Is there a better way to approach syllabus?
John Byrne suggests a better balance can be found in the classroom between the contributions made by syllabus and the contributions made by the teacher.
Recently, a post on Facebook by an Australian teacher undertaking a teacher’s course at the Royal Ballet School (RBS) caught my attention. I immediately wanted to know more about this course called the Affiliate Teaching and Assessment Programme (ATAP) which was launched in London in February this year.
What I discovered was a bold, innovative and exciting new program which I believe has the potential to change the way training and assessment is conducted in many private ballet schools in Australia and throughout the world. The program is suitable for both recreational and vocational students from grade levels upwards.
Teachers who are accepted on to this program attend a relatively short but intensive course which is based on the RBS model for optimal dance training for recreational and vocational students. After completing the course, teachers attain probationary affiliate status and are able to implement the program in their schools. Having done so, they then submit a video of a sample lesson they have prepared which is assessed by the RBS. If the teacher shows that she or he has assimilated the program and applied it well in their teaching they then achieve full affiliate status and may style themselves as “An Affiliate Teacher of the RBS.” When their students are ready to be assessed, usually after about two years of study for any individual level, teachers prepare and videotape a class based on the RBS prescribed criteria and guidelines. This class, plus the teacher’s own assessments of the student’s performance in the class, is loaded on to the RBS platform. The results awarded by the teacher to their students are moderated by the RBS, which provides feedback and either confirms the teacher’s own results, or alters them up or down as required. The RBS is thus the final arbiter of standards. The full prospectus relating to the ATAP and ongoing training can be accessed here.
The main feature which sets the ATAP apart from all other UK based ballet organisations is that it has no set examination syllabus. This change of focus from a syllabus-based approach to a teacher-based approach is a highly significant one - some would say a long overdue one - and contains within it huge potential for improved standards in both teaching and assessment. It also empowers teachers by giving them a large degree of autonomy and, in so doing, provides them with the means for greater career satisfaction.
Why has the RBS launched this program?
During a long career in teaching and examining I have often thought about whether the prevailing syllabus-based model - the one adopted by most of the examining organisations - embodies the best approach to either training or assessment. A little while ago, I began to look at this matter again and decided to put my thoughts into an article for Dance Australia magazine. After considering various scenarios for changing the present model, the conclusion I reached turned out to be very similar to the main features of the ATAP . While I cannot speak for the RBS, readers may find it interesting to follow the rationale which led me, without any prior knowledge of this RBS program, to the same sort of conclusion. This rationale is outlined in the following paragraphs.
For about 100 years now, teachers in private ballet schools have relied heavily on set syllabi provided by the major ballet organisations. Having studied the exercises within these syllabi for a year or more, students present the same exercises so that their standard can be assessed in examinations at various levels. In this scheme of things, the set exercises have been largely expected to play a dual role by satisfying the needs of both training and assessment.The major ballet organisations have sometimes pointed out that their syllabi are basically examination syllabi devised to assess standards in examinations only and that the actual training of students is the responsibility of the teacher. By and large, however, teachers, while adding something of their own to the process, have used the syllabi for both training purposes and preparing students for examination.
How effective is this approach?
One can certainly make the case that this is not the best approach to either training or assessment. The process of repeating the same set of exercises throughout the year has considerable limitations in terms of both the breadth and depth of the study undertaken. It is also a form of rote learning and suffers from all of the disadvantages of that process. How accurate and realistic is it, therefore, to assess the achievements of a student based on this process? How much of what they show in examinations is a reflection of how well they have learnt the set syllabus exercises and how much of it is a reflection of their standard in absolute terms, independent of the syllabus? From my observation, the technical standard of free work both inside and outside the examination studio is often well below that of the set examination work seen in the examination studio.
Given these limitations, why has this examination syllabus model lasted for so long? After 100 years, is it time for a change?
On a practical level, having a set syllabus has been of considerable benefit to teachers, many of whom only have access to their studios after school hours and on Saturdays. During this time they have to fit in not only all the grade and vocational ballet classes, but other dance genres as well. Constructing their own comprehensive training programs and lesson plans for each and every level might be the ideal, but for most it is not practicable. Ready-made syllabi are helpful, convenient and allow teachers to streamline their work load. While they may be able to offer some "free" work, the need to get the syllabus taught and ready to be examined usually takes up most of their time. The success or otherwise of this syllabus-based approach is therefore largely determined by the quality of the training within the syllabus itself. If the syllabus is deficient in terms of training, then there is a real problem.
I think we need a structure which is based more on the teacher than on the syllabus. The aim would be not to eliminate the syllabus but to achieve a better balance between the contributions made by the syllabus and the teacher. A good starting point would be to regard the syllabus as part of the means to an end, not an end in itself.
A better balance would be achieved through the availability of a training program with clear indications about what steps should be introduced and when, and how they should be developed over time. Teachers would then use this methodology to generate productive technical classes for their students. At present, too few teachers “break down” and “put together” steps and a constructive and systematic program to both assist and encourage them to do more of this essential work would make a big difference. Also, teachers tend to be offered far more courses on syllabi than they are on the establishment of technique per se. This piecemeal approach to technical development needs to be replaced by the introduction of a much more comprehensive training program.
Logically, the development of such a program should take precedence over the development of new syllabi, as once this training program is established, syllabi can be drawn directly from the principles and priorities set down in the program. Adopting this kind of approach would result in a more enduring and systematic regime rather than one which lacks sufficient pedagogical rigour or relies too much on a choreographic approach when setting exercises. It would also ensure that there was a clear line of development and a logical progression from one level of the syllabus to the next. Syllabi tend to be changed every 20 odd years, and while a certain amount of evolution is desirable, changes which bring about a completely different approach based on the fashion of the times or the personal preferences of those who produce them are not consistent with good pedagogical practice. In my view, it is not possible to talk about a “method” or a “system” when examination syllabi are created in this rather capricious and inconsistent way and in the absence of a codified training programme.
Having strengthened the training in the classroom and in the syllabus, how can we improve assessment procedures using the syllabus?
I think we need to consider gradually expanding the role of free enchaînements in examinations. This would give a clearer idea of the standard achieved by candidates than the execution of set syllabus exercises only, with only one or two token free enchaînements added to the mix. Free enchaînements tend to make both teachers and students apprehensive but I think that is because many teachers so rarely work outside the syllabus and their students never build up the confidence to deal with them. If teachers are better equipped to generate their own classes, the prospect of free enchaînements becomes much less of a worry.
Ideally, I believe that teachers should concentrate on teaching their own work based on the training program for the first half of the year and introduce the syllabus itself in the latter part of the year leading up to the examination. In time, once they get used to this regime, the more senior students can learn the syllabus as an extended free class, having put in the relevant underlying training beforehand. When given non-syllabus work regularly, students begin to find more stimulation in their classes and they are placed in an environment which is conducive to learning and better outcomes. Endless repetition of syllabus exercises throughout the year numbs the mind of the student and in time they switch off. They no longer really listen to the music.Time is wasted.
Perhaps one day we might arrive at a point where teachers generate their own examination classes for assessment. These classes could also contain some obligatory and definitive syllabus settings so that the heritage of any particular organisation is maintained, but they would be mainly based on guidelines contained in the training program and on other strict criteria, so that the content and level of difficulty are standardised for any particular level. The job of the examiner would then be to assess the standard achieved based on the class presented. A teacher’s mark based on the student’s attendance, application and achievement over the year might also be included as part of the assessment. This would give appropriate credit, assessable only by the teacher, to what has been achieved by the student during the lengthy process of preparing for an examination. Assessment of a year’s work should not come down to what a student delivers on one day of the year - examination day!
Are these utopian ideas? Maybe. Maybe not . . . What is your view?
John Byrne has had an extensive international career as teacher, examiner and director. He has created several ballet syllabi.
All photos are of RBS staff with teachers and pupils attending the first ATAP course.