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Improvising is Good Teaching

July 18, 2011

In Larry Cuban’s recent blog post Jazz, Basketball, and Teacher Decision-Making, he serves up two excellent analogies to help readers understand the complex nature of teaching.  In the midst of a jazz improvisation or a sporting event, an individual makes one decision after another, each one a reaction to the moment.  On one level, that might sound like a poor approach to teaching; improvising may suggest a lack of planning or uncertainty about how to move a lesson along.  However, at our best, I think teachers create the conditions for improvisation – for students and for ourselves.

trumpetA jazz composer provides the themes and structure, but the performers will bring out tones and moods that vary with each performance.  And of course, in sports, the rules and procedures allow for an orderly game that will nonetheless unfold in ways we can’t predict ahead of time.  For students, these are conditions that stimulate thinking, speaking, and writing, problem solving and lively debate.  Students who interact with each other engage with the curriculum more deeply and learn it more effectively, but that type of classroom atmosphere must be established with care and maintained with constant attention.  But if students are improvising, the teacher must also improvise.

For anyone who doesn’t understand how teachers could make hundreds or thousands of decisions in a day, follow me through the beginning of a typical lesson involving small-group discussions.  Picture a classroom about to be filled by thirty sophomores preparing to discuss their most recent reading assignment from a novel they should be half-way through.

The first decisions about a small-group discussion lesson occur before the lesson begins.  For my classes, the plan to have that discussion is based on where the class is in relation to a unit of study, and that situation affects the structure and organization of the group.  There are decisions to make about the size of the groups, the expected length of discussion, the materials and expected outcomes, and how the groups should be formed.  For some lessons, it’s important to me that students are well-mixed and distributed for specific academic purposes.  Other times, a small-group discussion has less immediate academic challenge or assessment involved and it’s fine to allow students to establish their own small groups.  All of my decisions in this regard are based on knowing my students, my curriculum, and what the most likely outcomes might be.  And if I am going to establish the small groups myself, there are as many decisions involved there as there are students in a class.  However, these decisions all come before the lesson even begins, so that’s anywhere from five to one-hundred decisions that don’t count in this thought experiment.

Let’s assume the small group discussion will occur at the beginning of the class period.  Before I start, I notice that three students out of thirty are absent.  Depending on which students are absent and which groups they were in, there may be some quick decisions to make about shuffling and rebalancing the groups, and we’re not even a minute into the lesson.  As we’re reviewing the plan for the lesson, I’m observing the class.  I might notice that Mike is trying to borrow paper and a pen – again – and decide whether or not to wander near his desk to give an admonishing glance.  If I walk that way, will I accomplish my goal of letting Mike know I’ve noted his preparations still need improvement, or will I risk embarrassing him?  Will I be distracting other students?  Should I keep a more watchful eye on Belinda, knowing that she and Erica almost came to blows at lunch earlier this week?  Now I notice that Estevan has made move that I know means he’s got the cell phone in hand and he’s going to start texting if he thinks he can get away with it.  Should I interrupt the review of instructions and make a public display of any discipline so that other students know the consequences, or maintain the flow for now and catch up with Estevan in a minute?  We haven’t even really started the first portion of the lesson, and I’ve made several decisions that will affect how the rest of the day is going to go.

Students begin moving around the room, reorganizing themselves, their desks, and their materials in order to engage in a small group discussion.  I just noticed that Tomas and Eddie have gone out of their way to help Connie, whose backpack got tangled in a desk leg and then spilled its contents.  I want to acknowledge that positive behavior, but should I do it right now or wait where I am to maintain a better view of the room overall?  How important is it to those particular students at this time to receive my direct attention for positive reinforcement?  Meanwhile, in another part of the room, I notice that Paula is in the wrong group, and I know that she really wants to stay with her friend, Sunny.  They generally work well together, so I could let it slide; on the other hand, I want Paula in her original group because I know that Donald, who has Aspberger’s syndrome, will listen to Paula more than anyone else, and this lesson is going to be particularly challenging for Donald if he’s working only with Liang and Sharon.

Ori just walked into class a few minutes late as groups were settling in.  How much time should I spend on Ori?  Do I want to talk to him about being late?  What do I know about Ori that might make it worthwhile finding out now why he’s late?  (Has he been in trouble before for what he’s doing in between classes?  Does he have diabetes or another health condition that calls for a little flexibility?)  Ori’s late arrival means I made the wrong move in rearranging a group a few minutes ago, so I have about three seconds to decide where to put Ori now.  Once I decide, do I escort Ori over to the group to help ensure a smooth integration into the new group, or do I trust him and the group to make that work?  It depends on Ori, and the group I’m sending him into.

Looking around the room, most of the movement has subsided and discussions seem to be underway.  Not counting the decisions before the students entered the room, I tally about a dozen decisions so far, and we’re not yet five minutes into a fifty-minute lesson.

The decisions I’ve described so far are important in setting the stage for learning, and they’re important because even if devoid of academic content, they play a huge role in how students perceive me and relate to me all day long, all year long.  Am I too uptight about rules and procedures, or too relaxed?  Am I friendly?  Fair?  Consistent?  Caring?  Every year I have students who love me and students who hate me, and a big ol’ bell curve of students in between whose answers might vary over time and whose feelings aren’t extreme either way.  Nonetheless, these little moments may contain significant decisions where I gain or lose a productive relationship.

What about actual content instruction?  As I’m circulating through a classroom engaged in small-group discussions, I’m improvising.  That doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m doing, but rather, I’m picking from a whole range of options at any given moment.  My choices vary moment-to-moment and day-to-day, not because I’m indecisive, but because I know that different approaches and different modes of observation and engagement yield different results.  Some lessons, I decide that I need to intervene consistently, perhaps because I’m trying to solidify students’ understanding of a new and challenging concept, like satire.  Other times, their discussions are more about personal experiences, predictions, or speculation, and I decide to circulate almost silently, gathering observations about how students work together to communicate or to arrive at conclusions, so that I can reflect back to them what I see working and what I want them to improve.

If I am going to intervene, there are many decisions to make each time.  I can decide if I’m going to let students initiate the dialogue or do it myself, and if I start, decide which student to talk to first.  Will I step in the moment I hear something particularly good or bad?  How long should I let students wrestle with a mistake?  My decision is based on knowing students and the subject: I can recognize a potentially productive mistake that’s leading towards a realization, or a mistake that will become a faulty assumption that will undermine the rest of the work for that lesson.  Will I ask students to share comments and questions rather than dictating the course of the conversation for my time in it?  If there’s a mistaken statement, I can decide to correct a student by assuming the best and allowing the student to save face: “I can see why you’d make that mistake when you were reading, because it’s a challenging section of the book.”  I could ask a potentially embarrassing question because I want the information and I’m willing to let the student experience the discomfort of giving a negative response: “The narrator actually said the opposite of what you just said: have you done this reading assignment?”

And so, continuing in that manner, I end up making multiple decisions every minute about what to say or not say, what questions to ask what questions to answer, what tangents to follow and what digressions to refocus, which student to help right now and which student to follow-up with later.  I’d say that for some lessons, estimates of a hundred-something decisions per hour could be on the conservative side, as there are many observations we make in every moment.

For a jazz musician, improvisation means that the right decision in one performance is not the right decision in the next performance.  basketballFor the basketball player, the right position for the rebound might vary depending on the shooter, the angle, and the opposing player to be boxed out.  For the teacher, the right instructional decision might depend on the student, the lesson objectives, the curriculum, and a whole set of contextual and interpersonal variables.  Improvising is not bad teaching, but rather, the only logical way for a skillful instructor to make the most of a vastly complex and dynamic situation.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2011 7:46 am

    There’s a great article about this: Playing outside: An introduction to the jazz metaphor in mathematics education, by Jim Neyland. I blogged about it, here. I also blogged about a tutoring session that felt like jazz improv to me.

  2. July 18, 2011 8:50 am

    Really interesting and well-written post, David. To carry your analogy further — and to be a bit provocative — Larry notes in his blog post that it takes “years of practice” for outstanding jazz musicians and basketball players to develop the skills necessary to allow for improvisation. This is why I think it’s so critical to improve teacher training before we send teachers into the classroom; too often, we expect teachers to “play like Coltrane” before they’ve learned basic scales.I also wonder if it’s realistic to expect most teachers to reach this level of improvisational skill, or whether it’s something unique to our truly outstanding teachers. (I am reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis in ‘Outliers’ that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an exemplary athlete or musician.)

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      July 18, 2011 10:08 am

      Thanks for your comment and question, Benjamin. I don’t think it’s too provocative to suggest that teacher training could be improved – though I think opinions vary about the severity of the problem. I think the greater need is for new teacher support that is truly effective. Whatever the quality of their training, new teachers are more likely to work in high-needs schools and more likely to have challenging assignments. We typically hand them the same workload or something even harder than most of their experienced peers. Let’s take some of that burden off of new teachers and encourage schools and districts to do more to provide real support and additional training.

      As for expertise, I hope I didn’t make it seem like only the brilliant veteran teachers can improvise effectively. Just like a high school musician or athlete can perform at an impressive level, a beginning teacher can also be expected to improvise effectively. Maybe we should expect a beginning teacher to be as skilled at teaching as top-level varsity athletes, but we should be aiming to help them develop to the level of a professional. We can help ensure that happens through quality training, but there’s another way, too. If teacher training were more selective, one of the traits I’d want to see in candidates is a proven record of working well with young people. I don’t know if Bill and Melinda Gates can fund a study that proves former camp counselors make effective teachers, but that’s kind of the idea I’m going for. I was able to “improvise” in the classroom from an early stage in part because of my years as a camp counselor, teacher’s assistant in religious school, assistant director in an educational theater program, and college orientation counselor. It’s been almost twenty years, but I would wager that for a new teacher, my effectiveness as at least “above average.” I can also still vividly recall some of my “improvised” successes and failures. The proportion has shifted in the right direction over the years. Could I prove it with student test scores? Doubtful. But I’ll guarantee you that if you were the parent of a student in my class this year, you and your child would notice a positive difference in my teaching now compared to a decade ago.

  3. Joan Griffin permalink
    July 21, 2011 8:15 pm

    Terrific article, David, beautifully written and easy to relate to.

    I always think about it as being “in the flow” or “in the zone”… just like an athlete or musician… when my lessons are working and the whole classroom community is buzzing with that wonderful creative/constructive energy.

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