The Royal Ballet School: Creating a Positive Studio Culture

The Royal Ballet School has a record of excellence in producing exceptional young dancers and choreographers.

Its alumni are always in high demand, and many enjoy flourishing careers with the world’s leading dance companies. Notwithstanding this reputation, the School recognises that the employability of a student is not the sole marker of a successful education and nurtures each student’s holistic well-being so its dancers grow as healthy and fulfilled individuals.

In particular, the School is well known for its Healthy Dancer Programme, which invests in students’ long-term physical, emotional, and mental health through termly health screenings, backed by a dedicated team of more than 20 healthcare professionals. This ethos of enabling students to not simply learn but also thrive continues within the classrooms and studios. Achieving this means creating an environment where students feel safe, welcomed, and respected. This is how The Royal Ballet School is creating a positive culture for its young dancers.

The Royal Ballet School’s New CPD Programme

Creating a positive culture begins by closely examining the teaching and learning experience, according to Karen Berry, The Royal Ballet School’s Senior Teacher Training Manager. She believes that outstanding teachers are the key to ensuring students feel supported and reach their potential. A good teacher can make an impact not only on an individual’s education but also on their future careers and their lives beyond work.

This is why The Royal Ballet School extends its reputation for excellence in ballet beyond its students to its staff. Investing in the growth and development of its teachers, ensuring they uphold benchmarks in professional behaviours and standards, is also an investment in its students. In pursuit of this investment, the School launched its new Continuous Professional Development (CPD) Programme for Artistic teachers in the spring of 2021.

The CPD programme provides The Royal Ballet School’s educators with opportunities to develop new and existing skills, keeping them at the cutting edge of research and developments in the field. The new programme also commenced with a review of the teachers’ understanding of how students learn. This framework of evaluating teaching practices ensures that the transfer of learning and the degree to which teachers implement skills is continually monitored. This way, the School’s teachers can confidently upskill, reflect on, and adapt their practices, which in turn benefits their students’ learning.

Best Educational Practices

The field of pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching, continues to move forward with new research. Holding its teachers to impeccable standards ensures The Royal Ballet School keeps up with the latest advancements in the science of education. This is where the CPD programme allows teachers to apply the most relevant and innovative teaching methodologies.

Recent years have seen a shift away in educational fields from ‘what teachers do’, to ‘what students learn’. This invites a deeper thought process behind the exercises and activities set by teachers. It also shifts the classroom and studio culture from students’ passive consumption of information to a teaching style that encourages deeper thinking and processing in the form of diverse questions and creative challenges.

To promote deeper and lifelong learning, The Royal Ballet School’s teachers not only teach academic and vocational material, but they also teach students how to learn. These are essential skills for dancers to apply, both during their time at The Royal Ballet School and in their future careers.

The thinking is that empowering young people with the tools to evaluate and learn for themselves instils them with a greater sense of purpose, efficacy, and autonomy, which is fundamental to the new CPD programme. It focuses on several key strategies, informed by the understanding that a student’s ability to learn is heavily determined by their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical needs. Addressing these first is crucial to ensuring healthy, happy students.

Maslow Before Bloom

The new CPD programme and the School’s ethos recognise that for students to learn effectively, they must first feel secure and valued. Based on principles from educational and motivational psychology, the rationale is that if a young person’s basic needs are not met, we cannot expect them to focus on their education. The CPD programme prioritises fulfilling basic needs over educational objectives, which keeps the focus squarely on the health and happiness of the students.

Berry explains that the approach comes from the phrase ‘Maslow before Bloom’. In psychology, these basic needs (including categories such as physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation) make up a model for human motivation called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943). The theory states that needs further up the hierarchy, represented as a pyramid, can only be attended to if the needs preceding them are satisfied. The ‘Bloom’ refers to Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist who developed tools for learning objectives. So, once Maslow has been attended to, students can Bloom.

Once teachers prioritise developing students’ basic needs, such as encouraging healthy self-esteem and making students feel safe and welcome, then they can then help them pursue learning in any field. It is far more likely that they will be fully engaged and motivated to embrace new learning in an environment where they are in a state of emotional readiness to study.

Developing Positive Student-Teacher Relationships

One important aspect of fulfilling students’ basic needs is providing young people with a sense of inherent value and purpose. The Royal Ballet School takes the view that every student must feel equally as important and appreciated as another. In practice, this means teachers building a strong rapport with their students and taking the time to understand their individual needs, interests, personalities, and attitudes towards learning.

Research evidence backs up the approach, which states that positive teacher-student relationships are more likely to have above-average effects on student achievement. This all adds up to a studio culture founded on respect, where the School eliminates harmful or toxic habits before they can take root, and students all start from an equal and supportive foundation from which they can learn.

How Belief Determines Behaviour

Nurturing this supportive environment means sustaining a core belief in the abilities of students. Berry explains that the level of belief in a student’s potential can determine their learning outcomes. Feeling surrounded by those who believe in them can positively impact an individual’s behaviour, attitude towards learning, and innate sense of self-belief.

Berry recognises that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy that puts a heavy responsibility on the teacher. With positive expectations significantly influencing levels of attainment, staff must focus on validating the effort and determination a student applies to their education. If teachers have high expectations of their students, they can instil a belief in them that all can improve, regardless of ability.

Changing the Culture of Ballet

As The Royal Ballet School’s new CPD programme raises the bar for its teachers, it hopes to also inspire a rise in standards across the ballet profession, in any organisation that coaches and trains dancers. Berry emphasises that it is crucial to foster a positive culture of respect and care that teaches young people to expect more from those responsible for their development. By embedding practices where students feel heard, valued, and supported, the confrontation and eradication of toxic practices and environments in teaching is more likely to occur. The hope is that this positive mindset will transcend the studios of The Royal Ballet School and go a long way in shaping the culture of ballet wherever its students, future dancers and choreographers, go.

About The Royal Ballet School

The Royal Ballet School educates and inspires talented young dancers for careers in The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and other leading UK and international dance companies. The School offers an eight-year dance course alongside a broad academic curriculum to ensure dancers support their ballet training with core subjects. A culture of excellence and dedication to the care of its young people sees the School’s students receiving the best possible education and performing on world-famous stages.

Learn more about The Royal Ballet School.

Associate and performance photo credit: ©2022 The Royal Ballet School. Photographed by Rachel Cherry.