Let’s dance

Let’s Dance …

Some of my fondest memories are surrounding dancing. I learned how to Polka with my Grandfather. I have many memories of dancing with my Dad, including learning how to Waltz.  My son, as an infant, would only calm down with “dancing.” Many days we would dance for two or more hours. And now, I look forward, every year to the one polka dance my daughter promises me at a community event.

Thus, with all of these fond memories of dancing, it’s probably not surprising that dancing has become a metaphor for me as to what great teachers do.

In dancing, there is a give and take between two people. There is a form of non-verbal communication, especially with the Polka (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Polka, this clip can give you a sense http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=782aze89Ty4 ).

In teaching, there, too, is a form of non-verbal communication that takes place … with the give and take between two people (or the teacher and the entire class). Though the teacher is “the lead” if she doesn’t receive information from her dance partner, the dance will not turn out well, and I would predict the dance partner will leave.  There has to be that give and take, that continuous communication, and continuous adjustment for learning to occur at the highest levels. I believe the dance is gone in electronic based education.

Now, anyone who has been reading this blog for any period of time knows I am a fan of http://khanacademy.com. I encourage you to make use of this great website for your students (and your own children). A great interview with Sal Khan and Khan Academy can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kh60v5PxMk&feature=player_embedded

What we can all learn about teaching from the strength of Khan Academy is how each of the topics are broken down into the component pieces. This should be true in the classroom environment, too.  Students, then, have to truly master those components through what some may call “Drill and Kill” but I like to think of as “training one’s brain.”  Students have to get a certain number of problems correct in a row, with Khan Academy before they receive an “award” for completing the task. Even one small error could result in having the student to start over from the beginning. I’ve been a fan of drill and practice, as an important component of learning for years , and the research is clear … drill and practice of component parts are necessary though not sufficient to assure mastery of information like statistics. Though I find such skill development, as put forth in Khan Academy, to be necessary for learning, it is only the beginning, not the end of learning.

Classroom learning can help shift with students’ … take their waning attention on the Friday before Spring Break. Yes, even on the Friday before Spring Break, classroom seats should be filled, as important learning is taking place. Yet, the students’ minds are often less focused. The teacher in the front of the classroom can focus their thoughts through examples … if one doesn’t work (as you can tell by the look in their eyes — or lack their of), then you switch until you hit on the right combination … it is, indeed, a dance. Teachers can help identify what component pieces of information may be missing and help guide the class toward mastering that component piece. The teacher can aid in integrating the knowledge through questioning … an old and well tested pedagogical technique called Socratic Method, which enables students to thinker deeper and over time, faster that assures students to find weaknesses within their thinking  (Though there are a lot of descriptions of the Socratic method, here is one: http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/a-liberating-education/socratic-method ). Of course, individuals can say … this can be replicated on line, I suppose if the entire class is being conducted synchronously, but, you still lose information … information you get from non-verbal cues, information that could help in the dance.

Now, I have been looking for research in this area, and haven’t found any. There is plenty of research attempting to show that students can perform as well without a teaching in the front of the class, but that is with a typical 50% drop rate!

Could you imagine a university keeping a new professor if 50% of all students who took his class dropped it?  Yet, no one is talking about this fairly robust trend … a 50% drop rate, which I even see in my on-line classes.

Yet, if you listen to Sal Khan, it seems like he is saying … education can completely change, and all you need is a computer. If you read about the Falling of Universities, it seems like people think it is possible to learn as much from a computer as from a human, but computers can’t dance … and until they can (which I suspect will result in them first having passed the Turing Test), computers can become a tool in the path toward education, but it will be a tool a skilled teacher will need to wield, not merely hand over to students.

If anyone sees research on how to teach the “dance” to new faculty or how to assess the “dance,” please let me know … for those of you looking for an interesting research area in education/teaching/pedagogy … I really think over the course of the next ten years, this  will be a hot topic, as we better understand what children and adults can and cannot learn from a machine.

Happy Dancing!

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