Learning by doing; teaching by learning.

Damon Stone linked up this post, On Kinesthetic Teaching Part I by Cierra (August 26, 2016). Damon introduced the post by saying,

So similar to my own experience.

Both Damon and Cierra are African American, or as Cierra puts it, Black American. I think it’s important to note the way both Damon and Cierra place ethnic and cultural identity right there are the front of this discussion. This is a story about race, about culture, about People, about cultural practice, cultural values, and about identity. It says, ‘These are Black American dances. We are Black Americans.’
The ownership, the cultural positioning is very important. Because, as Cierra’s post continues, dances like blues or lindy hop or vernacular jazz have been appropriated by not-Black-American communities all over the world, and commodified by not-Black-American teachers and schools. As a white woman, I think it’s important to remember ownership, to do things like show appreciation by asking permission, or signifying respect by listening. And I have long felt that the way we share dance knowledge reflects relationships of power. If I package up a dance and sell it, I am appropriating it for my cultural and financial gain. If I position the dance in particular ways through my teaching methods, I am appropriating the dance for a particular ideology and social discourse.

For me, lindy hop is social discourse. It is ideas in motion. And that means, if I am do to good feminism, if I am to show respect for this dance’s origins, I need to be cognisant of my own privilege and social power. I also see it as a responsibility to name check the creators and creating communities of these dances. I need to remember who my elders are, and who (to borrow from indigenous Australian discourse) the traditional custodians of culture are. I think that the least I can do is rework my teaching practices to destabilise the power and authority of a middle class, white woman’s body. And to remind students of their own power and ability.

I’m sorry that I responded to this post by telling a story about me. I should have just let that original post stand, and said ‘yes!’ as loudly as I could. But, well, I didn’t. Anyway, here is the comment I wrote on Damon’s post. Thank you for writing the original post, Cierra, and thank you for drawing it to my attention, Damon.

I wish there was a follow up post on this topic I could read immediately. It was very interesting, and I want MORE!

To refer to some comments responding to Damon’s post, I don’t take the ‘kinaesthetic teaching’ title as a specific signpost that this post is about Gardener’s ‘multiple intelligences’ learning theory (which has been thoroughly disputed). Instead, I think it’s a good way of saying, “Hello! Look out, this post will talk about learning-by-doing; teachers encouraging students to try/learn through encouraging them to value their own experiences and judgement (‘you know what cooked chicken looks like’); and student-centredness.” In other words, students learn by getting in and trying it, valuing their own observations, rather than being ‘told’ the answer, reinforcing verbal learning/teaching.
I think the references to ‘european teaching traditions’ foreground ethnicity in learning and cultural practice.

I especially like this bit in the article: by using this alternative teaching model,

Students learn to be empowered, how to focus on the music, how to relax, be athletic, work in partnership, own their ideas and how to be dancers and not just to follow a pattern.

To me, this clearly articulates the way dance classes and dance spaces can be agents for social justice. Social, vernacular dance is radical. And exciting. So beautifully accessible.

Which very much echoes much of the literature which critiques traditional classroom models in western teaching practice. ie a class where the teacher is the authority and centre, a model of teaching where teachers ‘inject’ knowledge into a student’s blank-canvas brain (therefore making teachers the source of all knowledge), and a classroom model where students sit silently (metaphorically) in rows, facing a teacher/blackboard.

We’ve been experimenting with some of these methods in our lindy hop classes, and one of the most interesting points in Cierra’s article resonates with things I’ve noticed in class. Some students really struggle with a class model where they’re expected to learn through trying, and not given a quick, concise answer to their question by a teacher-authority. I see older white men in particular really struggle with developing cooperative learning/experimenting skills, I see them get frustrated by not having a single, definitive answer, and we regularly have to signpost their progress so they don’t get shitty.
In contrast, we see women, POC, and younger people enjoy the fact that we say (in response to questions) things like, “Hey, that’s an interesting question. Can you all take some time with the music now and work with your partner to see what you think?” and then we put on the music, and just let them figure it out for themselves. When we then bring them together, they give multiple (and often conflicting) reports, and we say, “Oh yes. I think all of those answers are correct,” some students really struggle with this. They want to know the RIGHT way to do things! They want to know exactly how to hold their partner’s hand, where to put their feet.
And I think this is because they don’t trust themselves to know what to do. Which makes me so sad: we know how to hold hands! We know how to embrace someone! We know how to walk! We know how to enjoy music!

For me, as a teacher, the hardest part has been unlearning a lot of the learning and teaching skills I had from working in universities: I’ve had to step back and let students figure out how to do things on their own, rather than jumping in to ‘correct’ them all the time. It’s really hard. I’m having to work very hard on not working so hard in class :D
The very best consequence for me is that I find teaching far more fun, and less stressful, and students are more likely to ask me to dance or hang out with me like a buddy. They don’t teach me like an unreachable TEACHER. And as a person in class with students, I find classes a really valuable learning opportunity. I’ve learnt so much about dancing since I started teaching. And I love it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *