Seize the opportunity to improvise when your best-laid plans go wrong

Don’t let unforeseen circumstances knock you off balance – such moments are a chance to see how improvisation can spark creativity and new links to knowledge in your classroom, says Sandra Rennie.

Have you ever been faced with a meticulously planned lesson that suddenly goes awry because of unforeseen circumstances? Perhaps your IT systems go down at the exact moment when you need to access an important website? Or maybe your students are behaving out of character? Or, more prosaically, you may have just realised that an important concept you assumed all your students had already mastered is just a black hole in their consciousness? Moments such as these are so

precious for teachers. Precious because they have the potential to create learning experiences that allow us to reflect and develop as professional educators. Creative ideas and new links to knowledge fly around the classroom and the excitement is almost palpable. It is a mistake to think that to improvise means the same as ‘to randomly make it up as you go along’. Improvising is a practice which is enjoyable and creative, but making it up as you go along is a random approach that can be stressful and confusing for everyone concerned. Any improv comedian or jazz musician will tell you that to improvise successfully you need to know exactly what ideas you want to convey, and then you need to follow a strict, coherent logic that your audience will understand. Improvisation skills are techniques that can be learned, rehearsed and polished


• Robinson, D. (ed.) Classroom Behaviour Management in Further Adult and Vocational Education, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

before each performance. Every time a minor problem develops in class, this is your chance to develop a treasure chest of improvisation tactics to choose from; so make a note of what happened with each incident and what response worked best. Another way of honing your

improvisation skills is to regularly set aside 10 minutes of class time to take a risk and bring in something new to enrich the learning environment. I recently carried out a bit of micro

research which involved me bringing a folded music-stand into my lesson, knowing that none of my students was likely to have used one before. I then asked one volunteer to assemble the stand in two minutes in any way he chose, without any instructions. He produced an improvised attempt which, although incorrectly assembled, was a workable design. Then I drew a diagram of the correctly assembled music-stand on the board and I advised my students that we turn screws clockwise to tighten (rightie – tightie and leftie – loosie). I explained the importance of first establishing a solid base with the legs if you didn’t want the whole thing to topple over, and then I asked another student to attempt to assemble the same music-stand in a further two minutes, which he did. Afterwards we sat down and discussed what worked and why, and what we had learned from this experiment. We

all decided that having an image in our minds of the end goal was helpful, knowing the conventions for tightening screws speeded up the process and that understanding the forces of the hinged metal sides prevented fingers from being trapped in the angles. A 10-minute improvisation led to such a rich learning experience that included maths, physics, knowledge of cultural artefacts, metaphors for life journeys, the benefit of regular feedback and dual code communication, and other aspects of metacognition. We need to keep space in both our minds and our classrooms to allow for improvisation skills like these to develop. While completing my Advanced

Teacher Status (ATS), I wrote a book chapter entitled, ‘How to improvise decisions in the face of disorder’ (2019 ed D. Robinson). It examined strategies we can use to structure our decision-making in the classroom. We discovered that improvisation can be a powerful technique when used in a way that really tests us and yet, at the same time, enables us to learn from the experience.

Sandra Rennie is a teacher educator working with an independent training provider. She is a member of SET and was in the first cohort to gain Advanced Teacher Status (ATS).



ISSUE 32 • SUMMER 2018 15

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