Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Changing Partners: Or How to Benefit From Cognitive Overload

Changing partners has its reasons. But frequently I get asked about how to make people change partners, especially in beginner classes where new couples often want to stay together. This post is about the different approaches I've used or seen in beginner classes to facilitate partner changes.

1. The Discussion

Situation: You called for a partner change for the first time, and, despite your clear instructions on how to do so, there is chaos and some couples feel uncomfortable and start to debate with you. Now you'll have to spend precious class time explaining why they should change partners. If you are lucky, they'll agree and change. Or the situation could possibly end in a confrontation with your either forcefully calling "rotate!" or giving up and saying "ok, just stay".
Result: An often awkward situation, unhappy students, bad environment for teaching and learning
Better: Tell them to switch partners now and that you'll explain after class. This way you don't waste learning time.

2. The Explanation

Situation: Before you request a change of partners, you explain the pros and cons of changing partners.
Result: Either you get lucky and people change (but you still have wasted class time on it) or you end up at point one, "The Discussion."
Both have the downside that if someone doesn't want to change partners you're not going to get them to try it out without their being unhappy.

Experience shows, that everybody ends up changing partners anyway. So basically, you want them to try out changing partners without all the explanations and to figure out the benefits for themselves. To do so, I've developed two approaches.

3. The Houdini

Basically this is a magician's way of making people change partners. You shift the focus away from the act of changing partners. How? Well, like this, for example: (Students standing in a circle) "Ok, you still remember who was lead and follow? So, now there is a tricky part coming up and I need you to pay good attention.  Follows, you turn 90° to the left. Now walk over to that guy standing there. Everybody there?"  This way you've got people changing partners.  At this point they are still "at attention", so you'll need to "release" them. Now you simply say, "This is what we call changing partners."
Result: In the best case, the released tension goes to laughter, and you got everybody switching partners and being happy.

I used this tactic for a while, but it still took up too much learning time for my taste.

4. The Cognitive Overload

When I read about cognitive load theory, I wondered what would happen if you created an overload on purpose. And funnily enough, once people are overloaded it usually brings them into a mindless state. Once people are in that mindless state, they won't question (simple) instructions as strongly anymore.  A cognitive overload can often be created simply by combining two requests (using the word "and" as a connective). So, a simple "Follows, go to the lead to your right and say hello," will likely do the job effectively and you'll have more time for actual dancing in class.

Things to keep in mind:
  • Make them dance with the new partner right away after the change. This gives them a more personal connection and reduces the fear of the new person.
  • If students really don't want to change partners, you can't make them. The good thing about the last two options is that they'll try changing partners first before deciding if they like or dislike it.