Is there a better way to approach syllabus?

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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.

Photo by Henry Curtis and Pierre Tappon. Courtesy Royal Ballet School.
Photo by Henry Curtis and Pierre Tappon. Courtesy Royal Ballet School.

Recently, a post on Facebook by an Australian teacher undertaking a teachers course at the Royal Ballet School (RBS) caught my attention. I immediately wanted to know more about this course called the Affiliate Teaching and AssessmentProgramme(ATAP) which was launched in London in February this year. 

What I discovered was a bold, innovative and exciting newprogram which I believe has the potential to change the way training and assessment is conducted inmany privateballet 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 thisprogramattend 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 andare able toimplement theprogramin 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 theprogramandappliedit 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 teachers own assessments of the students performance in the class, is loadedon tothe RBS platform. The results awarded by the teacher to their students are moderated by the RBS, which provides feedback and either confirms the teachers ownresults, oralters them up or down as required. The RBS is thus the final arbiter of standards. The full prospectus relating to the ATAPand ongoing training can be accessed here.

The main feature which sets the ATAP apart fromall otherUK basedballetorganisationsisthat ithas no set examination syllabus. This change of focus from asyllabus-basedapproach to ateacher-basedapproach is a highly significantone -some would say a long overdue one - and contains withinithuge 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 hasthe RBSlaunched thisprogram? 

During a long career in teaching and examining I have often thought about whether the prevailingsyllabus-basedmodel - the one adopted by most of the examiningorganisations- 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 conclusionI 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. 

Photo by Karolina Webb
Photo by Karolina Webb

For about 100 years now, teachers in private ballet schools have relied heavily on set syllabi provided by the major balletorganisations. 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 rolebysatisfying the needs of both training and assessment.The major balletorganisationshave 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 fromall ofthe 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 inexaminationsisa reflection of how well they have learnt the set syllabus exercises and how much of it isa 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 apractical level, having a set syllabus has been of considerable benefit to teachers, many of whom only have access to their studiosafter school hours and on Saturdays. During thistimetheyhave tofit in not only all the grade andvocational balletclasses, butother dance genres as well. Constructing their own comprehensive trainingprogramsand lesson plans foreach and everylevel might bethe ideal, but for most it is not practicable.Ready-madesyllabiarehelpful, convenient and allowteachersto streamline theirwork load. While they may be able to offer some "free" work, theneed to get the syllabus taught and ready to be examined usually takes up most of their time. The success or otherwise of thissyllabus-basedapproach 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 anend in itself. 

Abetter balance wouldbe achieved through the availability ofa trainingprogramwith 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 systematicprogramto 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 trainingprogram. 

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 methodor a systemwhen 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? 

Photo by Rachel Cherry.
Photo by Rachel Cherry.

I think we need to consider gradually expanding the role of freeenchaînementsin 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 freeenchaînementsadded to the mix. Freeenchaînementstend 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 equippedtogenerate their own classes,theprospectoffreeenchaînementsbecomes muchless of a worry. 

Ideally, I believe that teachers should concentrate on teaching their own work based on the trainingprogram 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,studentsbegin to find more stimulation in theirclassesand 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 tothe music.Time is wasted. 

Perhaps one day we might arrive at a point where teachers generate their own examination classes for assessment.Theseclassescould also contain some obligatory and definitive syllabus settings so that the heritage of any particularorganisationismaintained, butthey would be mainly based onguidelines contained in the trainingprogram and on other strict criteria, so that the content and level of difficulty arestandardisedfor anyparticular level. The job of the examiner would thenbe toassess the standard achieved based on the class presented.A teachers mark based on the students attendance, application and achievement over the year might also be included as part of the assessment. This would give appropriate credit, assessable only by theteacher, towhat has been achieved by the student during the lengthy process of preparing for an examination. Assessment of a years work should not come down to what a student delivers on one day of the year - examinationday! 

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.

Photo by Rachel Cherry. Courtesy Royal Ballet School.
Photo by Rachel Cherry. Courtesy Royal Ballet School.

All photos are of RBS staff with teachers and pupils attending the first ATAP course. 




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