Learning from life

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Written by Michelle Parry-Slater on 11 January 2023

I was late to the party on watching Strictly, a UK reality TV dance show. My husband encouraged it as a family viewing choice but initially I was all “Who cares about celebrities I’ve never heard of dancing with professional dancers?” It turns out I care. Deeply. 

What strikes me every season is those that learn well, succeed. It is the elements of learning well which are there for the audience to see an individual’s growth. There is a place for natural talent – some people have gifts they didn’t know they had – but to win Strictly takes much more than raw talent. It is a masterclass in how to learn. 

Willingness without a doubt is the first step on the learning journey for the contestants.  Acknowledging this is a learning experience and bringing a willingness to put in the hours, they have to work outside their comfort zone and to focus intently on the task. 

To win Strictly takes much more than raw talent. It is a masterclass in how to learn. 

Feedback as a gift. Accepting it and learning from it. Everyone likes to rail on judge Craig Revel-Horwood with boos from the audience, but he is helpful in the details he picks up and shares. The judges are experts so listening and using their words is vital to success. 

Resilience is needed in spades. Dance offs, failures, low points, lack of popularity in the votes – these are all the harsh realities of the show. It is a hard show both for contestants and professional dancers. It is exposing and shows vulnerabilities for the nation to clearly see. Those that succeed acknowledge their failings and more readily put setbacks behind them; they learn and even take energy from them!

Confidence alone only gets you so far. Humility and openness to grow breeds a deeper seated confidence, not a bravado which often comes with contestants used to being in the public eye. Self-belief is always crucial – by this I mean true human self-belief not arrogance or an act. 

Teamwork is also apparent as part of the learning experience. The mentor learns as much as the mentee. They support and encourage each other. They centre and ground each other, enabling the other areas of learning here mentioned to flourish. 

Having effective teachers maxes out making a difference. All the professionals are champion dancers, however not all the dancers are effective teachers. The role of the teacher in this competition is crucial. Showing up at your best is what students deserve. 

Personalised learning journeys are also key. Some celebs bring dance talent and low confidence. Some bring great confidence and no skill. Some are fabulous in ballroom dancing but can’t shake a Latin hip. Choreographing around the skills plus pushing the contestants into their stretch zone helps the students learn and grow. It is not enough to work within their confidence zone. To succeed is clearly a push for them in their learning. 

Finally there is celebration. This is a very necessary part of growing in learning which we don’t do enough. I love it on the show that they celebrate their scores and growth. It fuels their learning and enables them to be resilient, use feedback, grow in confidence and teamwork, and build on their successes. It is all these combined learning elements which produce success. 

During the last season as much as I got frustrated with Tony Adams’ fans keep voting him in, even though he was terrible, he did demonstrate a strong ability to learn and did slowly get better. Helen Skelton had great natural talent but didn’t have any confidence and self-belief, yet we watched with joy as her pro dancer Gorka Marquez masterfully unlocked that for her. Jayde Adams offered us body confidence in spades and it was a shame she didn’t get longer to learn and grow. It is a TV competition show so not everyone gets the opportunity to continue learning. I often wonder what if they did? How far would each contestant grow over 13 weeks? Would they all improve?

The final word has to go to the winner of the latest season, Hamza Yassin. I loved him from the first moment I saw him and his humility. Hamza showed up in each of these areas so well as a learner. Watching him was a tutorial in learning, bravery, humility, and kindness. It has been an honour to watch a model student and his professional partner, Jowita Przystal, give us all a masterclass in teaching and learning. I’m left wondering how I can replicate such necessary ideals in adult learning with my clients. There’s lots to celebrate and think about. 

Michelle Parry-Slater is director of Kairos Modern Learning and author The Learning and Development Handbook 

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