Teaching as improv performance

About a year ago I was introduced to the concept of using improv as a way of changing my thinking around teaching in the classroom, and the idea has been evolving at the back of my mind ever since. I thought it was time to get it out again.

I’m not a fan of improv theatre in the sense that I pay it a lot of attention but when I listen to interviews with people – usually actors – who got their start in improv, I’m usually quite impressed with how they connect with the person doing the interview. There’s something about improv training that seems to open you up to the possibility of connecting with others and playing off of their ideas. This seems like a useful starting point for thinking about teaching.

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Another important part of improv is opening yourself up to making mistakes and showing a certain sense of vulnerability. It’s the same in the classroom; students need to know that it’s OK to make mistakes and that being wrong is not a point of failure. Often, the insight we get from being wrong can set the foundation for a powerful learning experience. But first you have to be OK with being wrong.

To be clear, teaching and using improv is not about being entertaining. You’re not trying to fill the time with jokes. Enjoyment of your time together is important but getting a laugh is not the same as delighting the audience. Improv is about creating a narrative and going on a journey together. And like the best journeys, there should be space for surprises, which means you must have less reliance on a script. The basic structure of the story is there but details are the things that you get to fill in together with your students.

Here are some basic principles of improv performance (there are many different lists, and none are rules):

  1. Listen to others
  2. Agree and support each other
  3. Respect your partner
  4. Believe in working together
  5. Don’t fear failure
  6. Bring a good energy
  7. Be comfortable being silly

The principles of improv performance may help us to introduce dynamic adaptation into our teaching practices in the classroom. The idea of roles, direction and narrative can be used to help us think differently about the actors in a classroom, as well as the relationship between those actors. We can use the connections we create to bring a story from the initial setup to a satisfying and potentially powerful conclusion.

 

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