Improv(e)ing Education: Can Improv Thinking Open Our Minds To Learning and Teaching In Ways Traditional Education Has Failed? I’d Say — Yes, and . . .

This great MindShift article, How Improv Can Open Up the Mind to Learning in the Classroom and Beyond, found it’s way into my inbox again. A quick glance at the publication date of the article (January 30, 2015), I smile knowing this was right around the time I started to learn a bit more about improv.

I had been reading about how improv was widely used to stimulate critical thinking and innovation in the business world and, while there are a few people playing in the improv sandbox with regard to education, the box certainly isn’t standing room only.

At the same time, I was reading Bossypants (and listening to the audiobook on my commute — because who doesn’t want to actually hear Tina Fey’s voice instead of just imagining it!). Then, I listened to an Engaged Exchange presentation (a Teacher2Teacher gem) that detailed both design thinking and improv thinking, discussing how major companies, corporations, nonprofits, and the like are turning to improv to give their businesses a boost.

Improv was everywhere. I needed to explore it (I blame this on Elizabeth Gilbert and her Big Magic magic). A bit of analogous inspiration . . . and I was off!

Over the past 14 months, I’ve jumped in — both feet! I bought all of the books I could find. I found an amazing little improv theatre in Harrisburg, PA. There, I studied their complete improv curriculum with additional workshops and coursework in Acting for Improvisers, Musical Improv, Dramatic Improv, Character Development, Genre and Parody, and Storytelling. Today I perform regularly on a Harold team, as well as with 2 different musical groups and several other special groups, each highlighting improviser talent and skill with a unique form.

As I impatiently wait for the next “too-good-to-pass-up” workshop or the next “not-even-a-question-I’m-taking-it” class, and explore improv in other spaces (I’m talking to you @TheEngagingEd and @SpeechlessShow), I am overwhelmed with the number of connections and crossovers I continue to see between improv and education, between improv and life. There are links to psychology, sociology, public speaking, acting, writing, music, popular culture, and so much more. Intersections everywhere, all roads leading to the things I’m most passionate about.

When I mention improv thinking as a viable, if not revolutionary, strategy for education, I often inspire sideways glances and raised eyebrows. No worries — I’m used to it. Truth be told, it’s become my litmus test for whether or not I’m on to something. This, even from educators who consider themselves “in the know,” “cutting-edge,” and innovative. It makes me feel like I have a fun secret. But it’s a secret I want to share, nonetheless. Lean in and I’ll tell you a little about what I know.

How can this silly, made up on-the-spot art form provide any transformational benefit for education?

First things first: improv is much more cognitively challenging than you might believe. This isn’t to say that it’s too difficult for the average human, but improv does require mastery of a number of skills and dispositions, all working together like a well-oiled machine, all at the same time, on demand. You can’t study or prepare for improv. Improv is active, participatory learning — you must hone your skills through observation and practicum.

Don’t believe me? Grab a few friends and try it.

Your suggestion is: Pineapple.

Go ahead . . . I’ll wait.

Ok. Glad that is out of the way.

Improv is likely the most fun I’ve had yet, but it’s not silly. It is art and it is work. It is good work. It’s the kind of work that makes me hungry for more.

Isn’t that how we would like our students to feel about our classrooms?

Here are just a few takeaways from my improv practice so far :

  • Improv is an appealing way to learn because it allows students to be creative and safe — free from judgement.
  • We are making all this up — everyday. We improvise everyday in our life and work. We make hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions everyday. And, we make things up as we go. What happens when there’s an opportunity for a teaching moment that’s not on the lesson plan? What happens when a student surprises us with a question we hadn’t anticipated? What happens when one of those endearing, adorable tricksters tries to one up us in front of our entire class (read: captive audience)? What happens when we plan the perfect lesson that, in practice, starts heading down the road toward perfect disaster? We react… in the moment. We pivot. We think fast, on our feet. And sometimes, we just go with it. Breaking News: We are already improvising.
  • Improvisers are storytellers. As educators, we also tell stories. We tell stories with purpose. As my good friend and colleague Dan Ryder says,

“No matter how ridiculous the stories become, how bizarre and winding the narrative, they all share a common trait: they have purpose. They make my students laugh, establish rapport, and contribute to a climate where the absurd and the foolish deserve some attention alongside the serious and profound. They fulfill a need so many of my students exhibit — the opportunity to enjoy oneself while learning.”

The goal of teaching is to activate a student’s brain — to help them make connections between the information we present and their own lived experiences. Storytelling is the most powerful way to activate a brain. When listening to a story, our brains light up and go to work. We make new neural connections and create pathways that didn’t exist before. Story helps us to synchronize with the teller, to internalize an experience and understand it through our own lens of experience, and to connect our experiences with our emotions — one of the most powerful ways to make learning stick. Story enhances memory, increases engagement, and may even impact behavioral change. Some go so far as to say story can actually serve to change our brain chemistry, increasing the production of oxytocin and dopamine which, in turn, makes us happier, more empathetic, compassionate, trustworthy, and sensitive to cues from our social environment.

A great story hinges on the ability to:

  • Craft a setting and structure
  • Create an element of suspense
  • Create vivid imagery with expressive language — show don’t tell.
  • Craft in a way that enables people to relate in a familiar way
  • Deliver in a way that creates a lasting impression

So does a great lesson.

So does great improv.

So does great leadership.

  • We need More “Yes, And” and Less “Yes, But” in Education. “Yes, And” is acceptance without judgement. It’s true that we can’t “Yes, And” everything (there are rules we have to follow), but we can at least agree to accept all ideas without judgement, and do our best to build upon them to make them better. “Yes, but” is “Yes, And”’s snarky, pessimistic cousin. It is equivalent to “NO.” It’s not accepting or tolerant. It focuses on our limitations rather than our possibilities. It stifles creativity. It’s often condescending. It quiets our voice. It builds a wall between people and all of the opportunities that could be. In education, and in life, there are things we must accept even when we don’t particularly care for them. This is true for both students and teachers — and even the layfolk aren’t immune. But the first step in affecting change in any system is accepting what is at face-value. You might even learn something along the way when you consider the value that an abundance of possibilities brings to the table. Try to consciously “Yes, And” this week — it will change your life.
  • Improv teaches 4 critical skills: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. These are all skills that we already try to teach in schools today with varying degrees of success.

Creativity: In the world of improv you are called to suspend your disbelief. Anything and everything is possible. You can become anyone you want to be—try an identity on for size. In this environment, creativity is limitless. And creating is one of the highest-order skills we can employ in a classroom or on a stage.

Critical Thinking: Long form improv requires that we seek the game. To me, this is akin to problem solving in that the problem to be solved is identifying the game, not solving the problem in itself (if we solve the problem to early in improv the scene ends). It requires that we identify a pattern and repeat it. It requires that we remove the pattern from the context in which we found it and heighten by asking, if this is true, then what else could be true. Problem solving. Patterns. Application. Application in diverse contexts. Prediction. Being engaged in the moment, acting, but multi-tasking and thinking about what’s next. Thinking on your feet. Processing and responding rapidly. Does any of this sound familiar? Higher-Order, complex processes at work.

Collaboration: The monologist sometimes begins an improv set with a story that sets the tone of the Armondo or Harold —two  types of long form improv— to follow. In the classroom we can also find the “Sage on the Stage” or the lecturer. However, the monologist will not continue the show alone. He or she will collaborate with the team to build a show together. The team works to develop “groupmind” and shared ownership of the space. The same thing can’t always be said for the Sage in the classroom.

In improv, “All of us are better than one of us” is the rule. Improv thinking goes beyond “team” to “ensemble,” drawing ideas equally from each member. You must be willing to share the spotlight if you want to achieve success.

As education evolves, we move closer and closer to this type of collaboration. Teachers are hungry for it in their professional development. Students are designing and creating in classrooms more than ever before. Recently I listened to Chris Emdin speak about turning over our classrooms to students — allowing them to plan and teach lessons. I ask you, Why not? Teaching is the best way to learn.

Communication:Talk Less, Smile More . . . A.Burr, Hamilton: The Musical. (Yes, I can happily apply Hamilton to just about everything. Who knew one could learn so much from a musical?). OK, maybe it’s more like, Talk Less, Listen More. Clearly as improvisers or educators, we have to talk. We have to talk a lot. The things we say are content-rich and important. But we also communicate with the things we do: our body language, our gestures, the way we walk into a room, our style, they way we design our space, our priorities, etc. And the things we choose not to do shout so loud the silence is sometimes deafening. Equally critical to both improvisers and educators is the skill of listening. I believe listening is the most important of all communication skills. We could all stand to listen a little more. To build empathy. If we do not listen, we will be lost. If we do not listen, we will not feel, we will not understand, we will not learn. Be present, in the moment, and be listening.

  • Improv teaches us to not be afraid of failure. This is familiar rhetoric in education (fail forward, first attempt in learning), but nowhere have I seen this more clearly and authentically in practice than in improvisation. We take risks when we play because we have confidence. We trust our partners and our teammates. They only way we look good in improv is to make the entire team look good. We go out there knowing that someone has your back — you won’t be tossed under a bus or left on the sidelines. Everyone lifts.

In education we default to what is safe. We don’t take risks often. We just don’t feel safe on that ledge. There are standards, tests, and evaluations. But, as Jen Oleniczak Brown once said,

“You have to have some flexibility. If you’re constantly trying not to fail, we never actually succeed.”

  • At the same time, improv dares to offend . . . honestly. Improvisers notice and call attention to the elephant in the room. They work to have challenging conversations, to break the tension. They will call you on your nonsense. And they do it honestly and authentically — without malice. Education needs more of this.
  • Improv builds communication skills, like speaking and listening. I know this won’t be a surprise to you, but a majority of the student presentations out there are outright awful. Wait — not so fast — because many teacher presentations are not all that much better! It’s not your fault. You mimic what you were taught — what you observed in the world. But . . . the world has changed. Death by PowerPoint, reading slides crowded with bulleted information to the audience, failure to make connections . . . that just isn’t cutting it anymore. When is the last time you were moved by a bullet point? We have to do better. Common Core speaks to this, but more important is the fact that presentation, public speaking, and communication are critical skills for the workplace and for life. Public speaking doesn’t have to be scary. Not only must we learn how to do it, we also must learn to relax and enjoy it.
  • Improv is fun and improvisers are engaged. This extends to the audience, too! The word “fun” really doesn’t do it justice. It is surprise. Child-like delight. Wonder. Joy. Aren’t these words we should be using to describe a student and teacher learning together in a classroom? Learning should be engaging, fun, and joyful.
  • Connections. Can I just tell you about the amazing people I have met in the past year?!? The entire community that thrives in and around this art form is warm, welcoming, accepting, and caring. There is a sense of belongingness inherent in this craft and the community that comes together around it. Are we creating this in our classrooms? How can this same belongingness translate into education?
  • In addition to the average student, improv is great for the atypical student, the artsy student, the introvert, the socially awkward, and…wait for it. . . for autistic students and students with other special education needs, whether facing a challenge or fostering giftedness. Improvisers honor and express the differences that exist in the ensemble. They see their differences as strength. As a tool in the classroom, improv can help “children with learning and physical disabilities develop a sense of play, and enable the socially awkward intellectual to socialize more easily.” Some of the best improvisers are self-proclaimed introverts. Students learn to trust their own decisions, feel more confident and less self-conscious, and learn that real, meaningful learning is about more than the “classroom competition chronicles.”

Improv thinking has the potential to penetrate the cliques and tribes that grow up in schools (I’m not just talking students here) and help us to elevate the positive qualities and characteristics of our peers and create a healthier, more nurturing environment for learning all around. Improv thinking has the potential to draw out empathy, build connections and community, and to amplify student and teacher voice in an environment where many of these voices are often marginalized.

I don’t know if improv is the answer to all of education’s problems, but we’ve said “Yes, And” to far worse ideas . . .

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