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How Improv Can Help Create Teachable Moments

Instructional improv can give students agency and boost communication skills.

Key points

  • Instructional improv occurs when teachers allow students to co-create and find meaning as a collective.
  • Improv classes can lead to increases in student confidence, emotional awareness, and participation.
  • Students who use improv during class may also struggle less with anxiety.
Photo by javier trueba on Unsplash
Source: Photo by javier trueba on Unsplash

If last year taught us anything, it’s that planning can only get us so far. What’s the cliche? “The best-laid plans…” and then people trail off ominously. Yep, that was last year if you were a teacher or parent or person who thought you could plan anything.

I’m heading back into the classroom this school year, which got me thinking about how to balance all the planning that’s vital to a successful school year (curriculum maps, unit and lesson plans, etc.) with those spontaneous moments that students inevitably bring to the table (random questions, fascinations, misunderstandings, and struggles).

Instructional Improv

My answer was in Maggie Dahn, Christine Lee, Noel Enyedy, and Joshua Deny’s paper “Instructional Improv to Analyze Inquiry-Based Science Teaching” in the journal Smart Learning Environments. They refer to something they call “instructional improv,” which is using improv principles to give students more agency and allow them to co-create during class.

What does this look like? It’s the opposite of a teacher standing in front of the students imparting wisdom from on high. Instead, teachers look for opportunities to acknowledge what students are saying and add on. It’s leaning into mistakes and misunderstandings and letting learning be a student-centered (and sometimes messy) process.

Photo by Neil Harvey on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Neil Harvey on Unsplash

The paper gives a fun example of instructional improv during a second-grade lesson on bee pollination. The students are participating in a computer simulation where they pretend to be bees trying to figure out how to pollinate flowers when one student’s bee avatar is suddenly killed by a bird. The teacher lets the student play around with being dead in the simulation but then capitalizes on an improvisational moment more relevant to the aims of the lesson. Another student yells out that there’s no flower where he assumes there will be. The teacher asks a follow-up question to get all the students clamoring to understand how bees communicate with each other to find flowers to pollinate.

The teacher could have saved her class a lot of confusion and chaos if she just told them how the waggle dance worked, but she didn’t. She chose to allow her students to generate and co-create their own understanding of the lesson. And that’s what instructional improv is all about.

The Unscripted Project

Tara Gadomski, a teaching artist with the Unscripted Project—a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that encourages students to apply improv lessons more broadly to their lives—described similar instructional improv moments.

Photo by Leon on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Leon on Unsplash

Gadomski told me one story about how a gibberish improv game led students to fits of communal laughter. Gibberish games involve speaking in a made-up language with blips, blahs, and boops. When Gadomski led her students in one such game, everyone got caught up in the silliness. Some students laughed until they were doubled over.

Because this was later in the curriculum, students knew they’d be allowed and encouraged to debrief after the game and make connections to their everyday lives. One student said the game helped him feel less anxious. Then another normalized his comment by saying she was anxious, too. Another explained what anxiety was when someone in the class asked. Then the students had a productive conversation about mental health.

Another improv moment occurred when students were doing character work, trying to switch characters every fifteen seconds for two minutes. One student shared his bully character with the class and announced that he was a bully who beats up nerds. When asked about it, he said his character bullied people because he had problems at home. This got the class talking about other people’s perspectives, which was exactly the point of the day’s lesson. But Gadomski didn’t lecture about it. She created a learning environment where students felt comfortable to find their own meaning and reach their own conclusions as a collective.

On the end-of-program survey, one student wrote that Gadomski made them feel respected. And that’s the idea behind instructional improv. Instead of playing up their authority, teachers create an environment where students have the agency to stumble toward understanding together.

Teachable Moments

Allowing students to generate ideas in collaboration with each other is about much more than helping them learn more. It’s about emboldening them to feel more confident and self-aware. It’s about waking them up and sparking them into action.

As I head back into the classroom this school year, I want to keep this instructional improv idea at the forefront. I want to make sure my students are doing most of the work, so I can be freed up to catch the teachable moments as they occur and guide students to figure things out amongst themselves.

References

Dahn, M., Lee, C., Enyedy, N., & Danish, J. (2021). Instructional improv to analyze inquiry-based science teaching: Zed’s dead and the missing flower. Smart Learning Environments, 8(1), 1-29.

Drinko, C. D. (2018). The Improv Paradigm: three principles that spur creativity in the classroom. In Creativity in Theatre (pp. 35-48). Springer, Cham.

“Impact.” Unscripted Project, www.unscriptedproject.org/impact.

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