Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Musings on R. Keith Sawyer's "Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation"

In R. Keith Sawyer’s article, “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation,” the author addresses the concept of improvisation within the classroom. He starts, simply, by presenting the oft-utilized metaphor of teaching as performance, then problematizes things by exploring one of the most common and pedagogically dangerous assumptions that has arisen as a result of the adage: that is, that teaching is a scripted act in which a performer recites to a silent audience. He then presents his own modification to the metaphor, describing teaching not merely as performance, but as improvisational performance, a small paradigm shift with major repercussions in the areas of learning and creativity.

For Sawyer, this shift changes teaching from a performative and scripted act to an interactional and responsive collaborative exercise. The classroom becomes an inquiry-based environment of active participation in which students are treated as individuals rather than passive audience members. This constructivist learning flow, with its focus on improvisation, is much more in hand with the sorts of collaboration-based, intertextual - some would even say radical - pedagogical beliefs that are currently blazing trails across the educational frontier. As both a developing instructor and a long-time student, I can definitely appreciate this.

Having experienced a variety of different classroom techniques and practices from the student side of the fence, as well as a few from the first-hand perspective of instructordom, I can say without reservation that the overly-structured, obviously-scripted classroom exudes an atmosphere of stagnation, reticence, and discontent. Often, the professor becomes trapped in a quicksand of rigid scheduling, stiff and virtually unable to incorporate new material into the discussion, respond appropriately to deviation from the strictly-enforced daily template, or encourage any sort of creativity or real learning in the students. The students themselves become bored, frustrated, and resistant, chafing against the constraints of a lecture and a schedule that doesn’t acknowledge them as individuals. Reality is ignored in favor of a stringent and undeviating one-size-fits-all template, and both the students and the professor are done a disservice.

Improvisation-oriented classrooms present an alternative to that template. Open to new material and discussion, they allow the professor to direct the lessons according to interest and deal with students fluidly and naturally as individuals. Interaction and collaboration is encouraged, and both students and professor alike have the freedom to riff freely with the material. Of course, that is not to advocate for entirely improvised classroom learning, which could, I believe, result in an extremely unfocussed and messy tangle.

Sawyer feels the same way, and makes a point to clarify what he is referring to when he proposes the idea of teaching as improvisational performance. In the course of his discussion, Sawyer refers to work done by Berliner, Leinhardt, and Greeno, stating that “creative teaching is disciplined improvisation because it always occurs within broad structures and frameworks. Expert teachers use routines and activity structures more than novice teachers; but they are able to invoke and apply these routines in a creative, improvisational fashion” (p 13). That is, successful improvisation-oriented teaching takes place when it is both disciplined (the professor comes to class well-versed on his or her subject matter, and with frameworks, discussions, and examples in mind through which to elucidate his or her main points) AND improvisation-based (the professor welcomes and encourages active participation and collaborative, emergent learning, and is well-equipped and willing to, essentially, just roll with things). This balance between the structure of a script and the flexibility of improvisation is suitable to any classroom situation.

Disciplined improvisation, eh? I like it, Sawyer. I LIKE IT A LOT. (*enunciated Dumb and Dumber style.*)

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