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This article originally appeared in The Call Sheet volume12 issue 2 (2018 July-August-September) p.53-70, and is reprinted here with permission of the author. The Call Sheet is the professional journal of the Gay Callers Association.

Teaching and Learning Theory Applied to Square Dance Instruction
Harlan Kerr –

“And I knew if I had the chance, I could make the people dance, and, maybe they’d be happy for a while…”

American Pie

The goal of any square dance class is threefold:

  1. To teach folks how to dance a given program—be it Basic or C4—with the skill and competency needed to be successful and with high levels of comprehension and understanding,
  2. To do this in a way that is fun and enjoyable.
  3. Ensure their ongoing participation in the activity after the class is over.

One critical element in doing this is for caller/instructors to take into consideration how they will ensure that students comprehend and internalize their understanding of how to do calls. Dancers’ level of enjoyment while learning is directly related to what the caller/instructor does to make learning and executing new calls easily comprehensible for the dancers. When students easily understand and comprehend the definition of how to do a call, and can readily apply what they are learning, the more enjoyable both the class and dancing are.

A large part of this entails addressing the range of ways different students learn. To do this, callers need to have a basic understanding of the elements of the range of learning modalities, and the hierarchy of depth of learning. Then they must incorporate this information into their instruction.

So, how do we as caller/instructors go about doing this?

Just as the role of teachers in our schools is to provide quality instruction that guarantees that all students reach high standards of competency, so is it the role of callers who teach classes to ensure that our square dance students reach the highest possible standards of competency in dancing. Unfortunately, there is much evidence to support the argument that we are not meeting these goals either in our schools or in square dance instruction.

Increasingly callers have raised concerns over the decreasing quality of dancer skill and understanding of the activity, on floors across the country. In our schools teachers far too often attribute failure to learn at high levels to student based factors. This seems to be the case even though the overwhelming evidence indicates that the single most crucial factor impacting learning is the classroom teacher and his/her skill at teaching so that all students learn. I hypothesize that the same is true of square dancing. The higher the quality of the instruction, and the greater the depth and diversity of instruction, the more successful the resulting dancers will be.

A side note is that teachers in our schools often blame student difficulty in learning on the poor instruction of previous teachers. As a principal, and later Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I often heard third grade teachers blaming challenges with reading on poor instruction by the first and second grade teachers; middle school teachers attributing learning challenges on the lack of skill of elementary teachers; and high school teachers blaming lack of knowledge on middle school teachers. Likewise, I have heard Plus callers blame poor dancing skill on Mainstream teachers, Advanced callers blame Plus callers, etc.

In all of these cases there is one fact: we cannot change what happened before we get the students.

However, we can modify our instruction to address the learning styles of a range of students, mitigate weaknesses our dancers have when they come into a class, and ensure that our instruction is delivered in a way that supports the learning of every student.

I propose that we as caller/instructors recognize the opportunity we have with each new class
we offer (be it Basic or Challenge) to:

  • Address the learning styles and needs of all students
  • Mitigate weak skills that dancers come to us with
  • Design our instruction so that we turn out dancers who have the knowledge, skill, and understanding of calls, concepts, and formations, to be successful on any floor they encounter.

Just as no student in our schools wants to be called on by a teacher, and be unable to respond correctly, neither do our dancers want to go to a dance and encounter choreography they are unprepared to execute.

In short, each time we teach a class we have the opportunity to develop strong knowledgeable dancers who can enjoy dancing on any floor at their program level and have the opportunity to mitigate weaknesses.

This paper is designed to address three critical areas that lead to success in teaching and learning square dance programs:

  • Understanding Learning Modalities:
    • What are the various learning modalities?
    • How can they be addressed in square dance instruction?
    • How will you design instruction to address the range of learning modalities that students in you class have?
  • Addressing Quality and Depth of Instruction: This is the make-or-break point, both for your dancers and for your reputation as a caller/instructor.
    • How will you ensure that your dancers are highly skilled and can handle any choreography they run into at the dance program you are teaching?
    • How will you approach your teaching in a way that guarantees dancer success?
    • How do you ensure that dancers have a deep understanding of calls and concept and can apply this in a range of situations?
    • What will you do to ensure that:
      • Dancers know the calls and concepts by definition and can dance them from all positions?
      • Can dance the calls and concepts at speed without extra support and cueing?
      • Have really seen every call, concept and glossary term on the list?
  • Organization of Instruction: This refers to how you plan your class, in terms of scope and sequence for the entire course and content week by week.
    • What will your teach order be?
    • What is the logic behind that teach order?
    • Why is it organized the way it is?

Learning Modalities and Square Dancing

Learning modalities are the sensory channels or pathways through which individuals receive, and store information, and through which they incorporate new information and construct knowledge and understanding. In short, this means the ways in which people learn.

Although educators agree that there is a range of learning modalities, there is not a consensus on how many learning modalities there are, and how they are described. On top of that, no one learns by one single modality, but people do vary in terms of which modalities are most successful for their learning.

Finally, although there has been much research and writing on learning styles and adapting teaching and learning situations to address the full range of learning mechanisms, one simple fact remains: for most humans, learning through instruction is based on aural learning. Most of us rely heavily on hearing to learn. The exception would be people who are deaf. An interesting fact that backs this up is that while blind individuals learn a rate similar to seeing folks, deaf individuals tend to learn at a slower rate, at least until both they and their instructors are fluent in using sign. Basically, language is a primary and critical element of human teaching and learning.

With that in mind, most peoples’ learning combines the verbal (Aural) modality with other modalities, and different people have various levels of strength in each modality area.

There are two challenges in this area that square dance caller/instructors face:

  • How to approach instruction in a dynamic manner that uses the full range of common learning modalities to ensure students learn to the highest level of comprehension.
  • The fact that square dancing is primarily an Aural activity and dancers must be able to hear a command, comprehend it, and turn that into a muscle response in a very short period.

Now the big catch, there are several learning modalities, and a range of agreement/disagreement on the number of modalities, how they are described, and how to address them in teaching and learning. Below I describe modalities based on my research and experience. Others would possibly provide a different range.

What is presented here are what I consider to be the six primary modalities. This is based on my background and research. You can do a search and find others who recognize fewer modalities, or several more.

The modalities I recognize are:

  • Aural
  • Graphic/comprehension
  • Kinesthetic
  • Visual
  • Interactive
  • Analytic Mathematical

The following chart presents a brief overview of each with some examples of how they can be viewed in terms of square dance instruction.

Learning Modalities and Square Dancing

ModalityCharacteristicsExamples for Square Dancing
Learns by hearing and listening.

This is one of the two most common approaches we use in square dance instruction.
  • Remembers and can repeat ideas that are verbally presented.

  • Learns well through lectures.

  • Are excellent listeners.

  • Can reproduce physical movement after hearing the description.

  • Can internalize information presented aurally.

  • Likes to talk.

  • Enjoy plays dialogues, dramas.

  • Enjoys music.

  • Can repeat or fulfill verbal instructions easily.

  • Remembers what the caller talked about.

  • Can learn calls and concepts by listening to tapes.

  • Likes the music aspect of square dancing.

  • Easily follows directions given by the caller.

  • Responds to caller cues.

  • Will learn a definition presented verbally.

  • Will repeat definitions out loud while doing a call.
  • ModalityCharacteristicsExamples for Square Dancing
    These learners are people who learn easily by reading and writing.
  • Skilled at reading with elevated levels of comprehension and tend to internalize information they read or write about.

  • Often takes notes.Remember easily what is read, and recalls it quickly when needed.

  • Learns better after reading or writing something.Often approaches life and learning academically through books.

  • Grasps important concepts on first reading of material.

  • Loves to read books, journals, magazines.

  • Remembers what they have read and/or written.
  • Can read a definition, understand what it means, and apply to dancing with little other instruction.

  • Once these dancers have learned the basics of square dancing they can read a definition book, reflect on what they read, and apply that to body movement.

  • Often moves through programs quickly simply by reading and comprehending what they read.

  • Easily recalls definitions they have studied.

  • Will thoroughly read books on the square dance program they are learning and take notes.

  • Will look up calls in a definition book on breaks.
  • ModalityCharacteristicsExamples for Square Dancing

    Learns through physical
    movement and feel.
  • These are students who learn best if the instruction includes actual physical movement.

  • Needs a strong combination of physical movement accompanying aural input.

  • Needs to move slowly through a movement as they hear about it to comprehend it.

  • Often fidgets or finds reasons to move.Is not very attentive to visual or auditory presentations—especially if they last more than 2-3 minutes.

  • Wants to be “doing” something—wants to move.Uses movement to help concentrate.

  • Has a challenge in learning that calls can come from a range of positions and formations.

  • Likes to manipulate objects.Gestures when speaking.

  • Often does not seem to listen closely.

  • Responds to music by physical movement.
  • Starts moving when the music comes on.

  • Like to walk through calls.

  • Dances by feel.Can become disoriented when in a new position are used.

  • Really likes the movement part of square dancing.Might enjoy pushing checkers through calls.

  • Will ask to be walked through calls on breaks.

  • Probably really enjoys singing calls with swinging and twirling.

  • Like flourishes for various calls.

  • Has difficulty when a call is presented from a formation they haven’t danced it from.
  • ModalityCharacteristicsExamples for Square Dancing
    Visual Modality
  • Learns by seeing and by watching demonstrations.

  • Sees things clearly when watching them.

  • Good with things like jigsaw puzzles.

  • Likes visual stimuli such as pictures, slides, graphs, demonstrations, etc.— Conjures up the image of a form by seeing it in the “mind’s eye”.

  • Often has a vivid imagination.

  • Often stares during extended periods of verbal explanation.

  • Needs something to watch—wants a visual representation.Is often quiet and does not talk at length.

  • Becomes impatient or drifts away when extensive listening is required.

  • Prefers the visual arts and media.
  • Probably likes watching the movement on Taminations.

  • Can visualize the call being given and recall what it looks like.

  • Benefits by watching a demonstration of how to do the call.

  • Sometimes wants to sit out and watch dancers doing a new call.

  • Likes videos of how to do calls.

  • Will ask to have other demonstrate the call while he/she watches it.

  • Often the one who says, “I can’t learn by reading definitions—I need to see it.”
  • ModalityCharacteristicsExamples for Square Dancing
    Interactive Modality

    Learns through interaction
    with others.
  • Learns best through verbal interaction with others.

  • Often hums or talks to self or others.

  • Often talks at length…just to hear him/herself talk!

  • Likes to use other people as a sounding board.

  • Enjoys question/answer sessions.

  • Finds small group discussions stimulating and informative.

  • Prefers to discuss things with others.
  • Will talk to themselves repeating what the caller says.

  • Will repeat a definition to others and have them check to see if they are right.

  • Will ask others to explain a call to them.

  • The dancer who comes up after you teach a call and has 48 questions about it.

  • Will engage the square in talking about a call learned at the end of the tip.

  • Likes verbals to accompany calls: says “hinge fold follow peel” in Linear Cycle.
  • ModalityCharacteristicsExamples for Square Dancing
    Analytic Mathematical

    Learns through mathematical analysis and constructing/deconstructing how things work.
  • Natural ability to analyze and figure things out.

  • Detects patterns and likes to deconstruct and construct models of what is being learned.

  • Good math and scientific thinking and reasoning.

  • Curious about how things work and operate.

  • Oriented to systematic thinking and numbers.

  • Learns though analysis.

  • Curiosity about how everything works and why.
  • Wants to talk to you about how each call works.

  • Applies definitions easily to a range of situations.

  • Understands fractions of calls.

  • Asks questions about the ranges of ways a call can be used.

  • Reflects on calls just learned, and analyzes the call components.

  • Often asks “can you also use it like this? And this? And this?

  • Develops questions about calls based on analysis of the call components.
  • As mentioned, the aural modality is a component of most learning in humans. In many humans it is by far the strongest component. Aural learning involves hearing information and descriptions, comprehending that information, and, in the case of square dancing translating what is heard into movement.

    The critical thing is that for the most part square dancing is based on aural input, aural comprehension, and translating that into movement.

    However, many dancers reach this point by learning through other modalities as well. For instance, in order for some learners to translate “Right and Left Through” into right pull by and courtesy turn, they must have a learning experience that includes more than aural input.

    As a caller instructor, consider how to present each new call in a way that addresses each of the six modalities discussed above. How, for instance, would you teach Pass the Ocean in a manner that ensured understanding and comprehension by

    • Aural Learners?
    • Graphic/comprehension Learners?
    • Kinesthetic Learners?
    • Visual Learners?
    • Interactive Learners?
    • Analytic Mathematical Learners?

    Here is an example of how I do this:

    On a closing note, it is my experience is that callers tend to teach to their personal learning modality strengths, and often have difficulty understanding the fact that others learn in diverse ways. Thus, they must make a conscious effort to incorporate a wider range of ways to address all modalities.

    Depth of Learning

    Some years ago, a learning researcher, Benjamin Bloom, developed a taxonomy that delineates successive levels of learning. I have found that his taxonomy relates well to square dance instruction. What the taxonomy does is demonstrate a hierarchy of learning and understanding. The levels of the hierarchy are:

    • Knowledge level
    • Comprehension Level
    • Application
    • Analysis
    • Synthesis
    • Evaluation

    Far too often, square dance instruction focuses on the two most basic levels of understanding and fails to move students through all needed levels of understanding needed to dance with a high enough level of success to truly enjoy the activity.

    Below is the taxonomy with notes on how it relates to learning square dance programs. My apologies to Mr. Bloom in advance.

    I firmly believe that the minimum level of understanding that callers should strive to take Basic, Mainstream and Plus students through in order to ensure that they have the needed skills to be successful dancers, is the Application level. Advanced classes need to take dancers through the Analysis level, and C1 classes should progress at least through the Synthesis level, if not beyond. C2 and above, with the complex concepts they entail, need to ensure that dancers progress through the Evaluation level.

    For every class that they teach — whether it is Basic or C4 — callers need to understand the program at the Evaluation level in order to effectively provide in depth teaching and learning.

    It is critical in teaching anything, including square dancing, that you analyze what is needed to reach each level of the taxonomy, and plan your instruction accordingly. Your goal is to plan your instruction such that your dancers reach each step of the taxonomy in an efficient and effective manner. This means that you must plan the instructional and dancing portions of your classes with the skills of each level in mind— “what does Follow Your Neighbor look like at the Synthesis level?

    As dancers learn new calls and concepts it is the caller’s responsibility to ensure dancers develop the depth of skill and knowledge of each call needed to dance on any floor they will encounter. Hence, stopping at the Knowledge level on any given new call handicaps dancers who may experience callers who ask them to dance using the application level of understanding. Caller/Instructors need to understand what level of the taxonomy dancers need to attain in order to guarantee that they are skilled and competent enough to enjoy a program, and not struggle on the typical dance floor.

    As a caller/instructor it is part of your role to assist each dancer in progressing through the levels of the taxonomy by planning your instruction and choreography accordingly. Far too often dancers complete a class then attend a dance where they fail miserably because their caller/instructor never went beyond the knowledge level of the taxonomy.

    So, with that said, on to the taxonomy as it applies to teaching and learning to square dance.

    Bloom’s Taxonomy Applied to Square Dance Instruction

    CategoryCategory Skills, Key Words (verbs) and Square Dance Class Examples
    The dancer has a basic, rote, understanding of the call.

    Recalls how to execute a call in its basic form.
    Skill Examples:
  • Can execute the call from memory in its most basic and common usages.

  • Has some knowledge of the definition.

  • Key Words:
    performs, knows, recalls, recognizes, and reproduces

    Note: Callers who stop at this level handicap their dancers and keep them from being good dancers—and having fun. Also, some callers never move their students to even this level, leaving them to dance by “feel” or to rely on caller cues.
    Understands the definition of a call and can begin to generalize its use.
    Skill Examples:
  • Explain in one’s own words the steps for performing a call.

  • Translates hearing the call into executing it in all common set ups and positions.

  • Can clearly explain what the call asks the dancer to do.

  • This is a critical step to successful dancing.

  • Key Words:
    Comprehends, converts, distinguishes, explains, extends,
    generalizes, gives an example, paraphrases, summarizes, and

    Note: It is interesting the number of dancers who we graduate from classes without their callers ensuring that they have reached this level of learning—again we are handicapping them on most floors.
    Uses one’s knowledge of a call in a new situation or context.

    Applies what was learned in the class to novel situations on the dance floor.

    Can easily dance to choreography of other callers than their instructor.
    Skill Examples:
  • Applies the definition of a call to a range of common set ups (can execute the call from all positions).

  • Explains how the call is done from unique and unusual set ups.

  • Key Words:
    Applies, changes, demonstrates, modifies, predicts, prepares,
    relates, shows, and solves, uses, interprets.

    Note: I believe this is the absolute minimum level any class should
    take dancers to if we are to turn out dancers with the skill to succeed.
    Separates the call into component parts and applies that knowledge to novel set ups and uses of the call.
    Skill Examples:
  • Recognizes logical extensions of the call in a variety of situations.

  • Dances by definition.

  • Can understand modifiers such as left, reverse, but, finish.

  • Easily executes calls modified with concepts at Advanced and Challenge.

  • Key Words:
    analyzes, breaks down, compares, contrasts, diagrams,
    deconstructs, differentiates, distinguishes, identifies, illustrates,
    infers, relates, selects, and separates (fractionalizes)

    Although this is an ideal level for all programs of square dance, it is
    an absolute necessity for Advanced and Challenge dancing.
    Builds a structure for generalizing the definition of the call to complex and challenging choreography.
    Skill Examples:
  • Is able to use the call in a variety of situations modified by concepts, unique formations, and complex caller directions.

  • Key Words:
    categorizes, combines, creates, devises, designs, explains, generates, modifies, organizes, rearranges, reconstructs, reorganizes, revises, parses call/concept combinations
    Makes judgments about complex uses of the call.

    Can engage in evaluation and analysis of unique and complex choreography.
    Skill Examples:
  • Explains and justifies new and unusual usages of a call or concept.

  • Evaluates the choreography encountered at dances at an elevated level.

  • Can successfully provide arguments for or against certain usages of a call.

  • Key Words:
    appraises, compares, concludes, contrasts, criticizes, critiques, defends, describes, evaluates, explains, interprets, justifies

    Take some time to reflect on the above and how you can incorporate it into how you approach teaching calls.

    • If you are teaching a Basic/Mainstream or Plus, how will you plan your instruction and choreography so that all of your dancers can dance Spin the Top through the Application level? Or the same for Spin Chain the Gears at Plus?
    • If you are teaching Advanced, how do you teach Chain Reaction through the Analysis level?
    • At C1, how will you ensure your dancers can execute Tally Ho through the Synthesis level?
    • Finally, at C2 how will you ensure that your dancers can execute Once Removed through the Evaluation level?

    Your goal: Go forth and help your dancers “Bloom”!

    A Few Bonus Notes on Related Topics

    Automaticity is a term I helped develop to describe the outcome of reading instruction. If a student has to stop at each word and use phonetic skills to decode the word, they never become fluid readers. To be a fluid reader, with elevated levels of comprehension, students need to be able to read most words automatically—only occasionally using decoding skills.

    Learning square dance calls is much the same. Executing a square dance call entails developing automaticity: the ability to automatically apply the definition of the call to any situation it is called from. To do so requires that students internalize the definition.

    An Example: Teaching Tally Ho

    Tally Ho has three parts:

    • ½ Circulate
    • Outsides Trade while the Center 4 Hinge and ½ Circulate
    • Those who meet Cast Âľ as the others “move up” (Phantom Hourglass Circulate/as at the end of Chain Reaction)

    That’s a lot of definition to internalize using you strongest learning modalities, and a lot of knowledge to construct through the Synthesis level.

    Tally Ho can be called from at least 32 different starting formations. In any given Tally Ho, a dancer could be in one of four different positions within the formation.

    It is not feasible to teach each of these individually—you must teach students to fully comprehend and internalize the definition and how to apply the definition to a range of starting formations and the positions within those formations.

    This is the essence of successful Advanced and Challenge dancing. (The preceding is the “author’s message and should be in blinking lights).

    I introduce Tally Ho in week 1 of my instruction, and execute the call from four to five formations in that first class (Right Hand Waves, Left Hand Waves, Trade By, Facing Lines and Inverted Lines With Centers Facing In). This entails me planning on how I will get dancers in every position within those formations in the first class.

    Brain Groove:

    Once that is done, I can add two or three new starting formations a week and call them with the expectation that dancers will apply their knowledge of the call to these formations.

    Here is where a personal construct of mine comes in: I believe in a learning element in square dancing that I call “brain groove”.

    By this, I mean the fact that if dancers learn a call from one formation and dance it a repeated number times from the same position in that formation without experiencing variation, they internalize that this is the only way to do the call.

    As a result, their ability to generalize the definition to other formations—or to other positions than that initial formation—is impaired because they have danced it repeatedly without appropriate variation.

    If the first 20 times you dance Recycle, it is from Right Hand Waves with girls in the center and boys on the ends, dancers will internalize that as (the only way) how to do the call.

    Should you then call it from Right Hand Waves with girls on the ends, they will struggle with the call, even though they have danced it many times.

    By initially calling a call repeatedly from the same set up, the caller is handicapping the dancers and limiting their comprehension of how to execute the call and preventing them from being able to generalize their understanding of the call to a variety of positions.

    This is a caller error, not an indication of dancers’ inability to learn.

    This is grounded not in solid research, but from decades of personal experience: it is important to vary positions from the initial teach of a call to avoid development of “brain grooves”.

    Let’s talk a bit more about Recycle. If you’re teaching it, you might start with boys on the ends (although there is no reason to do it this way), and in the first tip do it with boys on the ends, girls on the ends, girls together, and boys together, etc. I have done this for a few years now and find that varying positions from the start can be done easily and is highly successful.

    An Aside on Prerequisites for Moving on to the Next Program:

    This is an area that “must be handled delicately”, so to speak. How do you ensure that all students taking a class, other than beginner’s class, have the prerequisite skills to be successful? In a beginning class you have the luxury of having a clean slate of students who you can teach well from Circle Left on. However, at other programs, the choices aren’t always as easy.

    I recommend a set of clear criteria. For my classes I am about to start I have a clear statement of prerequisites, and a preliminary set of 2-3 sessions focused on helping determine if students are ready for the class being offered. Below is an example from the C1 class that I am currently teaching. It appears on the back of the class flyer, and in the syllabus distributed on the first night:

    When considering a C1 class, dancers frequently ask the question: “am I ready for C1?” There are many questions that one needs to consider when moving on to the next square dance program. These are some that are important to ask yourself, and answer honestly, if you are considering a C1 class:

    1. Can I dance the Basic, Mainstream, Plus and Advanced with an elevated level of competency?
    2. Do I rarely make errors at Advanced and when I do, can I understand what didn’t work?
    3. At an Advanced dance do I dance 95% of the sequences without error?
    4. At Plus and Mainstream dances do I dance over 98% of the sequences without error?
    5. Am I able to spend some time (about an hour) each week studying the calls and concepts for C1?
    6. Do I like being able to learn to understand calls, and apply that understanding to unique situations?
    7. Do I like being challenged to think about calls and concepts in new and unusual ways?
    8. Most importantly: am I motivated and committed to putting in a concerted effort in learning this exciting program? Motivation goes a long way.

    One thing that is critical for success in Challenge dancing, is team work and square cooperation. This will be emphasized in our learning. Dancers must work collaboratively in the square and solve the puzzles/problems/challenges as a team. All members of your square (your team) have a responsibility to each other to both know the definitions, and quickly apply them to unique situations in order for the square (team) to be successful. A hint to good team work that will be emphasized from day one, is keep your eyes up and watch what is happening in the square. This really helps!

    Students should be aware that the first three weeks of class are a time for both the instructor and dancers to evaluate if they are being successful. Periodically it may be appropriate to re-evaluate if one is being successful in the class. If a student is seriously struggling with the program, they will be discreetly, and supportively advised to take another year developing their dancing skills at Advanced, before taking on Challenge. This will be accompanied with specific information on skills to work on and places where they can get floor time to build the prerequisite skills for learning Challenge. Reviewing the questions above before attempting the class will help avoid this situation.

    This sounds harsh to some, but not doing it sets weak dancers up for failure and has a negative impact on the learning experience for students who are prepared to take the class.

    In caller-run classes, it’s the responsibility of the caller to do this.

    In club-run classes, you must work with the leadership on this critical element.

    ♪ ♪ ♪