How much of the work should the teacher vs the student do? Teaching as a dance, inspired by Joe Hoyle

This week I spent in a really interesting position: Sitting in the back of a workshop on “introduction to teaching and learning in higher education”, occasionally giving inputs, for example on microaggressions or Universal Design for Learning. And, this morning, about dance as a metaphor for learning and teaching.

I first came across this metaphor in Joe Hoyle’s blogpost on “how much of the work should you do?”. In there, he argues that “in a dance, both parties need to do half of the work but one party does have to lead. Likewise, in a class, both parties need to do half of the work but one party does have to lead. As the teacher, you are the one who has to lead. And, it is that leading that will encourage your students to get up and do their half of the work so that the class will go beautifully well every single class session”. For me, this metaphor works beautifully, not only about how much “work” people should put in, but also that there are different skills involved in teaching/leading and learning/following: the most excellent lead can only do so much if there isn’t a willingness to (learn how to) follow, and likewise the best follower cannot do much without a strong lead (or they might eventually even start leading themselves out of the follower role. I actually took up Lindy Hop, where you change partners all the time, with the explicit goal of training to not take over the lead but let myself be led by people who aren’t very good at leading, and adapting to different styles of (not) leading, hoping that I could transfer that into my professional life. Worked only so-so ;-)).

What I also really like is that in dance, it is becoming much more common that lead and follower switch roles — and this is where I see big potential to expand the metaphor towards co-creating learning. The lead can give the follower the chance to do “turns and stuff” (here my language to talk about dance in English is breaking down) by themselves, which might be compared to giving students a little choice, for example letting students do think-pair-share, where they get the opportunity to do something by themselves for a little while, but in a safe and controlled environment (see lower levels on our “co-creating learning in oceanography” framework). As we move higher up in the framework, we give students more freedom, but also more responsibility, until at the very top, we might actually consider giving up the lead and “just” follow the students’ lead. Which, again, doesn’t say about the amount of work or skill that goes into either learning or teaching, just about who takes on the lead.

So yeah, I think this is a really nice metaphor for teaching and learning :)

P.S.: For a beautiful example of how both leading and following takes enormous skill, check out the youtube video below.

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