Imagine this: You have just given instructions for the day’s class activity, designed to test a theory chronicled in the previous week’s readings. But the proposed assignment doesn’t land the way you anticipated. One courageous student challenges the purpose and relevance of the assignment in front of the entire class. An uncomfortable silence fills the classroom. You take a breath. Now what?
“We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything” (Spolin, 1999, p. 3). Viola Spolin, educator, performer, and the godmother of improvisation, created a game-based system of actor training that gave rise to The Second City in Chicago. I studied this improvisational method. That was years before embarking on my professional journey as a special education teacher, college professor, college of education dean, and now director of faculty development. Decades since my early training as an improvisational performer, Spolin’s wisdom still guides my perspective on teaching and learning. Here are five basic principles gleaned from those early years as a drama geek.
- Say “yes and.” When you embrace the improvisational arena, the first principle you learn is the one of “approval/disapproval” (Spolin, 1999). When your fellow performer offers you a pretend apple, you accept it without question. It is an apple, red and juicy. Like the forbidden fruit in Genesis, accepting new information, good or evil, invites us into unfamiliar territory. But this journey is risky. We may look stupid, or this new information may challenge our previously cherished beliefs. Students must feel free to take such risks, and that’s where the “say ‘yes and’” principle comes in. The educator lets students know this learning environment is a brave space for interrogating ideas with an open mind. Setting up classroom norms supports classroom discussions. The educator helps students expand their understanding through such responses as “You raised an interesting point. Let’s explore that further” or “I can see how you came to this conclusion. Others may not see it the same way, but let’s puzzle this out.” The improvisational educator says, “Yes. Let’s listen. Let this new information expand our perspective and lead us to question what we thought we knew. Let us have the courage to learn from one another and celebrate our mistakes.”
- Be present. Improvisation demands a laser focus on what is happening now. You can’t be spontaneous and be stuck in your head at the same time. Yet our students are distracted. The prevalence of anxiety and depression among college-age students has increased over 30% since the pandemic, exacerbating worsening trends over the past 10 years (Kafka, 2021). They’re dealing with economic hardship, climate change, and in the case of minoritized students, inequities rooted in racial histories of dehumanization and disenfranchisement. Improvisational educators help students express their worries so they can concentrate on learning. The use of classroom check-ins, icebreakers, and even breath work are not lesson luxuries. They allow students to unload what’s on their minds. Our students benefit from exercises that focus their attention on the now.
- Do something. In improvisation, actors use their bodies, their minds, and their guts to reveal new knowledge. That is, the individual, often in collusion with one or more other individuals, is the modality for learning. We can’t crawl into another person’s skin, figuratively or literally, yet we are each acting in our own lives. Theatre leverages that truth. Classroom role play, structured discussions, and other simulations build students’ perspective-taking skills and their ability to express an argument or position or create awareness of what they understand about some learning topic (i.e., metacognitive knowledge). Grasping a concept, such as how one can use calculus to construct a bridge, is a stronger learning experience if students are expected to build a model bridge! Words don’t teach. Only experience does that. Improvisational educators understand that action is the vehicle for learning.
- Make it matter. The best improvisations have the ring of truth to them; something about these exercises mirrors real life. Plus, these enactments are rooted in the actor’s memories, perspectives, and experiences. The same circumstances apply to the classroom. Quizzes and exams are a sensible way to measure content knowledge. But they don’t often help students forge connections between course concepts and how these make a difference to their lives and in the world. Aligning learning outcomes to activities and assessments are important considerations for course design. Yet, these instructional elements alone won’t engage a student’s innate curiosity. Research in neurobiology highlights the interdependent nature of the social, emotional, and cognitive domains in learning (Immordino-Yang et al., 2019). Activating emotions affects attention, memory, motivation, decision making, and creativity (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007).This means an essential part of teaching is giving students a reason to care about what they’re learning. Improvisational educators look for opportunities to make what they teach matter. They pre-survey their students to find out as much as they can about them. They interrogate their content to ensure that it speaks to the backgrounds and experiences of their learners. And at a minimum, they ask their students how they feel about what they are learning.
- Champion the unknown. Improvisational games are not preplanned; you never know what twists and turns will come up once the actors are focused on the purpose for the enactment. Teaching is like that. Our students are complicated individuals. They don’t come to us with the same backgrounds, cultures, resources, expectations, prior knowledge, abilities, or interests. Rather than viewing this as a problem or, worse, as a reason to weed out students or to fail them, we might engage our curiosity and leverage these differences as learning opportunities. We can challenge ourselves to embrace the discomfort of not knowing, and we can model this demeanor for our students so that they, too, view learning as a process, not a product. Despite our best intentions to control the outcome with explicit instructions, criteria, and rubrics, we can’t easily know whether our students learned a darn thing. Don’t get me wrong. We know whether they completed the assignment and how their grade might reflect that learning. But at best our learning activities are a snapshot in time. They represent what our students might accomplish within the university schedule (e.g., 15 weeks), assuming they are sufficiently committed and resourced to do so. Like improvisation, the “not knowing” and the willingness to take a risk despite not knowing is the whole point of learning. Improvisational educators understand that teaching is not simply funneling ideas toward one predetermined goal (i.e., the learning outcome). Rather, ideas pop out like branches, extending outward in unexpected ways. Improvisational educators delight in these discoveries and hope their students will too.
Immordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L., & Krone, C. R. (2019). Nurturing nature: How brain development is inherently social and emotional, and what this means for education. Educational Psychologist, 54(3), 185–204. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2019.1633924
Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3–10. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2007.00004.x
Kafka, A. C. (2021). Building students’ resilience: Strategies to support their mental health. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Spolin, V. (1999). Improvisation for the theatre: A handbook of teaching and directing techniques (3rd ed.). Northwestern University Press.
Sandra Beyda-Lorie, PhD, is the executive director for learning innovations at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center of Teaching and Learning. Her teaching background includes special education, secondary education (English and speech and theatre). She believes in the power of welcoming, inclusive, and culturally responsive learning environments that leverage students’ strengths, perspectives, and abilities.