Dancing Statistics: Dancing to Learn

Elise Phillips is a dancer, choreographer and facilitator based in the United Kingdom.

We have all heard of a project that has used dance to teach subjects like science and humanities in primary or secondary schools.  But what about more high-level concepts?  The recent ‘Dance Your PhD’ competitions struck a relationship between dance and conveying highly academic concepts.  But ‘conveying’ is not the same as ‘teaching’.  What would happen if you used dance to teach high-level, even degree-level, concepts?

I recently managed and co-produced an innovative project that aimed to teach degree-level statistics through short dance films.  A collaboration between artists and academics, the ‘Dancing Statistics’ films were designed to guide non-dance trained audiences through watching and understanding carefully composed choreographies that demonstrate fundamental statistical concepts.

Statistics can be tough to teach, as the subject matter can be dry and complex.  Lecturers constantly look for novel ways to present information to make it more engaging and to make learning (and teaching) easier.  Dance was able to offer a completely novel perspective on the subject: it is dynamic, human, aesthetic and different to what is normally seen in lecture theatres. 

Statistics are essentially about demonstrating relationships (similarity, difference, effect) - dance is innately well placed to illustrate just that.  Dance and movement are made up of: the body, space, time, relationships and actions.  Any subject that relates to any of those ‘structures’ can be accessed through dance.  For me, using dance to demonstrate and facilitate learning seems like a natural step.  Get up and be the statistic or the molecule or the musical note!

Further than watching dance, actually participating in dance as part of a learning process can physiologically improve learning.  It creates more neural pathways for the information going into the brain - not just reading and listening, but doing, relating, moving through space.  The more neural pathways created when learning, the deeper the encoding and the better the recall of information – the ‘better’ the learning.  But its not just an extra layer to the learning, dance also offers a way into learning for different types of learners.  It can be a challenge to access kinesthetic learners in a classroom or workshop, especially if the learning involves a lot of listening and writing.  Dance is an obvious way in for kinesthetic learners and can therefore be useful for teaching many subjects, especially ones that naturally lean towards one other learning style. 

Stepping back and thinking more widely, consider the transformational benefits of dance on an individual and social level.  Participation in dance has been shown to re-engage at risk young people with work and education (Dance United, UK), adults with dementia have become animated and reminiscent (Art of Touch, Lucinda Jarrett, UK).  Now consider dance as a teaching tool in schools, universities & community centers having positive social impacts as well as deepening knowledge and understanding of a multitude of subjects.  Sounds like nothing but a good thing.  I, for one, am excited to see the impact of continued integration of dance with all sorts of education. 

If you would like to find out more about the Dancing Statistics project, follow the conversation on Twitter: #dancingstatistcs.  You can watch the films on the British Psychological Society’s You Tube channel (bpsmediacentre).

The project could not have happened without the founding idea and direction from Lucy Irving and the close and invaluable collaborations with Andy Field (statistics lead), Masha Gurina (choreographer), and Kyle Stevenson (filmmaker).  Not forgetting the support from our funders: the British Psychological Society and IdeasTap.  (Photography by Jonathon Vines.)

Elise Phillips: Project Manager, Co-Producer & winner of IdeasTap funding

E-mail: eliseaphillips@gmail.com

Twitter: @eliseaphillips