What Happens Behind the Scenes of Deep Student Learning?


Loretta Goodwin, Senior Director

There’s so much behind-the-scenes work and unheralded effort on the part of many people that contributes to student success.  This occurred to me as I participated recently in a great opportunity while attending the Arts Education Partnership National Forum.  Participants were able to sneak a peek at a rehearsal of the ballet Swan Lake, including a backstage tour.  As I watched dancers glide across the stage, accompanying a moving musical score, I thought about the production I was witnessing and also what is involved in preparing students for the world beyond high school.

When you’re sitting in the audience watching a production, you tend to forget about all the behind-the-scenes preparations that have contributed to a fine performance.  You don’t know about the bins of ballet shoes gone through or the late nights spent washing parts of costumes so they’re ready for the next performance.

By observing the rehearsal and then, two nights later, the full production, I gained a much deeper appreciation for all the work that had gone before.  It reminded me that, often when we talk about learning in schools, we are basing our comments on short-term observations, with little understanding of all the hard work teachers, students, and principals have invested.

Mostly we see snapshots and sometimes we make judgements based on these fleeting sightings.  This could occur as a principal visits a teacher’s classroom, as teachers observe one another, or as visiting groups drop by a school.  In the site visits AYPF conducts for policymakers to schools, we work hard to prepare our participants for what they will see and encourage dialogue about not only what is on display on the day of the visit, but what went before to get students and teachers to that point.  We discuss teacher planning meetings that create engaging lessons, we talk to students about their projects, and we learn about the hours they devote to practicing before delivering their final presentations.  It was good to be reminded that learning did not spring forth full-blown like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, but was in fact the result of many carefully-constructed lessons, practice and support.

And speaking of practice:  Unless you have the good fortune to attend a dress rehearsal, you have little idea that, even up to that point, dancers are still honing their performances.  As I watched, a disembodied voice offered critique and advice to specific dancers:  to bend, to pay attention to how a fan is being held, to consider their temperament.  Not only were the dancers working on their technique; the accompanying musicians also received feedback, having to stop at one point to begin again as their tempo was too fast.  There is always room for improvement, a characteristic this artistic arena has in common with some of the high-performing schools we have brought policymakers to on a variety of tours.  On a site visit to Los Angeles High School of the Arts, for example, students working on a production of Macbeth talked to us about creating the backdrop for the production and then having to make adjustments once the stage had to accommodate actual actors!  Through this process of trial and error, receiving feedback from adult mentors and teachers and trying something new, students learn and improve.  Students realize learning is a process; you are never done.

As we toured backstage, I noticed several school-aged dancers, sprawled in corridors or sitting in dressing rooms, some doing what looked like homework.  Our guide informed us that students have an opportunity to dance with the professional dancers through the training programs provided by Colorado Ballet.  This hands-on learning in the Colorado Ballet Academy, provides students the crucial chance to not only observe professionals in action, but also to be mentored in all things dance-related.  Just like on our study tours, school staff and students emphasize the importance of experiential learning that is engaging, relevant, and hands-on.

Time and time again students share with our group how passionate they are about their internships or work-based experiences.  At The Met, a Big Picture Learning school in Providence, Rhode Island, one student I visited at her hotel internship explained the food preparation skills she was learning, as well as how to construct budgets to ensure food and labor costs were covered.  She was being mentored by the head chef, who was close by to offer guidance and encouragement.  He was also the person who would provide critical feedback on the meal she had to prepare for him and staff members.  These kinds of learning opportunities beyond the school walls require active participation by mentors who often derive from the community close to the school. This underscores the importance of schools working with businesses and other community-based partnerships to augment student learning. And it also emphasizes the importance of practice, which makes perfect!

Not only do students in Denver have an opportunity for hands-on learning with professionals, they also have a chance to attend the final dress rehearsal the day before a production’s premiere. They pay a discounted price, and get to see the production with costumes, make-up, sets, lighting – and that amazing music!  This reminded me about how important it is to expose students to a variety of experiences in the sciences, arts, media, etc.  These all contribute to providing them with a well-rounded education – a central hallmark of the Every Student Succeeds Act that was signed into law less than a year ago.  With regard to the arts, research shows that integrating music and theater into students’ learning improves their performance in math, science and reading, and also helps them become critical thinkers and problem solvers.  These deeper learning qualities are essential for success in postsecondary pursuits and life.  Unless students have opportunities to experience worlds beyond what they are born into, especially for underserved students, their horizons remain defined by their immediate surroundings.  In a global economy and increasingly interconnected world, we have to prioritize providing students with opportunities to learn new things so that they can function in multicultural and multilingual environments.

Two nights after witnessing the rehearsal, I watched the full production of Swan Lake.  I now had a much keener understanding of and appreciation for what it takes to produce a successful ballet.  I urge all of us to take a peek behind-the-scenes of how learning happens in the nation’s classrooms.  Let’s elevate those practices, places and people who are working diligently, day after day, to ensure that students acquire the knowledge, habits and skills they need for present and future success.

Loretta Goodwin is a Senior Director at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.