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J M (Mike) Nelson
Phone: 612-810-0157

Snake Oil

Almost all dance studios peddle "snake oil," but I know of only one that openly admits it.

"Snake Oil" has, in American culture, long been associated with fake remedies or false claims. The adjective is also applicable to acquisitions and offerings that do not meet their implied qualities. Therefore, most studio dance classes could be referred to as a form of snake oil, but few studio owners admit it. I am acquainted with perhaps a dozen owners of ballroom dance studios, and only one openly admits that they are selling snake oil, that is, admits that their classes are ineffectual, that students forget most of what is covered in class. Interestingly, that is also one of the most successful studios I have visited, and it is certainly the largest. I find this highly interesting in several aspects. To wit.

Overload. "Cognitive overload" is a pedagogical expression for too much information in a given time frame. When we need to remember things, and we encounter more than we can remember, we experience cognitive overload; our brain simply cannot manage all that is required of it. The result is that we actually do not retain as much information as we would have had we been given the information in manageable amounts. Cognitive overload actually reduces our retention capabilities, theoretically via the struggle to decide what to keep of the excess. Good instructional design avoids cognitive overload by limiting the amount of information being presented, by prescribing tasks that promote long term memory, and by providing resource materials to aid recall. Dance studios rarely limit content to manageable quantities, and they rarely provide any resource material. Thus, snake oil.

Admission. The owner of one, highly successful studio, in an article on the studio web site, has openly admitted that most students remember only a small portion of the content of the classes, especially if they don't practice. Even so, that studio has done nothing to improve the situation\save encourage people to practice. In contrast, the studio offers accelerated classes, doubling the class time, thus providing eight classes in four sessions, and, in the process, increasing cognitive overload. (Note: this wonderful example of candor in social dance teaching is no longer available. The owner/author retired, and the studio was sold. Thus the "missing link" one would have expected in this paragraph. JMN, 2013.)

Capacity. People with normal learning ability can retain from five to seven items of information in short term memory, and it takes considerable repetitive activities over an extended period of time to move information from short term memory to long term memory. For the ballroom dancer, one of the best examples of this phenomena is the experience of having had a pre-dance lesson and, by the beginning of the dance, cannot recall even half of the variations provided by the lesson. Since its discovery in 1956 by Miller, and confirmed by subsequent research, we have known of this limitation, and we have found no method of extending this limited capacity.

Readiness. Closely associated with limited cognitive capacity is the concept of "readiness," as in, the student is ready to learn. Cognitive overload can be prevented by insuring that the student has the requisite knowledge for acquiring the new information. A lesson of five items will not be retained if it requires another five items of information that the student lacks. To their credit, the aforementioned studio did provide concurrent, multilevel classes so that students not ready for an advanced class might change to another class. Even so, this is only a partial remedy.

Folly. Anecdotal evidence from common experiences and extensive research in human psychology notwithstanding, both the general public and numerous teaching facilities ignore the limitations of the human brain. Perhaps the only exceptions are military and industrial training programs where failure can be a threat to human life and organizational success. Dance studios, in contrast, like the typical American restaurant, succeed by offering more than the client can manage. In the case of the studio, this means more lessons are required for a given amount of material. In the case of the learners, they appear to be gullible enough to prefer quantity over quality and patronize those who provide more than is reasonable for the situation, not a good testament to the intelligence of the species.

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Copyright (c) 2006, J. M. Nelson. All rights reserved. Reproduction of contents prohibited without prior permission from the author.