What frustrates me about much of what I read about integrating movement / dance into the curriculum is that many practitioners fail to grasp or convey an essential understanding: in order for students to gain understanding (a higher order of thinking than simple knowledge of facts), they must be the ones who construct their own understanding.
The way they do this is to create something that has meaning. In arts integration, the creative process results in an art work that contains meaning about something students are trying to master in their curriculum. For instance, my students in a Water Cycle unit create their own individual phrases to demonstrate their understanding of the cycle in movement. They also work in teams to collaboratively choreograph short dances about important aspects of how the water cycle affects the Earth and its life forms.
At the end of those experiences, they have a kinesthetic understanding of changes in state of matter, weather, erosion, and many other “big ideas” contained in the water cycle. They have no problem with regurgitating the facts on a standardized test, because they understand the facts in a context that is experiential.
The point is, the act of decision-making in the process of creating their dances is at the intersection of dance and science: that is the exact, alchemical point at which learners imbue their creations with meaning and true understanding begins. This is the magic place where higher-order thinking skills like problem-solving, communicating, working in teams, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing begin to get stronger.
What students learn from one act of creation like this is then transferable to new situations, leading them to enlarge their zone of comfort and to stretch beyond, to take risks within the safe environment of the arts-integrated classroom.
Many books I have read, and movement specialists I have talked with, have seemed to imply that coming to a classroom with prepared material and teaching that to the students works equally well. This is the equivalent of learning “The ABCs” or “Nifty Fifty States” as mnemonic devices in its simplest form, and more like being in your high school play in its more complex forms.
In this linking of the arts to curriculum, students learn dances made by someone else about the subject at hand. Many of them will have their recall of the factual information much improved, and some of them will find they understand the material in a new or more complete way. It’s not a bad thing.
But when all students are challenged to be choreographers, every single one of them learns, each at her or his own pace and ability. This is truly “differentiated instruction,” because it allows children to come to meet the challenge with whatever tools they have on hand. In the process, they will learn new tools and strengthen the skills they have, and they are motivated to do it because the result is satisfying, engaging, and fun.
To put it another way, play is essential to learning and growth. And creation is a playful event. When you are learning someone else’s dance, it’s mostly about work. Difficult work, that involves getting your body to move in unfamiliar ways. You may lose the trail of understanding in the effort to stay on the correct foot.
When you begin to create your own dance about something you are trying to say, you use the vocabulary your body already knows. As you work to connect movement choices to ideas, you begin to challenge yourself to be able to balance better, become more flexible or stronger, or be able to coordinate different parts of your body. The language you develop is your own personal dance vocabulary, which you put into the service of your Big Idea. Then, you have to explain and defend (in an objective way) your choices to an audience of your peers. This is true whether you are making dances alone or with others. Then you take the feedback you have gotten and your own thoughts about your dance to revise and improve it before showing it again.
This is a totally different kind of learning experience from being taught a dance, and it is one that hardly any children are having today. It incorporates all of the benefits of movement for brain development and growth, plus it challenges students to use and enlarge multiple intelligences. Dance-making in the classroom brings the entire being into the learning process: physical, intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual. And it is best at this when students are the ones doing the work.