How Improv Can Help Students Transfer Skills

This is a guest post written by blogger Mindy Keller-Kyriakides of Joyful Collapse. Improv is one of the best ways to see the brain working-making connections and inferences, based on understandings and knowledge.  Whose Line is it Anyway? is a show that fully rests […]

How Improv Can Help Students Transfer What They KnowThis is a guest post written by blogger Mindy Keller-Kyriakides of Joyful Collapse.

Improv is one of the best ways to see the brain working-making connections and inferences, based on understandings and knowledge. 

Whose Line is it Anyway? is a show that fully rests on its participants’ ability to improvise scenes, characters, and plotlines. No scripts, no memorization. On Bloom’s taxonomy, the results of this type of performance are indicative of the highest intellectual behaviors, namely creating, analyzing, and applying. 

While there are a few regular participants on the American version of the show, most notably Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, and Wayne Brady, guest participants keep things fresh. What makes this show work, though, is the fact that its primary participants have the ability to access and recall information at lightening speed. Their respective repertoires, particularly Mochrie’s ability to synthesize literary and cinematic genres, Stile’s ability to portray and/or mimic a character or actor, and Brady’s musical adroitness, reflect a vast amount of knowledge.  

In this video excerpt, the structure, “Scenes From a Hat”, finds guest Robin Williams joining the crew. As you view the video, pay particular attention to the scene “World’s Worst Subject for an Interpretive Dance”.

In this particular scene, participants have to make choices that convey at least three of the facets of understanding (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, pp. 85-103) in order to satisfy the prompt: interpretation, application, and empathy

In order to provide his interpretation, Ryan conveys his understanding of the concept of interpretive dance (a style that seeks to express human conditions or situations) and does so through his empathetic subject, diarrhea, as the expression. 

He makes this choice in three seconds. 

It is this ability to reach into the brain’s already existent body of knowledge to express that knowledge in a new and different way that we want students to be able to do, isn’t it? 

The biggest issue is not that we’re not teaching students the “What” of the curricula or the standards. We’ve got that handled! It is that we sometimes forget to teach them how to use what they know in different situations, what Wiggins & McTighe refer to as “transfer” (p. 78). 

Much like the muscles in our body that we have “train”, we can also train the brain to more effectively and expediently find/locate/access information already stored . And we can do it using these improv structures. 

Consider also the collaborative potential, which requires acute awareness of a situation–a valuable skill for a reading passage or math problem and a standard for improv performance. Robin specifically seizes upon Ryan’s choice of a body function to express a body non-function–impotence.  Most likely, he also does this in three seconds as well, but he appropriately and professionally “holds” for laughter and applause. 

Then, Wayne immerses himself in the scene by acknowledging Robin’s perspective as the “penis”and he, Wayne, as the “owner”–three seconds. Robin has to acknowledge the shift to one of collaboration, which he does when Wayne touches him, and the two then convey a dual connection to dance by applying a (albeit not very graceful) ballet-type exit.  

Can improv be used in the classroom? Absolutely. It may require a bit of establishment of protocol (e.g., in our Theatre classes we had the No P-Rule: No Profanity or Pornography), depending on your level of students. But imagine this:

Explaining a concept to students and creating “Scenes From a Hat” that would require them to use their knowledge of that concept. Recently, for example, I observed a Biology Class that discussed endocytosis and exocytosis. Imagine students prompted with something like, “World’s Worst Cell Membrane”. In order to satisfy the prompt, they’d have to access their understanding of the fluidity of the membrane and seek to do the opposite.

What I’d recommend (based on my experiences with varying degrees of student confidence at doing these sorts of things) is putting students into two or three groups and having them do a few rounds of the structure using scenes or props that you have selected. That way, the sense of “all eyes on me” isn’t so profound.

Then, you can have volunteers do a few rounds for the class on the “fun” topics, followed by the “real” concepts you want to them to understand. What naturally occurs is that those observing soon turn their thinking towards the prompt as opposed to just “watching”. That is, they begin to make the choices they would use IF they were performing.  What I would inevitably hear from those observing to those performing was “Why didn’t you___?” 

The ability to think quickly, coupled with the kinesthetics of this approach, will most certainly have all students authentically engaged, and if you develop your topics well, also conveying a depth of understanding. 

“Scenes From a Hat” is only one of many structures. Taking a few moments out of your day to watch a few videos from this show will no doubt give you some more ideas

Mindy Keller-Kyriakides is the author of Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Defining the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers.  

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Posted by WeAreTeachers Staff

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