It’s been over 10 years since I first explored the benefits of using improvisation in the classroom along with my late sister, Mary Scruggs, the head of writing and education at Chicago’s The Second City Training Center. Since then, thousands of K-12 teachers and students have been exposed to the extraordinary educational benefits of improvisational games. When teachers experience my Engaging Learners “Yes…and for the Classroom” professional development and try it in their classroom, I invariably receive positive feedback about the impact it has on student development. Why is that? What makes improv such an engaging and effective learning experience?
The impact that improv in the classroom has on learning can be directly linked to the current thinking on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). As educators, we know that when students feel connected and emotionally involved in their learning experiences, they reach higher levels of learning and understanding. Learning becomes an active and engaging experience, rather than a passive one.
The SEL-Improv Connection
As I studied the research on SEL, I quickly saw its parallels to my work on improv in the classroom. Improvisation is based on the following principles: ensemble building, teamwork/sharing focus, and full commitment to the idea that all ideas are valuable – a principal known in the improv world as “yes…and.” In a classroom improv situation, the teacher provides feedback and assistance via sidecoaching, offering insight and positive suggestions while keeping the activity’s flow moving. Regular practice with the improv activities results in teams of students who are adept at creative problem solving and emotionally prepared to engage in deep and personal learning experiences. They are comfortable with personal and authentic reactions to content discovery and skill review, both their own reactions and those of their peers.
As illustrated in the chart, the principles of improv are all linked to SEL Guiding Principles. Let me explain. In improv, ensemble is about building a community where there is trust and support. As I teach the concept of ensemble to educators, I find myself explaining, “In the improv world, it’s my job to make my fellow ensemble member look good. I need to take care of my ensemble.” Improv practitioners quickly understand that when we have trust and support within our learning community, we can comfortably take greater risks. This opens us up to making more personal connections and results in deeper learning experiences. The next principle of improv, teamwork/sharing focus, is about sharing the spotlight. There are no “solo performers” in educational improv. Instead, students practice creating and learning as members of a trusted and supportive ensemble. They learn to share the spotlight and also willingly offer it to others. And finally, the most well-known improvisation principle is Yes..and. Simply put, in improv all suggestions are embraced, accepted as a means to develop and deepen ideas and critical thinking. Improvisers build on each other’s contributions; they don’t negate or devalue them. Yes…and is the beating heart of improv.
Not only does improvisation develop SEL in our students, it is also a powerful tool for developing literacy skills and content knowledge. As I have presented this work at dozens professional development events and keynote addresses including many schools throughout the world, (as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Education Outreach, at EF Explore America events, for the Lithuanian Ministry of Education, and for National Council of Teachers of English, to name a few) the power of improvisation becomes ever more clear.
Classroom improvisation activities increase student confidence and competence in problem solving through active and engaging exercises. Improvisation develops self-awareness as students find ways to express their ideas, opinions and feelings through physical action. During improv exercises, participants are required to analyze and think on their feet. They grow intellectually and emotionally as they speculate, reason, and predict. This is an almost direct parallel to what is today called social emotional learning – and this is why improvisation absolutely belongs in our 21st century classrooms.
At Engaging Learners my team of experts is ready to provide powerful, energetic, and rich professional development experiences at your school/district. As one teacher reflected, “They had us up and moving, experiencing, thinking, doing the improv games. We were actively learning-just like we want our students to learn!”
Another teacher shared, “After teaching for more than a decade, I’ve been to countless professional development sessions that promise ‘student engagement,’ so I was more than hesitant to buy in. However, because I personally was so engaged in the activities from the get-go, I realized quickly this wasn’t another throw-away professional development class that I’d forget by tomorrow.”
Build social emotional learning experiences in your school and district with our Improv in The Classroom and SEL professional development. Get in touch through the contact form or call (312) 576-8222.