Improvisation in Teaching

The New York Times article “Building a Better Teacher”* describes two different studies of exceptional teachers and what they do that makes them great. One study is by Deborah Ball, Dean of the School of Education at Michigan State University, who created Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching (MKT). The second is by Doug Lemov, an educational consultant and author of Lemov’s Taxonomy.

What makes excellent teachers is a paradoxical combination: Both MKT and Lemov’s Taxonomy identify a repertoire of standard practices that teachers engage in constantly. But at the same time, both Ball and Lemov have observed that expert teachers improvise constantly. After describing how Deborah Ball, in a math class she was teaching, spent ten minutes entertaining a student’s incorrect idea about odd and even numbers–ultimately, to guide the class to an important fact that was not on the day’s lesson plan–the NYT article notes “Dropping a lesson plan and fruitfully improvising requires a certain kind of knowledge.”

Later, in describing an excellent teacher named Katie Bellucci, the NYT article says that she uses her math knowledge and “she also improvises.”

Excellent teaching is creative teaching, but creative in a special way: responsive, opportunistic, improvised. Good teachers improvise with their students, guiding their students and yet guided by them, like the members of a talented jazz ensemble.

*Elizabeth Green, “Building a better teacher,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 2, 2010.

10 thoughts on “Improvisation in Teaching

  1. We have just had a wonderful documentary on Norwegian television about a school class that was one of the bottom three in the country. During the last semester before high school they swapped all their teachers with some of the country’s best.

    It has just been so nice to follow their transformation, and when asked what made the new teachers so much better, the students answered that they felt that the teachers believed in them.

  2. Those stories are so powerful and valuable. Thank you!

    The value of research by Ball, Lemov, and other teacher expertise researchers, is that it can tell teachers exactly what they need to do to become successful teachers. I’m not sure it would work to instruct teachers “just believe in your students, and you’ll be a great teacher.” It is necessary, yes, but not sufficient. That belief gives you the motivation to work hard to become better at teaching your students. Then, as teacher educators, our job is to show those motivated teachers exactly HOW to foster student learning.

  3. I think its about teacher’s/managers’s/leader’s being able to bring out the passion in a student/team member, that allows them to explore their interests and develop their skills and knowledge in the way they are inclined to go. To do this flexibility is essential. There is an element of ‘steering’ involved so that the core learning objectives are met, but the results always exceed set objectives. Students once fully engaged will take learning in directions a teacher can rarely pre-determine and to places that can just amaze you. I have found this applies for children in learning and for adults in the workplace and both formal and informal settings are needed. Collaboration with others is also a key element and the wider the range of people, the better.

    The more they are self motivated and supported in their imagination, the better they become in their meta cognition skills which in turn makes them more effective and productive learners – a strong motivation to learn forces one to improve how they go about and organise their learning !

    1. That reminds me of improvising groups like jazz; it only works if the musicians are passionate and deeply committed to the quality of the performance. Phyllis Blumenfeld of the University of Michigan has argued that project-based learning environments require deeper motivation than traditional “instructionist” learning environments: she talks about “cognitive engagement” with the material.

    1. Yes, exactly! Very practical. But not easy: I call it “the teaching paradox,” getting just right the balance between structure (lesson plan, learning outcomes, curriculum) and improvisation.

    1. It is complicated, I edited a book about this: Structure and improvisation in creative teaching. The key is to balance necessary guiding structures with responsiveness and adaptability.

  4. Improvisation is really useful to teachers in a way that maybe you do not prepare to do something but as you become aware of doing it you simply arrange without previous preparation. There is an instant thinking a teacher has to do.

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