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.

Developing teaching expertise is a contextualised journey

This four-part series of blogposts draws on chapters from the Routledge SEDA Series book “Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: Practical Ideas for Professional Learning and Development” (March 2022, Ed: Helen King). The book was the outcome of the popular international Expertise Symposium held online in October 2022, and features contributions from over 30 authors (videos of all presentations are available on YouTube). The second Expertise Symposium takes place live online on Friday 14th October with watch parties the following week. It is hoped that a second SEDA Series book will also published from this event. Take a look at the Routledge website for details of all 32 books currently available in the SEDA Series.

The first post in the series explores a whole-university embedded approach to professional learning and developing expertise:


Why do university human relations divisions continue to ignore the fact that professional learning and development of professional expertise – such as teaching – is not something that can be ‘delivered’ in short-term, atomistic activities? And that, if you really want organisational change, didactic, generic “training” is not the way to go?

While expertise in teaching may be a process that is accessible to all, professional development activities can be inaccessible to the very people needing to develop expertise. Often, professional development activities for university teaching staff are offered through central teaching and learning units, meeting governance requirements rather than the individual’s needs.  These programmes can seem to be too generic, irrelevant to those that they seek to engage and perceived a voice for senior management alienated from the trials of the classroom or the culture of the discipline (Trowler & Bamber, 2005, Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009). They can be limited to induction programs, ignoring the learning needs of experienced teaching staff seeking to expand horizons. They can ignore that learning to be an expert is a lived experience, embedded and constructed in practice (Webster-Wright, 2010). Most importantly, these types of programmes can fail to develop the expertise needed to meet long-term, systemic change or the immediate adjustments in teaching practices prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps one of the reasons for this situation is because, when designing professional learning programmes, it appears that the fundamental principles of curriculum design are ignored and the notion of didactic training remains.

We wanted to change the status quo when we came to redesigning our professional learning programmes at an Australian research-intensive university. Instead, we drew on seminal curriculum work (Laurillard, 2010; Fung, 2017) to develop a professional learning curriculum for all university teachers. We wanted a programme that would work for all teachers: from tutors to programme conveners, learning designers to clinical educators. We focused on recognising university teachers’ existing expertise and personalising participants’ professional learning (Keppell, 2014). A centre piece of this work was the development of a Teaching Expertise Framework that foregrounds teaching expertise as a continuum where it is possible for different people to be at different stages of development. The framework now outlines the learning outcomes for our professional learning programmes and as well as our recognition programmes. It has also allowed us to model personalised and learner-centred approaches, that offer relevant and authentic professional learning experiences; core aspects of our University’s vision for our students’ experience.


Associate Professor Deanne Gannaway is the Academic Lead for Professional Learning in the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, University of Queensland, Australia

References

Fung, D. (2017) Connected Curriculum for Higher Education. UCL Press, London. DOI: doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1qnw8nf

Keppell, M. (2014), “Personalised Learning Strategies for Higher Education“, The Future of Learning and Teaching in Next Generation Learning Spaces (International Perspectives on Higher Education Research, Vol. 12), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 3- 21.

Laurillard, D. (2010) An Approach to Curriculum Design. Institute of Education, London,

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2009) Significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547–559.

Webster-Wright, A. (2010) Authentic professional learning. In Authentic Professional Learning. Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, 107–142.