Finding the Key To Dance in Elementary Schools:
A study of the current status of dance education in one Ontario school board
By Mark Richard
The following is an excerpt from the concluding chapter of Mark Richard’s MA thesis, titledFinding the key to dance in elementary schools: A study of the current status of dance education in one Ontario school board.Richard conducted qualitative research involving 100 elementary teachers from the Halton District School Board who answered surveys or were involved in small group round-table forums. The teachers’ perceptions of the curriculum are based on the 1998 version of the arts curriculum, as the 2009 curriculum was just being released as this research concluded. The newest arts curriculum is much more teacher friendly and holds great potential for the status of dance in education.
Excerpt from Chapter 5 – Conclusion
From the results of this study, it is very clear that the barriers to dance education in elementary schools are the teachers: their perceptions of dance, of themselves as dancers (and artists), and their perceptions of the curriculum …
Teachers appear to be reliving the lessons that they themselves learned about the arts, as students. These students of the lost generation (Upitis 2005), who received very little education in any of the arts, learned that the arts are not important as authentic education, but may be used to engage their students as fun, but frivolous activities. As for dance, it does not seem to exist in a formal capacity in many schools in the Halton District School Board. Some of the schools where dance does appear have hired professionals to deliver the program, i.e. specialists from local dance schools teaching a unit on hip hop dance or ballroom dance. Unfortunately, these professionals often are not any more equipped to teach creative dance than generalist teachers.
As frustrated as I may be with teachers at times, I also sympathize with them. Having worked as a generalist teacher, I do get the sense that they are aware of the need for the arts, but seem to feel helpless in attempting to deliver the arts in a dense curriculum within an education system focused on standardized testing. I would like to propose a series of next steps for dance education to support teachers, students, and parents in helping them understand and embrace dance as a core curricular subject.
As suggested by several teachers in the round table forums, generalists need to see the product of dance education before they are willing to steal time from other curricular areas to teach it. They must see the possibilities for student engagement and creativity, as well as students’ responses to dance, in order to take the necessary steps to teach it themselves. I propose the creation of DVDs of students’ work in creative dance as well as clips of students undergoing and discussing their creative process and the development of their artistic intelligence. I think teachers, if they see the product, will then ask: How do I get my students there? How can I create the structure or scaffold for my students to do that? This would inspire teachers to learn about the process. I think the first place to begin is with dance lessons that are integrated into, not subservient to, other areas of the curriculum – the areas viewed as core subjects such as math, science, language arts, and social studies. These DVDs also could be used for many other purposes, such as presenting sample work for other students or for advocacy efforts with parents, board members, and community.
Professional development for generalist teachers is crucial to the survival of dance education. I suggest an ‘infusion model’ as proposed by Patteson, Smithrim, and Upitis, in which teachers develop their own artistic intelligence as well as learn to support and provide scaffolds for their students. The development of teachers as artists could have far-reaching implications for the education system. For teachers to understand the relationship between the many learning processes, such as the creative process, the writing process, and the inquiry process, and to look at all of these as artistic pursuits, could drastically affect the way curriculum is developed and delivered.
Finally, for a school board to embrace the arts and dance education, I feel that they need a coalition group of teachers, parents, and community members, as well as dedicated dance advocates, who understand dance education as it is articulated in the elementary curriculum documents, i.e. as creative dance.
In his chapter in The Handbook of Research and Policy in Art Education, Samuel Hope recognizes the instability of arts education. He has outlined questions for arts advocates to consider, and I will attempt to answer those questions with respect to the state of dance education in this province.
What choices does the field of dance education make about dealing with conditions that appear to be beyond its control?
I would suggest that dance advocates must learn to overcome those conditions that appear to be beyond their control. After all, who among us ever thought that dance would find a place in the core curriculum? Perhaps by finding ways to give both students and parents a taste of what is possible in dance education, the multiple benefits dance offers to students and the community will draw more advocates. At the same time, dance advocates need to ‘woo’ government officials with product such as student-created dances and the publication of positive qualitative changes in schools as a result of dance education and arts education in general.
How well does the field of dance education delineate and then protect those things that are essential to its survival?
Advocates need to be aware of and protect those elements already discussed by providing more information and support for generalist teachers. Teachers are the source for the potential of dance education in schools, and, if we can convince teachers that they are capable of thinking artistically and delivering artistic scaffolding to their students, we will protect a valuable resource. Students seem to have an innate interest in dance, as outlined by researchers such as Bond and Stinson, so it is the teachers and other adults who must be the focus for advocates.
How does the field manage the relationship between decisions in areas it cannot control and decisions in areas it can control?
Advocates need to be constantly pro-active and creative in a climate where funding seems to drive most programs and funding in the arts seems to be sporadic. Advocates need to find ways to sell dance as a program that needs very little in terms of resources.
Advocates need to find creative ways to solve the problems of space and time, perhaps forming school partnerships with local community recreation centres to help solve space needs. Dance education, and creative dance in particular, need to be seen by the community as something important for students and the community in general.
How much and what kind of thinking is being done about the short and long-term ramifications of real and prospective changes?
Stinson (2005) said that education seems to need dance more than dance needs the education system, and I agree. We need to realize, as advocates, that the very real and dramatic changes which our current education system is undergoing, preparing students to be creative and innovative thinkers, is part of the core of what Eisner (2002) called an artistic intelligence. The field of dance education is a rich source for information about creativity and engagement of learners in problem solving and the building of new ideas. In many respects, we need to continue to do what we do best and allow others to see it and come to the realization on their own terms.
What lies ahead that represents a challenge, an opportunity, or a significant danger?
There are always challenges with respect to arts education. The protection of the elements (as outlined by Hope) that are essential to our survival is our greatest challenge. The motivation and artistification of our generalist teachers, encouraging them to change their current practices to include far more arts experiences and arts integration, is our primary goal. I feel the greatest significant danger for dance education is the low profile of creative dance as a genre within the overall dance community. Dance education advocates must make greater strides to educate both the dance and the education communities on the inherent benefits of this form of dance.
Eisner, Elliot W. The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
Hope, Samuel. “Art Education in a World of Cross-Purposes.” Handbook of Research and Policy in Art Education. Ed. Elliot W. Eisner and Michael D. Day. Mahwah, N.J.: National Art Education Association, 2004.
Stinson, Sue. "Why Are We Doing this?" Journal of Dance Education 5.3 (2005): 82-89.
Upitis, Rena. "Experiences of Artists and Artist-Teachers Involved in Teacher Profesional Development Programs." International Journal of Education & the Arts 6.8 (2005): 1-12. < http://ijea.asu.edu.>
Mark Richard (BEd, MA) is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at York University. He is a qualified elementary school teacher, private arts consultant and a faculty member in Sheridan College’s Performing Arts Programs.