Teaching as Improvisation

While I enjoy watching live musicals and plays, I’ve honestly never considered acting in one myself. The thought of standing on a stage and reciting rehearsed lines with a bunch of other actors sends pangs of anxiety through my body. Thinking back to my teacher preparation program, I remember being required to take an introductory theater class before being able to enroll in my methods courses. I was undergraduate physics major and I recall leaving a class on statistical mechanics and running across campus to the arts building so I could make my theater class on time. While running the several blocks between the buildings, I also had to mentally shift my brain. After learning all sorts of crazy calculus to determine the probability of the state of an electron, I had to shift my brain so I could be prepared for whatever the theater class would throw me that day. In one class, we were blindfolded and given musical instruments so we could learn to communicate to one another without words. On another day, we were assigned songs for which we were asked to hastily create our own musical videos which we had to perform before the end of class. I remember jumping around to George Michael’s Faith with three or four classmates in a scene depicting a disreputable faith healer. As part of the final exam in that course, I awkwardly stumbled through an improvised dialogue with a classmate. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing in that class. Physics was governed by principles, laws and theories drawn from the natural world. My theater class was absolutely unpredictable and chaotic. While the arts and physics buildings were only separated by a handful of blocks on campus, they seemed to exist in completely different worlds in my mind.

And now, they don’t as much, at least not from a teaching perspective. A colleague shared an article recently titled “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation.” The article isn’t new (it appeared in Educational Researcher in 2004) but it does provide a new way for me to describe the type of classroom environment I hope to foster through my teaching. The author, R. Keith Sawyer, offers “teaching as disciplined improvisation” as a metaphor to describe the flexible, yet structured dance that “creative teachers” play when supporting classroom discussion to foster student understanding. Drawing on sociocultural views of teaching and learning, Sawyer writes:

The sociocultural perspective implies that the entire classroom is improvising together; and it holds that the most effective learning results when the classroom proceeds in an open, improvisational fashion, as children are allowed to experiment, interact, and participate in the collaborative construction of their own knowledge. In improvisational teaching, learning is a shared social activity, and is collectively managed by all participants, not only the teacher. In improvising, the teacher creates a dialogue with the students, giving them freedom to creatively construct their own knowledge, while providing the elements of structure that effectively scaffold that co-constructive process” (p. 14).

While my experiences as an undergraduate physics student seemed so far from that theater class at the time, maybe the goal for taking that class was to help me see that to be effective I needed to stop seeing teaching as a scripted, predictable experience. To foster student-centered learning that reflects constructivist perspectives on learning, I need to be willing to lean into the sometimes chaotic and unpredictable nature of teaching.


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