Facilitating Discovery: Student-Centered Teaching Strategies in the Technique Class

Article excerpt

I'll never forget the moment when I understood what it meant to "get your hip down." The class, the teacher, the studio remain vivid memories to me, even 30 years later. Although I had heard the command repeatedly and in many forms from my teacher, it was at that moment that I experienced the distinct sensation of "hip down." It was then that I felt what it meant to rotate my thigh in my hip joint, leg extended in second position, without disturbing the alignment of my pelvis. It was one of many small but significant personal discoveries that contributed to my continuing growth as a professional dancer.

Now, as a teacher, the same memory serves as a reminder to me that the information I have understood through years of experience as a dancer may not be neatly packaged and simply bestowed upon my pupils. I am only one part of a team. The fact that I have many words of wisdom to share does not ensure that my students will learn anything of value. While I might be a catalyst in someone else's learning process, each person's path to understanding is his or her own. Rather than telling my students everything I know, and this is often a great temptation, my job is to facilitate their own discoveries.

Dance technique - and I am referring primarily to classes in modern dance, ballet, and jazz dance - has generally and traditionally been presented as a teacher-directed activity. The teacher decides and demonstrates what material is to be learned, and students, guided by the teacher, learn and perform the given material. Emphasis is placed on skill acquisition and accurate reproduction of the material shown by the teacher. This class format maximizes the opportunity to practice and refine required skills.

Certainly, practice is essential in dance training. However, I would like to discuss a more student-centered approach to teaching technique, which in partnership with more traditional methods may supplement and enrich the technique experience. Student-centered activities are geared toward problem solving and discovery. Student-centered strategies encourage students to assume a more active role in the teaching/learning process. Students are given the opportunity to wonder, explore, find solutions to problems presented by the teacher, and make discoveries on their own. While a thoughtful student may, in the process of imitating the teacher, make personal discoveries, the class has not been designed to maximize the likelihood of this occurrence for all students. In student-centered teaching we purposefully design classroom activities with the goal of discovery in mind.

Student-centered education is by no means a new idea. The values of exploration and self-discovery in education have long been addressed by educators in both dance and other areas of the curriculum (e.g., Hawkins, 1988; Murray, 1975; Postman & Weingartner, 1969; Rogers, 1969). Rogers (1969) suggests that students who figure things out for themselves are involved in meaningful learning. This is learning that is characterized by a quality of absorption that facilitates deeper insight into the material being learned. It is learning that is not easily forgotten. Murray (1975) points out that children who have the opportunity to work through a problem without adult interference feel a sense of achievement and develop independence.

Student-centered activities facilitate creative growth, as well. Students who are encouraged to find solutions to problems presented by the teacher and to develop their own ideas are engaged in creative thinking. Mosston and Ashworth (1990), in their description of a spectrum of teaching styles, identify a cluster of student-centered teaching strategies that foster discovery. The authors characterize these teaching options as ones that "engage the learner in problem solving, reasoning, inventing; they invite the learner to go beyond the given data" (p. 6).

Noted dance educator, Alma Hawkins (1988, pp. …