Is Dance as Important as Maths?

This morning I attended a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in which he argued that the discipline of dance was as important as that of maths. Now, let me nail my colours to the mast, I also believe that every school should teach the arts as well as maths, humanities, languages, sciences, design etc. I also believe that if you were to narrow the curriculum down by taking away one of those areas you would be doing harm to the education of children. That is because I believe education is an enquiry into what it is to be human and is an essential part of our pursuit of wisdom. If schooling was a purely utilitarian pursuit then one could argue maths was more important than dance but I believe that would be to demean the experience of our common pursuit.

In his talk and the Q&A after, which featured just one question from the audience, Robinson (no relation) seemed rather subdued, however he was at his most enthusiastic when he talked about Bertrand Russell and his enthusiasm for Calculus and how it lit up Russell’s life and I am glad he emphasised this because the subject maths can inspire pupils just as much as dance can put them off.

Overall his talk left me with various points of real disagreement:

He extolled the virtues of a dance education whilst dismissing the teach to the test approach of modern education.

He implied that dance and the arts were creative outlets.

He worried about the amount of anxiety caused by our system.

He thought dance could engage and motivate.

He believes that children learn lots and then they go to school and they cease to learn as well, the implication being that formal education ‘kills’ learning and not just creativity.

He thought that we could do away with tests, the curriculum, but we should never do away with good teachers.

He was concerned about the environment.

Robinson is absolutely right when he says that for the child their time in the classroom and in the school is the education system and that teachers and headteachers have a lot of power over how the system is experienced by those who are meant to most benefit from it but let’s look at some of his other assumptions.

Robinson  talked about dance as though it was intrinsically good for the child yet in the next breath he is arguing against teaching to the test. A lot of dance education in this country is precisely about teaching to the test, whether it is ballet or contemporary there are dance exams in much the same way as there are piano exams – the pupil is graded. Beyond that there are performances to rehearse which are as exacting as any test, if not more so as any error is not seen by one person but by an entire audience and you can’t put a line through your mistake and put the correct thing next to it.

This brings me to the idea that dance is inherently creative. Is it? It might be creative for the choreographer, but in much dance it is the strictest form of rote learning imaginable to humankind. This learning by numbers involves your entire physical, mental, emotional self in obeying a set of moves in time, maybe Robinson would prefer more ‘free-form’ dance but his examples included some extraordinarily disciplined approaches to the art, which is all to the good, but he uses an industrial metaphor and, maybe, some dance is quite industrial I wonder if he has a view as to whether this form of dance is a bad thing?

Robinson said he was worried about anxiety, depression and other forms of mental health issues which are affecting the young. Now there is evidence that dancing can ‘lift the mood’, however there is also evidence that dance can breed anxiety, eating disorders, affect body image, cause physical problems, historically, en pointe was particularly problematic for younger dancers, and there used to be a cliché that dancers smoked rather than ate. Performance anxiety is part of the performing arts experience, and stage fright is a known problem for quite a few performers.

Dance can engage and motivate people who like dance and by teaching it more people can find that engagement within them, however, there will be some, perhaps many, who will look at dance on their timetable with sheer horror, perhaps more than there would be for maths, I don’t know… What I do know is that any subject on the curriculum will have their share of those who don’t like the subject as much as they do other subjects even to the point of being demotivated and disengaged.

If children stop learning as much when they go to school and if this is a feature of formal education then Robinson should go the whole hog and suggest that we ban schools as they clearly have it wrong. Yet he says he supports teachers and schools but, actually, do they stop kids from learning, I doubt it. I would like to see a comparison between those who have formal schooling, in which I include home-education, and those who are left to fend for themselves. I expect those who receive some sort of formal* guidance do a lot better in terms of learning than those who have none.

My biggest disagreement came with his idea that we could do away with curricula and tests and that all we need is ‘good teachers’. This, I think, is one of the biggest problems in our current education environment, the idea that outstanding teaching is all we need. We need to accept that not all teachers are as good as other teachers and never will be. Even if all teachers were equally as brilliant to rely on them putting together ‘outstanding’ lessons all the time to prove how good they are would be a disaster. Our obsession with teachers as outstanding, the tips, gimmicks and tricks approach to short term lesson planning that comes from thinking that the teacher is more important than the curriculum has been a disaster. Ofsted has a lot to answer for. I believe the curriculum is far more important than the teacher. The curriculum can be designed and stand the test of time, encompass the pedagogical approach of a department and help make teachers more effective and, indeed, more likely to be good. Without the curriculum, well, you have nothing – no thing to teach. It is by being a drama teacher, outside of the national curriculum, that has made me most aware of this. Good curriculum design is central to good teaching and learning. If by testing we mean regular checks on what has been learnt and how it is being articulated then we are learning from the arts rather than against them. Good arts teaching is constantly checking to see how pupils have understood what they have been taught.

Yes Ken, dance is as important as Maths in a broad curriculum but I’m not sure that if we follow the logic of your arguments through that you are making as clear a case for ‘creative schools’ as many seem to think. I would go so far as to say that much arts teaching is extraordinarily traditional in many ways; highly disciplined, lots of whole class teaching, following a classical or very structured curriculum with ‘great’ set works, and testing the artist in very public ways by sharing their work regularly with a critical audience and examiners. If we can agree on this then I believe that schools based on an arts model will be very different to what many consider a creative model of educating to be, and that though I think play, as your Persil campaign puts it, and creativity is an important part of that model it is not the whole story by any means.

Which brings me to your mention of the environment, is Persil environmentally friendly nowadays?


19 thoughts on “Is Dance as Important as Maths?

  1. Ha – he is so shallow but he does encompass a lot of middle class ideals in his values – school is bad but teachers are important and can change schools to be good. They must do this in accordance with his values despite the fact that he presents no evidence to support what he thinks. As someone with a father who never went to school I would beg to differ hugely, it is I who have been given the ability to pursue creativity while my father languishes in his illiteracy and can not the world around him.


  2. As a parent who is also a math advocate, and who has two daughters enrolled in intensive dance schools (one of which is Ballet), I can attest to the fact that dance is absolutely about daily practice, exams, intense scrutiny, and teacher led instruction. However up on stage, these dancers eschew the same virtues that “Sir” Ken Robinson deem imperative to a child’s education: creative, expressive, engaged, a delight to the eyes, and the senses.

    Only a fool would not recognize that behind every beautiful, creative movement, comes hours of grueling, repetitive practice, and incredibly disciplined instructors, motivating dancers to push themselves beyond what they believe they are capable of, resulting in immense pride, and self confidence in their abilities. Interestingly, all these dancers love it. They thrive in this environment, because they know what their reward is, and they push themselves to achieve it.

    All children are capable of great things. Let them be uncomfortable in their learning environment, but also ensure effective learning methods occur, along with knowledgeable instructors, which will ensure they obtain their goals.


  3. Utterly agree with your view on the cult of the ‘outstanding’ teacher. It’s pot-luck for pupils and so much more important to have a good curriculum to mitigate that variable. This is why the move away from good text books and towards teacher-produced materials was a bad idea.


  4. I follow your blog with interest and am happy to hear a balancing argument to the populist line of Mr Robinson.

    I am curious about this line however: “I would like to see a comparison between those who have no formal schooling, in which I include home-education …” The implication that home-education equates to no formal schooling is a bit outmoded. My home-educated teens take college classes, participate in local high school sports teams and enroll in many formal educational settings, including a speech and debate league for which hours of rigorous research is required. They just aren’t held down to a specific school’s system.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t think you can privilege curriculum design over teachers, or teachers over curriculum design, to be honest. The magic (if you like) happens somewhere between the two – and the perception of what is good hides in the heart of the child.

    I know, I know, I’ll never make it as a schools inspector. Far too wiffly.


      1. Indeed. Hmmm. In a National Curriculum world, not many of us have designed our own curriculum.

        And I’m not sure that teaching is an art. More like a craft, or engineering.


      2. Exactly, which is why something like the trivium gives structure for those new to the art. Can you explain what you think the difference between art and craft is?


      3. Perhaps craft gives my mind a less high brow vision. I like the engineering one too – ingenious thinker. We certainly have to be that. Practical problem solver. Imaginer of solutions.


  6. Excellent post. Did he really say we could do away with the curriculum or was he just being rhetorical? Of course if we did, that would clear the way for the next paradigm – sustainability. I know, I know – ‘paradigm’ is one of those ‘totalising’ words sociologists and lefties like to bandy about 😉 Nevertheless, I think it’s coming. Persil watch out.. Great that you’ve reaffirmed your belief in a broad ‘liberal-humanist’ curriculum yet challenged soft-hearted/woolly-minded Progressives on the dirty ‘discipline’ word – ‘Oh no, dance is spontaneous!’ etc etc. Overall sounds like you’d enjoy a pint and natter with Sir Ken of Creativityshire. But you’d lead him on a merry dance intellectually.


  7. Two things occur here to me.

    1) Having taught in a lot of different schools in the last decade or so and having put on a lot of school shows and such there seems to be a distinct upturn in the number of pupils who audition for a show but then drop out because actually rehearsing to put on a show or a concert or a play is hard and boring work. The endless repetitive rehearsals and practicing mixed with a lot of sitting around. Is a lack of these experiences in more academic subjects having an impact on what pupils expect from the Arts? Arts are supposed to be fun so how comes it’s more boring than my super funtime interactive Maths lesson? In my experience schools that are more focused on those super whizzy groupwork, collaborative, creative lessons with all the Ofsted expected (read SLT expected) bells and whistles tend to have a higher drop out rate of performances and a lower engagement rate for lessons like Drama and music at KS4+5.

    2) If, as mentioned above, creativity actually takes a lot of time and practice and planning in order to get it polished and ready for performance then how comes we are expecting teachers to create lessons of the equivalent in whichever subject they are teaching for 20+ lessons a week, every week? And how are we expecting the pupils to ‘perform’ without the arduous practice and knowledge required first?

    Seems like we’re saying that the iceberg is only that which can be seen.


  8. <>

    Yes it is!

    “Creative” and “expressive” arts are called so for a reason!

    The arts in schools are far from “extraordinarily traditional” and “the strictest form of rote learning imaginable”, as you suggest.

    If you went out and asked bunch or art, drama, music and dance teachers what the mainstay of their praxis was, you might get a better idea of the experiential, personal, communal nature of those subjects.



  9. There’s another thing, which is that just because some things can be taught in schools doesn’t mean that is the best place for them.

    We do PE in school, sure. But sport is mostly taught outside the standard school hours — and in most countries outside school entirely. Dance is something that should be offered in schools, so that students can experience it, but which is not mostly taught in school if they choose to take it seriously.

    I work at a boy’s school. I can tell you now that compulsory dance would go down like a cup of old sick. It would be hated well more than Maths — it wouldn’t even be close.

    Actually hatred of Maths, while big among luvvies, is not actually that common — most kids see the point of doing it, even if they don’t actively like it. It’s just those that hate Maths really make a big fuss about it, while those that hate music, say, don’t get too exercised about the whole thing.

    Kids, in my experience, mostly hate things that they perceive as have zero practical point and that require work, which is why our school’s compulsory Religious Education is universally the least liked.


    1. Well some of SKR’s points aren’t very creative. I mean it’s over half a century since Victor Papanek, that early eco-warrior and author of the delightfully rabble-rousing book Design for the Real World, argued that school killed off “creative imagination” by the age of six. And they likely borrowed that from elsewhere.

      I’m a bit tired of people with Big Ideas[tm] who argue as though all children are wrought in their image i.e. what’s good for them and theirs is clearly good for everyone else. Do they ever go anywhere near a representative bunch of real children who haven’t all turned up somewhere because they’re very interested in [insert specialism]?

      I consulted Y8 Sprogette on the way back from her piano lesson and learnt that time-tabled dance would not work for her because “I’m not skinny enough! [she has a perfect BMI right in the middle of the ‘green zone’] … if you want to be a dancer you have to start when you’re two-years old … none of the boys would want to do it unless, maybe, it was like that group on BGT, only none of them can do gymnastics so they’d probably break their necks”. So that’s that then. Well except this introvert would happily do dance instead of drama, but she’d likely choose to dig ditches in place of drama provided no one watched.

      Serious time-tabled dance would likely share many of the same problems as music. In Sprogette’s mixed-SES school with one mixed-ability form music lesson per week, the genre studying part doesn’t seem that remarkable but the ‘creative’ stuff is inevitably done in small groups where one child might have once done some chair drumming for ten minutes last year, and another might have a traditional G5 or above. I routinely hear things like “It’s soooo frustrating because they just can’t count!”, “Milly sings really, really loudly because she’s special and does ‘professional shows’ but it’s *always* out of tune!” and of course “It was a waste of time because they were just chatting and wouldn’t practice”. Perhaps it gets better in Y10 when vaguely more committed children have picked music as an option, but that’s an evil teach-to-test stage.


  10. Ken has done allot, I think, for encouraging the general public to be critical of formal education. I’m not sure if his messages are for teachers though? He’s a captivating public speaker but, as you point out Martin, the logic of his arguments don’t hold strong on inspection. But I think this is OK; he’s too smart to not be aware of this. His role is as an agitator, as far as I can see.

    P.S. Martin, I’m presenting in the StudentZone same time as you at EducationFest so won’t get to see you live but maybe see you around. Have a great time!

    Liked by 1 person

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