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Towards a philosophy of teaching and learning
Animated, Winter 1998. Igniting the candle - Marion Gough offers a personal perspective on the teaching of dance
If we consider education as an enabling process, giving access to power through knowledge and skills, then teaching is a political act. For me most importantly it is about influencing change - change in attitudes to dance and to the teaching of dance.

For many years I have been involved in training students, teachers, dancers and choreographers to teach dance to a range of people in a variety of community, education and professional contexts in this country and overseas. It has been interesting to discuss with them, what they consider to be the characteristics of good teaching and to have them identify the elements of a worthwhile learning experience. It is evident that the underlying principles of good teaching and learning apply whatever the context. This will be explored further in a book that I am writing called A Feeling For Dance which considers the nature of good practice eg. what influences us to teach in a particular way and what are the characteristics of good teaching.

Teachers and 'philosophies'
What a teacher does - at any level, and in any context - is fashioned by a set of philosophies. The philosophies which inform a teacher's practice arise from their training and experience and they also help constitute a set of values about the educational process which are themselves inextricably part of the teacher - and cannot fail to be transmitted as part of the interaction with students. They will be evident in the way in which the teacher takes the class, the form of the class, the use of language, the style of teaching and the strategies employed. They will affect the kinds of relationship between the teacher and student.

These 'philosophies' may be implicit rather than explicit (ie. the teacher may not articulate them in this kind of way - although perhaps should be able to do so).

The way in which a teacher organises a dance class, for example, will tend to reflect the way in which she or he thinks about:

  • Knowledge - in particular the nature of dance knowledge

  • Teaching and learning

  • Students.


  • Is 'knowledge' something which exists 'out there' in some objective, unchanging form? or

  • Is knowledge a social product, created as a result of interaction between people (eg. teachers and students) and their environment and is this knowledge more like an 'integration' than a 'collection'?

Teaching and learning

  • Is the task of the teacher to pass on or transmit an unchanging tradition? or

  • Is the process of teaching and learning a 'voyage of discovery' as a result of which student (and teacher) seek to create a world of which they are a part?

Should everyone - irrespective of race, gender, ability, age - have access to dance?

  • Is the student like a bucket into which 'knowledge' is tipped a bit at time? or

  • Is the student a 'candle to be lit' rather than a 'bottle to be filled'?

The following statements give the essence of views which I consider essential and I would like to think that they are evident in my work:

  • Everyone can dance - and is entitled to dance

  • Teaching is not simply about the delivery of knowledge and skills, but about transactions

  • The role of the student is not just a passive one of simply receiving, but one in which active contribution is valued

  • The method of presentation should be such as to encourage the gradual transfer of ownership of the work from teacher to student

  • The dance class should not be an embarrassing, exposing experience, but rather an enlivening, invigorating one.

If we consider teaching and learning as a dialogue between teacher and students it is important to be aware of the nature, background and expectations of our students. We need to know what they bring to the activity:
Who are they?
Individually. What are their ages, sex, experience, ability, understanding of dance? What is the composition of the group as a whole?
Why are they there?
Have they chosen to come? Are they required to attend? Are they pleased or reluctant to be there? Will they come back?
How do they see the class, workshop or course? As recreation? Vocation? Social? Education?
What are their expectations?
What do they hope to gain from the class, workshop or course? Technical skill? Choreographic expertise? Understanding of a dance style? The opportunity to dance with others? A chance to keep fit?

A good teacher uses information about the nature of a group to influence the content of the class and the method of presentation and to help match his or her expectations with those of the students.

What are the characteristics of good teaching?
I look for the following:

  • An energy, enthusiasm, knowledge and expertise which is communicated to stimulate, challenge, provoke and encourage students to reach their full potential

  • A safe setting for creativity and spontaneity to flourish and develop

  • An environment which encourages mutual respect and support for all the participants.

We know that a good teacher can capture and retain students' interest, whilst a bad or poor teacher can turn students off and get in the way of their learning. It is worth analysing ourselves as teachers and reflecting upon our personal qualities. We should all like to think that we fall in the 'good' category but, if we are honest, we should acknowledge our weaknesses as well as our strengths, and work to improve them.

Good teaching requires us to be curious. Teachers should be concerned with developing their knowledge and skills. We need to find ways to keep our work alive and fresh; not to become too comfortable with the familiar but to consider new material and new methods - not only to keep our students actively involved but also so that we ourselves remain interested and challenged. We need to think of ourselves as learners on a journey towards personal growth. A journey that has no point of arrival but is a continuous exploration for learning.

Marion Gough, Dance Education Consultant. Author of In Touch with Dance. She has lectured for many years in Higher Education, notably at Laban Centre, London and has over 35 years experience in teaching courses and workshops for a variety of groups - young people, students, teachers, dancers and choreographers, in the UK and overseas.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001