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Dances with the mind

The drive to boost academic performance comes at the expense of stimulating children's creative abilities, says Bill Boyd

or those lucky enough to catch it during its short run at the Glasgow Film Theatre in early January, the Marilyn Agrelo-directed documentary Mad Hot Ballroom was one of those rare films to which the cliches "compelling", "heart-warming" and "uplifting" really do apply.

Following in the footsteps, quite literally for much of the film, of several groups of 11-year-old children from junior schools across New York City, the camera enters the lives of the children and their teachers as they prepare for the "Colours of the Rainbow" inter-school ballroom dancing competition. While the dancing programme, which is compulsory for all, is the focus of the film, it is the personalities of the individuals that make the lasting impression.

The film served to remind me that dance was also a central theme of the keynote speech by Sir Ken Robinson to the Scottish Learning Festival last October. Robinson, an internationally renowned expert on creativity and human resources, argued then and in more detail in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative that what is stifling creativity in education is the confusion between academic ability and intelligence, and that, in the drive to raise "standards", we are somewhat missing the point.

By focusing only on certain narrow aspects of education, Robinson argues, those which have come to be regarded as exclusive and sacred, which are based on logic and reasoning and which, as it happens, are relatively easily tested, we are failing to develop the wealth of talent beneath our noses.

The drive to raise standards in schools focuses on raising academic standards only, and teachers are inhibited from promoting creative development. That failure to value other modes of intelligence, and this may be especially true of kinaesthetic intelligence (how intelligent is Wayne Rooney? - discuss), is everybody's loss, especially at a time when we are learning that Scotland lags behind most of our European counterparts in terms of the amount of time devoted to physical education in school.

But a significant number of youngsters currently resist quite strongly any attempt to coerce them into taking part in traditional sports or games and, for many of them, the performing arts would be a much more attractive alternative. Anyone who has ever been involved in a school musical or drama production will be only too well aware of the sense of well-being such an enterprise can bring to a school.

Yet, for most schools, they have become a thing of the past, squeezed out by the relentless push to drive up standards and the endless testing regime.

The benefits of bringing into the mainstream activities such as dance and drama, which are part of our common culture but usually offered only outside the curriculum or out of school altogether, are not only physical.

Perhaps just as important, they provide opportunities for young people to develop their emotional intelligence, to learn more about the ways in which they relate to those around them and to the rest of the world.

The importance of emotional awareness should not be underestimated - Billy Elliot wasn't just a story about a boy who got fit. In Robinson's own words, "sensitiveness to oneself and to others is a vital element in the development of the personal qualities that are now urgently needed, in business, in the community and in personal life. It is through feelings as well as through reason that we find our creative power."

It is therefore important that we provide young people with a range of contexts in which to develop their creative abilities, but the current narrow view of the purposes of school is also limiting for teachers.

Many of the frustrations of teachers come from a feeling that what they want to do instinctively is not valued, and that any attempt to be innovative or think creatively will be dismissed as inappropriate.

I will leave the last word to Robinson, who warns his readers: "Many creative processes draw from the ideas and stimulation of other people.

Creativity flourishes in an atmosphere where original thinking and innovation are encouraged and stimulated. It fades in atmospheres where dialogue and interaction are stifled."

Bill Boyd is on secondment to Learning and Teaching Scotland, and writes in a personal capacity.

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