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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.


Barker, L., & Borko, H. (2011). Conclusion: Presence and the art of improvisational teaching. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching (pp. 279-319). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berliner, D. (2011). Foreword. In K. Sawyer (Ed.),Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching (pp. xiii-xvi). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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