Cross-Curricular Dance and more thoughts on Research

I just completed a three-week unit of K-2 dance lessons, taught in conjunction with my PE colleague at school. We started this last year, beginning with the dances recommended in the SPARK physical education curriculum guide. These were familiar staples of Americana, such as the Bunny Hop, Mexican Hat Dance, Hokey Pokey, and Conga, as well as Seven Jumps, which I have always enjoyed with music classes. There were more dances in the Spark book, but that was actually enough for the amount of time that we had set aside for this last year. This year, after reviewing these dances, we added some of my favorite dances for first and second graders, such as Carnivalito, Les Saluts, and Heel & Toe Polka. My idea was to begin moving from individual dances to those that used a form, such as a circle, in creative ways. The Carnivalito allowed us to explore space in a long line (actually, the Conga can accomplish the same), and I used it to bring the class into a circle. Then we used Les Saluts to practice simple movement around the circle (left, right, forward, back). Finally, with Heel and Toe, we got to combine partner work and circle work. With the first grade, we only asked them to dance with one partner, but with second graders, we taught them how to pass on to a new partner each time the dance starts again.

Mr. Hansen, the PE teacher, commented on how impressed he was when the students could internalize the verbal cues we were giving them, and do the dance without teacher guidance. I was impressed by how physically exhausting 45 minutes of dance could really be! I’ve always taught dances in my room, but usually for only a portion of a period. By the end of three weeks, three periods a day, I am ready for a break!

As I was reflecting on this engaging unit of instruction, I began thinking again about the call for “research” to back up any and all educational activities. I have several times been asked by well-meaning, musical educators and future educators, if the ideas on my blog and in my Creative Sequence books are research-based. My answer is that they are experience and training based, and that the training comes from generations of experience and ideas of other music educators. Where does one apply research? Do we look at whether Orff Schulwerk is better than Kodaly or Dalcroze? First, you would have to agree on what the measured outcome would be, which would be difficult, since all of these approaches have slightly different end goals in mind. Assuming we agreed on a “test,” we would then have to find the way to teach pure Orff Schulwerk, Kodaly, and/or Dalcroze Eurhythmics. This is an impossible task, as every teacher takes these ideas and shapes them to the needs of her own students and school. Most elementary teachers use a combination of ideas from various sources.

So the “method” used cannot be meaningfully researched, at least not in such a broad way. Specific classroom activities and modes of learning could possibly be researched, such as singing vs. listening, playing instruments vs. just singing, reading vs. learning by rote. But I still believe that the data produced would be heavily influenced, if not guaranteed, by the prior beliefs of the researcher. Since teacher attitude and enthusiasm counts much more than teaching method, we tend to discover what we wanted to discover. The generalized rules about education (active engagement is better than passive listening, for example), have been researched, but are also based on common experience amongst educators. Cross-curricular learning is a big buzz-word, and I’m sure the research is there to support learning in this way. But I’m just not interested. I know this dance unit works for my kids because I see the smiles on their faces, I observe the rhythm in their feet, and I can tell if they are following the music. In other words, if the students are learning, that is the research!

When I’m writing a book and I come across an idea that I think could possibly be controversial, I do basic research. I use the internet, search for scholarly articles, and ask peers. If I find that my idea is disproved, then I change my ideas to match the data. This has happened maybe once or twice in all my teaching. An example is when I had a workshop with Dr. John Feierabend, and heard him suggest that we cut out “intermediate” learning steps like graphic notation and solfege hand signs. Up until then, I had really enjoyed teaching rhythm with graphic manipulatives, but I discovered that I could do the same thing pretty early with rhythm cards and standard notation. Even in this example, I did not fully change my thinking, as I still use hand signs (well, body signs, actually), because they give students a kinesthetic experience. The rhythm concept was a big change for me, but is it research based? Sure, simplicity and not re-teaching makes common sense, but then again so does using familiar images and symbols to teach rhythm. How many early reading books have you seen where they replace a word with a picture? Isn’t this the same as graphic notation?

If you want to do research, awesome. I think the basic research into the importance of music education is vital, and I applaud those involved. In the meantime, I’m going to teach based on what is visibly working and not working, and the experience of others that I come into contact with. If someone wants me to change my teaching or ideas, then the burden of research is on them, not me, to prove what I am doing is less than ideal. And to all the other music (and dance and PE) teachers out there, keep doing what you know is right for kids! Continue to study and learn, but don’t let anyone bully you into changing your curriculum because you don’t have the “research.” Ultimately, if you are asked to teach in a manner against your own beliefs, this will be detrimental to the students, regardless of underlying research.

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