Some Personal Thoughts about Teaching

by Gail August, Professor
Chair, Language and Cognition Department

 

All teachers are different and each person’s teaching style has its own unique characteristics, combining  knowledge of a discipline with personal experiences and attitudes to learning. My particular teaching profile is an ever-evolving attempt to incorporate my connection to dance with my interests in cognitive science, writing, and critical literacy.

          Dance

As a teacher, I have constantly been inspired by my life as a dancer, in particular, my experiences in studying many forms of dance and functioning as a student in a class where someone else is the expert. Many times I have been the person who doesn’t catch on as fast as some of the others, who goes to the right when others go to the left, or who makes a crashing sound with her tap shoes when there is a confident but eerie silence from the rest of the students. I am a little embarrassed to admit my sense of relief when a new student shows up in that above-mentioned tap class, and is actually worse than me. And then there is the sensation of the exploding brain, when I attempt to master a complex routine that appears to be hopelessly beyond my skill level. These experiences have become part of who I am, and help me to compassionately encourage students to try harder to learn new things. Yes, we all make mistakes when we learn, no one wants to be the worst in the class, and our brains can become overwhelmed when input is too complex. But as a teacher who is also a student, I am convinced that persistence, a positive attitude, and good instruction will eventually result in improvement.

In my life as a dancer and as a student of dance, I have become very cognizant of what is required to make a person an expert in any discipline. Dancers are not afraid to practice something over and over until it is learned. Many people are unaware that dancers maintain their skills by taking class (often daily) throughout their careers. In my own dance studies, I frequently studied in the same class with soloists from the New York City Ballet or the American Ballet Theater, who were also doing their daily classes. Once, to my utter astonishment, I found myself practicing at the barre next to Mikhail Baryshnikov. I have also found my self struggling along side one of our foremost Flamenco stars, when she decided to add tap dancing to her repertoire of skills. This tradition of remaining a student as one becomes a professional has infused my entire life, and has had a deep influence on my attitude toward my role as a teacher.

In dance, aside from the requirement for regular practice, there is also the experience of being a performer. Most dance teachers are also performers, and like other artists, love their craft and transmit their passion to the audience. Teachers also have an audience, and good teachers are similarly able to transmit their passion to their students. I have a strong passion for the subjects I teach and strive to communicate this to the students. When I find my own enthusiasm lagging, I try to teach a different course or to find new ways to improve what I am currently teaching. No one wants to watch a burned-out performer and no one wants to study with an uninspired instructor.

        Cognitive Science

In studying dance and also in my teaching, I generally rely upon some basic cognitive science learning principles. Below are the seven favorites that work most consistently: (1) Stress interferes with concentration and learning–the classroom should be calm, disciplined, but, whenever possible, fun! (2) Positive reinforcement has better results than negative; (3) A learner must focus attention on the material to actually absorb it; (4) Learning requires repetition (practice), and this practice is most effective when it is repeated with related but different learning situations (for teachers, this takes creative lesson planning to execute); (5) Sufficient repetition of a skill enables the learner to execute it with minimal attention, thus freeing cognitive attention for other more complex skills; (6) A learner cannot absorb too much new information at one time and new information should be carefully sequenced; This principle helps to avoid the exploding brain syndrome, where there is too much unfamiliar information for effective cognitive processing (scaffolding); (7) Learning (and remembering) is most successful when a learner is able to associate new information with old, or to relate new material to personal experiences.

In the classroom, several of these principals have been significantly improved by using the concepts and activities I have learned from my training in the Writing Intensive Program. WI skills and strategies are useful in accomplishing the goals of (3, Focus), helping the learner to focus attention on the material by assigning journals and low-stakes writing assignments; (4/5, Repetition), using creative low-stakes writing to practice the material in different contexts; (6/7, Scaffolding and applying new concepts to known information); writing personal reflection journals where students relate academic information to their own experiences. I have tried to use these cognitive science principles for years, but the activities suggested by my Writing Intensive training have helped me to be more effective in applying them in the classroom.

       Critical Literacy

I am also influenced by the ideas of Critical Literacy, and try to use these ideas in responding to student discussions and writing. Critical Literacy advocates for social justice, and examines the power disparities between certain communities, looking for ways to improve them. Undoubtedly these disparities exist in the classroom, as the teacher is the expert and the student the novice. However, they can be accommodated with humor, respect, and approaches that encourage a comfortable exchange of ideas between teacher and the student. And when students share their personal responses to curricular issues, I have come to appreciate how much wisdom those “novices” actually have, and the importance of their contributions to our academic conversations. I am very aware of the irony in these “disparities” in the dance community, where students on one class, like Baryshnikov or the Flamenco star, are often experts, teachers, and revered performers in another dance environment.

The perspective of Critical Literacy motivates met to create an interactive classroom experience where students feel free to try out new ideas and new ways of expression, while working within cognitive science principles of a highly disciplined sequence of activities for practice, learning, and mastery. I believe that people learn best in this kind of environment, and also that positive feedback and positive energy are extremely important in the classroom. Achieving this ideal requires energy and flexibility, and is almost as hard as mastering tap dancing; however, when it works, it results in a class with a free exchange of ideas within a serious atmosphere of respect and diligence.

       Conclusion

A performing artist struggles to integrate one’s own authentic persona with the artistic material, attaining a balance between the integrity of the art form and the perfomer’s personality. Teachers also must find a way to use their own strengths and styles, without diminishing the substance of the academic discipline. In my situation, both my dancing and my teaching change and evolve as I continue to experience the roles of student, performer, and instructor. Ultimately, I try to combine my understanding of teaching an artistic discipline like dance, with its emphasis on passion and practice, with the learning principles of cognitive science and WI strategies, while also observing the concepts of Critical literacy. With these guideposts, I strive to keep the classroom interactive and positive, as well as intellectually honest and productive.

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