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Learning to Teach (When I'm Already a Professor)

NDEO Staff |19 Jun, 2017 | 0 Comments | Return|

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen, MFA. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

Not that long ago, after teaching for almost ten years, I began to experience a minor existential crisis.

I felt like an expert in my subject area, Dance in Higher Ed, but didn’t feel like I was a very good teacher.  I realized I hadn’t been taught to teach, not during my professional career in NYC or even, really, during grad school for my MFA.  I wondered if, maybe, I didn’t really know what I was doing. As I looked around my college and talked to various faculty from different disciplines I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.  After talking to, and working with, some of the leading experts in the field of education I am still wondering. All of their answers seem to lead to one essential question:  

”How can we help teachers in higher ed (regardless of their discipline) teach their subjects more effectively in the 21st century?”  

My own story begins fourteen years ago when I was asked to teach in a small college dance program. I was the only dance professor in the Theatre and Dance Department and I agreed reluctantly. I had never cared for teaching when I was a dancer . . .  I was a dancer after all; “An artist, not an educator” as an NDEO professor of mine puts it speaking of the identity crisis many artists face when they find themselves in the role of teacher. After a few years of this (academic classes having been added to my studio teaching load) I had the above mentioned crisis. Mind you, my students seemed happy enough. I got outstanding evaluations from them and my colleagues, but I knew they were not a real measure of whether or not I was helping my students turn “new knowledge into understanding.” But where to turn?  

I started attending all of the professional development workshops offered at my institution. I would inevitably come away excited about what I had learned, but it didn’t stick. As soon as I got back to my office the new information would start to fade as the very real demands of my daily work reasserted themselves.  I would lose the inspiration before it had been put into practice and become habit.  

Enter UbD ® (Understanding by Design® the brainchild of Grant Wiggins now, sadly, deceased and Jay McTighe) which was introduced to me through an old friend, Betsi Shays.  She listened to my concerns and quickly lead me to their books and “framework”. I found the books helpful but slightly intimidating (workbooks always are to me) but the core idea of “backwards design” in this work made sense.  I had heard the phrase before, in grad school. One of my modern dance teachers had casually mentioned one day that you should build your class from the final combinations,  -- backwards. That had felt like an epiphany to me and I had tried to do it ever since. My friend was saying that my whole curriculum could be built that way, not just a ballet class. I was fascinated. It didn’t hurt that Betsi had recently revamped the Peace Corps’ teacher training program using UbD® and that this “framework” has been astonishingly successful in K-12 classrooms across the world for many years. We wondered if it could work in Higher Ed, in the performing arts? We didn’t know, but were excited to try.  

My students were, as usual, my guinea pigs. As I tried to implement one or two ideas (I knew I had to take it slow or it would fail) I saw marked gains in their engagement, retention, and the ability to make meaning of the content. They asked me why they could remember what they had learned in Dance History, but not in their other history classes. Or why the lessons and principles they were discovering in their composition or technique classes seemed so easy to transfer to their other classes, and to other areas of their lives. I knew it wasn’t me. It was the pedagogy I had stumbled on.    

I wondered if this was what I had been looking for: A practical aid in becoming a more effective classroom teacher in the 21st century. Tony Wagner, one of the experts I sought out, points out in his book “Most Likely to Succeed” that , “Consequential and sustained learning comes, to a very large extent, from applying knowledge to new situations or problems, research on questions and issues that students consider important, peer interaction, activities, and projects.” (Wagner, Hintersmith 8)

I was on my way.    

In between I took two online courses through NDEO. One on The National Core Arts Standards and the other on good old assessment. Although I was usually the only college professor among my peers I felt it was an important step in really understanding how to both grade my students fairly, and to understand what they were learning, hopefully, in their high school programs through the NCAS. Both courses were tremendously helpful and both referenced UbD® which made me even more intrigued.  

Since then I have wondered how to transfer this knowledge to my colleagues and peers. Recently I have developed, with help from Jay McTighe,  a template for that work.  A colleague I work with (a talented Theatre professor) has spent one-on-one time with me to revamp her courses. We apply specific parts of the UbD® framework in a given course, identify the trouble spots, and re-design them around a “Big Idea” and “Essential Question” (two UbD® core-principles). This has re-energized her teaching, made assessment more transparent and accurate, and her course goals more meaningful and transferable for the students.  

Due in part to this collaboration, I was recently asked to give a Deans’ Colloquium on this topic and was eager to share not just the UbD® work but also the related work of Dr. Eric Mazur from Harvard and his methodology called Peer Instruction or “PI”. Dr. Mazur’s work was suggested to me by Jay McTighe as he knew that it spoke directly to college faculty. His extensive research shows that college students are not well served by the old models of teaching and that retention is pretty dismal. When I met with Dr. Mazur this past spring he said that he had some marked success in the sciences (he is a physics professor) and the humanities but not in the field of dance in higher ed.  

Which brings us right back to our original question: How can this sort of work help those of us in the performing arts?  After all, we are the ones to answer that question since we have the content-expertise and can use these methodologies to translate the experts’ ideas into dance education.  Combining UbD® and PI not only makes for a lot of capital letters in one sentence but it makes for an effective, accessible, sustainable way to answer that nagging doubt most of us have, “How can I do this better?”  I am excited to share this with you through this Blog post and hope we can learn together. As a little desk plaque I bought the other day that reads: “Teachers who love teaching, teach students to love learning.” UbD® and PI have shown me how to love teaching, and it can do the same for you. And then our students learn, and isn’t that the point?



Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen, MFA, BA has been an Associate Professor of Dance and Director of the Dance Program, as well as Department Chair for seven years, at Principia College. She is now leaving the classroom to consult on issues regarding teaching quality in higher ed, using Understanding by Design ® (UbD) and Peer-Instruction™ as her guides. She received her college’s “Teacher of the Year” award in 2014 and has integrated UbD practices into her classroom and into her work on The Antony Tudor Dance Studies Committee. Hilary has presented at Corps de Ballet International regarding the Dance Studies’ objectives, has been a frequent guest artist in Paris at Academie Americaine de Danse de Paris, and is working on a book entitled, What dancers know that you should too.  Her work has extended to the business world through her workshop, Dance as Metaphor in Leadership Training™, which has been presented to major corporations around the world. She has collaborated in developing an innovative and highly successful program for learning-differences adults through the use of dance and theatre. She has published on the Antony Tudor Ballet website. She received her MFA in Performing Arts from The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and her BA in Political Science from Columbia University. 

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