On Improvisation and Creativity in Teaching - an inquiry

In teacher training I was told “The teacher is an actor. They present a character when ‘on stage’ in class.” I have always disagreed with this. The teacher cannot act – he has to be true, real, congruent, otherwise his message may not get through. And he need not see himself as being on stage, for that draws a line between him and his class. He is, however, a performer. (Barrell, 1991; Dawe, 1984). These writers argued that, like improvising stage actors, teachers are artists who operate on intuition and creativity. And quite a lucky ones, at that, for there are few performers who get such a reliable audience, arriving on time each day to see hours of this performance, held by social constraints against talking, disagreeing, leaving. There is rarely an equivalent of boos or heckles in teaching.

We may be thankful for that, but perhaps it would hone the craft to a keener edge if we were more vulnerable, if we were flying by the seat of the pants, there in the moment, waiting to see what would arise, where the performance would take us, and where the audience want to go.

In my inquiry I have discovered that, as R. Keith Sawyer asserts: “Improvisation provides an invaluable perspective on creative teaching.” (Sawyer, R. 2004)

Across the past few months, inspired by sessions in creativity, I have begun to actively develop that trust in the moment, to seek in myself and my students an activation of the senses, of the belief in ourselves – that we can trust in our own worth, and what we can say, what we can generate – how we can be free. However, improvisation doesn’t mean anything goes – this is a common misconception. You have to know your material first.

When we know the song, we can change it. When we know the subject, we can look at it from many different angles. Improvisation is the hardest thing to do. But within it lies so much excitement, and from its process new ideas are born. It is the dazzling interplay of the various instruments in a jazz band, the call and response that thrill the crowd – it’s the same song, played out many times before – but here, they can see something develop in the moment. And each musician is part of creating that.

The important ingredients in that jazz improvisation are both knowing the song well, and listening to the others. You have to pay close attention to what is being ‘said’ by the other instruments so that you can respond. In the classroom, that should also be essential. Over the past term I’ve actively encouraged students to chip in with comments and questions, and supported them when they said “This may be irrelevant, but…” because they are getting involved in the creation of knowledge, the creation of our new song.

This shifts responsibility for conducting the whole performance from ‘the sage on the stage’ to all of the students as well as the teacher, all part of a generative group. It certainly wasn’t like that at the start of the term. This group were high achievers, according to their GCSE results. But in class, they were silent. Questions were asked, where the answer had been examined in the minutes previous, and silence ruled. I one left that silence for a number of minutes (teachers answer their own question in an average of six seconds) before someone dared answer, and was obviously correct. I asked the others if they knew that answer, and the all did. They just did not feel confident to speak out.

This, I believe, is due to their previous educational experiences. “With a few notable exceptions, policies designed to improve schools have resulted in a diminution of those classroom activities that are more likely to promote higher levels of thought, problem solving, and creativity in academic areas.” (Sawyer, R. 2005) You can be taught how to pass a GCSE with little student input. All you have to do is stay quiet and take notes, again and again, read it again and again, read the book, scribble the lot down in the exam. Delete from mind. These students now had to think for themselves, be a player in their own education, and what I found, was that they were not as expert at this as their results would suggest. Their assessed work was uninspired, and where it demanded comment and reflection on their own experiences, it really fell short. Contrast this with another group who are on a lower course, as their results suggested that they were less academic – but who regularly out-performed the higher group. These were students who have had a bad experience of education so far, who haven’t got on with teachers, with the way they have been told to do things – they question what they hear, they speak out when they disagree, they do not accept everything as the gospel truth.

And that leads to dynamic lessons:

Me: “Marx said ‘After the ballot box, comes the paving stone-‘”

Student: “But that is what we have been fighting for!”

Student: “Yes, but is the fight complete?”

Student: “Yes, because we have a democracy now, everyone has a say!”

Student: “No, some have more say – what about these bankers getting a bonus, with their bank – ”

Student: “That we’ve paid for!”

Student: “-failing and still they get paid huge amounts!”

Student: “And we have to pay more to go to Uni!”

Student: “That they went to for free!”

Me: “So, everyone – we can see there: two ways of being are in constant conflict – what your debate here demonstrates is Marx’s dialectic. Yes, Uni fees were raised – and protests occurred. The fight continues, and a new way of being emerges.”

Now, these students have, together, listened to me and each other, and generated an example of the way ideas clash and a new one comes about – through their own discussion. We, as teachers, have to harness the power of this interplay, and to do that we have to become expert improvisers – ready to run along with the lesson, whichever direction it might take.

“Effective creative teaching strikes a delicate balance between structure and improvisation.” (Sawyer, R. 2005)

Yet a huge amount of this balance is ignored, is looked upon as not the done thing. It was never mentioned in teacher training. Yes, planning was. Schemes of work. Lesson plans. Lists. Registers. Slides. Notes. But never to wait for the moment and see where it takes you. Of course, this is probably as it should be in the early days of teaching, but the only way, I believe, to become more than the novice is to develop your own knowledge to the point where you can rely on yourself to be a great improviser, ready to allow the students to be part of directing their learning, and for you, knowledge does not make you a leader, but a servant.

Classes should be places for lively, spontaneous interactions. This is the essence of creativity, as Cremin, Burnard, and Craft (2006) defined creativity as “possibility thinking, which includes seven habits of mind: posing questions, play, immersion, innovation, risk taking, being imaginative, and self- determination.”

This, I believe, is best achieved through improvisation. “Researchers found that experienced teachers were better at improvising in response to each class’s unique flow.” There seemed to be a paradox, however – they used more structures, but improvised more.  (Berliner & Tikunoff, 1976; Borko & Livingston, 1989) What I have aimed to find with the help of my students is that balance between structure and creativity – between letting them roam free and achieving the assessed criteria. I have found in my own experiences in creative arts such as writing or music, that it is the constraints that allow the work to develop, that give it direction.


An example – I asked the students to get into small groups and to make a film of them discussing their journey into college. That was the only constraint I gave them. When they told me they were finished, I asked them to view back the films. I observed the creation of the films, and the reaction to them and reflection upon them. I had seen that each group had a period of trying to decide who would film, who would start speaking, what the subject would be… They then got on with it; a leader emerged, and directed contributions… I asked the students to tell the class how they experienced that activity. I prompted them to examine if there were stages in their interaction. Their responses such as “Well, it was a bit chaotic – we had to work out what we were meant to do, then who was in charge, and how we would do it, before we got on with it and made the film.” echoed Tuckman’s Group Formation Model, which was the area of study for that session.


“Effective teachers act as directors, orchestrating learning experiences.” (Park-Fuller, 1991). So, with a gentle hand on the tiller, I was able to give them creative space to experience group formation, and then on reflection they defined the stages. When I presented the model to them on the board, they felt very proud to have pre-empted the material for study, to have come across what I told them Tuckman had worked on for many years. This idea came to me in the moment. I wanted them to be persuaded that this model had value, rather than tell them that it did. A diagram from the 70s on a board is a lot less convincing a performance than the ones they gave each other. “The best teaching is disciplined improvisation because it always occurs within broad structures and frameworks” (Sawyer, 2004).


In developing this, we need to consider two aspects – the creativity of the teacher, and the environment that encourages creativity in the student (NACCCE, 1999; Joubert, 2001). In my enquiry I re-examined material that was to be taught, and made a conscious effort to see how it could occur in a more creative fashion. I also aimed to change attitudes by encouraging contribution from the class – especially this class that hid in their silence. I managed the first part by looking to other subjects and disciplines – I found that exercises in Drama, for example, could help us examine the models and structures found in Health and Social Care. We should not limit creative teaching to the arts subjects (Craft, Jeffrey, & Leibling, 2001). Two examples of this were when I asked the class to act out the communication cycle, or to take the role of glucagon or glycogen and visit various organs (played by other students) to illustrate glucose regulation…


These activities began with some rather reserved performances, students simply speaking out the stages of the cycle, for example, but as confidence grew, students started to outdo each other, becoming more ambitious with their ideas, really getting into role and starting to form a greater conceptual understanding of the model by working it through in practice. This method reflects the learning cycle in a much clearer way than someone simply telling them about it (Kolb, 1984). This activity showed me that by developing my creativity in teaching, it gave the classroom a more creative environment, where students felt more comfortable expressing themselves in a creative manner. As my performance becomes more ‘out there’ I push the boundaries back, and the classroom has more freedom within it.


In a communications lesson, in the moment, I decide to act out a role play as a difficult client at a care home, and asked a student to use assertiveness to calm me. I threw papers across the floor, shouted, threw insults, kicked over a chair – all was done in a grouchy character, in a clear caricature, so was not frightening and caused much laughter, but also responded to the expert coping strategy demonstrated by the student, who talked me down in a respectful, assertive manner. The next role plays amongst the students were just as lively, and the assignments that came in on the subject integrated these experiences and reflected upon them. It was great to see my act written about and reviewed. I felt like a real performer!


The teacher should be an artist. They should reflect on their performance. Improvisation can be boring, repetitive, structured, but it can also be inspired, fresh; original. Think back to a lesson, or a time you learned. They are not always synonymous! How did it happen, what did it feel like? I can see glints in eyes, electricity in smiles, people barely able to wait to say what they have just realised – and then others come in, build upon that. However, like jazz improvisers, we can tend to rely on “certain stock phrases which have proven themselves effective in past performance (rather than) push themselves to create fresh improvisations.” (Gioia, p.81, 1998). There are scales on which we operate:


Order               –          Disorder

Tradition          –          Innovation

Security           –          Risk


And to operate on the extreme right of those scales may seem daunting – what would be going on in the classroom? Who is in control? Well, as “learning is typically triggered by problems” (Hedberg 1981, p.16) these are the learning environments where the learner is needed – needed to wade in and have a go, grab the difficulties and examine them, engage their mind and come up with a creative, novel response. There is a strong link between improvisation and cognition. If we take improvisation as “both the process and product of creativity” (Lewis, 2012) then this involves thinking in different ways, and could influence thought processes.


“After the group had played [improvisation] games … colours became brighter, people and spaces seem of a different size, focus is sharper. Our normal thinking dulls perception.” (Johnson, K. 1979, p.131)


I set my students a task – they were divided into three groups, designed to reflect the health and social care workplace hierarchy. Some were managers, others supervisors, the rest the frontline staff. They were sent to separate rooms.


The managers were given the complete image of a foil horse and all instructions on how to make it. The supervisors were given the foil, and a phone. The frontline had the foil, and email access. The game was for the mangers to call the supervisors, give the instructions over the phone, in a very one-sided communication, simply telling, not allowing questions. They were not allowed to describe the overall vision – that is, not to mention 'horse.' The supervisors then attempted to carry out the instructions, as well as pass the details onto their staff, by email only, but with opportunity to ask three questions.


This was a fascinating task to observe. The managers, who could see the whole image, the vision they wanted others to share took for granted so much – they assumed that the supervisors would, for example, make rips of 5cm when they said to them “Make four rips from each corner.” That they didn't make 16 rips is testament to some form of intuition.


I feel that this can often be our teaching style – we can see the whole picture, the theory or case study, the event or procedure, and forget that others do not have this information. That is why it is essential that we engage in this collaborative emergence with our students, seeing where they take ideas, and where we can allow that to grow, or where we need to step in to offer a little more guidance.


Down to the supervisors now – they are the ones in the position of authority to some, but still answering to others. They have to be able to transmit something, and with incomplete or difficult to interpret information, they have to be creative. If improv is “imagination guiding action in an unplanned way” (Solomon, 1986) then these supervisors were having to thoroughly engage in it. They questioned each other, tried out designs, discarded them and tried again, wrestling with getting some sense out of the task, working together to see if something tangible could emerge. After a few structures resembling jellyfish, worms, giraffes (or torn up and balled foil) were created and rejected, a form that was thought acceptable took shape, and smiles and congratulations were exchanged. They then passed this on to the frontline staff.


Improv is not haphazard – when something that made no sense occurred, the group rejected it. It is not 'winging it' or allowing for 'anything goes.' No, when the strange creatures were created, they were somehow, on an intuitive level not congruent with what the managers were explaining. Although horses weren't mentioned, perhaps there was some sense in the interaction that implied it... People don't improvise on nothing. They had some structures given to them, and had to work within them. When things didn't seem right, they tried again. “The emphasis within improvisation is on action and continuous experimentation, not obsessive planning.” (Haksöz, C. 2013). As Charles Mingus, the jazz musician said “You can't improvise on nothing, you've gotta improvise on something.”


With the greatest of confusion, and demonstrating a very high level of resilience (another key component of creativity) the frontline staff set about constructing their interpretation of a twice-diluted vision. And with the most turbulent and vociferous action of all the groups, they created, scrapped and re-created many models, everyone getting involved, throwing in ideas, re-interpreting instructions, asking for clarifications and searching for the keys they needed to access the vision, and finally, to create. If we were on the scales mentioned above, there was high disorder, and high risk – yet these chances were taken, these ideas thrown about, until, at last, they had creatures resembling horses. Some tiny, some huge, others with a rather confused interpretation of the tail, but, when the image of the original vison was presented to them, they were filled with pride – we are back to those moments, those times when people smile together, for they have understood something themselves, and been part of the creation of their own understanding.


“Adoption of improv techniques has proven to advance effectiveness in enhancing creative, innovation thinking and personal growth for individuals at all ability levels.” (Lemons, 2005)


Improvisation allows the student to be spontaneous, something which the fast pace of our world requires. This task gave them a lesson in trial and error, out of which arises innovation. So many inventions, medicines, discoveries have come out of error. When Columbus discovered America when seeking India, he stuck with his mistake. He just called the people there Indians. And some people still do. I am, of course, joking here – I am just trying to write in an improv style, coming up with what appears in my mind at the moment. So back to the structure – if we want our students to succeed, we need to equip them with skills that will still function when there isn't some person standing in front of them telling them all of the things that they need to know, and checking that they have understood it – no, we need to diminish our role, give the students responsibility, as “the ability to think critically and flexibly and to develop new ways of solving problems will prove far more important than the ability … to recall information.” (Hargreaves, 2003).


I've noticed something emerge from this class: more questions. They are less afraid to say something 'wrong' or 'stupid.' I tried to almost 'force' more involvement like this at first: I has a pot of sticks with their names on, would draw them at random to answer questions. After a few of these were drawn, people were eager to offer themselves into the discussion, rather than to be called upon. They have started to take responsibility. Their contributions, I always treat with respect – if they are not growing towards the material that we need for assessment (always constraints) then I guide them nearer through the use of further questions, or an invitation to examine their own thinking so far. How have you got here? Where next? Why? “To teach effectively, teachers must improvisationally scaffold evolving student learning.” (DeZutter, 2012).


We have to be alert for this evolution, always looking out for ideas that interest our students, and to help them develop those ideas. It reminds me of Picasso creating a painting – first, he was working on a reclining nude, then, he loses interest, sees the curve of a matador's leg after being struck by a bull – changes it to that. Next, this scene disappears under a Mediterranean village with boats floating in its port... after further permutations, it is abandoned. But this time was not wasted – he says “Now that I begin to see where I'm going with it, I'll take a new canvas and start again.”


Now that the students are becoming less afraid of making mistakes (something they've been warned against all their lives) this process starts to emerge in the classroom. As I said at the start, we need to develop both our own improvisational creativity and the environment that allows that to occur. An interesting development a few weeks ago was when a student asked if she could bring in questions for me for the next session. I said yes, a little unsure of their content or context, but quite intrigued. I do not want a barrier around me – I am not an actor. The questions that came up were, as it happens, not about me but about a range of things that this student was interested in, but hadn't found the opportunity to ask:


Why do we close our eyes when we sneeze?

Does Coke dissolve teeth?

Why do we put the clocks forwards?

What is the difference between AIDS and HIV?

How does Prozac work?


Others then joined in, firing out more questions, and I'm there to answer them if I can, and if I can't we got someone onto the task of finding out. In a sort of game of 'questions tennis' I also hit a few of them back, with a “Why do you think?”


This little session invites problem-finding rather than problem-solving. It was a collective process of searching for things we wanted to learn about, and utilising the group for responses. Not-knowing was fine. Our group was identifying difficulties and courses of action. Csikszentmihalyi observed this style in painters in a ten-year study of creativity – he saw them experiment on the canvas, during the process of creation, rather than beforehand. I was unprepared for this questioning session; the students knew that, of course, as they had created it themselves without preparing me. Therefore, they were in control and could see that I was having to improvise. I was able to challenge the school-induced idea that the teacher is the fountain of all knowledge, as I declare “I don't know – let's find out!” to many questions. I was there to show that this is alright, that we learn through not-knowing, by hitting difficulty – that learning should feel like this.


To make improvisation work, we need to develop environments like this – where everyone makes a contribution (Hargreaves, 1999) and where we know who is taking a lead and when. This can be the teacher's role – the conductor of this improv. We can get people to speak out who often don't, we can welcome them into the process in a way traditional teaching often doesn't. This “promotes problem-solving skills as well as developing social skills between others outside of the improvisational context” (Hargreaves, 1999, in Lewis, 2012).


The process of developing my own improvisational creativity as well as developing an environment where students feel welcome to improvise has resulted in measurable changes in the quality of the assessed work of the class. Where at first the answers were very much 'textbook,' their later pieces have their own voices in them, becoming critical of the theories, looking at them from different angles, putting them into practice, and reflecting upon how they translate into their lives and work. They are prepared to take chances. Researchers have found cognitive effects of improvisation – Lewis (2008) found an increase in scores on an Alternative Uses Task (AUT; Guildford, 1950) following twenty minutes of music improvisation. I feel that it is that dynamic where we list to each other, we seek out problems and cues, we work together to make something different, be it in music or discussion that causes a real change in our mind's operation.


Another experiment in student creativity has been our Environmental Health unit. I gave a small introduction to environmental issues, handed out the assessment criteria and blank schemes of work and announced that in 8 weeks we had hired a hall where we would hold a conference. In a departure from their usual subject matter and study style they engaged with some of the issues that affect the health of the wider population. Events such as the floods of the past few months were a real indicator that we need to look at a wider perspective than the individual, and that is exactly the students did, creating stands for the Environmental Health Conference.


They studied issues such as urbanisation, intensive agriculture, climate change and pollution and completed their assessment by planning their own schemes of learning, working together in groups to meet the criteria, assessing themselves and each other through methods as diverse as lectures, videos, posters, guidebooks, factsheets, models, diagrams and presentations. The wholly student-led and holistic assessment was an experiment into what can be achieved when we empower students to take care of their own learning – and they achieved this, and went beyond.


Our conference was attended by an environmental expert and the president of a Water and Environmental Management organisation, who gave a lecture on his work and met with the students – he was very impressed by their knowledge, resources and research, and took away many of the items the students produced to show his own colleagues.


The students were very positive about the experience – they really enjoyed this method of learning and assessment, and feel that they are better equipped for the challenges of university and the workplace. It was great to see such deep interest and engagement – I look forward to a bigger and better conference next year, and I urged colleagues to try out this type of assessment – it is engaging, effective and exciting, and mirrors the challenges of the real world, where they have to have creative responses to problems, without constant guidance.


However, these approaches can meet with resistance from students. When I enquired as to why some students rarely volunteer comments without prompt in class, one said “I don’t have anything to say.” She then vigorously defended this position, adding that the pressure of the technique where names are drawn from a pot to encourage a spread of contributions was unfair as it introduced too much pressure. I responded that development can occur through pressure, that by being stretched and challenged we can reach further (I was thinking of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development) and during our back and forth comments I pointed out that this was an example of that. She was speaking out, she was challenging me, challenging a technique, and defending her viewpoint. I congratulated her on this, pointing out that maybe she does have something to say. Later on in that lesson, she talked and talked about the influence of small groups such as media outlets and religious organisations on society as a whole. I gave her a few examples to research, as one of the things I mentioned in our earlier exchange was student responsibility, and she noted these, and really did seem delighted in this discourse. I certainly was.


Student responsibility is an essential component of student development. A student who is open-minded is going to “begin the process of building a world vision that is complex and based on inner-directed sensibilities rather than external authority.” (Davis, T. 1993) and that student is more ready to play a part in a world where the individual is responsible for oneself, and has to be creative and bold in their actions to survive.


This inquiry has made my classroom a lab. Moreover, it has reduced anxiety about what I am going to teach, what I am going to say. I have learned to trust myself, and put faith in my students. I have seen that with the right environment and an open mind as well as a good background of research we can go in and flow, be, there, in the moment. I have seen how over-planned lessons stagnate, and how those without clear ideas fail: too much order can result in death, too much chaos: loss.


In improvisation, there are three Improv Rules that have guided my experiments across these past terms.  I will continue to use them, and to explore where this method, or perhaps, way of thinking and trusting will take me and my students. These rules support exploration and acceptance, and foster the environment where others can become more creative, less afraid. They enable us to make connections and try new things, they value all contributions:


“Don’t deny

Ask open-ended questions

Make your partner look good


Obviously, these ideas all support creativity – think of how great it would be to have these rules in your classroom.” (Goodwin, M. 2012)






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