What we did
From July 2016 – March 2017 dance company Made By Katie Green undertook a research project exploring how dance might be used to teach history in primary schools, supported by an 'Arts-based learning Explore and Test grant' from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and informed by the company’s extensive experience of using dance in heritage and museum contexts since 2013. The project took place in the following schools:
- St Mary’s C of E Primary School in West Byfleet, Surrey – Year 4 pupils (2-form entry; Autumn term 2016)
- Boxgrove Primary School in Guildford, Surrey – Year 5 pupils (3-form entry; Spring term 2017)
151 children participated in the project over 55 sessions.
What follows is a summary of our findings for the project; please contact us if you're interested in our full report, written by evaluator Emma McFarland.
- The project comprised a weekly dance session with each class designed to introduce pupils to themes, ideas and knowledge covered in the week’s classroom-based history session.
- St Mary’s School explored the Romans and Boxgrove School explored the Tudors.
- Site visits took place as part of the project. St Mary’s visited Butser Ancient Farm whilst Boxgrove visited Tudor ship, the Mary Rose, and Hampton Court Palace.
- The project in each school culminated in a performance for family, friends, teachers and fellow pupils.
- Weekly dance sessions were led by Lead Artist Katie Green, supported by Hannah Gibbs. The Lead Artist was also supported throughout the project by mentor Elsa Urmston.
The format differed across the two schools:
- At St Mary’s, a 90 minute session was scheduled for each class each week including a dance session and classroom-based history task. The dance part of the session varied in length from 30-60 minutes each week. Class teachers attended the dance session and the Lead Artist and Assistant Artist attended the classroom sessions.
- At Boxgrove, a 45-60 minute dance session took place each week for each class which was usually but not always attended by class teachers. The classroom history teaching took place two days later and was not attended by the Lead Artist.
How was the project evaluated?
The evaluation was planned and overseen by experienced external evaluator, Emma McFarland, using a mix of qualitative and quantitative evaluation tools designed to support evaluation of the aims of the project:
- initial and end of project questionnaires for all pupils
- mood-o-meters completed by all pupils weekly
- self-evaluation semantic scales completed by all pupils every 2 weeks
- Case study (20 pupils total) initial and end of project group interviews
- Case study matrix, completed by teachers and by Assistant Artist after every session
- Teacher initial and end of project interviews
- Teacher short weekly reflection, completed after every session
- Lead Artist reflective journal, completed after every session
The key questions we set out to explore were:
1. Can dance be used to teach history in a different way?
Our research indicated that most pupils found the dance sessions and site visits helpful in terms of their engagement with and learning of history (83.3% at St Mary’s and 77.2% at Boxgrove).
“I found [the mix of learning about Romans in the dance class and then doing the classroom tasks] quite helpful as you found little bits from the dance sessions to put into your classroom work. It also makes the dance easier because if you learned things in the classroom, you could add them on to your dance.” (pupil feedback)
Teachers described some of the impacts of the dance-based learning on the children:
- Clearer understanding of task so pupils could be more purposeful in their approach
- Develops embodied knowledge - using physical actions helps pupils understand and remember words and concepts and reinforces learning
- Improved confidence and engagement in history lesson due to a clear foundation of knowledge to build on
- Pupils came to the history class engaged and inspired following the dance session
Importantly, our research showed that the project impacted positively on most pupils’ enjoyment of dance and history, and the sessions were successful in closing the large gender gap between enjoyment scores from the beginning of the project.
“You think dance is elegant and delicate and then when you come to this you [learn] you can put it with other things like acting to make it more real, and you can put dance into topics like reading and it makes it really cool.” (pupil feedback)
2. How does teaching history through dance impact on the children's self-confidence?
The project indicated the potential of this way of working to help pupils feel more confident, with 51% of participants at both schools stating that the project had helped them feel more confident.
“Quite a few quiet girls usually get overshadowed by big characters but they've really come out of their shell. In their dance, they are smiley, animated, enthusiastic whereas they are usually reserved. Dance has become that lesson where they can express themselves." (teacher feedback)
However, the research also raised interesting questions/challenges around the development of confidence, including:
- the disparity between the children’s confidence as observed by their teachers/Lead Artist/Assistant Artist and their own perception of their confidence, indicating that at year 4 and 5 this was a difficult concept for some of the children to grasp, as was the practice of self-reflection for some pupils.
- many of the children seemed more able to express their increase in confidence by making observations about some of the other skills upon which their confidence impacted, such as their capacity to work well as part of a team or their listening skills, rather than about confidence itself
- the great variety of ways in which the children expressed their confidence (e.g. some very quiet children considered themselves to have high levels of confidence), challenging traditional assumptions of how confidence is manifested and requiring a greater diversity of strategies for evaluating and nurturing confidence
- the challenge of translating the confidence, independence of thought, motivation to learn and engagement with the task in the dance setting to written tasks in a classroom setting for some pupils
- reported confidence levels were impacted by nervousness about the performance element of the project (including rehearsal for the performance), although many children also expressed their enjoyment of/excitement about the final performance
3. How can we support teachers to develop their skills to be able to continue this work in the future?
Teachers from both schools, particularly at St Mary’s where there was consistent teacher/Lead Artist exchange in both hall and classroom-based sessions, reported that the project had given them confidence to embed more physical / movement based approaches within their classroom work.
"I feel like the class got so much from the dance today. The dance session really supported their understanding, ideas and engagement in the writing. Dance really brought the task to life and made it real.” (teacher feedback)
Particularly at St Mary’s, teachers agreed that to develop their skills in planning, creating and leading a dance class, they would benefit from continuing to team-teach and plan in collaboration with a Lead Artist, rather than continuing their development through independent use of a resource pack for example, which was originally one of the key ways in which we thought we might take this work forward.
What we learnt from the experience
By the end of the project, our research indicates that the children:
- were more engaged in their history topic
- were remembering things better, including historical terms and ideas
- changed their mind about dance and about history, becoming more positive about both
- enjoyed what they were doing
- developed their dance skills
- showed improvement in reported confidence levels
- were given an outlet to express their emotions (which in turn gave them an opportunity to become more aware of their feelings) and a new way of thinking about things that developed a more imaginative response
- improved team-working skills
- showed improvements in concentration and listening skills
- enjoyed having opportunities to create their own movements and to perform their work for other people
- had developed skills to integrate kinaesthetic learning through movement and/or dance into their curriculum teaching, including:
- modelling movements or actions for the children as a way to help them understand words or ideas that were new to them – not simply asking pupils to create movements, but doing it themselves
- using props and other visual aids laid out in the physical space to support learning
- keeping sessions positive and fun
- giving the children more ownership over ideas and learning (e.g. asking them to create their own 8 counts of movement with a partner)
- building up movement material in stages with simple steps repeated/developed
- had observed the potential impacts of this movement-based approach on the children’s history learning, understanding ways that it could reinforce their learning and support their written work
- had changed their perception of dance in the curriculum, learning that it ‘could be about more than steps and learning routines – it can be more movement and narrative based’
- whilst less confident about their ability to create a topic-based dance routine from scratch without the support of the Lead Artist, felt more confident to integrate movement, including role-play, into classroom teaching for different topics
- had been surprised by the level of engagement of the children in the dance sessions, including those who were initially reticent
Key impacts on the Lead Artist's delivery/practice are also discussed in this blog post, and included the need for:
- clear structure, and school/topic-related behaviour management strategies
- positive reinforcement (which has to be supported through positive reinforcement from all sides e.g. teachers, school, Assistant Artist, parents) for those children who draw attention and those who do not
- relativity of approach, and responding to the individuals in the room, because whilst some things come easily to some children, they may be extremely challenging for others
- an integrated set up of dance/history sessions (as in the St Mary’s model), maximising the potential for the dance learning to reinforce the history learning
- development of a broad variety of ways for using an embodied approach to learning history; essential as Made By Katie Green continues to bring dance to new contexts such as museums and heritage sites
- innovation around how to develop the children’s ownership of their ideas in an environment in which there are continual time pressures and specific outcomes that must be achieved
- exploration of other ways for the children to share their work – the children and teachers like the performance element, but it does have a detrimental impact on confidence and, in some cases, motivation
Our thanks to everyone who participated in our Dance and History Explore and Test project, and to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for supporting our research and believing in the importance of this work. We will be continuing to build on the work we do delivering the history curriculum in an embodied way in the future - if you would like to talk to us about this work, or to ask any questions, please contact us using the form available at the bottom of the page here.