January 20, 2009

Let's Put an End to Tappa Tappa Tappa

The Simpsons episode, Last Tap Dance in Springfield, from season 11 has a wicked take on the instructional status quo.

In the episode Lisa decides she wants to learn how to tap dance despite not being very good at these kinds of athletic endeavors. Lisa signs up for classes at a dance studio run by Little Vicki, a former child star along the lines of Shirley Temple. Little Vicki personally teaches the children's tap dancing class.

Vicki: Now, the key to great dancing is one word: tappa-tappa-tappa.

[the children exchange looks]

Vicki [demonstrating]: Tappa-tappa-tappa.

[the children try]

Many tappa-tappa-tappas later, the class progresses nicely. Then Vicki notices someone off the beat. Vicki has Lisa dance by herself. She loses her balance and falls over backwards into a potted plant. The class laughs at her.

Vicki: Children, stop it! For all you know, she has a medical condition.
Lisa: Nope.
Vicki: I see....

Lisa continues to have trouble staying upright. Lisa blames it on the floor and moves to one end of the room, where she falls down again. Little Vicki dismisses the class for five minutes to talk to Lisa.

Lisa: What am I doing wrong, Little Vicki?
Vicki: Well, you're falling a lot. Maybe you should work on that.
Lisa: Yeah, well, no offense, but maybe I need a little more instruction than just "tappa-tappa-tappa".
Vicki: Why, back when I was your age, I had 43 movies under my belt, and I had to do it without tappa-tappa-tappa. I would've killed for tappa-tappa-tappa.
Lisa: Sorry, I'm just frustrated.
Vicki: Well, you'll never save Grandpa's farm with that attitude! You've just got to turn that frown upside-down!
[Lisa smiles]
Vicki: That's a smile, not an upside-down frown! Work on that, too!

Much of what goes on in elementary education is just a bunch of tappa tappa tappa. "Try reading this non-decodable children's good. Can't do it, then try looking at the pictures or the first letter of each word for cues. Still can't do it, then its time to call in the reading specialist."

Here's how the segment ends.

After class Lisa goes home and dejectedly walks through the kitchen, still wearing tap shoes:

Marge: There's our Broadway baby!
Lisa: [groan]
Marge: Hey, dig that crazy rhythm!
Lisa: I'm just walking. Listen, I know I said I wanted to be a dancer, but--
Marge: And you WILL be a dancer!
Homer: Look at you, all sugar and spice instead of equations and test tubes. [puts Lisa on his lap] You're Daddy's precious dancing queen.
Marge: And you look adorable!
Homer: Now, honey, what were you trying to say before we kept interrupting with our loving proudness?
Marge: Yes, our tiny tapper, what was it you were going to say after "I wanted to be a dancer, but"?
Lisa: But, I just... [looks at her proud parents] ...need more practice! See ya! [exits the kitchen, with her shoes tapping]
Homer: Oh, what's that awful sound?
Marge: The furnace?
Lisa: It's me!
Homer & Marge: Aww....



Parry Graham said...

All of life's answers can be found in an analogous Simpson's episode. The key is just in finding the right one.



KDeRosa said...

My thoughts exactly, Parry.

Anonymous said...

"The key is just in finding the right one."

Ah, yes. And the missing key is just how to go about finding it. Anything more than "tappa, tappa, tappa" on that?

I'd agree that just putting an end to "tappa..." instruction would be a good start.

KDeRosa said...

You have a few choices, Dick. They've been releasing about a season every 9 months on DVD. Catch the right sale and you can get the sets pretty cheaply. I caught a pre-Xmas sale of $22.42 for season 11. Another option is Netflix or some other online subscription service.

Yet another example of how you need content knowledge (in this case watching the episodes) in order to think critically.

Anonymous said...

It tells us something about the state of Educational Intelligence when the best source of guidance on instruction comes from animated cartoon characters, doesn't it?

Lking4truth said...

I don’t know about you all, (maybe this comes from being a former teacher turned therapist, What struck me was the take that society will push a child to be “the best” instead of just “the best they can be,” Whether sports, writing, art, mathematics. Why not have a classroom set up where a child can excel in art and writing, while allow for average to even below average in mathematics, (this would go vice-versa) w/o being shunned, or pressured, or told the subject they are failing is much more important. With all the focus on testing, end of grades, the child’s self esteem and feelings of self worth have been all but forgotten. When is that last time you saw a curriculum that had self worth as a major component.

RMD said...


You have a nice sentiment . . . but here's the problem with it.

The educational establishment hasn't even begun to help children realize their potential. It cast aside programs like Direct Instruction (DI) that are proven to help virtually all child succeed academically, and instead uses programs that match their educational philosophies.

Using DI, Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy in Colorado Springs, co, gets the vast majority of their kids to pass the state exams, and a large percentage of them to excel in them (i.e., rating of "advanced"). And the school has no entry exams or other gateways to assume they get the best kids. (check out their CSAP scores on the web)

Baltimore Curriculum Project is another example of schools that work.

But the rest of the schools continue to use programs that don't work, and then blame the kids when it happens.

We aren't even close to helping students realize their potential. Until we are, we can't talk about helping kids realize their self worth.

Parry Graham said...

Interesting points. I think one of the main difficulties with helping kids be “the best they can be” is that it’s difficult to determine what each individual child’s “best” is. It’s a lot easier from an institutional and logistical perspective to set proficiency bars and just try to get every kid to clear the bar. Growth calculations with standardized tests go a little bit farther in trying to assess student progress relative to their own individual potential, but not much farther.

It’s then up to individual schools and teachers to try to assess students’ individual strengths and weaknesses and push them to achieve personal excellence. And, of course, you end up with great variation across classrooms and schools.

There’s also the issue of tested versus non-tested subjects. As long as they keep publishing math, reading, and science standardized test scores in the newspapers, that’s what schools are going to pay the most attention to.

I think that your point about self worth is an important one. While it sometimes gets mocked in educational debates (“We’re not about teaching kids to feel good about themselves, we’re about making sure they learn”), self-esteem and motivation are (at least in my opinion, and I’m pretty sure research bears this out) important variables in the learning process. Of course, kids that are experiencing academic success are also probably more likely to have higher self-worth.


RMD said...


Follow Through showed definitively that academic achievement and self-worth go hand-in-hand. To wit, those students who did best in DI also felt best about themselves on all measures.


Parry Graham said...


Thanks for your reply. I think I would be a little more cautious in my interpretation of PFT's findings. I'm not sure that I would say that they "definitively" show that academic achievement and self-worth go hand-in-hand, but they definitely suggest a strong positive relationship. My guess would be that there are a host of variables that independently affect both academic achievement and self-worth, but I agree that the research definitely suggests a positive relationship.


RMD said...


You can be cautious if you'd like.

The study was quite large, and the effect fairly pronounced, and it was certainly not expected.

Besides, who do you think is more confident? A student with strong skills, or one that is told they should be confident but really doesn't have the skills?

Also, some of the models use in FT were specifically designed to attend to the "whole child" and therefore impact confidence, and yet were miserable failures in this aim.


Anonymous said...

I'm with jh on this one Parry. The data on this point go "way back."

BF Skinner used to put it, "Take care of the operants and the afferants will take care of themselves."

To understand that statement requires background information. If anyone lacks this info,
Tappa, Tappa, Tappa or do some homework--if you care to understand it.

Parry Graham said...


I'm not sure I adequately expressed what I meant by "cautious". I am not disputing the results of the study, nor the findings concerning DI. The data are clear that students experiencing DI exhibited both increased achievement levels and increased positive self-perception.

What I am suggesting is that the results of the study do not definitively show that academic achievement and self-worth go hand-in-hand, which is understandable given that the study did not aim to examine that relationship.

Do I believe that students who experience academic success are likely to also experience a higher sense of self-worth as a result of that success, particularly in elementary school? Absolutely, and there is additional research out there that further supports that relationship.

It may sound like splitting hairs, but I am a big fan of being cautious and limited concerning knowledge claims based on a specific set of evidence. While the PFT study suggests a positive relationship between academic achievement and self-worth, the nature of the relationship between those two complex phenomena is not definitely established.