The Learning Dance: Re-framing Education for the 21st Century

blurred-dance“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.”  William Stafford

What do we envision as we begin our experience as teachers and school administrators? What is the framework, the picture of what we intend to create as we begin our school year in the fall? Educators and thought leaders, including Sir Ken Robinson, have described the current educational model for classroom environment and curriculum as a reflection of the early 20th century industrial framework.  If we envision children sitting at desks, and curriculum housed in regimented textbook lessons, we have bought into this industrial model.

Imagine instead that we view education as I experienced dance education at UCLA many years ago. I entered each day’s lessons with excitement, with the expectations that I would work hard, I would engage in a balance of guided activity requiring discipline and energy, and that I would have the rich opportunity to explore complicated and challenging ideas with my mind and my body.

I hold that it’s time to jettison our rigid structures in favor of a creative, body-centered framework for viewing 21st century learning, a perspective that reflects the wisdom of both iconic educators and dancers. The arts, and dance in particular, provide a model for education that better reflects the needs of our modern world. Although my personal passions are targeted at full-scale design of preschool and elementary learning environments, key points of my approach are applicable to all human beings as learners.

I am one of the lucky few; I pursued my passion for learning in college. I have an indelible imprint of the importance of a coherent unity among the body, mind, and spirit as a result of my studies in dance. Judith Jamison, dancer/choreographer and former artistic director of the Alvin Ailey company noted: “You see a lot of people in this world roaming around scared to death to show who they really are.” In dance, Jamison offers: “…you can really express who you are as a human being.” Expressing ourselves as we really are is one of the fundamental requirements for a successful life and it is upon that sentiment, with reverence, that we as educators should enter the classroom.

Where else do we see the importance of cultivating honest self-expression, for openness of oneself, than in the process of teaching children? As one who has spent decades in schools, I see that learners are very often “roaming around scared to death to show who they really are.” And yet, the process of education is, like dance, a potentially exciting, invigorating and joyful endeavor. How did we lose these qualities in so many of our schools? How did schools become institutions of obedience, tradition and reinforced commonness? And, more importantly, what will it take to reignite the passion for learning all students were meant to have?

During my stint as a 6th grade teacher at a magnet school, I participated in a writing workshop for teachers. We studied the work of Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, and Nancy Atwell, gurus of what was then called “Writer’s Workshop.” At the beginning of the workshop, our instructor directed: “Please raise your hand if you are a reader.” All hands shot up.   Then she asked, “Please raise your hand if you are a writer.” The room became very quiet as each teacher pondered the meaning, looking from side to side, and a few brave souls raised their hands. The contrasting identification of oneself as a reader as opposed to being a writer was startling, especially among a group of teachers. We are, it seem, limited by our own self-definitions!

We were then asked to recall a moment in time that held meaning for us, memoir being the central genre of The Writer’s Workshop. I was transported in time and experience to preschool:

Within a tall brick building, vines clinging to its sides in woven patterns, I am alone in the light-filled room, my senses awash with music calling me to move. So much about my first school experience lives deeply embedded in my memory, through my senses.

I feel my small space in the expansive room and my bare feet tracing the smooth wooden floor. A shiny, black, grand piano sits in one corner,  filling the room with exquisite sound. Entranced by the firm warmth of the floor beneath me, the music that buoys me, and the strength of my body as I spin on my small bottom, I hold my knees tightly, reaching intermittently to push the floor, sustaining motion. I am one with the experience, the slick floor, my centered discipline, the joy and connection I feel as the music surrounds my body.

 The wood floor and music flowing from a grand piano are the simple elements of dance I felt as a very young child. Dance at its essence aligns closely with the sensory nature of children and childhood. It is a natural expression of who we are as humans. People in all cultures dance, feel music, and engage joyfully with the body’s movement.

As teachers and parents, we wonder how we might motivate children to learn and help them to become successful people. All we need do is observe young children to know that people learn with their whole bodies. When we observe children at play, we see that they want to explore everything, and through that exploration, their brains become rich with the knowledge experience provides.   And yet our schools have become the antitheses of what we might think would encourage exploration and experience. For me, dance education opened my mind to new ways of thinking. My body informed my brain, and as a mind/body unit, I became inspired to not only dance, but to transform teaching into an inspirational art. As I immersed myself in educational research, this, too, became a lifelong passion.

The challenge I present the reader is to think back to a time during which you danced as though everything was music. Think of yourself as one who has a body, as one who moves, and as one whose brain works in harmony with your body. Move a little in your seat, stretch your arms, and think of that last wedding or quiet moment alone in which you moved just for the joy of it. Identify your “dancer-self,” in the way our writing teacher invited us to call ourselves writers; for we are both dancers and writers and many other things as well, in our humanness. And if you can locate this dance/body/mind presence, ask yourself: “How would I educate children if I stayed linked to this experience?”





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