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Lessons that Backfire

Even the best teachers with the best intentions have moments of unintentional subliminal teaching: when their teaching habits or advice accidentally impart on their students a completely different, counterproductive, undesirable lesson.

Unexamined Duplication

Every teacher has their preferred teaching methods, and all have good intentions in using them. Unfortunately, many methods and pieces of advice get blindly passed on through the generations without being properly audited for effectiveness. The reasoning most teachers use is, “well it worked for me, so it should work for my students.”

But if you pause for a moment and think critically about each piece of dance advice you were given during your formative dance years, you will find that there are several “tips” that actually steered you in the wrong direction and had to correct or upgrade later. In that case, those pieces of advice actually didn’t “work for you”. You may have figured out a workable method by now, but it has not been because of this advice, it has been in spite of it. Teachers have a responsibility of analyzing and filtering advice before passing it on to the next generation.

What’s in your blindspot?

Lessons can backfire for a multitude of other reasons. Most are due to the teachers’ untrained or unexamined habits, or simply a matter of paying attention. Great teachers are not perfect, but they constantly upgrade their skills, get feedback from a variety of sources, and self-evaluate. Just because a lesson backfires doesn’t mean the teacher is deficient – even great teachers have their moments. Sometimes these moments make for great stories. Look for one of ours at the end of this article.

  • Some teaching habits or advice are actually counterproductive to the students’ learning.
  • Some teaching habits or advice, despite being effective at teaching one skill, have unintended negative side effects.
  • Some advice aimed at a group only applies to certain individuals and is actually damaging to others.
  • Some advice is not as clear and apparent as the teacher assumes, and is misinterpreted.
  • Some teaching habits or methods send an unintentionally negative message.
  • Some habits & methods subliminally train the students to form habits of thinking or dancing that are undesirable in the long run.
  • Some advice only makes sense if the student has the pre-requisite contextual knowledge.
  • Some advice is only appropriate for students who have the pre-requisite skills.

For example, as a substitute teacher, I often am assigned to teach in classrooms where the teacher has a specific signal they use to get the class’s attention. She rings a chime, or flickers the light switch, or maybe chants a rhyme. But I don’t know this class’s unique signals. Sometimes when I try to use typical teacher cues like clapping my hands to get their attention, they do not respond. No matter what I try, if it’s not the “magic sound” they are trained to respond to, they ignore me. That teacher’s proprietary signal may make life easier in that classroom, but it has backfired: she has robbed them of the opportunity to learn an adaptable skill and the social expectations that span all learning environments.

What are your hidden lessons?

Here are a few examples of what your teaching habits actually teach your students. Of course, this only scratches the surface: each “alternative” offered is a mere heading for a whole chapter of content within the Swing Literacy Development Program (SLDM).

Demoing only a stylized version of the basic

Your intention: Illustrate what the movement should look like in context, to give the students a model to emulate. Adding personality to the movement will motivate them to want to try it.
The implied message: The stylized version IS the basic and they should execute it that way all the time. When students see the move styled differently outside their class, they might think it is “wrong”. We have actually had a confused student question the basic sugar push we were teaching because it did not have the body roll that they were taught.
Alternative: Students need to see what the “skeleton” of the move is *before* the styling layer gets added. They need to know which elements are non-negotiable and which are variable. Always demo the “boring version” early in the process. Further details about non-negotiable elements are explained in the SLDM.

Demoing the intended pattern/combo before starting the class

Your intention: Motivate and orient students to the plan for the workshop. Copy other successful teachers who use this method.
The implied message: All workshops should have a pattern/combo. This trains them to overvalue choreographed patterns and undervalue other aspects of the dance. If you don’t make it all the way to the end of the pattern/combo you demo’d, the students will feel that you didn’t “finish the job” or they “didn’t get all of their money’s worth”, which is setting you up to receive disappointment.
Alternative: Consider not using a pattern/combo to guide your lesson plan structure. How else could you package your material around a theme? If you must orient yourself to a pattern/combo, don’t demo each item until right before you teach it. That way students will never know what you didn’t get around to teaching if you run out of time. The SLDM teaches how to design lessons without the restraint of a pattern bias.

Holding a rubber band to teach elasticity

Your intention: Giving the students the kinesthetic feeling of the elastic connection of our dance.
The actual effect: Holding on to the elastic while expanding away from their partner makes the elastic do the stretching for them, while their arms are allowed to stay rigid. This is counterproductive to the exact technique you are trying to impart.
Alternative: Always place the elastic around the torso to give students the feeling of moving their centre back to create counterbalance and stretch. Then explain that their arms’ job is to imitate the elastic and be pliable and dynamic. For the full explanation of this progression, see the SLDM.

Teaching new dancers the footwork first

Your intention: Getting newbies to walk through the pattern on their own first before adding a partner connection.
The actual effect: Students obsess over their foot placement and completely ignore other aspects of the dance. Students get frustrated with having to train themselves to transfer weight in a foreign way. Student spend the majority of their first night staring at the feet and ignoring their partner, and are less likely to return or sign up for classes.
Alternative: Don’t bother teaching the footwork until the students have had a chance to feel the general shape of the move and the mechanics that will cause the footwork. For details on specifically how to do this, see the SLDM.

Showing the followers their footwork

Your intention: Tell the followers where they need to put their feet for the pattern to work.
The actual effect: Followers memorize and execute their footwork whether the leader leads it or not. Leaders do not learn to be the driver of the follower’s positioning and their responsibility of causing and controlling the movement. Followers do not learn to be flexible and adaptable, and do not pay attention to the variances of the lead.
Alternative: Give the leaders a chance to learn how to move the follower through the general shape of the pattern first, and the followers just have to use survival footwork. Then teach the leaders their footwork, and only when the leaders are somewhat stabilized, then show the followers any remaining details they aren’t already doing naturally. You’ll be surprised at the results.

Showing the leaders the path for their hands

Your intention: Having the leaders practice moving their hands solo in the required shape before trying it on a partner.
The actual effect: Leaders do not learn to associate the placement of their hands with the mechanical impact they are responsible for. This leads to leaders waving their arms passively without “connection” causation and expecting the follower to move where she has been prescribed.
Alternative: Leaders need to be guided through a progression of how the move should feel and what forces their hands are responsible for before the hand pathway is extracted for detailing. The best  progression for this is detailed in the SLDM.

Always breaking down a pattern count by count

Your intention: Using the counts as markers to describe the movement detail. “Taking it one step at a time”
The actual effect: Students learn that learning to dance is about memorizing what to do on each count, which is choreography, not skill development. They often get stuck on the count that involves a new skill, rendering them incapable of completing the move and ultimately being dissatisfied.
Alternative: Use a skill development approach to build skills progressively and appropriately so by the time they are applied to a pattern, the students are ready to be successful. The SLDM is based on this skill development approach.

Practicing ‘shadow dancing’

Your intention: A fun exercise to teach focus and reading your partner’s body flight by keeping a few inches of air between any hand connection, leading all moves visually without touching.
The actual effect: Practicing walking solo through patterns that technically can’t be done without connection is artificial. Newer students learn to generate their own movement rather than work as a mechanical team.
Alternative: It’s a fun exercise only for students who have already learned proper partnership movement skills.

Saving technique for advanced classes

Your intention: Teach technique to the students who are already hooked enough to appreciate it and crave it.
The actual effect: Beginner dancers learn that they don’t need technique unless they plan to “get serious” or start competing. Their poor technique and attitude negatively impacts the other social dancers. The beginner dancers progress more slowly without technique to feed their growth.
Alternative: Technique belongs at every level, but with different expectations and approaches. Make technique learning fun and worthwhile through drills and guided revelations so dancers learn to value it as early as possible, so they are successful enough that they stick around long enough to get to your advanced class. The SLDM describes techniques and approaches that beginners should be introduced to, and in which order.

Global correction

Your intention: Simultaneously correct a technical error that the majority of the class is committing.
The actual effect: Students who are actually doing the movement perfectly are made to think that they also need to follow the correction advice. They start a new bad habit because they are “following instructions”.
Alternative: Offer a self-test or parter feedback moment in order to identify which students the correction applies to.

Role assignment based on gender

Your intention: Be efficient in creating a class formation and pairing up partners. “Men on this side of the room, ladies on the other”
The implied message: Gender is relevant. They don’t get to choose their role. Women take the submissive role. They will be confused when they attend a dance party and are asked to dance by the same gender.
Alternative: “If you choose to lead, please line up here. If you choose to follow, please line up here”. Or, “whoever’s hands are on top is going to act as the follower for this exercise”.

Chanting “anchor step” during the second triple

Your intention: Cueing the students with instructions rather than counting
The implied message: The entire second triple is considered the anchor step, even though it is comprised of 3 steps. When asked to anchor in other classes, students are confused by any footwork variation that is not a triple step, and are unsure of how to resolve the actual anchor.
Alternative: Chant: “1, 2, 3&4, tri-ple-anchor” or something reasonably similar that only identifies the anchor “finish” on the triple. For more details, see the SLDM.

Telling the followers to “triple in place” at the end of the slot

Your intention: Identifying that the followers’ feet should be stopped but the foot rhythm keeps going.
The actual effect: Followers learn to stop themselves to execute this stationary triple, regardless of whether the leader has caused them to stop travelling, which is technically self-leading, a form of hijacking.
Alternative: Teach the followers to keep going in the slot until they run out of rope. By focusing on the tension feeling that causes them to stop travelling, they will learn to be adaptable and adjust their foot placement to accommodate the flight and slot length of any leader. You can introduce posting as a refinement later. Does this sound shocking? The full explanation and reasoning is provided in the SLDM.

Spewing all your knowledge

Your intention: You have so.much.knowledge. to share! You love the dance and are just exploding with all the new things you are learning from conventions and private lessons. Your new knowledge is exceeding your ability to physically dance it, but you badly want to explain to everyone your new revelations.
The actual effect: Students will be excited for you for your revelations. But unless you make it relevant to them and package it in a way they can use, they will not see it as useful to them. They will lose patience with you and generalize that technique is boring because learning it is all talk and no moving. You are training them to avoid technique learning.
Alternative: Active participation drills are the solution to lecutring. Students need to be doing while you are talking or else you are overloading their short term memory and their trials will be less effective. We have found that ever since we started using more drills in our classes about 10 years ago, we stopped getting complaints about talking too much. The SLDM is *full* of drills.

In fact, we have created a product called “Deck of Drills” that dancers can use to train on their own. This product is sold as a fundraising tool for those who are looking for assistance in funding their SLDM tuition!

Your take-home lesson

Every teacher should constantly be analyzing, filtering, and examining how they teach, and considering how their advice could be interpreted differently. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so look for opportunities to offer the “negative example”: “Just because I asked for x, doesn’t mean you should do it like this” (demo what not to do). Be sure to solicit questions from the student frequently, so they have opportunities to clarify their confusion. If some of these alternatives sound outside-the-box to you and you would like to know more, it’s time for you to check out the Swing Literacy Development Program.

A personal story

Myles was once training a competitive couple in Country Western dancing who were from a small remote town. They were working on ChaCha and he was trying to train them to straighten their knees to complete their Cuban motion leg action. He dictated as they wrote in their notes: “dance onto straight knees“, and sent them on their way. 6 months later, they returned for another lesson, excited to show Myles what they had been practicing. Their legs were completely stiff as boards, knees locked and robot walking. He exclaimed, “What happened?! What are you doing?!” They replied, “we were just doing what you told us: “Dance on two straight knees!”

Further Reading

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One Response to “Lessons that Backfire”

  1. Great article! Loved it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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