For 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 clichés “compelling”, “heart-warming” and “uplifting” actually apply. Following in the footsteps, quite literally for much of the film, of several groups of eleven-year old schoolchildren 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, and while the dancing programme, which is compulsory for all, is the focus of the film, it is the personalities of the individuals which make the lasting impression. Ultimately, as they prepare to challenge for the prize trophy which is bigger than most of the contestants, this being the USA after all, you find yourself rooting for the team from Washington Heights, many of whom like the dances themselves have their roots in the Dominican Republic. No matter how sceptical your view of the teacher who pushes her charges to their physical and emotional limits, or the young professional who cries in front of the camera while confronting the necessity of having to leave some of her pupils out of the final team selection, there is no doubting the strength of the relationships between pupils and teachers or the pride and determination of the young people, many of whom, it is acknowledged, could just as easily have been devoting their energies to a life of crime were the circumstances to be slightly different.
All of which served to remind me that dance was also a central theme of the keynote speech by Sir Ken Robinson to the Scottish Learning Festival in the SECC in Glasgow in October. Robinson, 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, 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. While it is indisputable, he claims, that academic ability is a form of intelligence, it is not the only one, and the fact that we fail to recognise other forms of intelligence as being equally valid, means that as a consequence many intelligent people leave school feeling that they are inadequate failures, categorised as “less able”. Equally, many academically able people never discover their other abilities. At the same time 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 I would suggest that it is 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 when it comes to the amount of time devoted to physical education in school, and unless we begin to engage all of our young people in some kind of physical activity on a regular basis we will be paying a heavy price in terms of healthcare alone. However, it would be unfair and unrealistic to hold PE teachers alone responsible for the health of the nation, or even for providing the only opportunities for physical self-expression. In fact, 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 in to 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 of course. Perhaps just as importantly, 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 – “Billy Elliot” wasn’t just a story about a boy who got fit – and the importance of emotional awareness should not be underestimated. 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 through both that we connect with each other and the wider world – with culture. And it is through culture that creativity is driven and expressed.”
Not only is it important that we provide young people with a range of contexts in which to develop their creative abilities, 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. However, I will leave the last word with Robinson who warns, “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.”
A version of this article was published in TES on 2 June 2006.