Spontaneity and Improvisation in the Classroom by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

In the 1980s film Dead Poets Society an English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams), inspires his students to change their lives of conformity and become spontaneous, creative individuals who should seize the day (carpe diem). It’s a stirring film and still resonates with me today as an educator, through its powerful portrayal of conflicting pedagogical views: conformity versus spontaneity and improvisation. There’s a telling scene in the film where Keating has his students improvise marching to music; as well as listening to music prior to kicking a football to encourage them to get in touch with their own individuality and creativity. These are inspiring examples of spontaneity and improvisation.  But, over 20 years have passed since Peter Weir’s film and there’s been a kind of conservative restoration in most western societies, and in all fields of education over the last two decades. A preoccupation with teacher as technician, rather than teacher as a facilitator of teaching and learning has become de rigur in a vast number of educational training programs, institutions-primary, secondary, tertiary, including institutions and academies which specialize in ESL/EFL/EAL teaching and learning. This is evidenced through increasing educational bureaucracies, overprescribed curricula with repetitive skill development, a preoccupation with testing, and a possessiveness with administrative tasks which can tie up teachers for endless hours of work which could be better spent with their students.  Notwithstanding the generalized nature of my assertions, there would be many colleagues who would be very happy to have the time, energy and motivation to improvise in their classrooms. The caveat is that there needs to be a ‘safe space’ within the institution’s rasion d’être which would allow this to take place. An institution’s culture can either stifle or promote and encourage spontaneity, improvisation and creativity in teaching and learning. Also, some educational institutions are so prescriptive in their dictates on what is to be taught in the classroom, that a lesson plan must be strictly adhered too!

However, leaving aside the analysis, I love spontaneity and improvisation in the classroom. It’s comes naturally and can make teaching and learning fun. Also, it is often the catalyst to authentic learning and guarantees successful students outcomes. I’m not talking about that superficial notion of the ‘wow’ factor, borrowed from corporate self-help books and imposed on teachers by a few over-zealous and retired educators looking to make a quick buck on the ‘key-note address’ circuit.  Rather, I’m suggesting the concept of resonance with learners, which evokes in us a natural spontaneity, whereby we build and improvise on what is happening in our classrooms at any given moment. It does mean that circumstances require us to digress from a work plan, but the results can be nothing short of outstanding.

How can teachers develop a resonance with their learners? What I term here as resonance is the ability of a teacher to have empathy and understanding of what it is to be a learner.

Resonance assumes a perceptive intuitiveness on behalf of the teacher, about the kinds of qualities and attributes that learners bring with them to the classroom to help them be successful. For example, they are for the most part (leaving aside any learning disabilities) fluent in their mother tongue, intelligent, and generally speaking have more than a superficial understanding of their culture, and through this will hold particular assumptions about others, including their teachers, fellow students and the institution as a whole. Furthermore, they will bring to the classroom, a unique identity, for the most part, forged within a family construct of which both the language and content based teacher may know very little. Moreover, each student will be dealing with particular personal issues of which only they are privy, but that nevertheless will impact on their ability to integrate course content into their intellectual understanding.

All teachers are well able to tap into this and get to know their students as individuals. For example, through a 10 minute group activity, either at the beginning or end of a lesson, where teacher and students sit in a circle together, with the teacher facilitating, a wealth of important information can be garnished to assist both the teacher and student about the teaching and learning process within their classroom. This will include essential curriculum issues with a language focus, but at the same time it will reveal elements of the hidden curriculum present in all formal learning situations. Eisner (1989, 97) argued that

“…we are well advised to consider not only the explicit and implicit curricula of institutions, but also what they do not teach. It is my thesis that what institutions do not teach may be as important as what they do teach…” [1]

So, it is important we consider these powerful determiners of students’ success or lack thereof in their language and content courses; because, they are always there, simmering beneath the surface. Consequently, some of the issues which may emerge from this group activity will include, but not be limited to:

  • Language learning needs and issues
  • Content learning needs and issues
  • Progress in the course
  • Social/behavioral issues
  • Teacher/student expectations
  • Clarification of cultural understandings/misunderstandings
  • Worldview of your students beyond the classroom and organization
  • An understanding of previous educational experiences
  • Development of a trusted teacher/student relationship

These learning circles can be conducted regularly by any teacher. They are easy to run and provide an alternative teaching modality from the intensity of teacher centered instruction as the complexity of the linguistic and content components progresses. The activity in itself is a valuable provider of cross curricula shared information on students’ achievement levels and abilities. I use them myself and find them advantageous for students and teacher, and they are successful. I have measured the success of this activity in several ways. Firstly, empirically, through observing how learners participate and the kinds of information they share. Secondly, a simple online survey was conducted seeking learners’ personal opinion of the activity. Finally through teacher intuition, that important, but often overlooked skill that seasoned teachers acquire – the innate knowledge that the activity worked well. There was harmony in the group, everyone participated and the group asked to be able to repeat the activity in another lesson. If the focus in the learning circle remains on fluency over accuracy, it will become apparent that EAL students have already managed to develop skills in the learning processes, which enables them to navigate conceptually from their first language to their newly acquired second language.

The learning circle opens up a dialogue with students which highlights particular assumptions and needs in essential skill development within any academic program.  One assumption which all teachers make is that their students are literate and able to read. Is this a valid assumption to make given that specific issues about reading will inevitably arise when the process of reading is not fully acknowledged and/or understood? I think not because the processes leading to any learner being able to read are complex, seldom linear in their progression and is inextricably linked to other aspects of the foundations of literacy as well as a person’s psycho-cognitive development. For example, we read from a very early age, the shared signs and symbols that underpin the uniquely personal world to which we adhere. Infants and small children learn to read the cues, symbols and codes of their immediate social environment often before they can articulate language utterances, or construct a string of words together. It is widely accepted today that the approving and/or disapproving adult responses very young children get to their reading of the world does impact on their ability to learn as they grow into themselves. It is called self confidence and it emanates from these very early childhood experiences. It is this self confidence or lack of it, which they bring into our classrooms and in turn affects their capacity to learn and to read well.  Having gathered this understanding in the field of teaching and learning over two decades, I feel there’s an important place for spontaneity, improvisation and creativity in the classroom, and I am reminded of the words of Pablo Casals: Every second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and never will be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four and that Paris is the capital of France. We should say to each of them, “Do you know who you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In the millions of years that have passed, there has never been another child like you.”[2]


[1] Eisner, E.W The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs, p.97

[2] Casals, P Quotation’, Great Musicians on Sound, Spirit and Heart, http://www.spiritsound.com/musiker.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s