Just make it up as you go along? Improvisation and adaptive expertise for teachers

The second blog in our four-part series of blogposts drawing on chapters from the Routledge SEDA Series book “Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: Practical Ideas for Professional Learning and Development

Is teaching an art or a science? Do teachers engage in routine, structured activities, or do they adapt creatively to what unfolds during learning and teaching encounters? Do teachers facilitate, instruct, or perform? The answers to these questions are complex and almost certainly do not lie at one end of a binary. While I would not conceptualise teaching as a performance, as an act, I would argue that teaching has elements of artistry, creativity, and adaptability – even performance. An interesting artistic, creative, and adaptive area of performance is improvisation which, in the theatre, is a type of live, unscripted performance, where the performers and audience members co-create a piece of live theatre. For a long time, I have found the element of co-creation in improv theatre to be an interesting parallel with learning and teaching, particularly in active learning contexts where students are active participants in their education rather than passive recipients of learning.

From here, I started thinking about the expertise that higher education teachers need to develop. I explored some of the literature on expertise, drawing in particular on the concepts of routine and adaptive expertise (Hatano & Inagaki 1986). In the context of teaching, routine expertise might include a whole host of procedural knowledge and skills, such as aspects of curriculum and course design, session planning, and assessment and feedback methods. But what about the aspects of teaching and learning that cannot be fully planned or predicted? Learning and teaching are complex, messy, social, sometimes frustrating endeavours, which require adaptive expertise; the ability to work in and react to unpredictable situations, creating new knowledge and experiences in the process (Siklander & Impiö 2019). Adaptive experts need not only to be able to bring their existing knowledge, skills and experiences to bear in new, unplanned situations; they also need to be able to observe and notice what others are doing and how events are unfolding. This calls for a highly social, collaborative and team-working mindset, which is where adaptive expertise meets improvisation.

The basic principle of improv: “Yes, and…” – helps to create a collaborative environment, where ideas can be generated and exchanged non-judgementally (A Mind Apart Blog, 5 January 2019)

At the first Expertise Symposium in 2020, I presented some work that I had been doing with graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) on the use of performing arts skills in teaching. In a workshop as part of institutional training for GTAs, we had been exploring improvisation as a way of helping GTAs to develop adaptive expertise in their teaching. The workshop gave GTAs opportunities to discuss any issues or anxieties they had about teaching, and a space to explore some improv games and activities, with the aim of improving confidence, spontaneity, and skills of observation. For me, in the context of teaching and learning, the real reason for developing adaptive expertise and improvisation skills lies in the fact that it makes for an inherently student-centred approach to teaching.

Viewing teaching as a performance activity can attract criticism that there is too much of a focus on what the teacher is doing. But this, I would argue, could not be further from the truth when it comes to improvisation. Roger Kneebone puts this better than I can in his book on expertise and mastery: “In addition to practising, learning to listen, getting things wrong and putting them right, improvisers have to have made the transition ‘from you to them’” (Kneebone 2020, p. 221). An adaptive, improvising teacher is likely to have developed increased awareness of self and others, increased empathy, increased skills of interaction, and an increased ability to facilitate dialogue. But perhaps the most compelling aspect, for me, is this shift in mindset ‘from you to them’: the collaborative, empathetic, student-centred approach that is inherent is an adaptive, improvising teacher’s practice.


Richard Bale is Senior Teaching Fellow in Educational Development in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship, Imperial College London. He has interests in performance aspects of teaching, expertise development, and intercultural feedback literacy. He is the author of Teaching with Confidence in Higher Education: Applying Strategies from the Performing Arts.

Twitter: @RichBale Email: r.bale@imperial.ac.uk

References

Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986) Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma & K. Hakuta (eds.) Child development and education in Japan. New York: Freeman, 262–272.

Kneebone, R. (2020) Expert: understanding the path to mastery. London: Viking Penguin.

Siklander, P. & Impiö, N. (2019) Common features of expertise in working life: implications for higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43(9): 1239-1254.

4 thoughts on “Just make it up as you go along? Improvisation and adaptive expertise for teachers

  1. Might teaching as an act stem from the environment in which it takes place, and the related conception of how the environment sets up with a focus on an expert – the lecture THEATRE. New teachers are inevitably concerned with the ‘me’ (the you in the you to them) and teaching environments tend to reinforce this.
    To move / change a conception of teacher-centred to student-centred (I think) requires some serious thought, engagement with scholarship and consideration of teaching conception (espoused and enacted). And often a considerable struggle against the teaching room. Recognising teaching as improvisation as and ‘act’ also requires the students (the audience) to understand (and participate with / engage in) their role in that ‘act’.
    There are many conceptions of teaching and we are seeing (I think) the development of facilitation into activation of learning. The Latin origin actus is worth exploring.
    A Paulian moment for me on my journey as an HE educator came with the reading and reflection on Ramsey and Fitzgibbons (2005) paper Being in the classroom (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1052562904271144) where they conceive of teaching as ‘doing to – the students’, doing with and being with. The abstract says “Being moments … result from states of mind rather than pedagogical techniques”, 17 years later and I still teach it and try operationalise it in my own teaching.

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