Improv your teaching

by Alan Howe

I recently heard Pippa Evans being interviewed about her book ‘Improv Your Life: An Improviser’s Guide To Embracing Whatever Life Throws At You’.[1] Pippa is an award-winning musical performer, songwriter and improviser.

You may have seen her in Showstopper! The Improvised Musical or heard her on Radio 4’s The Now Show. She also runs workshops on improvisation ‘as a way of getting more out of life.’

A minor lightbulb moment

I’ve often enjoyed watching expert, professional improvisers on the stage or in the TV studio displaying their apparently effortless brilliance, and wondered what the secret was: how did they manage to pull off such unplanned theatrical fireworks? But as for actually doing it? No thanks. Wild horses and all that.

But hearing Pippa speak, and then reading the book – which outlines a wide range of improvisational techniques and reveals some of the structures and patterns that begin to answer my ‘how on earth did they manage to do that?’ question – I had a minor lightbulb moment.

As a teacher – and now as someone who works with teachers on classroom talk – I realised that, in a sense, I’d been doing a form of improv every time I said to a class of students, or teachers in CPD sessions: ‘OK, let’s see what you think/understand about this’, and then followed this up with a question along the lines of, ‘Who would like to share their thinking?’, or directed an ‘open’ question at an individual student.

In these moments, I moved from careful lesson planning into improvisation. Because I had no advance idea of what a student was going to say, I was suddenly adrift from the safe shores of pre-determined teaching steps. I would have to respond to their response and wouldn’t know how to do that until I’d heard what they said. Trying to keep the lesson or session afloat and propelled forwards on its journey. Improvising.

So… what is improv?

Although the concept of ‘improvisation’ is a bit slippery, and will take different forms in different contexts (for example, in the theatre, music or sport) here are four definitions that seem relevant to improvisation in an educational context:

‘…the conception of action as it unfolds, drawing on available cognitive, affective, social and material resources.’ [2]

‘…reworking precomposed material in relation to unanticipated ideas that emerge and are conceived in the course of performance.’ [3]

‘Improvisation is the art of using what is available to you in the moment.’ [4]

‘…creative teaching is better conceived as improvisational performance…(which) emphasises the interactional and responsive creativity of a teacher working together with a unique group of students…because the flow of the class is unpredictable and emerges from the actions of all participants, both teachers and students.’ [5]

The first three definitions come from the world of performance in the theatre, clubs, rehearsal rooms and concert halls but seem very relevant also to the classroom. The fourth confirms what I sensed as I read Pippa Evans’ book.

Improv in the classroom

The more that I’ve thought, read about and experienced classroom dialogue – especially the strategies and approaches that characterise effective, productive interactive talk that deepens academic understanding and promotes powerful learning – the more I can see the connections with the world of ‘improv’.

In addition, I now appreciate more clearly what it might be about promoting the value of dialogic teaching that may be problematic for teachers and their students. The usual reality of teaching operates in a context of curriculum coverage, teaching plans, time constraints and the need for evidence of learning that is seemingly light years away from what Pippa and her fellow improv performers get up to.

The possibilities for open-ended improvisation in a teaching and learning context are limited, and the skills involved in building a scene – or indeed a whole musical – based on suggestions from the audience are not part of the repertoire of most teachers!

The other key difference, of course, is that improv is a game between skilled peers with oodles of experience to call upon who have chosen to work in this way; in the classroom the majority of the participants are inexperienced and are not there by choice.

However, I think that the world of improv offers some practical and applicable approaches that may help to make whole class dialogue more likely to be productive within the constraints and structures of lessons – or, at least, to minimise the potential of spectacular failure!

Improv and classroom dialogue

Here are some other similarities between these two worlds of classroom dialogue and improvisation (all quotations in italics are from Improv Your Life):

  • ‘There’s no script’. Participants have to be ‘alert to and responsive to the ideas of others’. Or, rather, there may be an ‘invisible script’ – i.e. a pre-determined starting and end point – but with space in between to respond to, and explore, unanticipated ideas that emerge that requires quick, responsive thinking.
  • In a successful improv session, as in effective classroom dialogue, there needs to be a ‘collective will to make something’ – where there is ‘joint responsibility for the direction of the conversation’.
  • There is no single director figure; ‘the direction of the conversation is uncertain.’
  • There are multiple voices and perspectives on display.’
  • ‘Contingent responses’: what the teacher or student says next is dependent on what is said before.
  • There are rules (‘Ground Rules’) that all participants need to be aware of that make some of the expectations explicit (for example: ‘try to build on another’s contribution;’ ‘listen attentively so that your idea can be connected to another’).
  • Notice something rather than rush to judge.’
  • ‘Endow the other person rather than yourself.’
  • Allow space’; ‘wait’; ‘let the words land’; ‘accept and build’.
  • Be curious.’
  • ‘Expect the unexpected.’
  • ‘Acknowledge people’ – make them feel welcome, through eye contact or invitations to speak.
  • ‘Look, listen and respond…’
  • ‘Do your groundwork…’ Successful improv requires ‘deep knowledge’ of theatrical genres, styles, musical composition and so on. As with improv theatre, improvising classroom dialogue isn’t simply making it up as you go along. It requires teachers to be knowledgeable experts in their professional field. In particular, the improvising teacher needs to have a high level of pedagogical content knowledge – knowledge of how to build on students’ current state of knowledge towards deeper understanding.

In the professional learning sessions I have been running with groups of teachers on dialogic teaching, I often share a description that attempts to capture the essential features of what the phrase ‘dialogic teaching’ might mean:

Imagine a classroom where students have just completed a science enquiry, have looked at some different accounts of an historical event, or have been looking in detail at a poem. A whole-class discussion is underway, in which students are willing to express and explain their ideas. They give reasons for their views with evidence. They listen carefully to one another and are prepared to comment on each other’s ideas. They take the discussion seriously. The talk has a clear academic purpose. What are the key features of such a productive discussion? [6]

  • Respect for all students, so that a diverse range of voices are fostered and heard, whilst including the rights of students to listen and attend quietly. Everyone has the right but also the responsibility to speak, not just the confident talkers.

  • Agreed and respected norms (‘Ground Rules’) for speaking, listening and discussion, so that explicit attention is given to the quality of the talk itself as well as its content.

  • The classroom is set out so that all can see and hear one another.

  • Whilst being often open-ended in terms of discussion, the lesson is also structured with specific learning goals in mind.

  • The teacher asks a range of questions that invite more than simple recall and are posed by students as well as teachers.

  • In whole-class discussion, the teacher encourages students to elaborate their ideas (when relevant to the topic) and question ideas (put forward by the teacher or other students) that they have concerns about.

  • The teacher knows how to draw others in; how to probe to help students to develop their ideas; how to accept differing views without indicating if they are ‘correct’; how to guide students towards practising new ways of talking by modelling and modifying her own use of language.

  • Classroom talk is made up of exchanges that chain together into coherent and deepening lines of enquiry. Students build on their own and each other’s contributions.

  • Every single student is part of the conversation; they know that at any moment the teacher might ask them for their ideas or to comment on what another student has said.

  • The conversation is focused: students know that they should aim to keep to the topic under discussion.

  • Students are willing to explain their thinking, can say they are unsure and know that misconceptions will be resolved.

The list includes classroom features that are essentially about:

  • classroom culture (respect, tolerance of uncertainty, willingness to share unrehearsed thinking…);
  • levels of participation (who speaks and when, who initiates, how the ‘communicative rights’ to speak are distributed…); and
  • learning and thinking (talk that is focused on the matter in hand, is directed towards, if not reaching consensus, then at least exploring differences and seeking to resolve or acknowledge them…)

But the beating heart of a dialogic classroom is the nature of the exchanges themselves: how they are initiated, built upon, linked together, probed, agreed or disagreed with, and so on.

To help to understand how this can be achieved it’s useful to focus on the concept of ‘families of talk moves’ [7] that enable teachers to position students as thinkers, arguers, and makers of meaning – that open up the conversation and sustain productive dialogue. It’s here that the worlds of improv and dialogic pedagogy meet.

Talk moves

A talk move is rather like a strategic move in a game, but without the element of aggression or competition: a conscious decision by a player to make a move that keeps the game alive or shifts it in a particular direction – just like some of the improv moves that Pippa Evans outlines. For example:

Dialogic Talk Move

Add/build: “Can you say more?”  “Who can build on what B just said?”

Elaborate, give reasons: “Can you explain why you think…?” “ Who would like to offer some more reasons why…?”

Challenge/probe: Does it always work that way?”  “How does that fit in with what A said? What if…?

Agree/disagree: “Does anyone have a different idea/view?”

Summarise: “Let’s just see if we can pull your ideas together.”  “Jenny, can you remember what you said a short while ago about…?”  “How does what Emile explained help us to understand how…?”

Improv strategy

“Yes and…” – follow up one person’s response with additional ideas that build on the first. This can be as much an attitude as the use of this specific words, but the intention to accept and build must be there.

“Yes, but…” – offer an alternative idea or explain why an idea needs altering or changing direction. ‘Yes, but…’ can be a blocking or stalling move, but at the right time it can stop a ‘scene’ or a dialogue from going round in circles, or students from agreeing too readily with each other. It adds grit.

“Reincorporation” – bring back something someone said earlier to shift the direction of the performance.

This comparison indicates that there are quite specific forms of words or attitudes to take that are similar in both the teaching and improv contexts, which can help the scene or discussion develop. These are a set of improvisational routines that we can learn to use, initially rather self-consciously, en route to internalising them so that they become second nature.

Student talk

We can also enable students to be much more aware of the talk moves that they can make. Making the above prompts visible (for example by displaying them as a poster) enables a discussion to both flow and increase in direction, and accrue a ‘weight’ of ideas, helping students to take greater responsibility for managing the discussion themselves, without always waiting for the teacher to do the prompting.

One of the issues with dialogic teaching is that it runs counter to some deep-seated patterns of discourse in classrooms. Thinking of teaching as a ‘creative’ enterprise involving collaboration by students – and, in the case of dialogic teaching, with the teacher both orchestrating it and also being a semi-participant – runs counter to some prevailing views that emphasise teaching as scripted instruction. In the latter, there is one dominant voice which controls the patterns of talk: every exchange runs from and back to the teacher who routinely evaluates a student’s contribution with praise or (sometimes) subtle negative judgement. What students say is self-trimmed to slot into the teacher’s template, usually as answers to questions which, even if intended to be ‘open’, can often be read by students as having a pre-determined answer. Responsibility for, and control over, the direction of the exchanges lies with the teacher. And students only feel confident to say something if they are already sure about what it is they’re going to say.

Yes but…

‘Ah,’ I hear you say (it’s a voice in my head too), ‘but lessons are nothing like improv theatre. The participants aren’t equal collaborators; the majority have limited or no skills in the techniques needed to achieve interactive dialogue; lessons are part of a curriculum with pre-determined ends, not free-flowing entertainments upon which nothing significant rests; students are likely to be mystified by a teacher who tries to hand over control of a discussion. To ask otherwise is to place the teacher in a highly vulnerable position, risking chaos or, at best, a passive or sullen refusal on the part of students to participate – and anyway, students’ learning is at stake, and we can’t afford to waste time on unproductive discussions that lead nowhere or leave students more mystified and confused than they were in the first place.‘

All of which is either true, or is a true reflection of what many teachers will feel about embarking on open-ended dialogue. However, I’m not arguing that ‘teaching as improvisation’ and ‘dialogic teaching’ should replace ‘direct instruction’.  Both are necessary on different occasions, and to emphasise one over the other seems to me to be a false dichotomy.

Having a repertoire of dialogic teaching strategies to call on is extremely useful on the occasions where students need to explore a concept, think through an idea, or to express their current levels of understanding so that teaching can be adapted to what they need. Also, in the dialogic classroom, we need to balance the elements of ‘tight’ and ‘loose features’ differently to improv theatre performers.

Productive classroom dialogue is a hybrid combining elements of improvisation (‘loose’ features) with many more constraints within the structure of a lesson (‘tight’ features). Keith Sawyer calls this ‘disciplined improvisation[8] – although I now understand, having read Pippa Evans’ book, that there is far more discipline and structure in the way she and others work in improv theatre groups as well.

Harnessing the collective will

Within this hybrid approach, one particular aspect from the world of improv stands out: what Pippa Evans calls ‘the collective will to make something.’ If a dialogic section of a lesson is going well, a visible feature will be that students aren’t completely dependent on the teacher to control the direction of the discussion.

The focus on these occasions is less on the teacher and far more on the collective approach of the whole class. Students listen carefully and talk together without waiting to be invited. A step on from this is when students are aware of the direction of the thinking; they can see how one idea leads to another and are willing to contribute to a collective sense of direction.

Pippa Evans describes this as a shift occurring from thinking about yourself and what you want to say/contribute to thinking about what you are aiming for as a group. This is where offering a half-formed idea for consideration can often be better than contributing a fully formed or fixed one, allowing another person to add, adapt or elaborate.

The classroom as a marketplace of ideas

As I mentioned earlier, this runs counter to an often implicit ‘ground rule’ that students may unconsciously bring to a classroom discussion, which might be characterised as something like: ‘only speak when the teacher invites you and only say something if you’re sure about what you are about to say.’

If a lesson is, in the eyes of the students, a place where teaching is done to you, rather than with you, then the transition towards every student recognising a sense of collective responsibility for the nature of the discussion will be a hard one to make.

To adopt another metaphor, this is about enabling students to see whole-class dialogue as less of a one-way street and more of a marketplace where ideas are exchanged, bartered and adopted.

Just as improv requires all participants to be fully aware of what’s being said, so successful classroom dialogue needs all students to similarly be on the alert, knowing that at any moment, they might be invited to contribute to the direction of the lesson, or to interact with each other, without waiting for the teacher to direct or orchestrate the flow: like jazz, like improv.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Paul Warwick and Neil Mercer from Oracy Cambridge for their astute comments on an earlier draft; also to Paul for the links to the articles on the jazz metaphor and Neil for alerting me to Keith Sawyer’s research, all of which come to many of the same conclusions. Reassuringly this was a case of: ‘Yes, and…’ rather than ‘Yes, but…’

References

[1] Hodder Studio (2021)

[2] Kamoche, K., Cuhna, M.P.e., & Cuhna, J.V.d., (2003). Towards a theory of organisational improvisation: Looking beyond the jazz metaphor. Journal of Management Studies.

[3] Berliner, P.F. (1994). Thinking in jazz: the infinite art of improvisation. Chicago University Press.

[4] Evans, P. (2021). Improv Your Life. Hodder Studio.

[5] Sawyer, R.K. (2004). Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as a Disciplined Improvisation. Educational Researcher, Vol. 33, No 2.

[6] This list is based on various descriptions of dialogue in ‘A Dialogic Teaching Companion’ by Robin Alexander (Routledge, 2020); ‘The Talk Science Primer’ by Sarah Michaels and Cathy O’Connor (TERC 2012); and ‘The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Dialogic Education’, edited by Neil Mercer, Rupert Wegerif and Louis Major (Routledge, 2019).

[7] For example, as described in Park, J., Michaels, S., Affolter, R., and O’Conner, S., (2017). Traditions, research and practice supporting academically productive classroom discourse. Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Education

[8] Sawyer 2004 op cit.

Further reading

Pippa Evans. Improv your Life, Hodder Studio (2021)

Robin Alexander. A Dialogic Teaching Companion, (Routledge, 2020)

Cathy O’Connor, Sarah Michaels. The Talk Science Primer (TERC 2012)

Catherine O’Connor, Sarah Michaels. ‘Supporting teachers in taking up productive talk moves: The long road to professional learning at scale.’ International Journal of Educational Research 97, (2019) 166-175.

Neil Mercer, Rupert Wegerif and Louis Major ed.  The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Dialogic Education, (Routledge, 2019).

Keith Sawyer. Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching, (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

1 thought on “Improv your teaching”

  1. This excellent blog put me in mind of the ideas of Schon’s ‘knowing in action’ – that is, the way a teacher immediately responds to dynamic classroom environments using professional understanding, to further learning. These are conscious decisions taken by drawing on a personal theory of learning developed by every teacher. To be aware of the power of dialogic teaching and to want to know what students think and why, positively informs what teachers say and do second by second.

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