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IMPROV-EYES – Fostering collaboration and creativity

IMPROV-EYES – Fostering collaboration and creativity in primary school students through the medium of improvisation – by Tracy Aspel, The Creative Institute

This paper explores the benefits to the teaching profession of using improvisation throughout the school curriculum. It draws evidence for this approach from recent research conducted in the United States together with recent INTO and NCCA reports into current education practise. Recognising that teachers have an immense workload and insufficient time to implement the demands of a typical school year curriculum, improvisation can help meet the learning outcomes required of students and build the foundations needed for inquisitive learners.

Current Primary Curriculum

The general aims of primary education are:

  • To enable the child to live a full life as a child and to realize his or her potential as a unique individual
  • To enable the child to develop as a social being through living and co-operating with others and so contribute to the good of society
  • To prepare the child for a continuum of learning.

It is clear from the above that the focus of the aims is on soft skills, and when we look at the curriculum there are several subjects where soft skills are featured.

The curriculum is divided into the following key areas:

  • Language – Irish and English
  • Mathematics
  • Social, Environment and Scientific Education
  • Arts Education, including Visual Arts, Music and Drama
  • Physical Education
  • Social, Personal and Health Education.

Improvisation as a methodology

There are two ways to approach the definition of improvisation, one which assumes an object, and one which doesn’t’

Verb

[With object]

  • create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation: he invited actors to improvise dialogue
  • [no object]:he was improvising to a backing of guitar chords
  • produce or make (something) from whatever is available: I improvised a costume for myself out of an old blue dress

In a traditional performance sense, the former definition is used, whereas when we consider education, the latter is more contextual, given that the available material refers to the ideas and queries raised in a lesson by a learner, and how they are addressed by the teacher. The notion of improvisation in education refers to the exploration of ideas and queries from learners which are facilitated by the teacher within the framework of the pre-set curriculum.

Research in the area of teaching and improvisation is emerging, with many of the research articles on the subject being published only in the last 20 years. This correlates with the emergence of our economy as a knowledge economy which requires evolving ideas to meet the rapidly changing demands of this market. It is clear that new approaches are needed to enable learners to adapt in time with these changes, be they economical or societal. Outside of economic considerations, young people leave the education system with great grades, but lacking in self- confidence. The SHPE curriculum offers some solutions to this problem, but with the increase in youth suicide and online bullying, something more needs to be done. I propose improvisation, not as an absolute solution, but as something that will improve teacher and student experience. In this short paper I will explore what benefits improvisation (hereinafter referred to as improv) has in meeting the needs of teachers and students in the current climate of scarce resources and increasing classroom numbers.

Benefits for students

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”

Alvin Toffler

Children need to experience the unpredictable and the uncertain. They need lessons that produce surprise. As Fisher argued, creative learners need creative teachers who provide both order and adventure, and who are willing to do the unexpected and take risks (Fisher, 2002).

Improv is currently seen as linked to English as a means of developing the English curriculum. It should also be noted that improvisational drama is also seen by the NCCA as “”having a contribution to make to the development of the child which is quite independent of any learning objective for which it may be used in any curriculum area”

Where improv is unusual is that children are naturally better at the process from a young age, and then unlearn these techniques as they are not practised or not prioritised within their education. Improv is inherently creative, and children have the double advantage of lower inhibitions when generating ideas and also a higher level of curiosity to explore the non-absolute aspects of things.

Why then should a course of improvisation be suggested? In short, the intervention is one which is designed to maintain and develop their existing creative skills, rather than assuming a clean start.

The key benefits of improvisation have been noted as follows:

  1. Increased confidence: children who are encouraged to think creatively show increased levels of motivation and self-esteem,
  2. Improved Problem-Solving Skills. Students who learn content in creative ways learn tactics to identify problems, make decisions and find solutions both in and out of school
  3. Improvisation significantly affects the development of creative thinking, which is both a life and work skill

How Improvisation can help Teachers

We need to find approaches that can give teachers the tools they need to work creatively within a system that does not often support innovation.

Carrie Lobman

One of the findings from the NCCA 2005 report was that many teachers did not feel comfortable in using improvisation as they had not received formal training in the subject. At present few qualified improvisation teachers operate in Ireland, and current budgetary constraints also limit the Professional Development options for teachers.

Of course, improvisation already exists, implicitly embedded to a certain degree in everyday teaching practise. “Giving room for students questions or explorations…improvisation takes place at least at some point in all of this” Providing a method is used which compliments, rather than adds to the existing workloads for teachers, improvisation skills benefit teaching staff in the following ways:

  1. A unified classroom. Improvisation exercises are largely group-based, and are instrumental in bringing groups together and focussing them on a single goal or task. The “rules” of improvisation are based on the “Yes, And” principle, which ensures learners support, rather than criticise each other’s efforts.
  2. An alternative way to imparting knowledge. In the US, the Developing Teachers Fellowship Programme (DTFP) utilizes improv when teaching teachers, and encourages them to be “playful” with the curriculum. The Bus activity for example can be used across a number of subjects, whereby a number of different passengers board a bus and interact together. Historical figures, fictional characters, even conversations “as galilee” can be facilitated. Learners can play with their knowledge whilst demonstrating understanding.
  3. Confidence in uncertainty. It can be difficult to cede control of a class, especially one where boundaries are important from a developmental aspect. It is important to remember though that when considering the phrase “continuum of learning”, we must factor in the independent ability of a child to create knowledge, which may not occur when classes are planned without room for deviation.


When considering the above it is clear that for teachers to teach creative methods they need resourcing on creative methods themselves. In order to facilitate creative learning, a degree of comfort with creative practise and the requisite boundaries needs to be put in place. As the leading expert in the field puts it “ examinations of improvisation theatre games and formats an help us better understand the relationship between curriculum structure, classroom processes, and learning…….Providing improvisational training for teachers might help them to more effectively create their own improvised lessons”.Creativity with a purpose in the classroom needs a facilitator who fosters exploration with en educational framework where learning of any kind can be identified. What is helpful about the current primary school curriculum is that it doesn’t focus solely on knowledge acquisition as a benchmark for success, but rather the development of essential soft skills as well as fostering an appetite for further learning.

Role of Parents in fostering collaboration and creativity in primary school students

In considering the relevant actors in this support for early learning, a key group may be instrumental in helping this improvisational teaching process. Parents can engage with the curriculum in a fun way and one which can build their own skills. Research has shown that educational initiatives involving parents have a greater chance of success, and improvisation may be the way in which to encourage parents who may not normally engage with the education system to come on board and learn to facilitate improvisation with their child. The advantage of such an initiative is that improvisation relies principally on imagination, and textbooks are not strictly necessary. Some structured workshops could be arranged whereby the parents learn about improv and try the activity for themselves.In this way the teachers have an ally at home who reinforces the learning with their children so the full burden of responsibility does not fall on the teacher as educator.


Improv-Eyes Project

A pilot project has commenced in inner city primary school in Limerick where a tri-partite approach of parent, teacher and learner is being adopted. The aim of the project is to foster increased levels of creativity in children in 2/3/4th class, and full support is forthcoming from the parents. The school itself is situated in one of the most disadvantaged areas in Ireland, which currently receives no supplemental funding. Over the course of this coming year, the 20 week programme with learners will explore how children of this age respond to improvisation and improvisational teaching, and how it improves, if at all, their overall learning experience. The main protagonists of the project are parents, but they have not been told this. In fact, they themselves are being taught how to use improv

It is hoped that the project will continue beyond one year as studies have shown longer-term exposure to creative methods leads to better school retention (Education, 2011). The findings will be recorded and made available to illustrate the outcomes after one year (20 weeks) of teaching.

As with adult experiences of improv there are no overnight successes. The key to this project is long-term practise of the games with the children, and the emphasis on the parental leadership rather than the teacher involvement is key. Some training for teachers would be helpful, as taking it into the classroom in the ways described earlier in the paper makes for great inquiry-based learning.

Conclusion

Improvisation is more than a performance tool. It is fast emerging as an educational device which could help teachers and parents resource students with creative thinking, and important life skills. More utilisation of parental support may circumvent the issue of burdening teachers with yet another teaching methodology, but it is the author’s view that long term training in improvisation will help rather than hinder this process.

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