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Karen Cann

Dance in education: International folk dance and the acquisition of learning skills.

Cann, Karen: Dance in education: "International folk dance and the acquisition of learning skills", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

1. Abstract

The author of this paper describes the many potential benefits of offering International Folk Dance experiences to students of all ages. The literature review includes studies on dance and cognition, dance and learning skills, and the outcomes of dance interventions. The author also explains the cognitive constructs underlying the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) and its predictive value for success in school, as well as how the constructs measured by the WISC could be developed by implementing a carefully designed programme of International Folk Dance. The author concludes with a proposal to implement an International Folk Dance programme designed to develop specific cognitive abilities and to measure the outcomes in terms of improved learning and cognitive skills.

2. Introduction

“I was just thinking of what a wonderful dance you and the others put on for us.... I learned something from that no matter how hard something looks if you put your mind to it you could do almost anything.... You shared something with me something joyful that made you laugh. I found in my heart I can do something to make me laugh also without having to be high or drunk.”

This quote is an excerpt from a thank-you letter from a teenage high school student following an International Folk Dance performance at his school. It was written by no ordinary student, however, at no ordinary school. This student, a minority youth from a low socioeconomic background, was incarcerated for juvenile crimes and substance abuse at a lock-down detention centre. An inspired group of folk dancers prepared an informal show for the students at the facility and invited them to participate in several International Folk dances. Most of the students eagerly joined in the fun, and for about an hour these very troubled teens experienced a new and joyful way of being. They were active, socially appropriate, focused, and smiling. And still educators wonder about the value of arts programmes in the schools!

I have often wondered how to bring the joy of dancing to those who most need it, especially school children in industrialized settings who have never experienced folk dance as part of their cultural heritage, and children with learning and emotional difficulties. As a graduate student in School Psychology, and later as a practising School Psychologist, the more I learned about cognitive skill deficits, the more I saw International Folk Dance as a way for challenged students to experience success.

Other researchers describe the benefits of dance as an art form, as an important vehicle for the transmission, exchange, and preservation of culture, as a form of social-emotional therapy, and as a catalyst for the development of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. In this paper, I examine the current literature in educational research, suggest a way to provide compelling evidence for implementing dance programmes in schools, and present guidelines for International Folk Dance activities designed to enhance specific cognitive and learning skills. I offer the cognitive and learning skill benefits of folk dance as one rationale to support efforts to put International Folk Dance programmes in place in our schools.

3. Challenges in “Dance in Education” research

The educational and scientific literature to date does not provide compelling quantitative evidence to support a case for arts programmes as a vital component of student academic achievement. This is especially true in the area of dance, where there is very little “scientific” research on outcomes for dance in education (Keinnen, Hetland, and Winner, 2000). To confuse matters, the few studies in dance that have shown scientific rigor in method and analysis focus more on “creative movement”, “rhythmic movement” and “creative thinking” than on traditional dance forms and specific cognitive abilities. Yet those us of who dance know that dance requires mental concentration and focus, sequencing abilities, attending skills, and language. But the cognitive, social, and affective benefits of dance have not yet been proven using scientific methodology.

In order to present a compelling scientific case for inclusion of dance in the school curriculum, we must view dance from the perspective of educational and developmental psychology, while describing the dance experience from a vantage point that maintains its uniqueness and joy (Coros, 1992).

4. Literature review

The literature in developmental psychology supports the premise that dance activities can provide developmentally appropriate cognitive, social, and affective learning opportunities. Research shows that when teachers integrate movement activities into their lessons, test scores increase (Gilbert, 1979, and Hanna, 1992). This makes sense when evaluated in light of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. According to Piaget, children begin to learn about their world through sensorimotor experiences, then build on this foundation until they reach a stage of formal operational thought in which they can reason in both concrete and abstract terms. Piaget believed that concrete operational thought predominates throughout middle and late childhood, and that children at this stage can reason about and classify the world when given concrete examples rather than abstractions. In other words, the child gradually learns to represent the world symbolically.

Dance could encourage a child’s use of symbolic thought, for when a child uses dance to express ideas, such as in the folk dance “La Laine des moutons” that mimics the tasks of wool processing, “…cognitive processes undergird the communication of feelings and ideas through symbols” (Hanna, 1983, p. 44). Also, a concept taught in the classroom might be more easily understood and retained if it is tied to a concrete physical experience such as a particular movement or dance.

Traditional forms of teaching, such as lecture and seatwork, do not always match students’ developmental stage. Dance offers a number of benefits when used as an instructional tool with activities designed for specific psychomotor and cognitive stages of development: dance links abstract concepts to concrete experiences, utilizes the psychomotor/kinaesthetic learning modality, develops both brain hemispheres, develops the perceptual-motor skills of learning disabled students, motivates students to participate and learn, and provides a safe outlet for pent-up energy and emotional expression. Properly planned and implemented dance activities engage all of the learning modalities: affective, cognitive, and psychomotor.

Some educators believe that learning cannot occur in other domains until children achieve certain levels of motor skills. Fewell (1993) stated that “…motor development contributes to the foundation and acquisition of all learning” (p. 2). Because basic motor skills form the foundation for more advanced motor skills such as reading and writing, it makes sense to ensure that these precursory skills are mastered (Mitchell, 1994). Weikart (1989) observed that fewer children arrive at school with basic motor skills, such as maintaining a steady beat, in place. Mitchell has since found a relationship between the ability to maintain a steady beat and academic achievement in first graders (1994).

Specific perceptual-motor abilities that affect learning include body awareness, laterality (ability to tell one’s own left from right), directionality (ability to distinguish left from right externally), as well as auditory, visual, kinaesthetic, and tactile perception skills (Humphrey, 1987). For directionality problems, structured dances that involve changing direction can serve a diagnostic function as well as a therapeutic one. Laterality and directionality appear to be especially important for reading, writing, and arithmetic, which all require specific, directed eye movements. The child must have a good understanding of the space the body occupies and the relationship amongst its parts since these are “…critical factors in building foundations of mathematics competency” (Humphrey, 1987, p. 190). Creative dance, in which the student moves freely, as well as structured dances, in which the student follows a set pattern, are useful in enhancing body awareness.

Dance can also help to remediate language and reading skills. For children who cannot communicate well verbally, dance provides an effective means of establishing a relationship (Kalish-Weiss, 1989). Coros (1992) theorized about a pre-linguistic “embodied knowing” that she experienced during dance, and that she later “translated” into language. Van’t Hof (2002) described an improvisational dance model in which students use word cards as a basis for creating a group dance. The students receive two word cards, one with a verb and another with an adverb, and analyse the movement “essence” to create and perform a dance. Dance itself can be a symbolic expression of ideas and emotions. “Dance has a vocabulary (steps and gestures), grammar (justifying how one movement follows another), and meaning. Dance requires the same underlying faculty in the brain for conceptualization, creativity, and memory that speaking and writing require” (Hanna, 2000).

Fraser (1989) emphasized the importance of three developmental areas for language development: the motor, social-emotional, and language-cognitive pathways. She noted that language-disordered children have trouble with both verbal and non-verbal communication, and directed treatment toward “remediating specific developmental deficits to stimulate more functional patterns of movement and behaviour” (p. 2). Dance can facilitate growth in all three developmental pathways while providing practice with social behaviours and communication. The skills of association (classifying or seriating), closure (completing an incomplete incoming message), and memory sequencing (reproducing a series of patterns), are also vital in language development (Werner & Burton, 1979), and can be encouraged through participation in strategically planned dance activities.

Psychomotor abilities are linked with readiness for reading, and problems can be remediated through dance. Humphrey stated that “…disabled readers are frequently found to lack coordination in such basic motor movements as walking and running. And further, motor rhythm is often lacking in children with reading, writing, and spelling problems. Improvement of this motor rhythm tends toward alleviating these deficiencies. It has also been found that dyslexic children who are given training in fine motor skills, such as handwriting, and pattern motor skills – especially folk dancing – show improvement in reading” (1987, p. 72). Thus, it is possible to establish communication through dance and provide a foundation for verbal language development.

Dance can also provide a solid foundation on which to build other types of learning and cognitive skills. Humphrey defines dance as a “…rhythmic and patterned succession of bodily movements, usually to musical accompaniment” (1987, p. 5). Although this definition limits the concept, practice, and experience of dance, it provides a useful working definition for the purpose of examining the cognitive and learning skill aspects of dance in education. Based on Humphrey’s definition, dance can be viewed as a highly cognitive process, similar to language, in which the dancer combines a number of basic movements into a chosen sequence in order to express an idea. As with any language, this requires mental activity in the form of general memory and sequencing skills. Dancing involves the whole brain, with the left hemisphere processing dance “grammar” and “syntax” rules to produce meaningful movements, and the right hemisphere working out patterns and spatial considerations. The perception of rhythm requires the activity of both hemispheres (Hanna, 1983).

Review of the literature on learning styles and hemisphericity shows that regardless of the diverse ways in which researchers define learning styles, they generally accept two tenets: 1) learning requires some level of information processing, 2) individuals differ in the way they process and respond to incoming information (McCarthy, 1991, and Wilkerson & White, 1988). A number of educators, enthusiastic about the prospect of increasing students’ success in school, have applied informational processing theory to their classrooms using styles-based instructional strategies. One strategy involves modifying the classroom environment to address students’ biological needs. Dunn et al. (Dunn, Sklar, Beaudry, & Bruno, 1990) found that “…simultaneous learners tended to require sound (music/background conversation), tactile and kinesthetic learning, intake, and frequent mobility while studying, whereas successive learners preferred bright light and a formal design…”(p. 287). Stone (1992) found that his most difficult students behaved strikingly well on a field trip and learned a great deal. Testing with the Learning Styles Inventory showed that most of these children fell into either the tactile or kinaesthetic categories. When the school adopted more hands-on classroom activities, standardized test scores increased dramatically, and more behavioural/emotionally handicapped students were successfully mainstreamed. Instructional methods typically focus on the more left-brained, verbal, analytic, successive learning styles, thus putting many at-risk students at a continual disadvantage.

For at-risk students and students diagnosed with a learning disability, dance can play an important role in the design of remedial programmes. Humphrey described “compensatory dance” as a tool used to improve a child’s ability to learn by “educating the physical” (1987, p. 189). He stated that learning-disabled children, that is, children with normal potential but deficits in performance, can benefit from compensatory dance. Interventions can be designed to remove blocks to learning ability and psychomotor development (Rakusin, 1990). Proponents of dance movement therapy (DMT) view learning disabilities as symptoms of impaired perceptual motor abilities, that is, “…the organization of the information received through one or more of the senses, along with related voluntary motor responses” (Humphrey, 1987, p. 190). By remediating perceptual-motor skills, the therapist attempts to help the child assimilate and integrate motor schema, thereby laying a foundation for future learning (Rakusin, 1990).

Because the term “learning disability” covers a vast array of learning difficulties, and because there is no generalized consensus about the definition, criteria for identification, biological bases, and successful interventions for this condition (Rechsly, 1993), it is vital that more research be conducted to determine the causes of learning disabilities and the kinds of treatment that prove most effective. Among children who showed neuropsychological impairment on the Halstead Reitan Neuropsychological Battery for Children, however, a large number showed difficulties in spatial memory, sequencing, visual perception, and conceptual shifting, problems which might improve with perceptual-motor remediation. Thus, in cases where a clear neuropsychological impairment exists, dance activities could contribute significantly to the remedial programme.

Movement activities can directly remediate skill deficits frequently found in children with attention or learning problems. Activities can be designed to target both visual and auditory processing skills. Weikart (1989) delineated a model which provides remediation in visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic/tactile decoding and processing, while presenting instruction in accordance with interventions recommended by attention deficit disorder (ADD) experts (Tridas & Walker, 1994). Students focus on one modality at a time, which prevents sensory overload and frustration with the learning process. Phyllis Weikart’s (1989) “Separate, Simplify, and Facilitate” model for teaching International Folk Dance specifies that the instructor present material either visually or verbally or through tactile assistance. Each sequence of movements is broken down into simpler steps (similar to the process of task analysis). The teacher facilitates learning by giving students time to explore and make choices, having them share with others, asking open-ended questions, supplying any needed language, and asking students to use language to describe, plan, recall, and reflect on the dance experience. Weikart has not published measured outcomes, however, in support of her theoretically sound programme.

The problem of finding studies with measured outcomes for dance interventions was highlighted by Keinnen et al. (2000). This team of researchers performed two admittedly small meta-analyses of dance research in order to support the premise that dance “…engages students in many ways, and it is conceivable that because of its multifaceted nature, dance, when well taught, can lead to cognitive outcomes in other areas besides the learning of dance” (p. 295). Specifically, the team of researchers tested whether dance instruction led to improvements in reading and nonverbal reasoning. In their search for scientific, quantified research studies that addressed the question “Can the study of dance lead to enhanced academic skills?” (p. 295), the team found that out of 3,714 potentially relevant studies, only 7 studies met their strict standards of scientific rigor. The researchers “…included only experimental studies of dance or movement education that examined nondance, cognitive outcomes, and only studies with control groups and quantified outcomes. Only studies of nonimpaired populations were included” (p. 296). The research team examined and coded the seven unpublished studies on a number of criteria including sample size, experimental design, and type of dance instruction. Due to the small number of studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the research, and the questionable results due to possible teacher expectancy effects, the team concluded that “…the evidence is not yet in on the power of dance to transfer” (p. 304). This disappointing result highlights some of the problems in researching the very promising area of Dance in Education.

5. Analysis of the literature review

Research studies that link dance directly to academic achievement are scarce. Studies specifically about dance, as differentiated from creative or rhythmic movement activities, prove even more elusive, and I could not find a single study about International Folk Dance that employed a scientific methodology with measured outcomes.

In the studies analysed by Keinnen et al. (2000), very few focused on “dance” as differentiated from creative movement, and there is no mention of how many of the studies focused on International Folk Dance. In her review of the study by Keinnen et al., Bradley pointed out problems with drawing conclusions from the handful of studies selected, because the articles failed to “…distinguish the content of the variable ‘dance instruction’” (Bradley & Wilson, 2002, p. 3). Specifically, there was no distinction between “…(1) instrumental dance instruction (making letter shapes with one’s body, etc.), (2) creative dance instruction (problem-solving, divergent-thinking experiences), and (3) traditional dance instruction (technique class)” (p. 3). And even in this review, there appears to be no research at all about International Folk Dance in an educational setting. Wilson concluded that “The most important contribution, beyond the fact that this is the first systematic review across all the research on this topic, is simply that only a handful of studies met the researchers’ standards for acceptable scientific rigor” (p. 3). He also pointed out that “…in almost 50 years of research only 715 students have been exposed to carefully designed experimental treatments on the learning effects of dance” (p. 3).

These findings prompt two questions: 1) Why are there so few scientific studies about dance in education? And 2) Why must studies in dance follow a specific scientific, quantitative method in order to establish the value of dance in education?

Hanna pointed out that the lack of “rigorous empirical research demonstrating cause-and-effect relationships between certain dance education practices and student academic outcomes…stems partly from the fact that, in the past, more resources for the arts went to curriculum and program development than to assessment of student outcomes” (1992, p. 604). Perhaps the dearth of scientific studies about dance in education also results from a lack of cross-disciplinary knowledge, that is, dancers do not have a background in educational psychology, and psychologists and educators do not recognize how dance contributes meaningfully to the overall development of basic cognitive and learning skills. Although educators have now provided guidelines for dance in many school curricula across North America, they have either relegated dance to the physical education curriculum, or they have categorized dance with drama as a means of creative expression only. The stated outcomes for dance education overlook the fundamental cognitive and learning skills that could be developed through International Folk Dance activities.

Another challenge in evaluating dance outcomes is the tendency to aggregate visual arts, music, literature, and dance into a single entity called “the Arts”. Gardner (1994) disputed Piaget’s premise that the terminal stage of human cognitive development is logical reasoning. Gardner proposed a different end state in which the artistic process is essential: “…the capacity to be a creator, performer, critic, or audience member in an art form” (p. xii). But in his discussion, Gardner neglected to even mention dance, and focused instead on painting, music, and literature. This provokes the question of a definition for “the Arts”, and the types of activities that comprise “the Arts”. Dance has unique characteristics that differentiate the dance experience from other art forms. Coros (1992) pointed out that there is no dance without the dancer: the dancer is the dance. Unlike the visual arts and literature, a dance cannot exist without the dancers who perform it. The issues raised by Gardner and Coros, and the question of similarities and differences amongst the arts compounds the challenges of dance research in education.

Researchers in education rely upon certain quantitative and qualitative research guidelines. Experimental design, sample size, and statistical significance determine, among other things, the degree to which research findings apply to the general population. But given the unique and multifaceted nature of dance, which “…makes use of a wide variety of cognitive skills and may call upon many of the intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences” (Keinnen et al., 2000, p. 295), perhaps there is room in the scholarly literature for new kinds of inquiry into the dance experience.

Coros (1992) braved the task of discovering a new way to qualitatively research dance, that is, from the inside. As both subject (dancer) and researcher, Coros examined her inner experience of dance in order to capture the unique essence and qualities of the dance experience. In order to remain true to her inner experience of dance, Coros suspended use of the usual social science methodologies, and relied instead upon interpretive inquiry. Her findings, simplistically described here for the sake of brevity, define a clear state of awareness, a sense of physical connection, a sense of authenticity and integrity, presence in the moment, and feeling like one’s true self. While Coros’ research opens the door to a world of new methods and insights, it does not speak in a way that directly addresses the educational administrator’s requirement for evidence that proves the value of an instructional technique or programme. Coros’ research does, however, highlight the very important issue of how one finds “…a sense of connection to the world out there somewhere.” (p. 111). Here Coros implies a very basic human need that educators might be able to address through dance, especially in the case of students with self-esteem or interpersonal problems.

In the area of educational research, perhaps the scientific “rigor” mentioned by Keinnen et al. (2000) sometimes leads to a dismissal of qualitative or anecdotal evidence for a technique or programme that, if implemented more widely, could benefit many students, and especially at-risk students. Dunn (1990) questioned the degree of statistical significance necessary to justify applying research findings when the potential gain in humanistic terms is compelling. If a theory can be applied in such a way that even one student benefits, perhaps that benefit to society warrants implementation of the new technique. In the field of dance, however, there are few studies that even attempt a statistical analysis.

6. Proposal for future research

Fortunately, the means and methods to produce scientific, quantitative research on International Folk Dance and the acquisition of learning skills is already in place in most North American, and probably in most European school settings. School psychologists, placement specialists, and special education teachers continually evaluate the progress of learning disabled students as part of a legally mandated review system. Part of this review includes periodic testing with standardized instruments (tests) such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) and other tests of academic ability. While many might disagree with the use of standardized tests as indicators of intelligence and other abilities, the test scores have proven accurate in predicting school success. This means that a dance programme could be introduced in the schools, and an experimental group of learning disabled students could be tracked using measures already in place to determine the efficacy of the dance programme in improving learning skills and academic achievement.

For example, the WISC provides two different scores: the verbal scale measures auditory-verbal skills, and the performance scale measures visual-fine motor skills. A large discrepancy between these two scores can indicate a learning problem in which one area is far better developed than the other. Each WISC subtest measures more specific abilities. Scores in each of the subtest areas that differ significantly from one another indicate potential deficiencies in the areas of auditory reception, concentration, conceptualization, auditory association, immediate sequential memory, remote auditory memory, vocabulary development, visual perception association, visual-motor coordination and spatialization, sequential visual memory, visual reception, immediate visual memory, and remote visual memory (Sattler, 1992).

Dance educators could design a programme of International Folk Dance that would develop the cognitive abilities measured by the WISC. Educators such as Phyllis Weikart (1989) and Sanna Longden (1996) have been teaching folk dance in North American schools for years, helping students with “…marking steady beats, learning patterns, following sequences, listening to instructions, visually decoding, working in communal groups, maintaining physical balance, achieving movement skills, sharing space, focusing on activity, and especially, being kind to one another” (Longden, 1996, p. 10). A set of dance lesson plans for all grade levels, designed with specific cognitive skill remediation built-in to the choice of dances, rhythms, and instructional methods, would provide a sound programme as a basis for measuring the effects of dance instruction on learning skills and academic achievement. The experimental design would include control groups, and the researchers would compare cognitive ability and standardized test scores for each group.

The potential benefits of International Folk Dance activities are so great in humanistic terms – learning skills, social skills, self-awareness, multi-cultural awareness, and empathy to name but a few – that we must without delay offer programmes in settings where as many children as possible have access to these experiences. In addition, we must pursue quantitative, qualitative, cross-disciplinary, and perhaps new and evolving types of methodological research in order to demonstrate without a doubt that dance belongs at the heart of the school curriculum. In this way, perhaps we can offer children of all ages a chance to experience “the magic and transcendence of dance” (Hanna, 2000, p. 48).

7. About the author

Karen Cann is an independent researcher and member of the CID. She holds a bachelors degree in Psychology, and a graduate degree in School Psychology. Mrs. Cann currently works as an Instructional Design consultant on e-Learning and training projects. She has studied ballet and has performed as an International Folk dancer.

8. References

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Mitchell, D. L. (1994). The relationship between rhythmic competency and academic performance in first grade children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Central Florida, Orlando.

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Stone, P. (1992). How we turned around a problem school. Principal, 72 (2), 34-36.

Tridas, E. & Walker, R. (1994, July). ADHD/ADD. Paper presented at the Florida Association of School Psychologists Summer Institute, St. Petersburg Beach, FL.

Van’t Hof, E. R. (2002, April). “Essence” dance: A simple model for improvisation. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, San Diego, CA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 464 905)

Weikart, P. (1989). Teaching movement & dance. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

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Ms. Karen R. Cann


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