InTuition taster: Up the leaderboard

The glitz and glamour of Strictly Come Dancing may seem a world away from the realities of further education teaching. Yet the principles are not too dissimilar, says Harriet Harper.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of InTuition journal, the full contents of which are available to SET Members. Learn more.

Strictly Come Dancing is reaching its grand finale. Over the past few weeks, viewers have got to know a ‘mixed ability’ group of students who, with great teaching, support and feedback, have learned a new skill.

Sounds familiar? Let’s not get too carried away by the similarities between your classroom and the famous TV studio. You won’t have all the glamour and glitz and you’re unlikely to be eliminating one of your students each week. However, Strictly does give us food for thought on the teaching of skills.

Harriet Harper

Regardless of the dancers’ starting point, the focus is on weekly progress and the ‘journey’ they make. As teachers, we support our students to succeed in their end-qualification but, on the way, we also know the value of helping them to recognise each small step. This type of ipsative assessment is not linked to comparison with others or meeting external criteria; it focuses on an individual’s own progress since their previous performance.

The starting point for Strictly celebrities is not just about their existing dancing skills, age or stamina. The programme prides itself on inclusion, with high expectations of all, regardless of any specific (dis)ability. The Strictly approach is a reminder that inclusion is not about treating everyone the same but about providing each individual with appropriate tailored support. This works, as evidenced by the fact that last year’s winner is deaf and did not hear music in the same way as her professional coach.

Strictly participants quickly see the link between success and effort. In his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to master complex skills. Imagine if all our students had access to anything like the intensive, high-quality, one-to-one teaching enjoyed by Strictly participants. It’s not surprising that these celebrities gush about their teachers. Good teaching makes a real difference.

Participants routinely reflect on their strengths and articulate what they need to do

Judges’ feedback and scoring rarely model good practice. This is not surprising, as the main aim of Strictly is entertainment, not pedagogy. How do judges decide what score to give? How does the public choose who to vote off? Sometimes it may simply be about likeability or loyalty to a dancer’s hometown. In the world of Strictly, there are no explicit summative assessment criteria. Once voted off, celebrities have another life to return to. It’s different for our students, whose future may depend on a qualification. Summative assessment criteria need to be clear to all from the outset, as well as reliable, valid and fair.

What is of more significance for the celebrities is the formative feedback from their coaches. Participants routinely reflect on their strengths and articulate what they need to do, not just to remain in the competition, but to challenge themselves still further. We know this works – ongoing feedback, self-reflection, high expectations.

Money matters. In Strictly, a contestant’s payment increases the longer they stay in the competition and the tabloids report huge payments for professionals and judges. Also, there are dozens of people behind the scenes, as there are in further education (FE) and training. It would be useful to compare money spent per contestant on Strictly to funding allocation per student in FE. Finance makes a significant difference to what can be achieved.

In Strictly, the celebrities are socialised into the discipline of dance. As they acquire core habits, develop practical skills and use technical terminology, they become dancers. This is the transition our students make, as they begin to see themselves as chefs, hairdressers, plasterers, coders or carers. Like the dancers, they acquire technical skills and the kind of tacit knowledge about their discipline that is hard to put into words but easier to demonstrate.

Undoubtedly, learning to dance on Strictly is challenging for contestants and fun to watch for viewers. Learning a skill in FE secures employment for students and is critical for the success of the UK economy, never more so than now. Let us celebrate the thousands of teachers in FE who make this happen, even if they are rarely in the limelight or wearing sequinned outfits.

Harriet Harper is a teacher, critical friend, mentor, advisor, researcher and author