Is it better for children to learn set choreography taught by the teacher or for them to choreograph through teacher devised scaffolded activities and improvisation? Or is it a combination of both?
Periodically I am asked by teachers about what percentage of dance classes should be teacher led or self-devised. This question particularly arises when teachers, with no prior dance training, are considering introducing dance into their Primary classroom.
Teacher Confidence will always play an important role in what you choose to implement in your classroom. I can confidently say that teachers can make up a set dance or create a series of activities that support students creating their own, even if they have little or no dance experience.
What is important is that children have an opportunity to experience and benefit from dance as a part of their education.
Teachers’ approaches to dance in the Primary curriculum
In my 2010 research into implementing dance in Primary schools I identified three approaches to teaching in the lower school context (Stevens, 2010). The case study research identified ‘teacher as expert’, ‘teacher as facilitator’ and ‘teacher as collaborator’ as approaches to dance curriculum implementation.
Teachers use a combination of these approaches; however most teachers will be more comfortable and confident using predominantly one more than another. How teachers use dance in their classroom will be dependant on their previous experience of dance and how they see it in relation to the Australian Curriculum.
In the case study, the teachers acknowledged the importance of having a strong Arts focus in the classroom. They used dance to create strong cross curricular links and to allow children to take Arts focused risks.
Teacher as expert
Facilitated by teachers with expert knowledge of dance, this approach involves set choreography, using prescribed steps that are often genre specific and highly organised phases of rehearsal. This kind of approach is important for skill acquisition and knowledge about dance performance as an art product.
The focus is on self-discipline and enables students to develop important critical listening skills. The physical discipline of learning, rehearsing and achieving success gives students insight, through the teacher’s expert knowledge of dance, into the professional training of dancers.
Skills often focus on teamwork and precision and replicates the refining process that is such an essential part of the dance world.
Teacher as facilitator
This approach enables student movement exploration through structured choreographic tasks. It supports children making meaning and empowers them to tell their own stories and embody their own ideas.
Teachers design a series of movement problems for the students to solve as a part of their choreographic process. This means that children of varying abilities and experiences with movement and dance can collaborate. It supports the notions of production from initial concept through to product creation.
Creative decisions are often negotiated collaboratively, requiring students to translate their own ideas and beliefs into movement. The teacher’s role is to ask questions that search for clarification, expansion of ideas or further refinement of product.
In the teacher as facilitator approach, the students take ownership of the product they create either individually or as a collective creative community.
Teacher as collaborator
The ‘teacher as collaborator’ approach is often observed in the classrooms of dance/arts education specialist teachers, where the students combine technical expertise, individual movement exploration and deep aesthetic knowledge of the art form. They use vocabulary that is specific to dance and combine individual student exploration, group collaboration and teacher led collaborative choreography.
Responding, performing and choreographing tasks are frequently linked with cross curricular learning rather than being thematic. Teacher led discussions demonstrate a wide knowledge of arts practice and practical knowledge is unfolded through a series of dance exploration that grows in complexity over time.
The rich conversations about making art and creating meaning in new ways are central to this approach. This reflects the complex nature of art making and the critical reflection involved with aesthetic decisions.
As teachers collaborate with students in making dance work together the teacher makes transparent their processes. Encouraging artistic risk taking, teachers and students share the learning journey.
The importance of this aspect is that it supports children with little or no experience in dance through guided practice while still creating a challenging learning experience for the students with greater dance expertise.
An important aspect of this collaborative approach is for teachers to show their process, making them vulnerable but showing themselves as lifelong learners and arts makers.
Which is the best approach to teaching dance in Primary school?
The Australian Curriculum can be interpreted using each of these approaches. They all acknowledge the importance of developing a dance vocabulary, cross curricular learning and the skills needed to choreograph, perform and respond to dance.
Each of approaches to teaching dance in the Primary classroom addresses the importance and applications of learning about product making in the arts and how to use critical thinking as students make their creative decisions.
Ultimately it comes down to the individual teacher and their previous experiences and training in dance. Each teacher must draw on their own strengths whether that is teaching cultural dance, social dance, structuring movement activities that allow students to explore how they use their body or telling stories about their community and the world around them.
What is central to the success of any approach is the teacher’s personal investment in their dance classroom. They need to see the Australian Curriculum Dance as a living document that reflects diverse experiences and knowledge.
The teacher sees themselves as an artist, creating an environment that nurtures creativity, diversity and inclusion. Most importantly a learning environment that opens the door to students learning about dance and through dance.
For creative dance ideas to use in your home or classroom look at the readymade lesson plans and teaching resources available on Dance Teaching Ideas.