Dance Education is (sort of) like a Voucher System

I’ve noticed a few parallels between the dance world that I walk in (my all time favorite hobby to date, with watching reruns of A-Team a close, close second) and the education world that I used to inhabit. School vouchers are a hot topic in education these days. And I see in the dance world an example of self-interest directed education that I think is an applicable comparison to public schools and what the practice of free choice does for society. So I wanted to lay a few thoughts out there for consideration.

First, the regarding the world I’ve spent slightly longer observing: dance.

I’ve encountered four [basic] types of people in dance-

1) People who do it socially to meet people, date, have fun, wiggle on the dance floor. Usually once they find someone to date/marry/whatever, they drop to an occasional dance habit. Like social smoking or knitting.

2) People who do it socially to meet people, then figure out they like learning and start to take workshops and travel to do it as much as possible. It becomes their hobby for its own sake. Like DragonCon, but with less cumbersome costumes.

3) People who do it socially to meet people, then do it enough to get really good at it (see #2), and are the type of personalities who need to know where they rank. These people are usually the ones you see in all the competitions. It’s a slightly different drive from the people who get their kicks from social dancing only. The buzz comes from a different place.

4) People who do it socially to meet people, stick with it long enough to become really good and to teach it, and (if they’re lucky and the dance world is in the right place at the right time for a trend to explode) get to spend a few magical, hard working years toiling in the dubious ranks of “Rock-stardom.” Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

(There’s an unofficial 5th type, the type of person who equates dance-ability with level-of pure-awesomeness-as-a-human, but that is for a different, slightly more pessimistic blog. That will come later, sometime late at night after some wine and a lot of Ray LaMontagne songs.)

Each type has a place and a function in the dance world, and I’m sort of fine with that. As per human nature, each type relates more naturally to others within their group. Okay.

Where am I going with this?

I’ve given a lot of thought recently to how my own dance education has evolved (I’m a #2, by the way). How I’ve chosen to learn, where I’ve chosen to travel, how I practice, etc. Getting all meta-cognitive on my path in dance has brought some things to light- some parallels that I’d not noticed before about the debated practice of school vouchers and the completely elective practice of learning to dance.

Each of the groups I mentioned gets the dance education that they seek. No more, no less. They’re not mandated to start in a certain class and follow a certain school of training. They might want to be the best- oh, they might dream of being a rockstar (usually cause they don’t know what being a rockstar actually entails), but they seek out and receive the quality of dance instruction that they are capable of receiving. You can put them in a class that might greatly help their swing out, but if they think they don’t need the help or know how to take the instructor’s advice, then you can’t make them. They learn what they’re ready and capable of learning. Like toddlers, you can’t force us. We’re in it for the fun.

Now to tie this in to the education world, which is where my professional training lies, if not my current efforts.

As a general rule of our race, once we think we’ve achieved a goal, it’s very hard to get humans to continue to push themselves.  Maybe that’s why grades first popped up. That competitive spirit is a great motivator- for some people. But grades are a symptom, an indicator. And most people in dance confuse the indicator for the goal. Same with education. And tests.

Not a startlingly new revelation, I’ll grant you. But the parallel between modern education and dance- the ways that humans sabotage themselves, their progress, and the things they say they want to achieve- is worth some deep thinking. Too often we lack that. We don’t take the time as a culture to look at cause and effect and correct course based on our real-time observations. We just plow on ahead, trying the same things again and again, waiting for the time when it will suddenly start working.

Where this relates to the title of this blog is that I’ve watched the education industry in this country debate the merits of the voucher system for years now. For some it’s the magic bullet, just waiting to be used. For others, it a deep betrayal of the core ideas behind public education. Personally, I think it’s focusing on the wrong thing to ask these types of questions. Will it work or will it not? Looking at human nature, does anyone really think it’s going to be that simple either way? Any teacher will tell you there’s no magic bullet.You have to factor in human nature, and human nature is that you will learn what your brain thinks it is pertinent to learn. Whether it’s dance or algebra, your brain will take to it, be interested in it…or it won’t. You can force it to a degree, but you can’t artificially create the desire to learn. For that reason alone, voucher systems for schools will never be either a cure-all for our school system or a fatal blow to public education. You have to factor in human motivation, and you can’t predict the consequences of that addition to the formula.

Looking at the dance community, which is 100% a voucher system of education (in a way; I know it doesn’t involve tax money, but flow with me to the conclusion of the thought), you can see that allocating the money yourself does not guarantee a certain type of result. Some people are good at getting the education they need regardless of the circumstances- and those people usually work outside of (or in spite of) the system. The system is not designed for efficiency. It is designed to serve a need. To instruct. It will do so inasmuch as the people within it are able to take in what is offered. Beyond that, it’s still a system designed for and by humans, with all our imperfections and quirks.

So don’t blame the system for being operated by humans. So is every other system on earth, and we don’t usually expect perfection from most of them. We know better.

Do you see my point? We get frustrated and blame systems for the faults of the moving parts in the system. For variables that are beyond our control. It’s a red herring to focus on vouchers. They won’t fix anything. The dance world proves that. The human part of the equation will always throw us off, in any system we make. So when I look at dancers, I see them for a mass of conflicting motivations and skill levels. They’ll get the education they’re capable of receiving, and I think that concept really needs to seep into the higher echelons of educational administrations. If it’s reflected in our systemic expectations for education, maybe we could develop some more realistic responses to the challenges we face.

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