How learning science might inform dance: A cognitive psychologist responds

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Dr Yana Weinstein (@DoctorWhy) responds to my speculative post about cognitive science and ballroom/latin dance.

I’ve been a professional cognitive psychologist for 10 years and an amateur Latin dancer for 2, so I couldn’t not get over-excited when I saw this post. Unfortunately, none of the cognitive psychology research has been carried out with dancers (at least, to our knowledge), and I’m currently suppressing a very impractical urge to go in this direction! (I’ve already gotten myself in trouble with a project on music memorization – you have no idea how hard it is to branch out beyond generic cognitive tasks to this kind of applied work).

So all we have are the rather well-informed speculations discussed here. Let me speculate further.

1. Chunking – I wonder if it’s not an accident that my teacher always breaks up new choreography into 15-30 second chunks for us. I’m sure she’s not aware that this is the duration of working memory, but maybe she naturally defaulted to this duration.

For this part of the suggestion – “dancing with a partner or being aware of others watching you may be factors that overwhelm or impede learning” – there is also some relevant research. For example, it has been suggested that certain types of test anxiety may lead to off-task thoughts that take up part of working memory resources.

2. Interleaved vs. Massed practice – so much to say here. First of all, don’t confuse spacing with interleaving (it is extremely easy to confuse the two, and honestly, I still do myself sometimes even though I co-wrote a chapter with a large section on each one ). For example, in the main point, “you’ll end up with stronger memory of routines if you interleave dances” is about interleaving, but in the suggestion, “it has been shown that by giving ourselves a bit of time to forget an idea then […] the long-term strengthening of memory of this approach is much greater” is about spacing.

Spacing is more about how you would distribute practice over a period of time. If your performance is in a week, should you practice for an hour every day, or 7 hours the day before? I think we all know the answer.

Interleaving has been most commonly studied with math problems: should you do 10 of the same type of problem, or mix it up? What’s tricky and confusing about the two is that interleaving naturally adds in spacing, so it is hard to have a pure measure of the effectiveness of interleaving without also implicating spacing. However, this paper  attempts to hold spacing constant and still finds a long-term benefit of interleaving.

I don’t know if this has been explicitly specified, but my strong suspicion is that the reason interleaving is helpful is that it enables you to practice doing a problem “cold” (i.e., without the carry-over effect of having just done a similar problem). It’s important, though, to consider what your goal is. If you tend to go to dances where you’re expected to dance salsa and then bachata, interleaved (as I do), then yes – practice them interleaved. But if the two dances tend to be danced in separate parties (e.g., salsa and tango), then I’m not sure interleaving is going to be as necessary, because you will always get to warm up and then after that you’re in a massed testing situation. The grain size of what you are interleaving also matters. You could take this to the absurd: do you need to interleave practicing one rumba dance with doing one yoga pose? Probably not.

Also, I suspect that level of familiarity with the material is also a factor, and some massing is necessary before interleaving can be useful. Have you noticed how a teacher will always introduce a small chunk (cf., chunking), and then you will mass-practice it until it feels comfortable, and only then practice it with whatever comes before and after? It seems obvious now that I think about it, but clearly what this is doing is getting the information from working memory into long-term memory! Think about how the first few times you run through a new chunk, you’re really just copying the teacher in the moment, so you’re not really using your long-term memory. So maybe the ideal practice protocol includes some massing to transfer information to LTM, and then lots of interleaving. But does this mean you should scramble the order of chunks within a choreography and practice them in different orders? This is the same as the rumba vs. yoga pose question, and I’m honestly not sure.

3. Transfer – the suggestions are great, but the main point is more about context than transfer. When we talk about transfer, we usually mean to a new problem (rather than the same problem in a different environment). For example, if you know salsa, how well will you dance bachata? Probably pretty badly until you get taught at least the basic step and some basic moves – and then you’ll probably pick it up faster than a novice dancer, showing some transfer. A more subtle example of transfer might be: say you were taught musicality with a particular song (e.g., here’s a good part of the song to do a dip). An example of transfer would be noticing those moments in a different song.

4. Still images and attentional focus – the point about learning from still images better surprises me, but I must not know the research on moving vs. still images. I just can’t imagine that any better way of demonstrating a dance move could involve still images, but I’m willing to consider the possibility. I suspect, though, that some research (that I either do not know, or cannot recognize from the description) is being misapplied because the learning outcome (what we call “criterion test”) of the study was not mimicry of a physical movement. The idea of attentional focus during learning is also fairly unfamiliar to me, although it definitely makes sense, and perhaps could be addressed by having the dancer wear bright red shoes or bright red gloves depending on whether they were demonstrating feet or arms??

5. Self-explanation – this seems reasonable, and on a totally personal level, I have to say my instructor doesn’t really let us ask questions. I mean, of course she clarifies specific points, but I tend to ask a lot of questions, and she has more or less shut me down on some occasions because it was slowing down the class. Now, as a teacher I completely appreciate the frustration of tangential, time-consuming questions, but I like to think (probably erroneously!) that my questions are relevant. It just feels as though she has a certain amount of material to get through each class, and any elaborative interrogation (and it’s really not that elaborative – I’m usually just trying to figure out exactly how something fits together) cuts into that time. Perhaps a discussion session after class would be valuable.

6. I don’t know the research on putting two concrete examples side-by-side, but I feel that this point also addresses the value of feedback. To which point, maybe it’s useful to mention that the jury is still out on whether immediate or delayed feedback is best for learning.

Overall, though, here’s my take on learning dance: I feel like we are generally pretty well aligned with the cognitive principles. Most importantly, I think – and David didn’t mention this in his post, possibly because it’s too obvious – we make constant use of the testing effect. We learn by doing the dance, over and over, from memory. We don’t sit for an hour listening to our dance teacher describe the moves and taking notes; we don’t practice by watching the teacher’s performance video over and over again (though we do consult it in between attempts to get it right); and the teacher doesn’t just call on one student at a time to do one small part of the routine while others watch passively. Why, then, is the same not true in a typical school classroom? Why aren’t our kids repeatedly practicing retrieval of the information the teacher is trying to teach?

And here is a dress rehearsal of my latest routine with Leah’s Chicas! 🙂

6 ways learning science might improve Ballroom & Latin practice & lessons

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Today I found a great way to bring my not-so-secret past as a competitive latin dancer* together with my enthusiasm for research into teaching and learning. As those who know me through the mainstream education world will know, I’m fascinated by how students learn and how we help teachers learn how to teacher better.

I met up with teacher-to-the-champions Mr Graham Oswick, who along with some wonderful other teachers** did his best, many years ago, to inject some form of technique and style into my remarkably resistant body.

We had a chat about what teachers, students and competitors might learn from the most up to date research about how the brain learns***. Stemming from that discussion, here are 6 ideas from my reading of some cognitive science literature*** that I think might plausibly transfer into more effective teaching and learning in ballroom and latin.

I should note – I’ve not tested these and I’d love to hear if anyone has conducted some high quality research. Also, if any cognitive scientists would like to correct any mistake from my inevitably non-expert interpretation then I’d really welcome your input!

  1. When learning something new we have a limited working memory that can reliable hold about 3 to 5 ‘chunks’ of information at any one time before we feel overwhelmed and overloaded. For novice dancers each ‘chunk’ may be small movements, single steps, movement of one muscle. However, expert dancers have learned to combine multiple ideas into more complex mental schema which can be accessed as a single chunk, allowing experts to build up more complex ideas that would overwhelm beginners.
    • Suggestion: limit the amount of new steps and ideas you focus on at any one time when learning something new to avoid being overwhelmed by an impossible learning task. For new ideas, steps or technique, playing music, dancing with a partner or being aware of others watching you may be factors that overwhelm or impede learning as they all take part of your attention and therefore working memory.
  2. It’s tempting to try and learn and practice dances in chunks. This is known as massed practice. e.g. where you focus on all of the Samba for 20 minutes before moving to Rumba for another 20 minutes. However, cognitive science shows us that long-term memory of dances is stronger if we interleave practice. Oddly, it has been shown that by giving ourselves a bit of time to forget an idea then, even though the next time we try to remember it will be harder, the long-term strengthening of memory of this approach is much greater than repeating the same ideas back-to-back.
    • Suggestion: even though it feels harder, you’ll end up with stronger memory of routines is you interleave dances rather than doing massed practice of repeating one dance several times before moving to the next.
  3. One of the most frustrating problems in dancing is where you remember a routine and technique in the studio but where it goes out of your head in an exam or on the competition floor. One element of the problem is clearly related to stress but another issue could be related to the idea of transfer. This is where the learning of an idea is strongly associated in your memory with a particular location, environment, music, and so on. Learning science suggests that we can help overcome this by mixing up our practice and learning in all sorts of different ways, to ensure that the only common factor is the actual core idea that we’re focused on, rather than letting it get bound up with other factors.
    • Suggestion: mix up practice in as many ways as possible to strengthen your learning and adaptability. Try different music, different tempos, different locations facing different directions. Start at different points of the routine. Wear a variety of practice wear – heavier and lighter.
  4. A common way to teach ideas in dancing is for the instructor or teacher to demonstrate an idea by dancing it themselves while the student watches. However, learning science shows that novices are very likely to have attention focused on some of the wrong aspects of the demonstration. Another issue is that the act of processing the moving image also takes up valuable working memory which takes attention away from the key aspects being demonstrated. Research has shown that students often learn new ideas better from a series of still images where the key aspects are simply and clearly highlighted and where details that are not important to the key idea are de-emphasised.
    • Suggestion: work hard to focus attention on the key aspects being communicated. During teaching demonstrations you could perhaps attach something brightly coloured to the area of focus. Another idea is to use a series of still images (or, even better, simple line drawings) and talk through them using a highlighter to show the key areas of focus.
  5. Research suggests that the most successful students are constantly engaged in self-talk – internally re-explaining what they are seeing and experiencing to make sense of it. Less successful students do less of this. This mental process helps to create the links between practice and theory – i.e. between the what and the how and why. In more successful practice and teaching, students are encouraged and helped to engage in self-explanation, e.g. by pausing frequently in demonstrations or by being given worked examples with gaps to fill in.
    • Suggestion: during lessons and practice, make time to verbalise both the sequence of steps and the logic of why actions are taking place. Repeated demonstrations are less effective than switching back and forwards between instructor-narrated demonstrations and student-narrated practice, or even student-narrated demonstrations.
  6. One of the more effective ways of learning is to see two concrete examples of an idea or practice side by side and then work with a teacher to identify key differences. It is significantly more effective to be able to see ideas side-by-side than it is to watch one example and then another, especially when key aspects can be put right next to each other and highlighted.
    • Suggestion: use video to capture the teacher and the students dancing the same moves to the same music, then play back side-by-side, pausing and slowing to emphasise key aspects of difference. Stills from both might be used on-screen with a digital highlighter to emphasise key differences in shaping, or slow-motion used to show differences in rhythm or size/volume of movement.

To re-iterate, these ideas are taken from general literature on cognitive science, not from any specific literature on learning or practising dance. However, they do seem to be generally applicable in a wide variety of settings and learning so I hope they might start a useful discussion among ballroom and latin dance teachers, students and competitors about improving the way that steps, techniques and routines are taught and learned.

Anyone fancy exploring this further?


 

*In case of scepticism, here’s a video of me dancing with the lovely Leah Rolfe back in 2007 – should be noted Leah has gone on to much greater things since finding a significantly better partner in the amazing Adelmo. I also danced with other amazing partners such as Sharon Withers, Sarah Farrell, Laura John, Georgina Weeds , to name just a few.

**Other amazing teachers included Bruce Richardson, Vicky Cunniffe, Lorraine Kuznik, Neil Dewar, Ian Waite, Karen Hardy, Luca Sartori and Goran Nordin, Margaret Redmond and several others. I’m ridiculously grateful to them all, even if I’m no longer dancing.

colvin clark ev based training*** These ideas are all taken from Ruth Colvin Clark – Evidence-based training methods where you can also see references for all of the research quoted.

Note: the image used as a header for this blog is cropped from an original by Ailura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org
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)], via Wikimedia Commons – from https://commons.wikimedia.org/ wiki/File AJive_Langella_Moshenska_1107.JPG