Teaching as (Viral) Content Development?

On a recent episode of NPR’s How I Built This, Jonah Peretti compared teaching and viral content development. He discussed his early career as a teacher and how it inspired and informed to his later success as co-founder of Huffington Post and Buzzfeed:
“I was thinking about how to connect with my students. And to get them to learn things and get them excited. And that is something that has heavily influenced the way I think about content. Because I think if you think about content from, at the time, print and broadcast, you think about making something that you push out to this giant audience. But if you’re in a classroom teaching you know 25 kids that are in front of you, you quickly start to learn that the really good teachers are shaping the curriculum based on the feedback they’re getting from the students. They’re trying to to read the room and read the audience and get them more engaged.” – Jonah Peretti
I find this intriguing for several reasons. Anyone who has taught undergraduates can relate to the idea of feeling like a ringmaster facing a crowd of blank stares, some of them borderline hostile. Is it possible to be hostile while bored? I think my undergrads have mastered it.

So what are teachers to do to keep students engaged? Jonah Peretti’s comparison views students as a voluntary audience to be won over rather than a captive group required to receive instruction. Too often, as instructors in higher education, we gravitate toward the latter approach.

I have found as an instructor in higher education — at least at the research universities at which I have taught — a strong emphasis on instructors upholding grading and attendance policies while also delivering rigorous course content based in research. However, there is less emphasis on student engagement in the classroom — things like student motivation and student goal attainment beyond grades.

Some may criticize Jonah Peretti’s comparison of teaching and content development by assuming it could lead to shallow or trivial teaching that merely distracts students with shiny objects, especially since we are in an age of commercialization of higher education. Perhaps, however, we can learn from this perspective. Considering students an audience to be won over demands high quality instruction and engaging students in new ways.

Ultimately, Jonah Peretti emphasizes the importance of incorporating feedback from students. After all, “read your audience” is the stuff of nearly every basic communication course ever taught.

Some days as an instructor you feel that no matter having doing your darnedest to make the course content relevant, interesting, and uesful, it’s just not cutting through the blank stares. Still, as this fall semester unfolds, I’ll be taking inspiration from this interview by integrating more feedback from my audience of students to engage them in new ways.


Teaching Philosophy

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Inspiration: Symbols of Teaching

Candles v2

Candles at my sister’s engagement party

Teaching Symbol: Candle

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

Teaching is giving light, giving of knowledge, to students. As explored in my reflection post, one way to look at teaching is as gift-giving. The wax and the wick of a candle, together, create light. There is no light without the wax and wick. They burn away, and, in the process, release the gift of light into space. A candle does not talk about light, it GIVES light, just as a teacher gives light.

Glass v2

From my blue glass collection

Teaching Symbol: Glass

“The intellect of the wise is like glass; it admits the light of heaven and reflects it.”  – Augustus Hare

A teacher not only generates light, but reflects students’ light back to them. Glass is transparent. It reflects and refracts light. By doing so, the teacher helps students see personal areas of strength and areas for improvement. This is often enacted through the grading process, which should be viewed as an opportunity for learning and feedback rather than merely assigning an assessment.

My home library

My home library

Teaching Symbol: Bookshelf

“As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.” – Parker Palmer

Teaching is a unique opportunity to bring your entire self to the classroom, including every book you’ve ever read! Teachers draw on multiple strands of knowledge, experiences, readings, and passions. In one class session, a teacher might call upon experiences from different stages in life, work projects, and topics from different courses taken years apart, at different schools, and concepts from books read decades before. Examples may be planned and integrated into the lesson, or shared as they come in the moment, as discussed in my research about improvisation and teaching.

Eraser given to me as a gift

Eraser given to me as a gift

Learning Symbol: Eraser

“Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.” – Sister Corita Kent

Learning is doing. Students are sometimes afraid to make mistakes. The learning environment should affirm the process of trial and error and allow for mistakes. Just as teachers who would seek to create collaborative discussion through improvisation know to accommodate and accept student contributions to dialogue, so learners must be willing to share and possibly make mistakes. Learning happens from acting, from making mistakes, and from reformulating our understanding.

My house plant

My house plant

Learning Symbol: Plant

“We are exploring together. We are cultivating a garden together, backs to the sun. The question is a hoe in our hands and we are digging beneath the hard and crusty surface to the rich humus of our lives.” – Parker Palmer

Students undertaking the learning process, as with plants, must move toward the light. Each plant is in a different position in relation to the sun and requires varying amounts of light or water. Each student has different questions to answer in their lives. To do so, they must understand the value of light and how to cultivate their growth. The sun cannot by itself grow a plant. As with plants, students receive light, but they must also take responsibility for their growth.

Light bulb

Light bulb

Learning Symbol: Light Bulb

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Just as learners are nourished by teachers, and plants are nourished by the sun to eventually contribute oxygen to the air, students must translate the light they have received. Students must make their knowledge into a contribution. They become their own producer of light. Just as many modern energy-saving light bulbs include a spiraling bulb, this is an upward spiral and an ongoing process learning and contributing to the world ones knowledge and gifts.


Teaching Philosophy

A teacher creates and facilitates learning moments or experiences. The teacher brings a number of tools and strengths to creating these experiences: passion for the subject, pedagogical research, content knowledge, knowledge of students, consideration of student outcomes, willingness and ability to improvise when called for, responsibility for grading and providing feedback, preparing and planning lessons,  managing logistics such as attendance, concern regarding teacher position and evaluation, and more. It takes skill and artistry to bring all of these facets (or a relevant combination of them) to the classroom. With so many at times various priorities, it is important to ground one’s teaching in reflection and continual improvement.

As reinforced in the Constructivist tradition, I do not see the class session as a transfer of knowledge from students to teacher, but a structured learning experience includes an exchange back and forth between teacher and students, who are active learners. My teaching experiences thus far have been characterized by active learning opportunities to synthesize and apply class concepts.

When teaching Human Communication Theory, I created an opportunity for students to begin synthesizing the bulk of the material learned up to that point in the course by revisiting the theories already and learned doing some comparison and application. When teaching a writing workshop for Communication and Technology, I aimed to both get students started on structuring their resumes and facilitate peer to peer sharing. So, the learning activity I created involved choosing from a list resume headings those that were most relevant to student experience, then choosing one experience and drafting descriptions of student responsibilities and accomplishments. Then, students shared their points with a partner to hear them verbally and begin refining. A lecture can be engaging but a lecture that includes active learning moments and activities that get students to apply and synthesize concepts in the safety and supportive learning environment is another thing. That’s a learning experience!

In meeting with students outside of class and providing feedback on assignments, teachers relationally are able to give individualized help to students. Grading, rather than merely an assessment of student performance, is a significant function of teaching in which one gives specific feedback to each student in a timely manner so it can be incorporated as a learning experience for later assignments. Feedback on compositional writing (whether it be a full paper or a short essay response within a larger multiple choice assessment) is a rich form of feedback that enables students to grow their writing and communication skills, particularly when it includes examples of improvement and engages the student in finalizing it. My feedback to students on papers often says “Name, I see where you were going with X, however, it is easily missed. Consider rewording to inserting a new phrase such as x. Which best communicates your point?”When students seek additional guidance from the teacher outside of class, it is an additional opportunity to model the learning process. As a teacher, I seek to create scaffolding in these instances to help the student climb to where they need to be rather than carrying the student on my back, shouldering 99% of the burden. Student learning is a shared responsibility between teacher and student. Rarely does the teacher say, “this is exactly what you need to do.”

So, what does my classroom look like? As a visual learner who has experienced many classrooms that prioritize auditory learning, it is important to me to create a learning space that engages students both visually and aurally. This often means lecturing or activities accompanied by Power Point visuals. When possible, I also strive to create an environment in which students see themselves as a cohesive team working together to learn rather than as an isolated student competing for a better grade than fellow classmates with whom they never speak. This means I facilitate activities and opportunities within the classroom to build connections and learning moments between fellow students.

In my classroom, students are invited to learn through actively engaging in and participating in the learning experience. I expect students to take ownership of his or her learning and responsibility for incorporating new knowledge into his or her own experience. Students can expect to take out of my classes sharpened writing and communication skills, and increased knowledge of the subject matter and comfort both speaking and writing about it. My teaching philosophy is to creatively engage students in active learning  experiences, and to transparently relay feedback while modeling the learning process for students.


Teaching Evaluation

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Faculty Teaching Evaluation & Reflection November 2014

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Excerpt from faculty teaching evaluation conducted by Dr. Joann Keyton:

Overall, Ms. Watterson’s manner of presentation was firm, but friendly. She called on students by name. When moving from descriptive to analytical presentations in discussing an example speech, she skillfully pointed out where the speaker/author was strong and influential in the speech at the same time acknowledging that the use of language in the speech destroyed his credibility…Ms. Watterson is a proficient teacher who used a variety of methods of instruction to keep students’ interest and to reinforce material. During this class session, she used powerpoint, document camera, handout, notecard activities, mini-lectures, and question-answer sessions. Activities varied from more abstract conceptual understanding to specific instances of placing this information into practice in students’ speeches. Each activity served to reinforce the material previously learned and its application to students’ future speeches.

Post evaluation reflection:

I will work in including more explicit transitions between blocks of the class that help to relate previous lectures and activities to the following lectures and activities. I will also more deliberately stimulate participation from students in class who speak up less often by offering more low-level questions and prompting certain groups of students for responses (i.e. “somebody from this side of the class tell me…” or “somebody from that corner tell me…”).

Peer Comment Log & Reflection October 2013


The following comments were collected after I co-taught the weekly meeting of our graduate class, Human Communication Theory. Each student in this masters-level course was required to teach or co-teach one session of the course. My classmate, TJ, and I co-taught a session six weeks into the course about relationship development theories.

As co-teacher, I was responsible for the opening activity and the second half of the lecture. My goal for the opening activity was to have students 1) compare and apply the three theories in the unit and 2) to review and compare theories covered in units 1-5, which had not been covered since the beginning of the course other than in fleeting mentions in discussion.

I asked three of my classmates for feedback. I requested feedback mostly regarding the design and implementation of my introductory activity, called Name That Theory. Peer #1, Peer #2, and Peer #3 (a student who demonstrated confusion during the activity) provided feedback.


The Name that Theory activity began with splitting students into four groups, each of which received a research scenario in which “researcher x” explores a hunch with regard to relationship development. Each group was asked to evaluate and choose one of the three theories from the unit to apply to the research question. Each group was also asked to select one theory from the previous five units that was most relevant to apply. The groups then presented their response and why they chose each theory. After each group presented, I revealed that the research scenario was an actual study which was simplified for the activity. Then I revealed which theory was applied by the researcher in each case. Three of four of the groups correctly applied the theory that was used by the researcher!


After teaching the class I thought the Name that Theory activity had been helpful and engaging for students, though I had a few thoughts as to how I would tweak my delivery. Given feedback from my peers below, I would add one extra step to my delivery of instructions for the activity. I would employ narrative style to run through an example of how to complete the activity by saying, “So, here’s an example of how your group might respond: Having read researcher x’s scenario, we think uncertainty reduction theory from this unit is most relevant to apply because Y, and social exchange theory from units 1-5 is most relevant because Z.”

I also received constructive criticism from my peers with regard to overall lecture delivery and discussion leadership. Two nuggets stood out to me which I will incorporate into my teaching in the future. First is keeping my energy up toward the end of a lecture. Once I have successfully kicked off a teaching experience, my energy lags after the initial adrenaline rush. I will look for ways to keep energy up as the class session comes to a close. Second, I’ll work on leaving more silence after asking questions of the class for students to consider the question and formulate a response.

Peer Comments

Peer #1 – Design of the activity was effective.  The “researcher x” stuff always gets me confused. I’m not sure if a more personal message is not good pedagogical standards.  The overall theory was VERY effective and a good review. Delivery of the activity – You explained the directions very well.  You also have great connection with your classmates, so I’m sure getting “control” in the beginning was a little odd.  My only suggestion would be to work on how you navigate the friendship-leader thing to make sure you’re heard. Overall leadership of class discussion – Very effective.  You asked great follow up questions and praised all of us for relevant comments.  Your wrap up was also really strong.  My only thought for improvement will  be to keep up your energy towards the end.  Jump us get us moving, whatever it takes. Overall, you were a rockstar!

Peer #2- I loved the concept of the introductory activity. You seemed to do a great job distilling actual research questions. (I may steal that for my own students! Well…a version of it.) Also, it had the added bonus of helping the class connect to past theories we’ve studied. Sometimes I feel like the class is one long string of unrelated theories, but this helped me apply what I already “knew” to what I was not as familiar with. Getting a student to connect a new concept to an established one is REALLY difficult. Bravo! You had great non-verbals. You smiled, had an open body posture, and nodded encouragingly. Your facilitation was also good. My one note (if it can be called a note) is that while it is difficult, I would recommend waiting a bit longer once a question is posed to the group for a reply. I can usually gauge the comfort level of the discussion leader by how long they wait for everyone to respond to a question. Sometimes people may have a point (and sometimes they don’t) but they may be actually thinking through it. When I’ve asked my own students, they’ve said things like “the time seems to go really fast after a question is asked because I’m thinking so hard,” whereas for me, I’m thinking “Did they not understand? Why is nobody talking? Is it hot in here? Maybe I’ll ask another way. They seem pensive…or are they just playing on their phones?” I try to make non-threatening eye contact during questions. Sometimes the introverted ones will just glance at the leader, waiting to be called on. This gives me time to breathe as I smile and scan the room, and it sometimes identifies those who HAVE ideas while everyone else is contemplating. I know you did not have much time left at the end of the evening to cover your material, but you did well finishing so quickly! It seemed like you were able to cover everything you intended to cover. As a total side note, I thought the PowerPoint presentation was clear and easy to follow. Also, it seemed to meld nicely the times that you were “leading” and the times TJ was “leading.”

Peer #3- I really liked your activity! I can’t really think of anything that needed to be changed. Maybe if you had structured the assignment with less options? Maybe it would have made the assignment more clear. Perhaps, used a map design to explain the activity?


Teaching Self-Evaluation December 2013

Toward the end of the semester in the class for which I was a teaching assistant, I was asked to teach a writing workshop in the professor, Dr. Schrag’s, absence. We decided the purpose was to prepare students for the upcoming assignment to write and format their own resume and cover letter for a job in the field. Additionally, I wanted to share some general academic writing tips.

I started the class with a question about Thanksgiving break to warm up the large lecture hall of about 50 students. I told students I was looking forward to the break, as I know they were, and asked who was traveling for Thanksgiving. I also asked who was traveling the furthest. Starting the class in this manner acknowledged that the context and flow of this class session would be different than that of Dr. Schrag’s lectures. It also acknowledged that students have a different relationship with me as their teaching assistant than with Dr. Schrag, as he doesn’t often pose questions such as these about students’ lives.

I continued this practice of asking questions and waiting for students to respond throughout the class session. As we talked about resume writing, I asked who has had an internship; who is a graduating senior on the job search; based on what we discussed just now, how could this resume be improved, etc. During nearly every example of the writing tips segment, I asked how the sentence could be improved, giving the students the opportunity to edit themselves rather than telling them how to improve. In this way, I feel that I effectively brought active learning into the class session.

PPT 1.2

I know from my research about improvisation and collaborative discussion in teaching, that the less structured nature of collaborative discussion leaves the teacher more vulnerable to moments of uncertainty, though it allows students to more actively create their own learning experience. In fact, a student did catch me off guard early in the lesson with a question to which I didn’t know the answer. Part of me was annoyed. I’d spent hours preparing this lesson not even five minutes in, this diversion happened. I fumbled through a joke that acknowledged I was a new teacher and that of course a student would ask me a question to which I didn’t know the answer. Then, I recovered and said that though I don’t know, I encourage students to look that convention up in the APA book if it’s relevant to their papers. I reminded them that APA conventions are easy to look up even online.

Ultimately, I feel I handled this situation relatively well. Given a do-over, I would have omitted the joke I made before my response to the question. However, I saw that this was a great learning experience for me as a teacher. It forced me to see that though I’d prepped for hours and hours, I can’t possibly know the answer to every question I may be asked as a teacher. Though to a novice teacher this can feel exasperating, accepting this notion and practicing my response when thrown curve balls such as this allows me to bring ease and grace to similar moments in the future.

Aside from the odd curve ball, I really enjoyed teaching this writing workshop because I was able to bring to bear my own experience in the professional world and as a job searcher. I brought to the class and showed a copy of the NCSU Career Center Job Search Guide I received as an undergraduate student (which I used to design the lesson and cited in my visuals), and shared that I still use it personally. I talked about specific experiences of mine and shared concrete tips that I used in my own life, for example, when submitting a resume and cover letter by email, send a .doc Word file and PDF of each so the employer has exactly what he/she needs; and, include an image of your signature in the closing of your cover letter to add a personal and professional touch. I planned to share my example of the first press release I wrote during my internship. My supervisor handed it back and it was covered in pen marks. I intended to share this when discussing the importance of concise writing skills in professional settings but, unfortunately, I forgot in the moment to share this example.

It was important for me to reinforce the foundational nature of good writing skills as a student and as a professional, and thus the relevance of this lesson. My plan was to illustrate that the workshop was relevant in the following ways: 1) writing resume and cover letter for the assignment due the following week, 2) writing good papers in this course and all academic courses 3) writing in the work place, and 4) writing resumes and cover letters to get an internship/job in the future. However, when I verbalized this point, I got stuck in a loop of trying to articulate how the academic writing tips intersect with resume and cover letter writing, rather than running through the four points listed above in a clear manner. If I were to teach this workshop again, I would begin and end by stating these four points clearly and succinctly.

When the class session ended, I felt it had gone well, though I wondered how to assess my own teaching. One fairly non-engaged student stayed after class to ask a question. He said the workshop was helpful to him. Several others stayed to ask questions. The student who had thrown me the curve ball question, who I had worked with throughout the semester on his writing, also stayed after to compliment my teaching. Though this feedback and engagement after class was encouraging, it was important to me to self-reflect on what went well and what could be improved.

Upon reflection, I felt the Power Point visuals were important to this workshop. Combining verbal discussion of proper formatting and grammar with concrete visuals helped students engage with the material. The messages that received the most participation were the writing tips, particularly the opportunity to point out basic typos and errors. I announced to the class that the examples were anonymously pulled from their own papers that were turned in this semester. Though this is not always possible to do, I think it added another layer of relevance to the lesson. Giving students the opportunity to critique and improve passages from their own and their classmates writing helped them step into the role of editor and understand how errors distract the reader from the writing content. I also had them critique a resume.

Power Point visual - parts of the cover letter

Power Point visual – parts of the cover letter

Though this is a lecture style course, the writing workshop received good participation, particularly during my break out activity. I gave students five minutes to pick which section headings to include in their own resumes based upon their strengths and to draft bullet points highlighting their responsibilities using action verbs. Then, they shared their work with a partner to refine their work and share ideas. Most students were very engaged in the activity. Several groups asked me the same question: how should I word that I handled cash at the cash register?

Overall, the visuals and the collaborative discussion were effective in engaging students in this lesson. This teaching experience has given me the tools to better handle curve ball questions and to more clearly articulate multi-pronged points in the future.

Teaching Reflection

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Reflection: Teaching As Gift-Giving

You do need to prepare, study, and learn your content. You need to practice and rehearse what you might say or do. But the best gift you can bring to your classroom is not one that comes from intricate content knowledge or a polished presentation style; rather, it is one that comes with who you are and how you give yourself to this world—a heart gift. It is this that will change things, fundamentally. – Deanna Dannels, Eight Essential Questions Teachers Ask, p. 425-426

When I first read this passage, the idea of teaching as gift-giving piqued my interest. I recalled several gifts I received from teachers in the past. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Osborne, gave me the gift of a yellow sticky note at the end of the year which I still remember. Written in blue ink was an acrostic poem with my name: T – A – R – A – C. Next to the “T” she wrote talented. The “C” stood for “cool chic.”  A professor in college emptied his bookshelf by bringing a box full of great books to class and inviting students to take a book. Many gifts I’ve received in the classroom have been intangible.

Gifts I've given: hand-written notes

Gifts I’ve given: hand-written notes

I, too, enjoy gift-giving, making small gestures, and creating meaningful experiences for those I care about. Whether it is planning a surprise birthday party, sending a hand-written note card with a drawing or quote, or arranging a gift basket, I’ve done it. I enjoy creating celebratory gifts not only at birthdays and holidays, but also creating meaningful gestures at special and challenging times. Gift-giving comes naturally to me when interacting with loved ones, colleagues, and fellow students.

In fact, when asked by my fellow classmates what gifts I bring as a teacher, many of them responded that my gifts are care and thoughtfulness. This helped me see that there is a connection between this part of my personality and my teaching. Ironically, however, when I think of my relationships with students in the course for which I’m a teaching assistant, I’m not sure they have seen that side of me. This is in part because of the size of the course, and the lack of opportunity for interpersonal interaction in the lecture hall.

Upon reflection, I realize that another part of it is because revealing that side of me in the classroom reflects vulnerability. Teachers who practice gift-giving must navigate the tension between authority and vulnerability of sincere gift-giving. When considering sometimes sticky factors such as relational dynamics in the classroom, it is easier and simpler for me to maintain a formal “wall” between myself and students that I feel reinforces my authority. This is my default.

Gifts I've given: Custom branded mug gift for a client

Gifts I’ve given: Custom branded mug gift for a client

The question that I am now exploring is how teachers can practice sincere gift-giving while maintaining authority. What does gift-giving in the classroom mean? This sort of gift-giving is different from giving to a friend to build friendship, but rather aims to build the teacher-student relationship to further student development. Gifts that emphasize the teacher role as mentor are appropriate. These gifts can be meant to encourage, to inspire, and to bolster students. By aligning the idea gift-giving in the classroom with student development and learning, myself and other teachers may take confidence in sharing this practice.

I think it’s important to also recognize that teachers also receive gifts. As in the Constructivist tradition, I feel that learning in the classroom is a two-way exchange. Some of my best teachers have shared with me that they learn much from their students. I am open also to the gifts students bring to the classroom!

Gifts I've Given: Creating a colorful and inviting space

Gifts I’ve Given: Creating a colorful and inviting space

Narrative: When Teaching Works

The setting usually looked like this: twenty or so of us students seated in straight black music performance chairs arranged in the shape of a half moon in the wide open floor of the music hall performance room. Fluorescent lights glow many feet above our heads. Our professors, Dr. K and Dr. S, are camped out casually in chairs opposite us students. It is the senior capstone course for the Arts Studies majors: philosophy of arts.

I wasn’t expecting anything special from the course. But as the semester progressed, we explored both questions that mattered to me a great deal and questions for which I couldn’t yet understand if they should matter. Primarily, we asked, why do artist create art? What is the value of art? What does it mean to create authentic art? Though I had taken a number of fascinating courses, such as Irish Film and Literature, History of American Art, Color and Light, and Creative Nonfiction Writing, I had never before so looked forward to attending a class.

As it turns out, us privileged students were part of a onetime experiment: a joint teaching experience by two musically accomplished veterans and friends. I remember Dr. S spelling out the meaning of epistemology (and then spelling the word). These moments blew my mind wide open: when I began to grasp at the depth and breadth out there of ways to structure ideas and understanding.

We frequently received assignment instructions like, “Write a list of five – better yet, five lists of five. Just look around you. You’ll see so many things arranged in lists of five. You won’t believe how many things are arranged in fives.” This particular assignment translated to a lesson about finding order in the universe’s chaos, if I remember correctly. The main course text was Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Dr. K led us through this challenging book, several passages of which I furiously underlined, goading us through the tedious midsection, telling us, “keep going, it will all be worth it.” One day, Dr. K bought in his cello and treated us to a performance of one of Dr. S’s compositions, demonstrating for us their own artistry.

One class session, Dr. S brought in a box of old books to share with the students. At the end of class, he invited students to pick one to take home. I picked up a copy of Tao Te Ching that still sits on my bookshelf four years later. Every once in awhile I pick it up and open to a page to find a nugget like: “All streams flow to the sea/because it is lower than they are/Humility gives it power.” I remember that day in class fighting a greedy urge to take several books.

Though more practical questions such as how to pay the rent awaited me after graduation, these heady questions about art and meaning were precisely what mattered to me at the time as I contemplated how I would live authentically in the so-called real world and what my career in nonprofit arts administration would look like.

The guy that sat next to me was a guitarist with his own band. He’d read Jack Keroac’s On the Road. He’d been a military brat as a child. When I asked him outside of class what he thought of the class, he said, “what, the ramblings of those pious windbags?” I was speechless! Though I hungrily lapped up every word from the class, he felt differently than I did about the class. Though this class, for me, was the ultimate realization of “when teaching works,” maybe other students felt differently.

I could see that the sometimes ad-hoc nature of class assignments, or papers assigned via verbal prompts in class without a written requirements may have been disengaging for some students, particularly those who were less interested in the topic of philosophy of arts. This reminds me of a teacher’s mandate to do his/her best to incorporate opportunities for students of differing learning styles and backgrounds to participate in and thrive in a course. I think that teachers who are present to this demand, and who are invested to the degree that they perform music for the class, and share books with the class – they are doing at least something right.

This class, co-taught by musician-philosophers, was a unique learning experience. It was also the beginning of my relationship with Dr. S and Dr. K, both of whom became mentors of mine. I still keep in touch with them, though art plays a different role in m life now than it did four years ago. These two teachers fulfilled two important roles: facilitator of new thinking and investment as mentor. To this day, it’s hard to articulate exactly what I learned in that class. I was introduced to many writers, philosophers, artists, and performers’ work that I would draw upon again. I began thinking about art at a higher, more critical level. I gained insight about the process of creating art. Mostly, I remember the feeling of rushing to class to discover something new. Ultimately, this special class held in a music hall inspired in me a new level of appreciation for learning and a new passion for understanding structures of thought.

Teaching Research

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How Novice Teachers Can Embrace the Paradox of Improvisation in the Classroom

Educational researchers established years ago that content knowledge alone in itself does not necessarily make an effective teacher (Sawyer, 2011). Scholars and researchers driven by the question, “what makes good teachers great?” have pursued the answer for decades. Novice teachers in particular are often willing to put in the time to plan and prepare for their teaching responsibilities. Is that enough to conduct an effective lesson that facilitates a high level of student learning? Literature about education has made clear that there are many things at play including student engagement, student motivation, relational dynamics, curriculum design, etc. Educational scholars have in recent years made a compelling case for the value of improvisation in the classroom as a pedagogical approach. However, teachers, as trained professionals who teach in settings that often demand strict student learning outcomes, can be hesitant to embrace improvisation. The “unspoken assumption… that while jazz musicians and actors may improvise, educators plan” that Donmoyer (1983) wrote about thirty years ago is still present today.

David Berliner (2011) asks teachers to consider the 2009 plane crash into the Hudson River after the engines failed. In this case, there was no protocol to follow. The only action available to Captain C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger was improvisation, which led him to land the plane in the river and save many lives. According to Sawyer, improvisation is a “characteristic of any human action that is not fully scripted and determined” (2011, p. 12), that is, it encompasses much of human interactions and actions. Further, the outcomes of a collaborative learning approach that is born through improvisational tactics are becoming important to policy leaders who want to ensure that students are developing “twenty-first-century skills” such as creative thinking and collaboration for the knowledge-based economy of the future (Sawyer, 2011). The 2005 United Kingdom government Qualifications and Curriculum Authority listed the following habits required of students after their schooling: questioning and challenging; making connections and seeing relationships; envisaging what might be; exploring ideas; keeping options open; and reflecting critically on ideas, actions, and outcomes” (Sawyer, 2011, p. 10). Teachers who are able to implement improvisation create more relevant, effective teaching and thus greater learning outcomes for students.

Roots of Classroom Improvisation as a Concept

In order to understand the somewhat abstract idea of improvisation in the classroom, one should understand its theoretical and philosophical underpinnings. The concept of improvisation in the classroom is rooted in the constructivist teaching theory, and therefore part of a movement in response to the historic emphasis on traditional teaching, or direct instruction. This approach emphasizes a scripted transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. A constructivist classroom, however, is one in which teachers and students both construct the learning experience, as opposed to the traditional approach which assumes a one-way channel from teacher to student, who is the passive receiver of teacher communication (Sawyer, 2004a).

The dominant teaching philosophy in public school as well as higher education for many years was the pedagogical approach (Milligan, 1995). The evolution toward constructivist approach is parallel to the evolution beyond the pedagogogical philosophy to androgogical philosophy, which encourages student participation and autonomy, particularly with regard to higher education (Gitterman, 2004). Beyond that, heutagogy is an off-shoot of androgogy that fully embraces the concept of self-directed learning. While a scripted teaching approach falls within pedagogical tendency to view the teacher as transmitting knowledge to the student, who merely receives it (Power, 2012), practicing improvisation in the classroom demonstrates the androgogcial and heutagogical teaching philosophies.

The notion of artistic improvisation or expression as a model for teaching has been around for decades. One of the leading scholars responsible for developing the concept of improvisation rooted in constructivist teaching is Keith Sawyer of Washington University. Sawyer brings together a variety of scholarship and research under the banner of creative teaching as an essential tool for teachers. The original concept of teacher as performer, which was popular for many years, Sawyer (2012) notes, was problematic because it downplayed the role of structured learning; it failed to account for any interplay between students and teachers; and it propagated the scripted notion of teaching which diminishes the importance of content knowledge and expertise (p. 6). Early research that specifically focused on improvisation in teaching from the 1970’s often explored the subject by pitting experienced teachers against novice teachers, the latter of which were assumed to exhibit low use of improvisation (Sawyer, 2012).

In Figure 1, I propose a diagram that maps out the theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and tactical approaches to improvisation in the classroom that are mentioned in this literature review.

 Improvisation Approaches Diagram

Approaches to Improvisation

What, then, is improvisation with regards to the constructivist classroom? Whereas many of the teaching philosophies and strategies listed above are a general, improvisation in the classroom can be used as is a specific tactic within the constructivist classroom during a given class session. Though scholars have taken various approaches to studying and applying improvisation to the classroom, many scholars have identified similar definitions and themes with regards to improvisation, namely the notion of paradoxical tension between structure and freedom required by teachers and which occurs during improvisational moments (Sawyer, 2011; Loveless, 2007).

Sawyer views improvisation as a tactic used to resolve the tension between structure and creative freedom that is necessary to optimize student learning (2012). He states that “disciplined improvisation provides us with a way to conceptualize creative teaching within curricular structures” (2004a, p. 16). Sawyer is, however, careful to counter the impression that “improvisation means anything goes” (2012, p. 12). Sawyer also concedes that though creative teaching is more effective, it is difficult to assess quantitatively (2004a). This is one of the greatest challenges to the concept of improvisation in the classroom given the heavy emphasis on assessing student outcomes through standardized testing on part of the government.

Naturally, various different scholars situate improvisation differently within teaching philosophy and models. Some scholars view improvisation as one element of an effective teaching model. Loveless (2007) identifies improvisation as vehicle for interdisciplinary value-ads to classroom discussion. She states,

Improvisation is not just related to experience and skill, and neither is it ‘content free’, but it is expressed within and between subject domains. Creative individuals in different knowledge domains demonstrate understanding of the underpinning concepts and traditions, while knowing how to ‘break the rules’ to present original combinations of ideas and outcomes (p. 513).

Loveless specifically proposes a framework (2007) that includes improvisation as one element of teacher knowledge. The framework integrates improvisation and open-mindedness with engagement of integrated co-teaching (ICT) and planned lesson designs using Didaktik analysis. Loveless situates improvisation within a larger framework as opposed to Sawyer’s singular focus on improvisation. However, their treatment is quite similar in that they both acknowledge the paradox of improvisation that involves contradicting elements: Loveless articulates both the art and science of teaching (2007, p. 520); Sawyer discusses structure and creative freedom (2011).

Artistic Improvisation as a Metaphor

Just as educational scholars looked to the arts as a model to develop the teacher as performer metaphor, scholars continue to build on this notion in the literature today. Contemporary scholars have sought to move beyond the static teacher as performer metaphor to a more complex metaphor that embraces constructivism (Sawyer, 2004b). They have integrated both the art and science of good teaching by acknowledging and embracing the tensions between planned structures and collaborative improvisation.

Though many scholars have compared teaching to artistic improvisation, Sawyer is most elegant and exhaustive in his writings about creative teaching. Jazz, for instance, requires a “deep knowledge of complex harmonic structures and profound familiarity with the large body of standards” (2011, p. 12) in addition to development of personal structuring strategies according to Sawyer. These are called “licks,” or go-to motifs that can be drawn upon in a wide variety of situations or songs. Just as jazz musicians decide in the moment when to utilize licks, teachers often do the same in the classroom. The jazz musician’s combination of deep knowledge of conventions as well as readiness to improvise using structures and tools is exactly the balance teachers must strike to create a collaborative, constructivist learning environment (2011).

Sawyer also compares constructivist teaching with improvisational theatre performance. He states, “constructivist teaching is fundamentally improvisational, because if the classroom is scripted and overly directed by the teacher, the students cannot co-construct their own knowledge (2004b, p. 190). Some features that share applications between both improvisational theatre and collaborating groups in classrooms include: interactional dynamics, the give-and-take nature of the interaction, and the common theme of properties emerging from the group as a consequence of individual actions (2004b, p. 190).

Collaborative Discussion: Improvisation in Action

Though Improvisation may be applied to a larger teaching philosophy which includes applications such as switching order of activities, swapping agenda items in class, dropping a specific item, etc., it is most often applied and viewed within the context of in-class collaborative discussion within the classroom. Many studies have demonstrated the value of collaborative discussion to student learning and engagement (Sawyer, 2004a; Wu, Nguyen-Jahiel, & Miller, 2013). Collaborative discussion takes place when teachers invite students to actively co-create the lesson through open dialogue. Collaborative discussion has been applied to many disciplines including math (Sawyer, 2004a), humanities (Wu, Nguyen-Jahiel, & Miller, 2013), and more through both qualitative case study methodologies as well as quantitative methodologies.

Until this point, this literature review has focused on teacher improvisation and facilitation of collaboration. Collaborative discussion in the constructivist classroom assumes that both teachers and students are improvisers. Sawyer states that this type of activity is both “emergent because the outcome cannot be predicted in advance, and… collaborative because no single participant can control what emerges” (2004a, p. 13). Study of collaborative discussion often draws on the work of neo-Piagetian social constructivists and Vygotskian socialculturalists, prioritizing the group rather than the individual (Sawyer 2004a). Collaborative discussion in the classroom is collective improvisation of meaning by teacher and students.

Drawing on the theatre metaphor, Sawyer identifies two principles of improvisational theatre that are required for collaborative discussion. First, the “Yes, and…” principle, in which fellow actors agree to metaphorically say yes by accepting the statement put forth and then adding something new to the improvisational string (2004b, p. 192). Teachers often “revoice” a student’s response by accepting the offering as valid and then elaborating to tie connect the response with another level of the material, just as actors do in improvisational theatre. Second, the “No denial” rule reinforces the negative role denial plays in a collaborative exchange and also notes that “the line between a subtle denial and a constructive revoicing is fuzzy and open to interpretation” (2004b, p. 193).

At the tactical level of implementation, the tension between teaching the prepared outline and the improvisational demand of collaborative learning is evident. Sawyer writes,

Even during free-flowing discussion, a teacher will naturally have the day’s lesson plan and curriculum goals in the back of his/her head. Yet, if the constructivist benefits of collaborative discussion are to be realized, the teacher must allow discussion to proceed without playwriting. Otherwise, socially-constructed insights do not naturally emerge from the students’ discussion. Students then perceive that the teacher is not interested in true discussion, but rather in using the students to further the teacher’s own hidden agenda—the scripted, preferred direction that it is hoped the students will move in.” (2004b, p. 195)

What’s Next?

The study of improvisation in the classroom is still somewhat in its adolescence. The literature includes a number of theoretical pieces about this approach to teaching. What is needed now is a bridge to implementation that explores the practical applications of this research. Some questions that remain are: What are some effective starting points for novice teachers to begin adopting this approach into their lessons? How is this approach applied practically other than in collaborative discussion? The current literature displays an impressive range of application. Ultimately, practical application of this strategy is going to vary by discipline and therefore, should be explored and applied individually in various disciplines now that the theoretical groundwork is completed.

In particular, much of the research highlights a divide between use of improvisation by novice teachers and expert teachers. Sawyer writes,

Beginning teachers are often so focused on their own lesson plan—what they want to cover, and what they want to come next in the class—that they find it difficult to truly listen to students’ responses. Improvisation requires close listening, and a teacher can only do this if he/she is willing to relinquish some amount of control over the follow of the class. (2004b, p. 199)

Additionally, according to Barker & Borko , novice teachers do not typically encounter these tensions which are inherent to the profession until they are already in front of a group of students and accountable for their students’ learning outcomes (2011, p. 292). Interestingly, research shows that expert teachers use more structures and yet they also improvise more (Sawyer, 2011). They do so by using go-to routines and activity structures, but they apply these routines in a creative, improvisational manner (2011, p. 2). Sawyer, however, provides encouragement for novice teachers: “improvisation is a conversational skill and, like other interactional skills, it can be taught” (2004b, p. 191).


To begin moving toward a bridge from theory to practice, I propose the following recommendations, which I hope are useful to most any teacher from the elementary school math teacher to the corporate training developer.

1. Reflect on opportunity for integration of improvisational strategies into your teaching. Some questions the scholars might ask you to consider include:

  • Is the constructivist approach to teaching a priority for me as a teacher?
  • How meaningful are Sawyer’s improvisational artistic expression metaphors (i.e. jazz, improvisational theatre) to my own practice as a teacher?

2. Begin putting it into practice. Use Gitterman’s (1995, p. 105) suggestions for incorporating interactive androgogy into the classroom:

(1) Ask questions in early classes which invite opinions and have no right or wrong answers; (2) direct students to talk to each other and build on their respective contributions; (3) deepen the conversation by using more discriminating questions which call for facts, inferences, explanations, and evaluative judgments as students comfort and confidence increases; (4) periodically pull together and summarize salient themes.

3. Attend or participate in an improvisational performance to observe improvisation in action. Try to discern or inquire about the structures in place to help performers in this setting to strike the balance that Sawyer (2011) describes between improvisational yet cohesive performance. Below are some resources for finding improvisational performances in your area:

4. Practice your listening skills. According to Sawyer, this poses the most difficulty for novice teachers (2004b) who seek to implement improvisational tactics in the classroom. Sawyer suggests practicing by playing some of improvisational theatre games that actors use to hone their skills in the craft (2004b). Read about theatre games here: https://files.nyu.edu/jcs474/public/theaterimprov.html

5. Identify opportunities in your class to incorporate improvisation and collaborative discussion. Implement it in small doses.  Take notes to evaluate the results and help refine your approach for the next opportunity.

Additional resources for professional development, adapted from Sawyer (2004b, p. 191):

In this paper, I have made the case for the importance of improvisational teaching that is rooted in the constructivist teaching. By looking first at the theoretical roots of improvisational teaching, then at the approaches to improvisational teaching, then reviewing the artistic metaphors used in conceptualizing improvisational teaching, and finally at how improvisation is enacted through collaborative discussion, I have explored the power of improvisational teaching. It not only creates more effective, relevant learning for students, but also facilitates learning outcomes that position students to build important skills such as collaboration for the knowledge economy of the future. Teachers of various stripes are encouraged to reflect about how improvisation fits into their teaching and consider the recommendations listed above.


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Donmoyer, R. (1983). Pedagogical improvisation. Educational Leadership,40(4), 39-43.

Gitterman, A. (2004). Interactive Andragogy: Principles, Methods, and Skills. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 24(3-4), 95–112. doi:10.1300/J067v24n03_07

Lobman, C. (2011). Improvising within the system: Creating new teacher performances in inner-city schools. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching (pp. 73-93). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Loveless, A. (2007). Preparing to teach with ICT: subject knowledge, Didaktik and improvisation. Curriculum Journal, 18(4), 509–522. doi:10.1080/09585170701687951

Milligan, F. (1995). In defence of andragogy. Nurse Education Today, 15(1), 22–27.

Power, B. (2012). Enriching Students’ Intellectual Diet through Inquiry Based Learning. Libri, 62(4). doi:10.1515/libri-2012-0024

Sawyer, R. K. (2004a). Creative teaching: Collaborative discussion as disciplined improvisation. Educational researcher, 33(2), 12–20.

Sawyer, K. (2004b). Improvised lessons: Collaborative discussion in the constructivist classroom. Teaching Education15(2), 189-201.

Sawyer, K. (2011). What makes good teachers great? The artful balance of structure and improvisation. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching (pp. 1-24). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Volkert, D. (2012, August). Inquiry based learning. Nevada RNformation, p. 15.

Wu, X., Anderson, R. C., Nguyen-Jahiel, K., & Miller, B. (2013). Enhancing motivation and engagement through collaborative discussion. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(3), 622–632. doi:10.1037/a0032792