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Why isn’t school more like ballet?

March 10, 2011

I teach a wonderful student, C, who shows incredible potential in science. She comes to our 21st century physics meetings every tuesday morning without fail, she is always willing to throw herself into a goal-less problem, and her written work shows a level of insight and thoughtfulness that is truly quite rare. She’s also been a driving force behind the math/science salon. But at the same time, even though C sees all this success in physics, she finds it hard, and frustrating, because it is a struggle—it’s something that doesn’t come naturally.

C also happens to be a tremendous dancer, and so I like to get her to think about her struggles in physics in light of all the struggle that is required to become an extraordinary dancer. In particular, when she and S were hanging out in my classroom, I asked her about the grand jete, a very challenging move in ballet (that I only know about from reading the physics of this particular move in Halliday and Resnick, back when I started studying physics). S asked C, “What’s a grand jete?” to which C replied:

“it’s a really big scary leap that I’m not very good at, but it’s fun”

So that comment really got me going. A dancer can cause great personal injury by failing at the grand jete, and no matter how scary a physics problem is, it will never lead to a broken bone. Furthermore, we’ve SBG-ified the class so that mistakes become learning opportunities, and students aren’t punished for not getting the concept right the first time. Yet this fear still persists. C and I talked about it some more, but we really couldn’t come to any easy answers. It’s a super important questions, because I don’t want the challenge of this class to turn away students like C who have such great potential in science. I’m left wondering how I can get my students to see the fun in the big scary leaps they can take in physics class.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2011 10:22 pm

    The only way to find the boundaries of your abilities is to find out where you fail. That first failure helps you identify where to work hardest to push beyond your current abilities to greater ability/understanding. When achieved, the feeling of surpassing yourself is the one of most exhilarating “fun” feelings. Like the idiom ‘you have to know pain to know pleasure’, you have to feel the anxiety and fear of failure before you can feel the exhilaration of struggling beyond your limits.

    • March 12, 2011 9:05 am

      Marilyn, this is a great point. But why is the pain empowering and enjoyable in activities like ballet, but debilitating in school?

      • March 13, 2011 9:14 pm

        Sorry so slow to respond. I can’t be sure why this is so but one of the first thoughts I have is — When does or would dance become scary? I think dance would only become scary once you are up on stage before a critical crowd or maybe when you have your first serious audition for a part that you really want…. But well before you encounter moments like these you will, as a child, have taken many years of dance. You will probably have associated positive growth without much antagonism about your abilities because parents and teachers are likely to be nurturing during formative years and while peers might make a side comment once in awhile, dance class is a short time-frame so you are not surrounded by negative peer input every day/all day — and the positives coming from parents and teachers can counter anything negative thrown your way by peers. So more pleasure is experienced per amount of panic/pain & you can build a positive association with the activity. With academics, a child is in a classroom all day with peers constantly scrutinizing each others abilities. In addition there is a grading system. If you make a mistake or get a bad grade — kids will groan, roll eyes, they will label & call names…. and they will do this all day every day. In a setting where kids so readily rank each other and under such intensity, anxiety will naturally build any time a child struggles in any way. Anxiety is such a miserable emotion – of course – a person will avoid it — so quitting or not trying is an easy way to feel better — but it is soooo detrimental to growth over the long term.

        Something else to consider – doing something physical helps to relieve the stress/anxiety so once you begin dancing, you can,naturally, shake off the stress. When you start a math or physics problem or, for some, writing assignment — the world of unknown sits before you and there is no way to reduce stress or fear except using mental exercises such as saying to yourself “it does not matter what happens in the end — just trying is good” or “Oh Boy! A puzzle to solve!” or “try/practice & grow” — My guess is that it is hard to build this type of mental talk without training and positive reinforcement… alternatively … students could run laps or dance while they are trying to solve problems 🙂

        • March 14, 2011 7:57 pm

          These are such good points. I really like the idea about learning dance in an environment of positive growth for many years before you ever have a “stressful” audition. How can we make school more like that? Is the very nature of jumping from one course to another aligned against this? And the peer culture is critical. It’s something that a number of our students recognize, and are trying to work on, but they are certainly have a uphill battle, especially when you consider the larger societal pressures.

  2. March 11, 2011 7:54 am


    Here is a quote from Robyn Jackson’s book, Never Work Harder Than Your Students. You are asking a good question:

    “I have always been frustrated by how many of my students are afraid to answer questions in class for fear of being wrong. Learning is about taking risks, but far too many students are afraid to take risks in the classroom lest they be ridiculed by their friends or feel “dumb.” For years I cajoled and encouraged my students to take more risks, but few did. One day, I realized that I may be contributing to the problem.”

    I wonder if our own expertise as a teacher gets in the way of students feeling comfortable taking risks. I wonder what she means by the last sentence in the quote. It seems to me that given the respect and admiration (and authority over grades-judging, etc.) that students have for us, might make it hard for them to be comfortable taking risks into the unknown. What if the classroom were devoid of grades, judging, evaluating, etc. and a place were ideas flowed naturally with no sense of “I will be tested on whether I know this stuff.” Would risk-taking be more acceptable?

    We do fear judgement. Not saying you do that but by the very nature of your position, you may be unconsciously communicating that to C and S.

    Bob Ryshke

    • March 12, 2011 9:08 am

      I definitely think school would be more open risk-taking if classrooms were transformed to be less about grades and judgment (this is much of what I’ve tried to do in my own classroom). However, I’m starting to believe it takes more than just my classroom to make this shift for students—it won’t work if right after my class they have to go somewhere else where they feel that any risk might spell failure and negative consequences for the rest of of their lives.

      • March 13, 2011 9:49 pm

        I have no doubt that you are battling an entire system working in the opposite direction BUT…

        Don’t give up!!! One teacher can plant a seed – an idea – and while it may be a season or two before the seed opens your idea can open up at an unexpected, welcome time.

        Given that the blossom might not open this year for your students – here is a crazy thought – What if you took five minutes every now and then and just ask your students “What if you did not have to worry about grades – would you be willing to push beyond your comfort zone?” — then move on to solve a momentum problem. Or, ask, “Did you know that you will soon be free from the judgements of the people surrounding you in this institution — in this very room? Knowing this, are you really going to let other’s judgements limit the opportunities to learn and grow today – opportunities that will impact the rest of your life???” — then move on to solve a problem that involves work/energy OR quotes from famous people saying these things… there are plenty to pull from — all through history — people in power have tried to oppress others and one major mechanism was limiting access to knowledge. Tell a short historical story about how knowledge was withheld or how people fought for a right to access….real history can be quite convincing since humans are not always well behaved. I bet that if a physics teacher were to spontaneously share thoughts like these it would be so unexpected that you’d make an impression and will have set the conditions for later blossom.

        I would not even expect students to respond to these prompts or stories -I would just lay heavy thoughts like these on them and then work with them to solve a fluidics problem.

        Just a thought — probably a wacky one — but I guess I’ve learned to be OK with trying & possibly failing.

        • March 14, 2011 8:00 pm

          Thanks for the encouragement. I think every school actually has many voices (students, teachers and parents) who want an alternative to the stressful path through adolescence that seems to be the societal norm, the problem is that it’s often hard for them to identify one another and connect since everyone is so busy (and stressed, ironically). We do break out class from time to time to have what my students used to call “life talks” and I think these are valuable. In fact, I’m thinking about how to morph them into a metacognition curriculum that pushes kids to take a more active role in these lessons.

  3. March 23, 2011 1:05 pm

    Lots of kids fail at ballet. You don’t see them, because they quit early. If you have a purely voluntary system with huge attrition rates, then the ones who last a long time tend to be those who enjoy it and are good at it.

    You see much the same phenomenon in engineering education. It is not a “nurturing” system, but a selection system.

    You have to watch out for the sample bias when making conclusions from anecdotes.

    • March 23, 2011 1:42 pm

      That is a good point – I think this is especially true as ballet students advance in years/ability. I was thinking more about the first couple of years/first exposure. Although I’m sure there are some very highly competitive ballet programs where parents push toddlers/lower el age to become world class ballet dancers, probably most kids start off with parents who are letting their kids “try it” for a couple of years & do not apply high pressure – certainly as the years go by those who lack drive, interest or ability will drop out leaving the ones who do have a stronger interest & ability and who will then have had a chance to grow their interest/talent over time & are more prepared to face competitive stresses to succeed. In contrast, most people’s exposure to the sciences start in the classroom – a relatively competitive environment when compared to the toddler/lower el “try it” ballet dance class.

    • March 23, 2011 3:46 pm

      This is a good point. Ballet certainly isn’t any more nurturing than physics or engineering. But that’s not really what I’m wondering about. I’m wondering why this one student, an accomplished physics student in my class, and ballerina sees risks and confusion in ballet as “scary and fun” but shies away from similar risks in physics and sees confusion as something to be avoided. What I would love is for my students to see some metacognative transfer from how they learned the things they’re good at (baseball, art, ballet), which involved a lot of mistakes, failure and trying over and over, and physics (or english or math, I suppose).

      • March 24, 2011 3:22 pm

        I think that almost everybody is more willing to take risks in things that they are good at and enjoy than things that are not fun and for which their skills are uncertain.

        It is a mistake to assume that sports, dance, art, and other activities are any different from classes in this way. When students are forced to do sports (PE classes) many of them hate it and do anything to avoid excess effort. Same for dance and art.

        What you are seeing is that students are willing to do much more on things that they have chosen because they enjoy them than on things that they are forced to do. This is human nature, and I don’t think it is something to wonder at.

        • March 25, 2011 9:46 am

          I completely agree that people have a natural proclivity for certain subjects and activities and that they will be happiest when pursuing these areas of strength/interest. But I think wondering about the subject and wondering about how to open minds to new things is a great thing for a teacher to spend – at least some – of their thoughts on. Here is why I think so:

          My older son has hated organized sports since he was old enough to speak and share his feelings on the subject. His Dad did try to teach him to catch and hit – believing that it is a good idea for boys to be able to manage some basics so they can “play” with other boys. The effort was unsuccessful. My older son resisted in very amusing ways — like only throwing the ball backward over his head.

          We did honor my son’s feelings and did not sign him up for little league, etc. However, when he was in 3rd grade at the Montessori school – we signed him up with the school’s spring baseball after school club. We did this because the teacher had a reputation for introducing activities in a way that made them accessible and interesting to anyone. I know it sounds impossible, but really this teacher had the most amazing track record. We figured if anyone had a shot at opening our older son’s mind this teacher could.

          The teacher ran the group in a non-competitive, nurturing way — like a neighborhood game of pick up with a bunch of encouraging families. The team was made up of the very youngest kids through upper el – some kids were very good having an outside interest in sports and playing on teams outside of school but most kids were not good at all & some, like my son, not really that interested. In the end, my sports hating son loved it. He loved it so much that he signed up for two subsequent years and enjoyed several outings to professional games with Grandma & Grandpa, friends, and his Dad.

          Our intent was not to make him into a baseball pro — we have absolutely no interest in pushing our kids into activities where they have no interest. But, we thought this particular experience might open our son’s mind a bit — even if to create empathy or understanding of others who enjoy sports or to experience the teamwork, fresh air and the fun that some experience when playing sports… or maybe our son would discover that if he worked on it he could actually learn to catch a ball…. learning to catch a ball not the end goal so much as learning that he can do things he once thought he couldn’t or even enjoy things he once didn’t.

          The enthusiasm for the experience had by all the kids can be seen in the end of the season photo – all with arms extended in the air & great broad smiles on their faces for having tried and enjoyed the experience. So, I think that while people have natural proclivities – there are ways to reach them in their areas of perceived weaknesses — in places they feel insecure. And, I think that this is a worthwhile goal, a perfect thing to wonder about, especially if you are striving to be a world class teacher.

        • March 25, 2011 8:55 pm

          Great example. This is what I’m wondering about. And I’m wondering if there is some way to help students view the things they stuggle with and dislike (often school stuff) through the lens of things they enjoy and are working hard to master (sports and hobbies).


  1. Interesting article on perfectionism in NYT « Quantum Progress

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