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?