MEd Teaching and Learning in the Performing Arts

If anyone is interested having followed my Masters journey here is the thesis which got me that scroll…

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To create a handbook for teacher use with upper primary level highland dance, taking account of differentiated practices for pupils with additional support needs and the social, cultural and political context of dance education.



Since beginning my teaching career back in 2008 I have worked primarily in a Secondary High School context and so my dance teaching has subsequently been predominantly with the 11-18 age group. However, in September 2018 I took up post as Head of Learning Support at an independent preparatory school for pupils between the ages of 7 and 13. I will be teaching Highland Dance as part of the activities programme at the school and therefore need to develop my own knowledge in this area in the primary context.

Additionally, since 2015, I have worked specifically in the area of support for learning which aims to ensure that all pupils are included in all activities and not held back by additional needs they may have. By combining this experience with my personal development priorities I therefore aim to produce a handbook for all primary level staff to be able to deliver highland dance specifically in an upper primary school context with an awareness of differentiated approaches.

My personal learning priorities and professional aims from this project are to develop adeeper knowledge and understanding of teaching at primary school level, and to gain potential dual qualification in a primary context taking account of differentiated practices for pupils with additional support needs.

On a wider basis, teachers, both on this course and in schools up and down the country, regularly discuss how they don’t know where to start when delivering dance. They often understand its importance in areas of creativity and health and wellbeing but the not knowing where to start leaves them lacking in confidence and reluctant to try for fear of getting it wrong. A simple lesson-by-lesson handbook would give a starting point for teachers inexperienced in dance which they could then build on as their, and their pupils, skills develop.

Many dance teachers have more specifically spoken of how they have no knowledge of what highland dance is and given that I have thirty years’ experience in the dance form and fourteen years’ experience of teaching it, it seems an obvious choice to develop a handbook around this dance style in particular. There is a breadth of resources out there for ballet, contemporary and jazz teaching but very little for Highland beyond the strict exam syllabi. I hope that my handbook will address this sizeable gap.


Background and Context

Dance is“a creative way to meet state and national learning standards and (one of) the many ways that children demonstrate their intelligence and understanding. Attention must be paid to all of the intelligences our children possess and to all of their learning styles. Dance is important to incorporate into our inclusive classrooms if we want to meet the needs of more diverse groups of students.” (Skoning, 2008)

Skoning (2008) published her paper entitled, ‘Movement and Dance in the Inclusive Classroom’ in volume 4 of Teaching Exceptional Children Plus. The article aims to outlinethe advantages of dance for all students including those with learning disabilities, emotional disorders, attention deficit disorder, cognitive disabilities, and those considered gifted and talented.

Using research findings alongside Rudolf Laban’s work (1974) on movement analysis and anecdotal evidence, Skoning argues that the benefits of using creative movement and dance as viable teaching tools increase students’ understanding of taught content, improve misbehaviour and are a useful tool for developing new forms of assessment. These are particularly applicable for students with additional needs which may otherwise prevent them from accessing the ‘typical’ assessment route.

Skoning explored a number of different researchers and their work, drawing evidence from famous philosophers such as Aristotle and Montessori, both of whom encouraged the use of movement to promote learning. More recently Dr Christel Manske (2006) found that “many teachers remain focussed on verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences and cater to auditory and visual learners, using inadequate methods to teach many children with disabilities” whose strengths may lie more in the kinaesthetic. Teachers widely admit to finding kinaesthetic approaches the most difficult to incorporate into the classroom (Pica, 2006) and this, therefore, is where dance can fill a gap.

Skoning herself conducted a study in her classroom while teaching literature to a group of fourth and fifth graders (Primaries 6 and 7) through creative movement. She explains how the benefits were immediate, observing that her class of twenty-seven, nine of whom had recognised learning and cognitive disabilities, showed increased comprehension of character and plot in English lessons and those pupils with recognised Social, Emotional and Behavioural Disorders (SEBD) showed vastly improved social skills.

Her study was backed up by others including Werner (2001) who revealed that integrating dance into maths classes significantly increased positive attitudes towards maths in pupils between primary 4 and 7. Furthermore, Smith (2002) conducted a research which noted an increase in imaginative skills from the use of dance being taught in schools.

Behaviour was a particular theme that came through the research evidence investigated by Skoning. For example, Griss (1994) found that the ability to move while learning decreased inappropriate behaviours of the students in the study. These are all positive outcomes and support the need for dance in schools but it is still widely acknowledged that many teachers feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of using creative movement and dance concepts in their classrooms, especially if they are ‘non-dancers’ themselves (Griss, 1994). The intention of my ‘Introduction to Highland Dance’ handbook is to give a helpful aid to these teachers and allow them to develop their skills within a clear lesson framework.

‘Benefits of Dance Education in the middle school setting’ by Wrenn Cook (2005) provides further evidence of the benefits of dance while supporting the findings of Skoning’s paper.

In many classrooms all pupils will be dance beginners and therefore the dance studio can be a ‘safe haven’ for those who may, in other areas of the curriculum, feel inferior to their peers. Dance exams have a high achievement rate and not because of lack of rigour but instead because the collaborative and unique nature of a dance classroom environment addresses the broad spectrum of student needs:

“Peer teaching, as opposed to direct instruction from the teacher can enable students who usually regard themselves as marginal members of the school community (and who) suddenly find themselves fully integrated into the world of proud and successful learners.”(McDermott & Combs, 1991)

These and other strategies such as hands-on learning and enrichment activities have characterised dance and other arts subjects for decades and are partly responsible for the frequent ability of arts teachers to engage ‘problem’ students where others fail.  Therefore, by utilising aspects of dance and the dance teaching process, teachers of all subjects can enliven their delivery of content and reach students who are unable and often unwilling to learn through the traditional lecture format of education.


Why Highland Dance?

So why Highland Dance in particular?Highland dance is an intense aerobic exercise requiring endurance and skill. It can provide moderate to vigorous physical activity for dancers of all ages.”(MacCallum and Sheehan, 2013). The authors of ‘Kids in Kilts: Using Highland Dance to Develop Fundamental Movement Skills’ argue that dance is the perfect dance form for developing both competence and confidence in physical literacy and describe it as “an energetic activity that develops fundamental movement skills”(MacCallum and Sheehan, 2013).

Alongside the core skills taught by all dance forms such as improved motor abilities, co-ordination, balance and agility, Highland dance is considered to be a cardiovascular workout of a similar intensity to skipping, running and other forms of vigorous physical activity and ensuring that children get enough ‘vigorous physical activity’ is a key national priority listed under the Health and Wellbeing objectives on the Scottish Government website:

“The Scottish Government recognises the positive impact physical education can have on a pupil’s health, educational attainment and life chances and…includes a commitment that…every school pupil in Scotland will benefit from at least two hours per week of physical education in primary school.” (Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport, 2015).

As well as these commitments, Highland Dance allows teachers to meet the needs of their pupils according to the following Curriculum for Excellence Health and Wellbeing and Expressive Arts experiences and outcomes:

  • Within and beyond my place of learning I am enjoying daily opportunities to participate in physical activities and sport, making use of available indoor and outdoor space. (HWB 1-25a) 
  • I have taken part in dance from a range of styles and cultures, demonstrating my awareness of the dance features. (EXA 2-10a)
  • I can respond to the experience of dance by discussing my thoughts and feelings. I can give and accept constructive comment on my own and others’ work. (EXA 1-11a and 2-11a)

Any activity that gets young people moving in a nation where childhood obesity figures have hit an all-time high can only be a positive. A recent study conducted by University College London’s Institute of Education showed that 25% of children are now considered overweight or obese by age seven, rising to an alarming 35% at age 11 (Woodfield, 2017). These statistics show that schools must find ways of helping. The wider choice of activities that can be given to pupils the better in order to engage them in something which they enjoy and which gets them moving.

My own school has a rigorous sport and activities programme and more than meets the Scottish Government physical activity agenda. The school considers sport as a vital element in developing healthy and active minds and bodies and the children are fortunate to benefit from games sessions every day in addition to their timetabled Physical Education lessons. All boys play rugbyhockey and cricket while the girls play netball, hockey and rounders as their main sports each term. There are, however many other sports on offer including: footballathleticscross country runningswimmingtennis, golf, lacrosse, skiing, and now, Highland Dance, which is part of the activities programme described on the school website as “a fun, challenging and integral part of the school day”.

“Contemporary highland dancing consists of repetitive and intense hopping on the ball of one foot, known as the supporting foot. That foot is co-ordinated with the other working foot, which performs various aerial movements that range from simple to intricate. Flexibility is necessary to perform the technical and aesthetic components of highland dance. This is apparent as the legs are striving for lateral rotation at the hip joint, resulting in the knees and feet pointing outward to the side of the dancer (known as turn out). At times, both hands of the dancer are held up over the head, placed on the hip, or one hand is placed on the same hip as the working foot while the other hand is held over the head.

The dances vary in the degree of complexity and intensity and can be anywhere from 90 seconds to three minutes in length. The choreography of each dance is balanced and symmetrical and includes a series of movements performed on one side of the body with the working foot which is then immediately repeated (mirrored) by the opposite foot. This is done to ensure there is an aesthetic balance for the audience watching the dance and also to ensure the strength and flexibility of the dancer is even on both sides.”(MacCallum and Sheehan, 2013).

This brief description highlights just some of the skills young people who take part in highland dance will develop: strength, flexibility, rhythm, co-ordination, balance and stamina to name but a few. These physical skills, together with discipline and a deep desire to improve, create young people who are willing to challenge themselves and who are considered to be ‘physically literate.’ Physical literacy is defined as:“a fundamental and valuable human capability that can be described as a disposition acquired by human individuals encompassing the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding that establishes purposeful physical pursuits as an integral part of their lifestyle.” (The International Physical Literacy Association, 2014).

Therefore, it is clear that Highland Dance, as well as meeting many of the government targets towards a healthier society, will also provide young people with a wealth of knowledge and skill that they can carry far beyond the dance studio.



Differentiation, although considered to now be well-established in schools up and down the country is in fact one of the least understood elements of teaching. It mystifies newly qualified teachers and terrifies many older teachers. I have seen this ‘fear’ first hand in my work as a Learning Support teacher. All too often the answer to differentiation is for the pupil who requires it to be housed elsewhere, to work one-to-one with a classroom assistant or to perform some menial task such as colouring-in while their classmates delve into the ‘more complex’ work. This is all wrong. History teacher, John Clare, held a seminar on the topic of differentiation where he attempted to redirect teachers away from these aforementioned ‘approaches.’ He opened with a list of the things differentiation is not:

1) Writing thirty different lesson plans.
2 ) Saying that differentiation is not necessary because the pupils are set.
3) Teaching at a slow pace so that everyone can keep up.
4) Abandoning whole-class teaching, setting a task, and then letting pupils/groups work at their own pace through a worksheet.
5) Expecting some students to do better than others and calling it ‘differentiation by outcome’.
6) Humiliating the slow learners by drawing attention to their limitations.
7) Allowing less able learners to copy or draw.
8) Making more advanced learners do extension assignments after completing their “regular” work.

In fact, differentiation is so much simpler than this. Clare defined differentiation as: the right of each pupil to be taught in a way specifically tailored to their individual learning needs. The process of differentiation, consequently, is the adjustment of the teaching process to meet the differing learning needs of the pupils, and it involves every teacher having sufficient appropriate knowledge of the pupils, plus the ability to plan and deliver suitable lessons effectively, so as to help all pupils individually to maximise their learning, whatever their individual situation.”

It is essentially part and parcel of what we do every day to adjust things appropriately whatever the need. The pupil who is feeling down because their dog died may need more encouragement today – differentiation, the young girl with Meares-Irlen syndrome might be helped by the background of the board being in blue – differentiation, and the boy who has forgotten his glasses might need to be moved closer to the front for this lesson – differentiation. The most important message from Clare’s definition is to know your pupils, therefore, the differentiation processes mentioned in my handbook are suggestions rather than prescriptive.

In ‘What teachers need to know: The knowledge, skills and values essential to good teaching’, David Dill discusses the effectiveness of good teachers explaining that they need to be responsive to the learning needs of all students and implement strategies that will be responsive to what he describes as, “a diverse clientele” (Dill, 1990). There cannot be just a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach (Graham, 1995) as the need for differentiation will be affected by a range of factors including, but not limited to: additional support needs, motivation, interest, ability, prior learning, concentration and outside influences.

Unfortunately, what many teachers end up doing is teaching to either the top (Goodwin, 1997) or to the bottom 10% with regards to skill level. This can be a problem in Highland Dancing where the teacher is trying to either stretch the top end of the class in preparation for competition or spends too much time teaching the beginner level dancers in order to get them up to speed with everybody else. In the classroom, however, a bigger concern is employing a “middle of the road approach” (Napper-Owen, 2003) which is also not the answer. With particular regards to physical activities, such as highland dancing, Golder (2003) suggested that without a “developmentally appropriate pedagogy, which targets the level of each child…we are likely to inhibit meaningful movement experiences for all.” Instead teachers should respond to the needs of all learners, with consideration of the range of potential determining factors requiring differentiation.

Harrison (1997) outlines three main approaches to differentiation as: differentiation by task (sometimes referred to in this context as content), differentiation by support (or process) and differentiation by outcome (or product).  In a physical activity context this would involve teaching an extension of the basic movement phrase for higher ability students thus allowing additional teaching time with less able students. In a Highland dancing context, for example, there is a basic back-stepping step in the fling described in the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing Handbook as:

Bar 1: Hop left foot, pointing right foot in second position (count 1); hop left foot taking right foot to third rear aerial position (count 2); hop left foot, pointing right foot in second position (count 3); hop left foot, taking right foot to third aerial position (count 4).

Bar 2: Execute back-stepping slipping the right foot from front aerial to back springing right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot (counts 5, 6, 7, 8).

Arms: Second position in bar 1; third position in bar 2.

Bars 3 and 4: Beginning with spring (instead of hop), repeat bars 1 and 2 with the opposite foot.

Bars 5 to 8: Beginning with spring (instead of hop), repeat bars 1 to 4.

For those pupils who are of higher ability and who can perform this back-stepping step with relative ease the second back-stepping step would allow for both extending this group and giving more time for the teacher to work with pupils struggling to master the more basic phrase:

Bar 1: Spring left foot, pointing right foot in second position (count 1); hop left foot taking right foot to third rear aerial position (count 2); execute a quick round-the-leg movement with right foot to third aerial position, then hop left foot, extending right foot to fourth intermediate aerial position (count ‘&3’); hop left foot, returning right foot to third aerial position (count 4).

Bar 2: Execute back-stepping slipping the right foot from front aerial to back springing right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot (counts 5, 6, 7, 8).

Arms: Second position in bar 1; third position in bar 2.

Bars 3 and 4: Repeat bars 1 and 2 with the opposite foot.

Bars 5 to 8: Repeat bars 1 to 4.

For pupils who still struggle with the co-ordination level required for completing the basic back-stepping step arm movements can be taken out and/or a chair provided for balance while learning.

An example of differentiation by support would be working in groups to support each other through a step or movement phrase. In a study conducted by Dr Peter Whipp of the University of Western Australia in 2004, a swimming class was used as a case study for different approaches of differentiation. In both observation and follow-up interviews researchers found that the pairing of more and less able swimmers created far more positive outcomes than when low ability swimmers paired themselves with each other. One reason for this was found to be that “the challenge of assisting each other appeared beyond their capacity” when low ability students paired themselves with each other. Moreover, the high ability swimmers reported being “interested”in peer related teaching, one pupil in interview saying: “…we could sort of help other people to show them how to do things and I like doing that, that’s really fun.” This particular study focused on year 8 and 9 children (aged 12 and 13) and the conclusion was that this type of support showed great benefit to both student teacher and learner.

The final example of differentiation discussed by Christine Harrison in ‘Differentiation in theory and practice’ is differentiation by outcome. Teachers who use this will often show the practice of on-going diagnostic assessment (both formal and informal) and will provide alternative opportunities to display learning such as, in highland dance, at competition. In this context the level entered at competition would in itself be a form of differentiation. In Highland dance there are five levels or categories designed to allow dancers to compete with dancers of a similar ability level. These are:

  • Primary
  • Beginners
  • Novice
  • Intermediate
  • Premier

Primary dancers can remain in that category until they reach their 7th birthday but are welcome to progress sooner if they choose, allowing for pupils of high ability who may need stretched. Primary dancers are restricted to the following four dances: 16 pas de basques, pas de basques and high cuts, highland fling, sword dance. Trophies are not awarded at this stage.

Beginners is the section immediately after Primary. Beginner status is held until the competitor either a) gains a first, second or third prize in a highland dance in six separate Beginner competitions, or b) until twelvemonths after the first beginner stampafter which the competitor is classified as a Novice. It should be noted, however, that at least six months must be spent in this section regardless of prizes awarded. Beginner dancers are restricted to the following dances: highland fling, sword dance, seann triubhas, reel, flora, lilt. By restricting the number of dances to be competed in, dancers, in theory, have more time to concentrate on learning and perfecting the steps in those given dances. Having options for when and how dancers can move up to the next level is also a prime example of differentiation by outcome.

The next stage is Novice where once again dancers remain in the section for at least six months and must gain 1st, 2ndor 3rdin six separate competitions in order to move to Intermediate. The dances remain the same as those at beginner level.

At Intermediate the rules for progression remain the same although there is an additional clause which allows for some differentiation for health conditions related to illness or injury: Intermediate dancers who are seriously injured or seriously ill during their one-year term and are looking for an extension of that term are asked to submit a doctor’s certificate for review by the registration Committee on the SOBHD. Each case is reviewed on an individual basis (BC Highland Dancing Association, 2016). As well as the dances at beginner and novice levels Intermediate dancers also compete in the Barracks Johnnie, Highland Laddie, Irish Jig and Hornpipe, reflective of their increased ability.

The final, and top, section is Premier from which there is no progression. In this category dancers are placed in age groups and will dance annually revised championship steps as set out by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD). They can perform any of the highland dances although, as with all age groups, are limited to the eight-dance rule.

Returning to one of John Clare’s points of ‘what not to do for differentiation’ – “Expecting some students to do better than others and calling it differentiation by outcome” – it is clear that by putting children in groupings according to ability level removes these low expectations, often known as the Golem effect, where lower expectations are reflected by poorer performance. Everyone is in the ability group correct for them and as such there can be high expectations for all.

The opposite of the Golem effect which does concentrate on high expectations is commonly known as the Pygmalion effect where teachers form expectations of their students’ achievements based on prior knowledge, such as previous grades and perceptions of in-class performance, but are also based on teachers’ prejudices and stereotypes (Friedrich et al, 2015). For example, if a pupil is well-behaved and polite it is all too easy to assume they will also be academic high achievers. It is a presumption made in the subconscious. These expectancies teachers form about their students, however, have been shown to impact students’ future achievement. A well-known ‘Pygmalion’ experiment was conducted in 1965 by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen in an American elementary school. They told teachers that certain children could be expected to achieve significantly better than their peers based on their results on the ‘Harvard Test of lnflected Acquisition’. There was no such test. Those children designated as high achievers had been chosen at random (Rosenthal and Jacobsen, 1968). The researchers hoped to determine whether or not this simple placebo act would affect the teachers’ expectations of their pupils and subsequently, what their students would go on to achieve.

The experiment, conducted over the course of a year, did show some differences. Those without the prior expectations increased their cognitive score by eight points while those in the control group increased by 12. Although there was a difference the researchers felt that the high expectations had a positive impact on the school as a whole. Girls showed a greater advantage than boys and, furthermore, the results showed a discrepancy between older and younger children, the latter group seeing greater improvements. Again, this is interesting for my own project where I am delving into a new world of primary school age children rather than the secondary pupils I am used to teaching. In their summary, Rosenthal and Jacobsen believed that their results were likely to be down to younger children being more sensitive to what teachers think about their performance. I have been conscious since beginning my life as a teacher that we must differentiate our approach according to age and stage and this research would support this opinion.

The challenge for teachers when using this approach of differentiation is to ensure young people are ready for the stage assigned as activities that are centred too far above or below the level of the learners’ readiness can lead to frustration or boredom (Rikard and Woods, 1993) which can have a knock-on negative impact on a child’s concentration levels, willingness to take part, levels of achievement, motivation and self-esteem.

There are not just challenges with this particular form of differentiation either. As David George says in ‘The Challenge of the Able Child’ (1992): “differentiation has become a buzz word, a convenient portfolio term for an issue which has always been with us.” He goes on to explain how all children should be offered a broad range of curricular experience which they can access according to their individual needs. Teachers in schools today have become far more aware of the requirement, for example, to differentiate classroom materials in such a way that they can be accessed by all but have perhaps not all fully grasped the idea that it is not merely a process for young people with a specific learning difficulty and equally not just a means to stretch the top end of the class: “Differentiation is about all children, because all children are different, and one of the fascinating aspects of being a teacher is this very fact of human variation and all its attributes”(George, 1992).

It is this word ‘all’ which defines how I aim to teach and in my Highland Dancing handbook the underlying principle is that allchildren, regardless of ability level, should be able to take part and also, importantly, have fun.

Social, Cultural and Political Concerns

One of the gaps I hope to address with my handbook is that many children currently do not experience dance as part of their school curriculum, in large part due to lack of teacher expertise. It therefore becomes a lottery as to which schools happen to have a dance practitioner on their staff and which don’t. In the first two schools I taught in I was the first member of staff they had ever had who could teach dance and as such I built from scratch a dance programme in each school taking into account the lack of dance expertise most of the young people had. Again, at Belhaven, there had been no dance teacher experience and I have filled a gap. Now, with this unit, I hope that more teachers interested in offering their classes dance experiences can do so regardless of their own expertise in the area.

Another key challenge for dance education is attracting boys and this is an area where once again Highland dancing comes up trumps as highland dancing was originally performed only by males! “According to tradition, the old kings and clan chiefs used the Highland Games as a means to select their best men at arms, and the discipline required to perform the Highland dances allowed men to demonstrate their strength, stamina and agility” (Johnson,

When, after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the government in London wanted to rid the Highlands of Scotland of what they saw as “unlawful elements” they passed an act of parliament which made the carrying of weapons and the wearing of kilts a penal offence. It was repealed in 1785 but by then “Highlanders had lost all enthusiasm for their tartan garb and lacked the main prop required to perform their sword dances” (Johnson, But, thanks to Queen Victoria, Highland dance saw a revival during her reign and at this time we started to see the makings of what we now know as a modern highland games. However, when it became more about the aesthetic than the battle cries, Highland dancing began to move from being an exclusively male pursuit, to one that today is danced predominantly by females:

“It was a shock for everyone when the first female Highland Dancer took to the platforms to do battle with the men. Her name was Jenny Douglas and she made so much of an impact on the scene, dressed exactly as the men, that shortly after other ladies took up the idea and the seed was sewn” (Mill, 2008).

In an article for the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association historian, Charlie Mill, estimates that today nearly 98% of competitors are female. Itis therefore essential that all the stops are pulled out in fostering today’s boy competitors to keep alive the dancing traditions that for centuries have epitomised everything that is Scottish (Mill, 2008).

However, just because the art form is now dominated by females it is so often males who go on to take top honours; David Wilton from Fife winning the coveted world championship title seven times in recent years.

But, despite the origins of masculinity evident in Highland Dance, the dance style still falls foul to the age-old stereotype that dance is for girls. Jan Van Dyke of the University of North Carolina discusses in ‘Gender and Success in the American Dance World’ how for many young girls, dance classes are almost taken for granted. They have become a childhood rite of passage whereas boys are more likely to be signed up for football sessions.

In ‘Dancing around the Problem of Boys and Dance’ by Michael Gard he explores why this stereotype prevails and comes up with some surprising answers:

“I am concerned that it is the low number of boys who willingly dance (in certain ways) that is often understood as problematic by physical and dance educators. Far from being simply a ‘problem’ with or for boys, I argue that the rejection of dance by schoolboys points to a rejection of movement practices that are seen as feminine or signifying homosexuality, a point that has significance for all students. What is at stake here is not so much the relatively small amount of space available for dance in schools compared with other movement forms such as competitive sports, although this is a significant issue. Rather, I am concerned with the meanings associated with certain kinds of bodily movement and the sexist and homophobic regimes of bodily practice that these meanings underscore and that operate within schools.”(Gard, 2001)

Having recently completed my Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) Dance Visiting Assessor examinations I observed this ‘problem’ first hand. All the boys who sat the exam this year were executing choreography which could be considered overtly feminine and this does not encourage more boys to take the subject up. Here again is where highland dance has an advantage as it “used to be regarded around the mid-19th century as a dance suitable for warriors and male athletes”(Alferov, 2011). It is a particularly vigorous dance style requiring a lot of stamina and strong movements in contrast to the more delicate arm and leg movements associated with ballet and contemporary styles, for example.

But gender issues are not the only social concern in dance education today. The inclusivity of disabled dancers has come to the fore in recent years and is essential when considering the types of differentiation which may be required in order to include young people with a disability into dance lessons.

Teachers all need to be aware of current legislation such as the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 which outlines the need for inclusivity in schools and for all pupils to be able to access curricular and extra-curricular experiences despite potential barriers to learning.

Although dance for those with disabilities is often assumed to be in a purely therapeutic format and although this has a lot of value, in this particular context I will look in more detail at what is known as adapted dance – adapting dance activities as well as attitudes and behaviours surrounding dance and disabilities to promote equal participation opportunities for individuals with disabilities (Hutzler and Sherrill 2007).

There is a general assumption that disabled people can’t dance. This, Michelle Zitomer and Greg Reid analyse in their 2011 study, is because “Individuals who deviate from society’s set norms are perceived as abnormal.” We, as a society, tend to focus on what people can’t do rather than what they can which is at complete odds with what, as teachers, we would ever do in the classroom where we push children to achieve their very best rather than expecting them to fail (see earlier work on Golem and Pygmalion effects). Part of these negative assumptions come from the common use of the term ‘dancer’s body’ (Kuppers, 2000) where we have a pre-conceived image of what a dancer looks like and can, because of their appearance, do with their body, for example skills related to flexibility and strength. However, one researcher, Karen Kauffman, Professor of Dance at the University of Montana, questioned what actually qualifies as dance in her book ‘Inclusive Creative Movement and Dance’. After much research Kauffman was able to define dance ability under these five key areas:

  • Body awareness
  • Spatial awareness
  • Ability to follow oral instruction and music cues
  • Ability to imitate movement
  • Visualisation and recall skills

With this definition many more people can be integrated into a dance environment and be given the opportunities to contribute to the learning process, share a common goal with their classmates and work in collaboration (Barron 2000).

In my own dance environment and with increased awareness from my learning on the dance pathway at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland I try to explore ways in which dancers, regardless of ability, can share space effectively and additionally, explore diverse forms of movement for all.

In my current practice and teaching post there are no young people with physical disabilities which would prevent them from accessing the Highland Dance syllabus, however, we do have a deaf pupil and as a school we have all had to adopt this idea of adapted education in order that she can experience everything her peers do.

Pupil A as she will be known is a triplet who was born at 27 weeks gestation, weighing only 900 grams. She spent most of her first year battling lung disease and has moderate bi-lateral sensory neural deafness (70% deaf).She wears two hearing aids which require batteries and wears them consistently, but currently they are taken out at playtimes.

Sensory Impairment Services have supplied Pupil A with a radio aid transmitter, which involves “shoes” which are attached to the behind-the-ear hearing aids and a microphone (transmitter) which is a pen-shaped device for the teacher to wear when teaching the class. She is also an expert lip-reader.

When in a dance class (a potentially noisier environment than the classroom) Pupil A must be able to see the teacher’s face clearly as she relies (with music on in the background) almost entirely on her ability to lip-read. Extensive research has been done in the area of teaching dance to the deaf student and some of the best advice comes from a research paper by Young Ha Park of the University of Georgia. Park outlines the importance of physical demonstration and visual counting within the dance environment as it effectively leads deaf and hard-of-hearing dancers to perceive the movement and rhythm required. Providing extra time in the dance studio allows deaf pupils to find solutions to any potential problems such as communicating with others or practicing. Rhythm cues such as loud music and pre-counting effectively helps the deaf dancers keep their inner count while the teacher providing the explanation of detail skills or the quality of movements helps the deaf and hard-of-hearing dancers understand the movements effectively and develop the skills and the quality of movement successfully. Finally, maximizing the number of times of repetition allowed hearing impaired dancers to improve in movement skills and memorisation and to increase movement confidence. All of these techniques help all the dancers – deaf or not – and so I actually feel that I have become a far better dance teacher because of having Pupil A in my class. Having to thoroughly research methods to maximise her performance has given me the time to focus on my own development as a teacher and to ensure all pupils are getting the best dance experience in the studio.

All of this is done to counteract the misconceptions that so often arise for deaf children and their abilities. Joy Jarvis and Allesandra Iantaffi wrote a paper in 2006 entitled ‘Deaf People Don’t Dance’ which challenges these negative stereotypes. They discuss the origins of the paper when a student of theirs said she saw hearing music as necessary for dancing and if deaf people couldn’t hear music then how could they dance? “This belief derived from her own understanding of living in the world and illustrates what Hull (2004) argues is the biggest problem for teachers working with children with SEN: the perception that there is only one way of living in and experiencing, the world. In the field of deaf education this links to issues of hearing teachers understanding deaf children, to controversy about the role of signed languages in education and the danger inherent in inclusive contexts that the mainstream way of doing things can be seen as the only way, thus expecting all children to learn in the same way and denying the strengths and differences of many deaf children.”


Handbook Analysis

In order to start to put together a piece of work which could fill the gaps highlighted by the literature I studied I first had to draw on my knowledge and skills of Highland Dance specifically.

The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance (SOBHD) works with a strict, and constantly updating, list of steps, rules and regulations and it is important to be up-to-date with the syllabus in order to justify any level of expertise. I used the Highland Textbookto clarify my current understanding of steps and ensured, for a handbook for use with people with no prior highland dancing expertise, that I chose beginner steps.

All the steps in the dance the handbook culminates in would be performed by ‘primary’ level dancers (between 4 and 7 years of age) and by those in the ‘beginner’ category (Beginner status is held until the competitor either a) gains a first, second or third prize in a highland dance in six separate Beginner competitions, or b) until twelve months after the first beginner stamp,after which the competitor is classified as a Novice.)

Next, I had to find a way to describe the steps without a) taking away from the technicality of the dance style while b) ensuring that teachers would be able to describe, show and deliver the steps. I used visual aids with pictures of positions and YouTube video links alongside written descriptions to try and make this as easy as possible.

I then considered potential problems such as, how much can a beginner learn in one lesson? This is obviously in part dependent on the length of the lesson which will vary from school to school, however, I based this on the format of my own Highland beginner lessons which last approximately 45 minutes. Allowing ten minutes for the warm-up and five minutes for the cool-down leaves 30 minutes giving, in my experience, time to deliver and embed one skill and then to put the skill into practice, whether as part of a dance or by linking to a previously learnt step. This will obviously speed up over time as the dancers become more accustomed to the steps and style of dance but was a useful starting point for structuring my eight lesson unit.

During the production of my handbook I also took into consideration prior work on the course in which I had done a study on the problems posed by competitive highland dance which included:

  • Constant comparison to others
  • Striving for perfectionism which often (if ever) never comes
  • Injuries
  • Fear of failure
  • Doing it to be the best rather than for the enjoyment of taking part (it is all about the winning)
  • Lack of time for anything else (if you want to be the best)
  • The five primary dimensions defined by Frost, Marten, Lahart and Roseblate in 1990: personal standards, concern over mistakes, parental expectations, parental criticism and doubts about actions.
  • Focus is on what you can’t do rather than what you can do
  • Being in competition with everyone – no team element
  • Always knowing you could do better

These elements can seriously impact self-esteem and confidence and many are in conflict with the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence. I also find (both within myself and within the highland dancers that I teach) a reluctance in wanting to be out of their comfort zone and a lack of experimentation which can stifle creativity. This unit therefore was about finding a way to be creative with highland dance while still holding on to the technical aspects of the style which make it what it is. Adding in warm-up games and creating a routine to non-traditional highland music are amongst elements which made this possible.

The final aspect of my project was to look at the importance of differentiation and inclusive practices and combine these in my lessons.

The joy of designing a handbook for beginners is that the dance style would be new to all and so in essence it matters not whether a child has a specific learning need as they would be empowered by the fact that nobody in the class had anymore advantage over the others. For children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), for example, there are well-established connections between sport and exercise and benefits to the condition:

“These activities typically give a person more energy, clear up the mind, and bring sharper focus to everything, especially studies. Sports and exercise have both emotional and educational benefits for children.”  (Barlow, 2001)

Researchers from Sweden, however, decided to take these well-known beliefs and apply them to dance investigating how the art form can help manage the symptoms of ADHD during a four year study led by Professor Erna Gronlund.

Following the dance classparents reported calmer behaviour at home, and teachers observed that the pupils involved worked more effectively in the classroom.  Teachers also noted that students who were unable to sit still for more than ten minutes could now go through a whole lesson without leaving their seats. Another desirable change in behaviour observed is that the children got into fewer fights than they did before the dance treatments.

For pupils with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety the same researchers conducted a study involving four years of dance therapy in place of the more traditional talk therapies. Young people can find it difficult to engage with and open up to adults and often approach talk therapy with reservations and mistrust. However, the researchers discovered that dance was an excellent way to “revive the joy of living” for the young people involved in the ‘experiment.’ The young people found dance gave them a source of self-esteem and pride and after the four year programme the participants in the study were found to exhibit less self-destructive behaviour and fewer depressive symptoms.

At the end of my unit I added an appendix on differentiation to try and support teachers in being able to use this ‘Introduction to Highland Dance’ with all their pupils:

Differentiation is when teachers personalise learning by setting tasks that meet individual and group needs so that every child is challenged and is able to achieve his or her personal best. Differentiation in dance is often by outcome in that all the children in the class are set the same task to begin with. However, there may be times when it is necessary to adapt tasks to meet different needs.

There should be no such thing as a non-participant in dance. If a child is unable to join in for health reasons, he or she can still be involved in in the class by being given recording tasks, for example, making a note of the dance vocabulary, sketching the body positions or pathways, or using a video camera to record the classes work. They could also give feedback on performance.

On rare occasions, children may refuse to take part because they are unsure of what is expected or lack confidence. This requires a low-key approach. Building a positive rapport with the individuals is vital here and as the classroom teacher you will know your pupils best. For younger children, sitting close to you for the introduction often builds confidence to participate.

The terms comfortable and safe include both physical and emotional security. Whether children have physical disabilities or learning difficulties, many of the teaching approaches are the same:

  • Recognise that children develop at different rates and in different ways.
  • Know the children. Find out what they can do, watch how they move and plan accordingly. Seek professional advice and guidance if necessary.
  • Make sure everyone in the class understands and agrees with the rules for taking part and that they share responsibility for safety (emotional and physical).
  • Be clear about the role of other adults in the room (teaching assistants or supporters). Are they there to join in and help, or is independence to be encouraged?
  • Communicate with careful and sensitive choice of language. For instance, if there is a child with impaired mobility, the children could be asked to move around rather than walk around the space.
  • Value the process of creating dance. Focus on the quality of movement and on performing with good focus. Give the children ownership of the work and respect individuality.
  • Adapt tasks to provide challenge for every individual so that each can achieve success. For example, the most difficult move for many students will be the strathspey movement but not all have to complete it – see centre dancer in example video.



My overall aim with this project was to develop a unit of work which could be used in schools to develop knowledge of how to deliver a series of highland dance lessons with a deepened awareness of the importance of differentiated techniques for pupils with additional support needs and an added awareness of social, cultural and political concerns. I hoped by doing this to bridge gaps in education delivery and to develop my own skills in delivering to pupils of primary age.

With a passion for both Highland Dance and for Teaching I found the process both enjoyable and educational. It has been a long time since I have gone back to the basics of Highland Dance and so the process has improved my own skills in delivering dance to beginners. I have set myself the target of becoming dual qualified as a primary teacher for the next school session and so my continuing professional development has also been enhanced.

Furthermore, although my knowledge of differentiated practice was already significant I found the process of reading and researching around the area deepened both my own understanding and the ability to analyse the importance of differentiated techniques in the classroom.

I have discussed my unit of work with other teachers who seem excited by the prospect of introducing a new skill and also one with strong cultural links to Scotland and the pupils who I teach had an enjoyable time learning this particular dance so I am hopeful it can be used to good effect in other primary schools round the country. It is essentially a small piece of work but if we are to continue to develop dance in schools and continue to develop as teachers, an important one. It is all too easy as teachers to slip into the familiar and stay there quite comfortably but we are teaching generations of students now whose world does, and will, look vastly different from the one we grew up in. As teachers we must therefore continue to learn and develop ourselves and continue to offer students the opportunity to access skills and experiences that will prepare them for their future lives.

Finally, highland dance can be a much maligned and little understood form of dance proving far less popular than ballet, contemporary, jazz and street styles more commonly encountered in schools today. And yet, as seen from my research, highland dance can teach skills which can not necessarily be found in other dance forms. If all my project does is increases understanding and awareness of highland dance I will consider it a success.



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