Dance ED Tip #110: Best Teaching Practices Inherently Include Decolonization of the Curriculum - Don’t think so? Read on...

August 18, 2020 - Alex Cook

Dance education has drastically shifted in the last few months. We’ve been grappling with what it means to teach within the context of a global pandemic, and we continue to deal with the very real challenges of simply being an educator. As Black Lives Matter demonstrations take place across the world, you may be asking yourself “how can I handle all of this AND be an active anti-racist?” I posit to you that one of the most effective ways to combat racism in your classroom is to decolonize your curriculum.

Now before I dive into how to do this, you might be wondering: “Who the heck are you to be telling me this?”. After all, I am a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman. I work as the Youth and Family Programs Director with Mark Morris Dance Group. Not only do I have the privileges afforded a cis-gendered white person, I also am in a decision making position that directly affects the dance education of thousands of students. It is all the more important then, in this position of privilege and power, that I amplify this message: decolonization of the curriculum is ESSENTIAL to providing high quality dance education, because decolonization is at the heart of best teaching practices.

To avoid “decolonize the curriculum” feeling like the trendiest new phrase in edu-speak (and trust me, I’d like to avoid becoming that meme at all costs), let’s get on the same page. This is not a new idea and many more brilliant thinkers than I have written reams on it; I highly encourage you to read some of these scholars’ work, but for the purposes of efficiency, I’ll provide a definition here. In their book Pulling Together: A Guide for Front-Line Staff, Student Services, and Advisors, the authors define decolonization as, “the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies of the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches (Cull, et al. Section 1).” If we then apply that thought process to our dance curricula, we can define decolonizing the curriculum as deconstructing colonial ideologies of the superiority and privilege of Western thought in dance and how they are applied in our approaches to teaching dance. What a lovely theory! Now, how do we make it real?

What is white supremacy culture?

To begin, we first have to know what ideologies of superiority are. Again, there are many, many more detailed works than this blog post expounding on what white supremacy is, but perhaps a good place to start is with the characteristics of white supremacy culture, laid out by Jones and Okun in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. The characteristics are, briefly, as follows (definitions have been truncated, full definitions can be found at LINK HERE):

 

  • Perfectionism - mistakes=bad; little time/energy put into reflection/identifying lessons towards improvement
  • Sense of Urgency - getting things done quickly is most important, often at the expense of the interests of the BIPOC community
  • Defensiveness - more energy is expended protecting people in power than in finding the best solution, especially in the case of new/challenging ideas
  • Quantity over Quality - measurable outcomes are more important than those that are not easily measurable, like relationships or processes of dealing with conflict
  • Worship of the Written Word - if it isn’t written down, then it is not of value; there is only one right way to do things
  • Paternalism - those with power make decisions for those without power and do not think it is important to ask those without power about their viewpoint or experience
  • Either/Or Thinking - things are either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us, and cannot be both/and; no time to consider alternatives
  • Power Hoarding - no value in sharing power, those with power feel threatened when suggestions are made to how things could be changed
  • Fear of Open Conflict - people in power are scared of conflict and avoid it, there is an emphasis on being polite over addressing conflict
  • Individualism - anti-teamwork, desire for individual recognition/credit, lack of accountability  
  • Progress is Bigger/More - more is better, regardless of the quality of the work
  • Objectivity - emotions are destructive or irrational, the belief that objectivity exists, impatience with any thinking that is illogical to those in power
  • Right to Comfort - the belief that those in power have the right to feel comfortable (emotionally, pyschologically), scapegoating those who cause discomfort (Jones and Okun, 1-7)

 

Side note - If you are a white person and at this moment you’re feeling the urge to defend yourself, I challenge you to resist the reflex to make this about your feelings regarding white supremacy structures and instead try to reflect on where these structures have existed in your daily life. Consider the possibility that you have simply had the privilege to ignore them.

Best Teaching Practices and their Relationship to Combating White Supremacy Culture

If we accept that white supremacy culture is woven into the very fabric of our curricula through the centering of superiority and privilege of Western thought, we can then begin to look at how best teaching practices can decentralize these thought processes and, therefore, decolonize our curricula. Below, I have listed a series of best teaching practices culled from several sources, including my own experiences (Alber; Aquino; Heather). Accompanying each is the characteristic(s) of white supremacy culture that the respective teaching practice can combat, when harnessed by the lead teacher to do so. They are:

 

1. Progressive

a) Progressive teaching creates space to begin with an introduction to new content with a teacher there to support content acquisition, move to practicing that content in a group without the teacher, subsequently practicing the content solo in a familiar context and, eventually, be able to demonstrate the acquired content in an unfamiliar context. It is also the teaching practice that encourages layering of understandings. For example, a student who is practicing drop-swings in a modern dance class is not only working on the actual mechanics of the movement, but doing it in different tempi, using different facings, connecting it in sequence with other movement skills, and with different movement qualities. Progressive teaching allows students to try something multiple times over in many different contexts before they are expected to apply it solo in a context that may be unfamiliar to them. This practice simultaneously pushes back against Perfectionism, Sense of Urgency, and Progress is Bigger/More. Progressive teaching instead values reflection, repetition until understanding is clear, regardless of how many times that repetition is necessary, and striving for the highest quality of understanding, even if that means covering less content.

b) Barriers to Anti-Racist Application: classes are time-bound and, if you are teaching in a formal educational institution (particularly a public one), there are standards, criteria and objectives you are required to cover over the course of one school year.

c) Possible Solutions: Are you struggling to cover all the standards, criteria and learning objectives prescribed? Examine why this might be. Do you know who wrote those standards, the process through which they were developed, or how long ago they were updated? Do they feel relevant and realistic? If not, speak up - tell your administrators and/or state arts education leaders why and how these standards and objectives may no longer make sense. If you teach in a less regulated environment, and you wrote your standards, take the time to reexamine them based on what you’ve experienced since they were last updated, or get someone else to look them over and give you feedback. This is how changes get made!

2. Cooperative

a) Cooperative teaching creates opportunities for students to learn from the teacher, the teacher to learn from the students, and the students to learn from each other. It pushes back directly against Defensiveness, Power Hoarding, Paternalism, Individualism, and Fear of Open Conflict by encouraging all stakeholders in the class (students and teachers) to engage in a group investigation of the material covered in class, as opposed to the teacher depositing information into the students, sometimes referred to as the banking method of education. It keeps the power differential more evenly distributed amongst the class and gives students opportunities to share their opinions and ideas.

b) Barriers to Anti-Racist Application: Students who begin to power hoard. You know this student - they rarely cede the floor to others and are reluctant to accept ideas that are not their own. Additionally, let’s be real with ourselves, teacher ego is another barrier - we’ve worked hard to get here and, sometimes, we’re not willing to decenter ourselves as a result.

c) Possible Solutions: For students who are power hoarding, or if it is your ego that is getting in the way of best teaching practices, what sorts of structures and systems have been implemented in the classroom to create transparency and boundaries that simultaneously prioritize sharing while honoring everyone’s need to sometimes take a break? This can apply to cooperation in the classroom, classroom discussions, and delivery of feedback. Were students a part of creating what those structures and systems are? Have you considered how these structures and systems will impact the ways in which students are open to feedback and discussion in other parts of their lives? If you look at it that way, it seems irresponsible to not include specific systems and structures of interaction in the way the room is set up.

3. Discussion Centered

a) Discussion centered teaching provides opportunities for students to question, analyze, and think critically about the information being presented in the classroom, out loud with each other and the teacher. Working hand in hand with Cooperative teaching, Discussion Centered teaching encourages students to ask why they are being taught something, where it originates, how it has evolved over time, etc. It, too, pushes back directly against Defensiveness, Power Hoarding, Paternalism, Individualism, and Fear of Open Conflict, as well as Right to Comfort, Either/Or Thinking, and Worship of the Written Word. As you may have guessed, it’s a big one because it directly encourages the students to question pretty much everything they’re being told by the teacher.

b) Barriers to Anti-Racist Application: Teacher ego - “how dare the students question me!?” you gasp with indignation.

c) Possible Solutions: Along with structures and systems being a part of your classroom, de-centering yourself and your way of presenting information to allow students to push against you requires some real soul-searching. Sometimes, we’re going to have to say, “You know, student A...I don’t know...we should talk about this more.” Then follow through and show up next time with more information: “I found x, y, and z. What did you find?” Let’s encourage our dancers to think about their education as a life-long process, not something that ends with the conferring of a degree (and let’s remember to think about things that way for ourselves, too).

4. Differentiated

a) Differentiated classrooms are those in which each students’ needs are addressed by the teacher’s delivery of the curriculum. In my opinion, there are really two types of differentiation: one based on a student’s needs regarding physical, cognitive, or intellectual processes - what I’ll refer to as Mode Differentiation - and one based on a student’s social or cultural background - what I’ll refer to as Community Differentiation. Mode Differentiation requires the teacher to provide learning opportunities that address the multiple learning styles present in the class, although not necessarily at the same time. It also considers how language may need to be adapted, for example less complex vocabulary for a student who is an English Language Learner (ELL). Community Differentiation requires the teacher to provide space for students to share identity-related information, like which pronouns they use or personal social norms. For example, a teacher who says something like “Let’s create a Christmas dance” is not teaching in a Community Differentiated way. Saying “Let’s create a winter dance” is much more accessible by every student in the room, while simultaneously allowing for students to teach each other about their respective backgrounds: “My family celebrates Christmas!” or “I was born in Argentina - our winter is in July.” Both varieties of Differentiated teaching directly push back against Worship of the Written Word, Objectivity, Perfectionism, and Either/Or Thinking because they ask us as teachers to consider all the varieties outside of what the dominant culture tells us is “typical”.

b) Barriers to Anti-Racist Application: Resources - time, support staff, training - these all contribute to how well each of us is able to differentiate for our students.

c) Possible Solutions: If your access to resources to allow you to differentiate successfully is lacking, go to the powers that be and let them know! When a teacher communicates to me that they need more support, my priority is to get it to them because I know (from being a teacher) that the best teachers are the happiest teachers and the happiest teachers are those who have a smoothly running classroom because they are well supported. That’s in an ideal world, of course; sometimes outside realities (I’m looking at you, budget) prevents us from getting everything we need. So, in an un-ideal world, how can you create a plan with your administrative team to make change over a specific period of time so that budget impacts are part of the consideration?

5. Includes Frequent/Timely Feedback

a) Teaching that Includes Frequent/Timely Feedback provides an opportunity for students to understand regularly how well they have learned content. It empowers them to know where they have come from, where they are, and where they are going next by hearing directly from the teacher and/or other students. For example, a student who is learning to shuffle in tap class gets feedback during the entire semester on how well they are executing the mechanics of the movement, whether the sound they are making is clear, if they are in rhythm, etc. before performing the step in front of family/friends at the end of year showing. In more formal institutions, this includes Formative Assessments in updates to students over the course of the semester prior to Summative Assessments (final grades). This practice pushes back directly against Perfectionism, Paternalism, and Power Hoarding by encouraging students to understand where they have room for improvement, reflect on and discuss with the teacher and other students how they can work toward that improvement, and drive the pace and depth of their learning experiences.

b) Barriers to Anti-Racist Application: Time, particularly if you have a large class and few minutes or structures in which to deliver feedback. Also, student disengagement when faced with feedback; students are not always keen to hear how they could be better, instead seeking only to hear when they are succeeding.

c) Possible Solutions: Systems and planning are key here. You need to develop a system through which you are administering feedback and MOST IMPORTANTLY, it needs to be transparent. If students don’t know what the system for feedback is, they will make assumptions. Additionally, knowing how they will receive feedback will assist them in taking ownership of their learning!

6. Proactive Classroom Management

a) Proactive Classroom Management provides an environment where students can learn the most because they are not being distracted. It anticipates what sorts of resources students will need, the structures through which they will interact with each other and the teacher, and has a plan for when, inevitably, something happens that could not be anticipated. If Proactive Classroom Management includes a desire to decolonize the curriculum and utilize best teaching practices, then it can push back against every single white supremacist culture characteristic.

b) Barriers to Anti-Racist Application: Intent

c) Possible Solutions: Decolonization is not something to think about AFTER you have your classroom management strategies devised. You must intend to decolonize WHILE devising classroom management strategies. For example, if the way you choose to dismiss your kindergarteners to leave the “circle” to join the line to travel across the floor is always by waiting to see which child is able to sit still first, you’ve just built Perfectionism into your classroom. What are other ways you can think of for students to demonstrate that they are ready to transition that values the differences inherent in each student that affects their approach to class?

7. Supported with Professional Development

a) Teaching that is Supported with Professional Development provides an environment in which students have access to the most up-to-date understandings in the content area they are studying. Additionally, these classrooms not only have updated content, the teacher is also likely providing a means to learning that aligns with contemporary educational theories regarding effective methodology. Similarly to #6 on this list, if teaching Supported with Professional Development includes a desire to decolonize the curriculum and utilize best teaching practices, then it can push back against every single white supremacist culture characteristic.

b) Barriers to Anti-Racist Application: Intent

c) Possible Solutions: I repeat - Decolonization is not something to think about AFTER you have your professional development for the year scheduled. If you intend to decolonize your curriculum, you should be seeking professional development opportunities that teach you more about what decolonization looks like in other classrooms, how white supremacist culture exists within society at large, and what types of resources are available for those interested in deepening their understandings of anti-racist practices.

Here is where you are the catalyst for change

Yes, decolonization of the curriculum is embedded into best teaching practices, but here is the most important part: YOU as the teacher have to INTENTIONALLY engage in decolonizing through these practices in order for it to work.

 

I want to acknowledge that this work isn’t easy. In fact, it’s incredibly hard to do all of these things well simultaneously, especially during a time when we as dance educators are being asked to take our inherently interactive, communal, physical discipline into an online format which is inherently none of those things. However, it is essential that we engage in decolonization of the curriculum if we want to be excellent teachers. And truly, how could I claim excellence if I allowed white supremacy culture to remain the standard in my classroom simply because it was the path of least resistance? The great news is you already have the tools to do that because best teaching practices inherently include decolonization of the curriculum.

Works cited:

  1. Alber, Rebecca. “5 Highly Effective Teaching Practices.” Edutopia, 27 Feb. 2015, www.edutopia.org/blog/5-highly-effective-teaching-practices-rebecca-alber.
  2. Aquino, Lani. “10 Best Practices of Highly Effective Teachers.” Global Educator Institute, 6 Sept. 2017, geiendorsed.com/blog/inspiration/10-best-practices-of-highly-effective-teachers.
  3. Cull, Ian, et al. “A Guide for Front-Line Staff, Student Services, and Advisors.” BC Open Textbooks, BCcampus, 5 Sept. 2018, opentextbc.ca/indigenizationfrontlineworkers/chapter/decolonization-and-indigenization.  
  4. Heather. “7 Effective Teaching Strategies For The Classroom.” Blog | Quizalize, 28 Feb. 2018, www.quizalize.com/blog/2018/02/23/teaching-strategies.
  5. Jones, Kenneth, and Okun, Tema. “WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE: Characteristics.” SHOWING UP FOR RACIAL JUSTICE, dRWorks, 2001, https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf

Alex Cook is the Youth and Family Programs Director with Mark Morris Dance Group and a Teaching Artist for The School at the Mark Morris Dance Center. In her other lives, she works part-time as the Company Manager for Falcon Dance, a choreographer, dance educator, and once-upon-a-time performer. Her work has been performed in NYC, Hong Kong, and various other locations, and she has performed as a member of Fusionworks Modern Dance, the State Ballet of RI, and as a freelance artist. Teaching credits include all sorts of private and public institutions, nationally and internationally, outdoors, in studios, hallways, and classrooms, including a role founding the dance program at Chadwick International in Incheon, South Korea. She is certified in the International Baccalaureate curriculum at the PYP and MYP Levels. Alex's writing has been published in Dance Magazine. You can find her on LinkedIn.