The Myth of Different Learning Styles

Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (VAK) learning

The model of different learning styles that was presented by Barbe and colleagues in 1979 separated three different modalities of learning: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic styles (abbreviated as VAK). In tango teaching, that could simply mean that some students would learn faster from verbal explanations, others from looking at the teachers when they demonstrate a technique, and a third group would rather spend the time on trying it out in their own bodies.

It sounds like an elegant and plausible theory, which is probably why the idea gradually became one of the most wide-spread neuro-myths: in a 2012 study (Decker et al.), over 90% of a sample of 212 school teachers from the UK and the Netherlands believed the VAK theory to be correct. However, reviews of existing studies (such as Howard-Jones, 2014) show no scientific support for the theory – in many cases results have instead contradicted the VAK idea.

Learning styles in tango

This means that tango teachers need to let go of the notion of finding the (VAK) learning style that will fit each tango student. Because the optimal learning style depends much more on the subject being taught than on individual student strengths. A mathematics class will require modes of input that are different from those of a dance class.

It may very well be that it’s a good idea to mix teaching styles within a tango class, i.e. to do a bit of talking, demo some things and then let students try it out – but if this works well, it is not because each student needs to get the input style that he or she can best absorb — it’s because tango dancing as a subject is best learned from a certain mix of modes of inputs.

Trying it out for yourself is essential for learning tango
Trying it out for yourself is essential for learning tango

So what is a good mix for learning tango? Well, apart from the obvious statement that nobody can learn dancing without trying it out in their own bodies (i.e. the kinesthetic style ought to be essential), we can only speculate about what the proportions need to be. I suspect that the physical skills in tango dancing primarily come from trying it out, where instructions could be given either in verbal or visual form. To the auditory learning style, we could also add the music as a (perhaps more subtle) source of input.

Tango dancing is more than physical skills, however, and I see some teachers who spend a lot of class time talking, e.g. describing the social atmosphere at milongas or addressing some of the insecurities that their students might have in relation to dancing. Although this time spent on talking may not be optimal from a strict dancing skill point of view, it will, according to some teachers, make students stay in tango and happily attending milongas, rather than abandoning tango for other activities.

But, to sum it up, regardless of your view on what specific skills should be taught in a tango class, science suggests that the best learning style to cater for does not depend on the preferred learning style of different students, but rather on the subject matter itself.

References

  • Barbe, Walter Burke; Swassing, Raymond H.; Milone, Michael N. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: concepts and practices. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser.
  • Dekker, Sanne; Lee, Nikki C; Howard-Jones, Paul; Jolles, Jelle. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Front. Psychology 3:429.
  • Howard-Jones, Paul A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 15, 817–824.

Tango Dancer in the Mirror

You might have heard of the study where 93% of US car drivers estimated that they had above-average car driving skills (Svenson, 1981). Naturally, we would expect that only 50% of the drivers actually had above-average skills. So there must be a huge gap between how people evaluate their own skill, and how their skills would be evaluated by others. This happens in many domains, not just car driving. Might it also happen in tango?

It is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the researchers at Cornell University who published a famous paper on the topic (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). The name is almost harder to remember than the description of the effect:

“Incompetent people tend to over-estimate their own ability, while highly competent people tend to under-estimate their own ability.”

So in tango, unskilled dancers might often believe that they are much better dancers than they really are. But don’t we all believe that we are better than everybody else? No, according to what Dunning & Kruger found, we all just believe we are better than the average guy.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is often misunderstood: it does not state that everybody believes they are better than they actually are, or better than everybody else, for that matter. Look at the graph below from the original paper.

dunning_kruger

 

See how the left-most group got a really low test score (the round dot), but somehow still believed that they were slightly above average (the square marker)? Now look at the right-most group: they got fantastic scores on the test, but rated themselves lower than that. They still knew they were more skilled than the other groups, but they under-estimated how much better they actually were.

So, provided that these results are also valid in tango, we would expect that highly skilled dancers know that they are more skilled than most, but they do not understand just how good they really are.

ECTM2012 49

The Dunning-Kruger effect makes you over-estimate your own ability only when you are unskilled at something, which means that as you improve your skills, you will also gain a more accurate notion about what skill means and how good you are yourself. Then, as you approach real mastery, the effect will actually be the opposite – since tango is easy for you, you will assume that it is easy for the rest of the crowd as well.

Now, that brings us to an interesting challenge for tango teachers. Many of them are naturally in the top quartile, so what if they do not really understand just how difficult tango is for their students?

For the not-as-skilled social dancers, the challenge will be a different one: the effect might cause frustration, e.g. if they go to a high-level dancing event, say El Yeite in Buenos Aires, since they will tend to think that they are at par with the general level of the place, but people are perhaps still reluctant to dance with them – which is then easily taken more personally.

On a deeper level, we can speculate about why our minds are twisted in this way. My guess is that the Dunning-Kruger effect is there to help us keep up the spirit when learning new things, rather than just giving up after the first attempt.

If tango beginners truly understood how little they learned after one class, would they at all feel like making the necessary investment for getting up to the general level of the community?

ECTM2012 26

Of course, after just a few classes, they are usually already much better tango dancers than most of the people who never took a class, and they will quickly achieve a level where many experienced dancers will enjoy dancing with them at milongas. It is just that most dimensions of the dance, beyond “taking a few steps without crushing someone’s foot”, will remain hidden from them for a while.

When you look at yourself in the mirror, are you blissfully boosting your tango skills above your actual level? No? Well, I didn’t think so: this is all based on statistics, so you may very well be the odd exception, but still, isn’t it a fun fact to know that most of your dancing friends are hopelessly unable to accurately assess their own tango skills? 😉

References:

Scandinavian Consensus around Models for Teaching Tango

Malmö may be a small city (300,000 inhabitants), but still boasts a great tango scene. Is there something in the mindsets of Scandinavians that make them particularly attracted to tango? Or is there rather something about Scandinavian teaching methods that in the long term will cultivate a good tango environment?

I was recently looking at different teachers’ ideas about essential elements of tango, mostly to compare it with my own ABCD model. One of the models I have encountered is Tangoblomman, by Gunilla Rydén & Henrik Uldall:

"Tangoblomman", as Per remembers it from Gunilla & Henrik's teacher training at Tango Primavera in 2007.
“Tangoblomman”, as Per remembers it from Gunilla & Henrik’s teacher training at Tango Primavera in 2007.

This flower has five petals, each representing a different dimension of tango, where the selected dimensions translates to “musicality”, “repertoire”, “indvidual technique”, “partner interplay” and “social tango”. It’s a neat tool for teachers to remember what should be included in the teaching, and for dancers to know what to develop in their tango.

The similarities between this and the other models I found are striking! Apparently, when these Scandinavian teachers sum up into a model what they aim to teach their tango students, they reach very similar conclusions. See the table below for a summary of the 4 Swedish/Danish models I have encountered. With some minor variations, all of them include repertoire, technique, communication, social aspects and musicality. Two of them add aesthetics as an additional factor.

Striking similarities between four tango models of Scandinavian teachers
Striking similarities between four tango models of Scandinavian teachers (translated into English for this blog post)

I find it astonishing that all these models agree to a large extent not only on how many aspects to include (5-6) but also on the content of each of these aspects! It is not hard to imagine other factors that could have been included, such as “the walk”, “the embrace”, “improvisation” or “stretching and toning the body”. But this is not the case; there is more or less full consensus.

A lot of questions can be asked about the results of this little survey. Here’s two:

  1. Is there a common source or teaching tradition that has inpired all of these models, or are they developed independently and just inpired by a similar view of what tango is all about?
  2. Also, is this just a Scandinvian consensus, or would teachers in Turkey, South Korea or Argentina use the same dimensions in thier teaching models?

Sources

  • Teacher training & discussions with Daniel Carlsson (Tangokompaniet) and Mette Munk Andresen (M2 Tango)
  • Tango teacher training with Gunilla Rydén & Henrik Uldall (Per attended the course at Tango Primavera festival in 2007)
  • Tango teacher program with Ehsan Shariati & Josefine Hjälmeskog (info from website)

The ABCD of Tango

The ABCD of Tango is a proposed model for teaching all essential parts of tango. The idea is that in each and every tango class, students should practice and develop all of the following 4 dimensions:

  • Tango Attitude
  • Tango Body
  • Tango Creativity
  • Tango Dance

These tango dancer dimensions result from gathering a large number of qualities for good dancers, organizing the qualities into clusters and finally selecting the most essential ones. Consequently, the starting point for this model is what skills students need, as opposed to e.g. what is easier to teach or what is easier to evaluate.

The advantage of using a model such as this is that it reminds you to spend teaching time on several important aspects of tango, that could sometimes be left out in a less structured approach.

Tango Attitude
Attitude is the first dimension, because it will affect everything else. This includes how to take and give advice in classes. Trying to improve oneself before one’s partner. Ability to relax and enjoy. Level of commitment. How you invite people to dance and who you accept to dance with. Making an effort to become more attractive as a dance partner. Ability to see the good in yourself and in others. An important part of Attitude is that it includes the self-image of the student. In my view, the teacher should make sure that when students leave a class they feel better about themselves as dancers and as persons.

Tango Body

Managing your own Body well is an excellent way to make it more pleasant to dance with a partner. Body awareness and balance are essential. Posture and quality of movement. A smooth walk. Toning the right muscles and relax others. Breathing. Dancing in a way that is healthy for the body. All of this is often addressed specifically in technique classes.

Tango Creativity
The Creativity dimension is what makes tango an art form and not just bodies moving around randomly. It includes musicality, with components such as rhythmic play, phrasing and understanding the structure of tango music. It also includes having a variety of steps and figures to choose from, as well as other ways to create variation in the dance, such as using different aesthetics in movement or different emotional expressions.

Tango Dance
The Dance dimension is basically what most people expect to learn in a tango class, and includes much of what distinguishes tango from other dances. Walking together in an embrace. Typical tango figures such as the giro and the cross. A firm and comfortable physical contact. Flexibility of the embrace. Sensitivity and presence. The fine tuned communication of leading and following. Also, how to move on a crowded dance floor.

ABCD-Athletic
The proposal is to make sure that each class includes all 4 dimensions. Even if there’s a specific theme in the class, such as “common rhythms in tango”, the teacher would still include how this relates to the Dance, e.g. through practicing these rhythms in some of the common tango figures.

I suppose that if any of the 4 dimensions seems surprising it would be Attitude. But think about how much attitude can affect both the ability to learn and the whole tango experience! Also remember that attitude is always transmitted from teacher to student, through words and behaviour – but by doing it consciously your students will get more out of their tango.