Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching

I’m delighted to report that my latest book has just been published: Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching, by Cambridge University Press. I edited the book; each chapter is by a different scholar who is using improvisation to improve teaching. I first started working on this in about 2004, after I kept meeting teacher educators who were using improv techniques. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to bring all of these people together and share this exciting approach with everyone?

The key idea is that good teaching involves both structures and improvisation, both advance planning and adaptability. Expert teachers know how to use structures (lesson plans, activities, techniques to discipline unruly students) in an improvisational way that’s customized and targeted to each class and each student. This is what “creative teaching” really is: it’s not a flaky, New Age performance artist who mesmerizes the students. It’s an expert with a deep knowledge of the craft of teaching, and of the subject being taught, and an expert who can use that to orchestrate valuable learning activities among the students. A creative teacher is one who, once the learning is done, the learners say “we did it ourselves.” (To paraphrase the Tao Te Ching)

Improvisational Performance

My keynote talk today closed out the Performance Studies Network International Conference. My title, “Creativity in Performance,” emphasized my own research on creativity, and my talk explored the parallels between verbal performance and music performance. (I’ve done studies on both: including Chicago improvised theater and small group jazz.)

It’s been a highly stimulating conference and I enjoyed all of the talks I attended. Most of them focused on musical performance in the European classical tradition, and that tradition is very much based in written musical scores. I took a different approach in my keynote talk: I argued that written notation is a very recent development in human history, but musical and verbal performance goes back thousands of years. Most performance genres around the world are not “composed” by a “composer” and they are not written down; they come down through oral tradition.

I encouraged the assembled researchers to consider these non-European genres, and to be careful not to be biased by their own emphasis on composed, scored traditions. Yes, I agree that we should be studying all performance, including European performance from a composed score. But I worry that if the notation becomes the focus, then we might lose what makes performance so special:

It is contingent and unpredictable from moment to moment;

It emerges from the successive actions of the performers;

It is collective and socially distributed–what I have called “distributed creativity” in a 2009 publication.

Kudos to conference organizer Professor John Rink, and to the conference administrator David Mawson. The conference was brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed! I hope this conference helps to correct a weakness in musicology: an almost total neglect of performance, in favor of a focus on composition, theory, and history.

The Creativity of Musical Performance

I’m now at the University of Cambridge, on the third stop of my conference tour around the world. I’m here to deliver a lecture at the first annual conference of the Performance Studies Network, funded by a large grant from the UK government.

For decades, music scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the composer and on written compositions. There has been a complete neglect of performance. This is due to several cultural beliefs that we tend to hold in Europe and America:

* Creativity emerges from a genius, solitary individual (in this case, the composer).

* Creativity resides in visible products (in this case, composed scores)

* Performers are not creative because they are simply executors of the composition–essentially just talented craftsmen.

This has largely been the case in the Western classical music tradition. But if you expand your perspective a bit, to all of the world’s musical traditions, you find that almost none of them are like this. Most musical traditions do not have “composers” who create; rather, they perform pieces that are handed down from previous generations. And in most musical traditions, there is substantial performance variation (what Western scholars would call “improvisation”). Finally, in most musical traditions, performance is a collective act, done by an ensemble, and interaction among the performers is at the core of performance.

In the West, the performance genre most like this is small group jazz: my own topic of study. So I’m delighted to see that this conference, bringing together a very new community of performance researchers, is successful. There are over 100 scholars from around the world, and only half of the submitted papers were accepted.

I’ll report more on the final day, Sunday, after my keynote talk.

How To Improve Schools

I’m reporting this from Shanghai, where I gave the keynote talk this morning to a conference of educators at East China Normal University. I’ve just learned of the McKinsey report “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.” After studying twenty countries, they identified eight key take-home messages:

1. A school system can make significant gains from whatever level it is currently at, and in six years or less.

2. There is too little focus on the processes of learning in today’s debate; instead, the public debate is focused on school system structures and on resources. This was exactly the argument we were making in the Global Policy Forum last week; see my previous post.

3. Each particular stage of school improvement requires its own unique set of interventions. In other words, you can’t just keep doing the same thing for six years, you have to adapt along with the changes.

4. A system’s context determines not what must be done, but rather how it is done. One example the report cites is whether to “mandate” or “persuade” changes.

5. Six interventions are common at every stage of the performance journey: Building the instructional skills of teachers and the management skills of school leaders; assessing students; introducing data systems; facilitating improvement through the introduction of public policy documents and laws; revising standards and curriculum;  and ensuring appropriate reward systems for teachers and principals.

6. Poor performing schools improve more by centralized control and scripting of teachers, but once schools perform better, they need to grant more autonomy and flexibility to teachers to gain further improvements.

7. Leaders take advantage of changed circumstances to ignite reform (often in response to external crises).

8. Leadership continuity is essential. In systems that have shown dramatic improvement, the average tenure of the principal is six years and the average of the politicians involved, seven years.

Bringing Schools Into the Future

More and more people are realizing that schools will have to change to meet the new demands of the 21st century. In my own research and writings, I’ve emphasized the importance of creativity and innovation, and the need for schools to do a better job educating for creativity, rather than simple mastery of facts and skills.

I’m delighted to report that there is a global community of scholars and policy makers who are working on this issue. It’s not just an issue for the USA; schools in every advanced country face the same situation: an older style of classroom focused on the instructional delivery of information, which seems mismatched to creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving abilities.

Monday and Tuesday of this past week, I was invited to join an impressive group of global leaders at the University of Hong Kong, titled the Global Policy Forum on Learning. Organized by Professors Nancy Law and Kai Ming Cheng, the guiding questions were:

1. What do contemporary findings in research on learning tell us about how to improve student learning?

2. How many decisions and reforms are actually based on the results of sound research?

This meeting is just the first step toward creating a global network that brings together learning scientists and policy makers. I hope the work continues.

Here is the list of participants:

Professor Diana Laurillard, Chair Professor at London Knowledge Lab

Mmantsetsa Marope, Director, UNESCO, Paris

Gwang-Jo Kim, Director, UNESCO, Bangkok

Yves Punie, Project Leader, European Commission (Seville)

David Istance, CERI, OECD

Soo-Siang Lim, Director, US National Science Foundation

Marcela Gajardo, Director of PREAL, Chile

Keith Sawyer, Washington University

Naomi Miyake, Professor, University of Tokyo

Marcia Linn, Professor, UC Berkeley

Kenneth Chen, Under Secretary of Education, Hong Kong

Cherry Tse, Permanent Secretary of Education, Hong Kong

Nirmala Rao, Professor, University of Hong Kong

Nancy Law, Professor, University of Hong Kong

Kai-ming Cheng, Chair Professor, University of Hong Kong