So You Think You Can Learn
I'm not a big television watcher, have almost no interest in most reality shows, but am addicted to "So You Think You Can Dance." It's not only because I love dance (although that helps), but also because it is a rare example of how excellent, rigorous feedback can contribute towards a goal of excellence, not only for the individual involved but for a larger community. It is also a rare example of people with extraordinary talents in one area learning to adapt those talents to parallel (but quite different) areas. In other words, it is a fantastic counter-model of teaching and learning, expertise and specialization, than one finds in traditional learning models, many of which I find, frankly, impoverished, enervating, uninspiring, and unproductive. There. I've said it.
I've gotten a lot of attention lately for my "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" course where, in the first year, I made peer-to-peer learning the pedagogical model. I constructed a syllabus but, each week, two students would read my assignments and then decide whether they wanted to stick with those, augment them, or substitute something else. They would then lead the class discussion. In the second year, and because of pointed questions raised by my best students, I researched different grading systems and came up with a peer-to-peer model of evaluation, with the students responsible for the weekly discussion sessions also determining whether all the blogs produced for the weekly assignments were satisfactory enough to meet the "contract grading" standards set for the course. If not, they had to give feedback so the blogs could be rewritten and improved to be satisfactory. Next time I teach the course, I want to extend that so, the last part of each peer-led class, will include comments from all of the students about ways the peer-teaching could have been improved. Since with peer-teaching, one is a teacher in one class but a student in another, by adding public oral feedback, each person becomes far more responsive and responsible at the moment, in situ, and feedback is not a source of shame but a path to excellence.
That's the tie in to "So You Think You Can Dance." This season, there are ten finalists who have been chosen in competitions from all over the country. Ten chosen from hundreds to be on the show. Each week, one of these finalists teams up with an All Star from past seasons. They pick a name out of a hat and also a style. So Alex, the brilliant ballet dancer, might be doing hip hop or Broadway one week and contemporary the next. At the end of the dance, the All Star walks off set and a panel of three judges, all former dancers and choreographers, offers pointed, tough feedback. Even when a dance is stunning--such as when Alex received a rare standing ovation from the judges for a powerful, emotional contemporary dance--there is pointed critique as well. This is not like "American Idol" where Simon shows off his own macho by being as harsh as possible. This is dance criticism by now-famous dancers and producers but who know both the rigor of professional dance and who want dance, as a form of expression, to be better supported and have more influence and power in the world. They are evangels. "So You Think You Can Dance" is their platform.
They do not, like other such shows, reduce their critique to a verdict. They might tell Alex, after his Broadway routine, something big and profound: ballet moves are open and big; Fosse's moves are closed in, tight, centered, simmeringly big from the inside out, like a cauldron. Or they might scold another dancer for smiling too much at the audience during a romantic moment (Hey! Look at how cute I am!) instead of connecting with his partner and allowing the audience to connect through the public intimacy of that partnership. Or there might be a technical demonstration of a foot pointed instead of flat or a back too swayed or a line marred by a hand that flops when it should extend. The critique is offered not by one expert but by three who are strong-minded and feel free to discuss their own disagreements. Their judgment is not always unanimous. And it is not final. In the end, who actually wins or loses that week is not decided by judges but by the general public. The actual vote is crowdsourced to you and me, the Audience, and it is an audience that, one hopes, becomes an intelligent participant in the process, schooled by the clear, concise, pointed critique of these experts. Not only do the dancers learn. So do we. And, if we choose badly, the judges turn their acute eye on us and tell us where and how we got it wrong and express disappointment in us when we're being frivolous and not taking our dance seriously enough.
Of course, "So You Think You Can Dance" is also television so there are cheesy elements. Of course. But what inspires me, as a teacher, is the idea that feedback that is tough is the greatest gift of all. That, in the end, is why I have promised myself to always experiment with new forms of grading. Our present grading system was adopted in the early twentieth century both as an efficiency (largely to cope with the hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooding into the newly required American primary and secondary educational system). Everyone knew it was an impoverished form of evaluation, far less constructive than actual feedback on essays (the Oxbridge model) or apprenticeship models of correction. But,well, it was a way to cope. Now we have elevated it to the only way to evaluate, even at an elite school such as Duke in fortunate situations such as a seminar. As I've said elsewhere, grading has become a religion. The term paper, midterm, and final have become "requirements." That's all fine. But it isn't the highest form of learning and it isn't one particularly suited to the new ways of learning and working collaboratively in a digital age.
So you think you can learn? That's the challenge. I think you can. But you--all of you, all of us--deserve a better system for the twenty-first century. "So You Think You Can Dance" is one model of feedback and expertise, both crowdsourced to a general audience that both learns and decides.