, I often noticed how children with an additional language watched their peers closely as they spoke. They were observing how the other students expressed themselves through facial expression and body language to better interpret the nuances of their classmate’s language.
This can an important part of how groups communicate. Using dance and drama games to help children to pay attention, and in turn, understand and translate these nonverbal signals can be crucial to effective communication when collaborating.
Children will come to recognize that observing and listening to others is a part of collaborative problem solving. In addition, by the teacher highlighting the value of working together and overcoming obstacles, children learn to brainstorm, discuss ideas, and negotiate to find common ground.
Part of effective communications as a part of collaborative arts practice is resolving conflicts that may occur. It is inevitable that children will disagree about ideas when working together on a group dance task.
Children can become extremely passionate about their dance works! Disagreements during creative activities can bring up difficult emotions so it is important for the teacher to identify these conflicts early. Coaching children through conflict resolution steps rather than imposing solutions help children feel they are being heard.
Peace education in dance can become an important part of your dance classroom as it prepares children to handle conflicts through compromise, empathy and looking for solutions that benefit everyone. It is important to stress the role of inclusion, where everyone’s ideas are considered, and build in strategies for ways that quieter children can feel confident to share their ideas.
Be sure to celebrate when children do resolve conflicts and when they solve communication problems through negotiation.
The role of the teacher
Roy Killen, author of Effective Teaching Strategies – Lessons from Research and Practice, sees the following steps by the teacher as crucial to students having a positive learning experience when working in small groups.
Plan well ahead
Prepare your students for group work by working in pairs first and gradually increasing the size of the group.
Decide how you will form the group and be transparent about the criterion.
Prepare resource material or provide guidelines for your students.
Prepare written guidelines for how the group will operate, the ‘rules’ and roles, how they will manage time (timelines, milestones and tracking progress), and what outcomes are expected.
Introduce the problem or task and why it is important.
Plan for how you will acknowledge and celebrate success.
As a part of planning for group work teacher may wish to prepare written resources that make recording and sharing their ideas easier. This could be a single page, an entry in a dance journal or an oral/visual recording. This is useful if you wish to follow up in future lessons about children’s ideas or movement material.
All of these steps of preparation must link clearly to the planned learning and embrace students’ active learning in the task.
As a part of the preplanning for group work the class should also discuss peer accountability and how each student will be motivated to give their best effort. In dance tasks even initially reluctant participants often are ‘pulled in’ by the joy of moving creatively. However, regular check-ins, peer evaluations and shared responsibility for tangible outcomes can help to support students feeling they have agency and investment in the outcomes.
The importance of celebrating achievements
Whether celebrating success involves a final performance or a milestone as a part of a larger project it is important to highlight the significance of acknowledging group achievements. This could be through a school community response to a presentation, a reflection or even a small reward.
Avoid just linking the celebration to assessment results for the project. Part of the sense of accomplishment should come from working successfully together as a group to complete a planned task.
Self-assessment of dance tasks is another way students can learn to reflect on and celebrate their successes in a project or task. By reflecting on their own part in the success of the dance project children can simultaneously celebrate, reflect, and improve.
Reflective activities are an important part of identifying the different ways the group has succeeded not just the final product. By identifying what went well and why, children can learn through their experiences and plan for future application of those learnings.
These reflections may be individual or as a group, or feedback received from peers or teachers. Regardless of the form it takes positivity is key to the long-term benefits of reflection.
Activities that support collaboration
Perhaps the most obvious way to introduce creative collaboration into your classroom is through choreographic tasks. These may be quite short and achieved in a single lesson. Alternatively, they can be longer choreographic projects that are a series of shorter tasks joined together.
Dance games that encourage children to work as group are helpful in teaching about listening to each other and working together. Additionally, any dance activity that encourages children to both express emotion and also to read their peers’ emotions are useful in developing good communications in groupwork.
Collaborative learning approaches
Like all other skills children need to learn how to collaborate through scaffolded experiences that unfold the path to success. Identifying individuals’ strengths and interests can be a good starting point for forming groups.
The benefits of collaborative projects in dance are closely linked to professional dance practice and lead to children engaging critical thinking skills to problem solve, communicate and negotiate, and successfully work with others. By planning for group work in the dance classroom you will foster children’s creativity and encourage learners to consider new lines of thought.
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