Hip Hop Pedagogy – The Doubts of a Ballerina

Urban dance as radical pedagogyWatching a ballet performance last night at a school, we were moved to see the children evidently enjoying the discipline and the high standards required by the art of ballet. Suddenly we wondered: What if pedagogy took as its starting point not the multi-tasking, digitally savvy youth alone at his laptop with hip hop playing in the background, but the rigorous pleasures and the sublime achievements of modern ballet dancers up on the stage?

To clarify this sudden leap from ballet to pedagogy: Why think some of the current conversation about the philosophy of education should pay attention to ballet? What is wrong with some of the thinking about education such that it could learn something from ballet? To answer that, let’s look at one example: the thought of Sugata Mitra, and let’s remind ourselves of his three planks of primary education (which he lays out here), which are:

1. Reading comprehension.
2. Information search skills.
3. The ability to assess the rationality of beliefs.

Now my suspicion is that Mitra is here assuming a very simple and rather common image of the situation of learning: the learner is thought of as being alone in a buzzing, booming confusion of information. The world is thought of as a formless mass of countless bytes of information which are selectively processed by the brain of the learner. To count as knowledge the subjective form in the brain of the learner needs to gain some shared validity. Hence, Mitra tags on the test of rationality by which the rather uncertain cognitive subjects can test whether their hesitant claims to knowledge are valid or not – and “valid” here means universally valid.

A teacher foolish enough to conscientiously apply Mitra’s view of things would say to young high school students: “Girls and boys, you will just have to make sense of the world as best you can. I can’t see any authoritative meaning in the world. Of course I have my ideas about what makes sense, but those are just the odd things I have picked up here and there along life’s way. The only thing we have that is really valid is: reason, so please make sure that whatever you decide to believe stands to reason. Okay guys, now that the fairy tales have ended, you are on your own.”

Now, no actual teacher would ever be dumb enough to say this (I hope) but the perverse pedagogy of people like Mitra seems to imply that if teachers were really honest with their students, this is the sort of thing they would have to say.

Things look very different, though, if, instead of beginning from the image of the lone learner drowning in a sea of information, we begin from the image of something like a demanding form of dance that exists in that particular culture.

As with all artistic forms, we have the aesthetic form that shares the objectivity of the dance, embodied as it is in the movement of the dancers. It would make no sense to say that the form was just a dubious idea in the brain of the individual onlooker, trying to impose some form on random bytes of aesthetic data. No, the dancer, through both the training and the performance, experiences the form as being at one with her body in motion on the stage. The form is experienced in the very particular activity of the dance itself.

We can dismiss the cliché about art being in the eye of the beholder. The dancer can feel the flow of the well-executed dance as she dances. If there are spectators, they have the role more of privileged witnesses rather than that of authoritative judges on whom the entire meaning of the performance depends.

To return to the prominent trend in so-called progressive pedagogy: Form, the discipline it requires, and the authority claimed by tutors who would insist on it have all become radically problematic. Doubtless there are numerous reasons for this, but one of them (a small one, perhaps, but one of great interest to those of us with a taste for theory) is surely that the pedagogues have been trying to spin their web of philosophy around a rather questionable image of the learner and his or her world, and in this context the most dubious aspect of that image is the world as a formless swirl of information. Inspired by the ballet performance I have seen, I just want to throw in the question: Why make everything rest on such a dubious image? Why begin there? Why not go to the ballet and start again?


A sample of the sort of thing we have in mind:

P.s. We want to take our hats off to the people at Promethean Spark who have been using dance to turn around the lives of numerous young people. We have no time for dubious pseudo-pedagogical entrepreneurs like Negroponte who thinks that broadband and cheap laptops are the key to turning around the lives of the underprivileged, but we have all the time in the world for people like Promethean Spark who are using dance (among other things) to help the impoverished. They describe their approach thus:

We work with children and youth (from the streets of slums, orphanages, drug rehab centers, prisons and leprosy colonies) teaching discipline, initiative, focus, respect, teamwork, self-esteem, goal-setting, perseverance, leadership, etc. through arts-based programs. If you sent them to school, most of these kids would flunk out in a day. They have never been given the basic tools necessary to succeed in such an environment. We set up hubs for outreach to marginalized youth, then utilizing our proven methodology and specialized curriculum, we literally do life-coaching while training the youth in various styles of music and dance. Through enjoyable discipline, growth through hard work, setting goals, never giving up, experiencing the feeling of success and being a creator in their own right, a fire is lit within. Their mental frame of reference shifts. The life lessons they learn from these programs are invaluable as they apply them to any endeavor they may choose to pursue the rest of their lives.

The key phrase for us: “enjoyable discipline” – the discipline required by a form that is shared and accepted as authoritative, and one that allows the individuals to shine and make it their own.

written by Torn Halves on October 18, 2012 in education and pedagogy and Sugata Mitra with no comments