Whose Learning is it Anyway?: Improv in Teaching

anigif_enhanced-buzz-14691-1375123149-44Let’s face it: if improvisation is about thinking on your feet, then teaching is an improv-heavy career. I did a little bit of improv comedy with the Lab Rats when I was at Mississippi State, and then there for a while when I lived in Nashville as well. It was sort of the kind of stuff you see on Whose Line is it Anyway?, and then some other types of acting thrown in there too.

It was fun, and what blew me away was that the improvisational wizardry aspect of it is a learned skill.  Now- the guys on Whose Line, and the people who stick at it for years and years, and who do it professionally- those folks really do get so good at it that it’s kinda magical and second nature to them. But for us working stiffs, there are actually lessons we can learn from improv, and apply to our own workdays.  Improvisation techniques and philosophies have been applied to a variety of life areas; there are even relationship help books based on the rules of improv. I saw one at a conference once.  It was real.

But today I’m writing to my teacher buddies. Hopefully this will be fun, and maybe even helpful in some way. I give you… some suggested guidelines of how to build an imaginary scene from scratch with an acting partner, as applied to education.

1. Always Say Yes

agreeSimply put, when your partner offers you an opportunity to take an unexpected turn, go with them. Don’t turn it down. It’s the “rule of agreement.”  It builds trust between scene partners and ensures that nothing they do onstage will go to waste.

In teaching, the lessons we can draw are those which help build relationships in the classroom and promote a positive classroom environment- a community of learners, if you will.  It means validating what students bring to the classroom every day. It means providing a safe place for them to share ideas. It means going with your students down their wild inquiry trails even if it may take time away from satisfying state mandates. This is one I need to work on, because I’m bad about sticking to the “script.”

Now- does this mean you should let your students run the classroom and just take whatever the troublemakers give you? Of course not. But improving classroom atmosphere by establishing a culture of agreement only helps you in the end.

2. Yes, And…

yes-and-yield-sign-300x300This rule is all about the “And.” It’s not enough simply to agree. A good scene partner adds something of value to the scene. In acting, this means when Bill tells Jake, “Grab your coat. It’s cold outside,” it’s not enough for Jake to respond, “Ok.” Jake must also add something else that furthers the scene, such as “Ok. Thanks again for bringing your shovel.” See? We have no idea what’s going on but we’re already interested.

In the classroom, it’s important for us not just to validate what our students give us, but to add to it in a way that furthers their brilliance. In a very practical sense, some researchers have noted that teachers on average do not give nearly as much positive feedback as they should. Sure, students want to know what they’re doing wrong, but they also need to hear what they’re doing right.  Doing something accidentally correct is much more likely to be repeated if the student not only sees she got it right, but she also gets a “Yes! And what you really did well on this assignment was…”

3. There are no such things as mistakes

Denzel WashingtonOf course people make mistakes, but the point of this rule for actors is to treat the mistakes as if they were planned.  I once heard an improv trainer say, “Treat every choice from your partner as if it was written in a script and was the perfect, only way it could have happened. Treat their fumbles and stutters as gold nuggets slipping out onto the stage.”

We’ve got to impress upon our students that making mistakes is okay. Struggle is part of the learning process. I did a workshop at MAMLE 2010 on this singular topic- way too much for just this post, but it involved portions of commencement addresses from Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, and Denzel Washington on failure. Each give examples of how learning from failure helped them become successful people. My goal is to impart some of that wisdom to my students- that to really learn something, you may have to do it wrong a few times first.

Make your partner look good

We Lab Rats also sometimes said, “Make your partner look like a genius.” This made sure not only that none of the scene was wasted time, but it built a trust between partners that would make for easier, better scenes. High expectations are important in education. If we treat our students like geniuses, they might start behaving like them. It doesn’t mean we have to react to every utterance as if they’re ready to teach the class, but to a certain extent, it is up to us to help them find out where they shine, and push them into that light.

And a student answering a question is volunteering to become your “partner” in the lesson. Decide to reward them for it, before they even utter a word!  When a student gives me an answer that is not right, I try to look for the logic in the thinking, and if possible, compliment them for such an out-of-the-box response.  My favorite instances are those rare ones in which I get an off-the-wall wrong answer, I’m able to use it to assess the student’s thinking, and I can then rework the question to ask follow-ups that get them to the right answer without ever having to say, “Nope! Wrong!”  Of course it’s really hard to do, but think about the difference it would make in our students’ willingness to participate in class if they knew we were going to make them look like geniuses if they did.

Don’t Ask Questions

19a959f358a71de739e4d418466f2e66This is one “rule” of improv that just doesn’t jive with teaching. In Improv 101, they hammer it into you pretty solidly not to ask any literal questions. The reason for this is that an actor is supposed to be doing things- establishing facts for his partner, not demanding information from her.

Obviously not asking questions isn’t literally true in classroom life. But what about the more advanced view of this rule? Once you become a seasoned performer, you start to feel okay asking questions, but you just don’t want to ask open ended questions. The idea is that you really can offer information to your partner through questions, such as “How many more times must I unload the dishwasher?!” We’ve got a place, we’ve got a situation, we’ve got a (likely) relationship, and we’ve got some sort of conflict. It’s much more useful than, “What are you doing with that dish?”

However, it still doesn’t work for me. I like open-ended questions in my classroom. They help kids become more accustomed to the paths of inquiry-based learning. This rule I’d rather turn on its head: Always Ask Questions.

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