Improvisation

or how to juggle complexities in life and learning

Improvisation and creativity are capacities we would do well to develop in an increasingly unpredictable, complex and at times chaotic existence.‘ Alfonso Montouri, 2003

Since I can’t think of a better description of the times we are living through, or a more accurate assessment of the skills we will need to get through them, now seems like a good time to explore the value of improvisation. In a journal article from 2003, Alfonso Montouri uses both musical and sporting metaphors to demonstrate the ways in which improvisation is integral to the creative process. It is also a pretty handy skill when it comes to teaching.

I always thought improvisation was short-hand for either laziness, or lack of planning. Something arising from a state of unpreparedness anyway. I still would have considered the ability to improvise as clever – to come up with quick-witted responses or think on your feet to make ingenious use of resources in a tight situation is a skill to be admired. But I now understand improvisation is not unprepared, it is exactly the opposite. To improvise skillfully, and effectively, is to be multi-prepared, in a way that involves both planning and flexibility.

The moment which literally flipped my thinking on its head came during a circus festival workshop I attended in 2018. I thought this juggling workshop, titled ‘What does Stuff Do?’ and led by acclaimed performer and physical theatre artist Robin Boon Dale, sounded intriguing and fun, and I looked forward to the chance to hone a self-taught and very basic skill that I first picked up during my teenage years. What I actually learned was surprisingly meta-physical. As we moved through a series of simple exercises building in complexity, I realised this juggling lark was not just throwing balls in the air, predicting where they would land and catching them. It was about the co-ordination of different mental processes and ultimately about translation. And yes, improvisation. Through manipulation of objects we develop an awareness of the way we interact with objects and move our body in space. Babies and toddlers are adept at this mind-altering process. We translate our intentions, or emotions, into physical language through manipulation of our bodies and the physical objects we interact with. In devising a sequence of movements even in play, we give meaning to apparent randomness. We understand ourselves and the world better.

I came away from the workshop thinking – wow – this should be on the curriculum. Juggling, physical theatre, circus – in whatever form you approach it, this offers something fundamental. I don’t mean once in a blue moon – “let’s have a circus workshop, what a treat, the kids can let of steam and have fun” – I mean really value the intellectual work and development opportunity and make it part of the primary educational experience for everyone. Does that sound far fetched? Should we really value circus skills as much as foundational knowledge? Well, yes.

The skill of juggling, and therefore improvisation, teaches you to master confidence in your ability to react and respond; to translate between different states and de-code patterns and sequencing. This is foundational knowledge of our human capacity to function in the world, both physically and intellectually.

These skills teach us that improvisation is not a poor substitute for preparedness. It is an altogether different kind of preparedness which involves changing the way we think.  Many of the systems which underpin society, and particularly around education, management, and the workplace are predicated on the valuing of order and control. Improvisation forms part of an alternative approach, one that values flexibility, and non-linear processes which allow for linking and meaning making to occur in the moment. To do this well requires knowledge, bravery and intimate attention – the stuff of true expertise.

The workshop, while challenging my rudimentary juggling abilities, made me think about the way I work in terms of improvisation. I know I feel more comfortable with improvisation than I do with exactitude. Whether cooking a meal, delivering a lecture or taking a class, the more planning I do the less confident I am in the outcome. Or is it, the less interested I am in the outcome? Less interested = less attention = less effective.

At some point in my young adult life, I picked up a quote I believe is attributed to Picasso, which says: “If you know what you are going to do, then there is no point in doing it. You would be better to do something else.”

Going ‘off-plan’ is more exciting from a creative perspective, but mastering a process that has so many variables is a lesson in flexible thinking, and a discipline in itself.

“Creativity involves constant organising, dis-organising, and re-organising. It involves actively breaking down assumptions, givens, traditions, pushing boundaries and moving out of comfort zones.” Alfonso Montouri again.

You could happily substitute “creativity” with “learning” in the above statement. I find this is so often true. Learning and the creativity go hand in hand in the early years, until we are taught to focus on one at the expense of the other. 

Improvisation does not involve being passive, shoddy, imprecise or acting without knowledge. Instead, it relies on active listening and is a powerful method of communication and connection, because it leaves the audience or participants in no doubt that what you are saying or doing relates directly to them. They are participant, not recipient. Improvisation is an acute instrument for creating something together. Paying close attention to the moment you are in, and responding to the specific factors that are present is as relevant in teaching as in learning, art, business and of course life. When it comes to education, or any of the biggest questions facing society, we should definitely be willing to improvise. We shouldn’t be afraid to rip up the plan.

Links and references:

What does Stuff Do? Robin Boon Dale, BestofBeFestival Circomedia 2018 https://thecircusdiaries.com/2018/07/29/what-does-stuff-do-by-robin-boon-dale/

The complexity of improvisation and the improvisation of complexity: Social science, art and creativity Montuori, Alfonso Human Relations; Feb 2003; 56, 2; ProQuest pg. 237

Managing the Learning Process Through Release and Control

I recently contributed a guest post to Hidden Giants blog which considers an approach to learning and teaching that is built upon creative systems thinking; among other things, replacing the traditional school structure with a core and periphery ‘network’ model. As a participant of AOB, a weekly online discussion forum hosted by Paul Gorman of Hidden Giants, I have been involved in conversations with education professionals from many backgrounds, asking deep questions about education and schooling in a changed, and rapidly changing post-covid world. In particular, recent conversations have centred around relevance, motivation and desire.

Having worked most of my life in educational settings, my position as artist and CEO also afforded me unique opportunities for insight into corporate and commercial settings, so that I have been able to observe many parallels between education and business, and the role that creativity plays in both. Management, be it self-management or organisational management is key to any enterprise, creative or otherwise. Closely linked to management is motivation.

Motivation is a driver of any form of work. The motivation of pupils, to engage in education, to learn, and to uphold an agreed standard of behaviour, is of concern to teachers and school leaders. To managers in a business setting, it is the motivation of employees to be productive, responsive and reliable that is paramount.  

Following the line of thought from creative systems theory, it doesn’t take much to expose further parallels between managing the learning process and managing the creative process. Chris Bilton, author of Management and Creativity (Blackwell Publishing, 2007) gives his take on managing the creative process in a chapter titled ‘Managing Creative Work Through Release and Control’:

“In pursuit of creativity, today’s managers are encouraged to reject control and hierarchy in favour of release and individualism … to enable the individual autonomy and self-actualisation of the employee, not to control the workforce by setting limits and deadlines.” (Bilton, 2007: 66)

Throughout the 1990s, arms length management became popular as replacement for the traditional post-industrial ‘command and control’ management style. The trend for taking a more employee centred approach to management originated in the 1960s, based on Abraham Maslow’s theory of intrinsic motivation, and grew in popularity over the coming decades, particularly in the newly branded Creative Industries* (Bilton, 2007: 70). The arms-length management style of creative industries is described as ‘soft control’ which runs on very subtle models of control that rely on people’s intrinsic motivations (Florida, 2002: 134).

“The central assumptions of neo-liberal management is derived from a core argument about the motivation of employees. Much of the rhetoric around this derives from assumptions about the motivation of artists. Theories of management and creativity overlap in this debate over the extent to which motivation is driven or discouraged by the constraints and expectations imposed upon us.” (Bilton, 2007: 80)

If teachers and school leaders are the managers in an educational setting, I’ve found a lot of the theory that applies to creative management can be overlaid more or less directly into education. A similar shift towards pupil autonomy has occurred in schools. Throughout the 1990s, pupil councils and committees have become commonplace in schools. When Room 13 was first set up in 1994, a group of pupils forming a management team modelled on traditional company structure with assigned roles such as Secretary, Treasurer and Managing Director, was exceptional. Worthy of coverage in national mainstream press and Times Educational Supplement, even. 20 years later, most schools boasted multiple committees and children were familiar with the management structure, the practice of holding meetings and the roles involved. Meanwhile, the Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland’s national framework for children and young people aged 3-18, launched in 2010. CfE revolves around 4 capacities:

Diagram showing the 4 capacities Curriculum for Excellence: To enable ALL young people to become: Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Responsible Citizens, Effective Contributors.

Its stated intention is to instil a culture in education that is individually focused, and ‘places learners at the heart of education’. If we draw parallels between the concept of release and control as management style or as a teaching style, what stands out is that both rely on intrinsic motivation.

The intrinsic motivation that is the basis of humankind’s innate creativity is one of the reasons I think understanding the creative process is so important as we explore new modes of learning.

With talk of blended learning, flexi-schooling and an increase in online resources for remote access applying to learners of all ages, learning to self-manage is arguably the most important task for pupils in a post-covid education system (and as remote working becomes the norm, probably quite significant for adult workers too, for that matter). Self-motivated learners are key to the success of distance learning. Insight from 8-year-old Mika Kirk demonstrates that if they have the motivation, resources and parental support, learners could be better off under a self-directed model of learning (Silver Lining for Learning blog, 18 June 2020).

There is an important question over how those in less fortunate circumstances would fare under such a system. Self-management is a huge challenge for many young people, (and adults) especially those growing up in an environment where boundaries and support are less in evidence. A learning model that serves all young people, whatever their circumstances, equally well would remain as elusive as ever. However, there is a chance for learners to develop those skills. Effective self-management also happens to be an essential part of the creative process. When it comes to creativity, motivation and talent are distributed equally throughout the population. Opportunity is not. Inundating children with opportunities to access and experience the creative process, whether in or out of a school setting, can kick start their motivation and self management capabilities. Young people growing up in challenging circumstances are often among the most motivated and committed participants of art projects they are lucky enough to have the opportunity to access.

Unfortunately, within formal educational settings those lacking in self-management skills, as evidenced through a perceived lack of motivation, may find themselves subject to more forceful attempts to motivate them by external means.  Extrinsic motivation – reward or punishment – is thought to undermine the creative process. This was explored in a series of landmark studies in motivational psychology which took place in the early 1970s. Experiments carried out by Professor Mark Lepper at Bing Nursery School in 1973 studied the effect of introducing an award for drawing, an activity the 4-year-old subjects had previously been spontaneously attracted to and showed a high level of interest in. The four-year-olds who were encouraged to draw with the promise of a reward showed markedly less interest in the activity they had previously enjoyed, when the prospect of reward was removed. Children who had not been rewarded continued to spend longer at the activity and produce drawings of higher quality (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973).

Similar results were found among adult subjects in what is known as the Soma puzzle experiment (Deci, 1971). Adult participants were given a puzzle to solve within a certain time. One group were offered to payment in return for successfully solving the puzzle. Once they were told the time was up, they were asked to wait while the researchers complied the data. At this point the participants who were paid were more likely to abandon the task while the unpaid participants were more likely to continue in the hope of solving the puzzle (Deci 1971).

When rewards or targets are introduced as an attempt to motivate and control the outcomes of a learning process, there is a danger that the focus becomes the reward rather than the learning. As many who have turned professional at a much-loved hobby know, being conditioned to expect a reward for activities previously enjoyed for their own sake can alter one’s attitude towards them.

Rewards and targets can be motivational in certain circumstances though, and when used wisely can provide a useful tool and motivation for unrewarding or unappealing tasks. If this method of motivation is to be effective, the relevance of the reward is vital.

“At different stages in the [learning] process, different types of motivation and different types of constraint will be called upon. Managerial interventions and extrinsic forms of motivation in the form of targets, evaluation, rewards and penalties are likely to work alongside internal compulsions and desires.” (Bilton, 2007: 80)

Does the curriculum take account of internal compulsions and desires? Rewards in education are given for achieving pre-set targets, the criteria for which are set perhaps decades before the learner working towards them has even begun their schooling. They are designed to monitor comparable progress of individual learners within a system. What if targets were set with individuals in mind, with an agreed definition of success that is relevant to the individual?

Among the tasks for managers, as for teachers, parents or anyone trying to facilitate a learning process, is the crucial question of when to stand back and when to intervene. A well timed and appropriate motivation or reward, even if it is simply to interject a question or word of praise, can inspire a learner’s progress. A poorly judged intervention can detract from the process and derail their motivation. As a supportive observer, it is difficult to judge the right approach for the right moment in every situation.

Bilton speculates, as to what might be the role of the manager in the creative process: “Managers might provide a catalyst for moments of synthesis and clarity in the creative process…”

I wonder how this definition could apply to the role of the teacher, in the student’s learning process? Let’s not say in the classroom as the practice of corralling children in classrooms may not be an essential component of their experience of education in future. Teachers might provide moments of clarity for individual students, to offer structure and context, helping them reflect and make sense of their discoveries.

These careful judgements, the routine scaffolding and context setting, uniquely adapted for every individual pupil, to help get them the best out of their learning journey, are the skills for which teachers are to be revered. To value teachers for their skills rather than their output would be to place them in a system which defines the goal without attempting to prescribe the means.

When it comes to intervening in the learning process, the answer is of course always subject to context.  The success rate, between individuals, or co-workers in any such process also owes a lot to co-operation and mutual trust. The importance of empathy – between mangers and creatives, as with teachers and their pupils – cannot be over-stated.

Bilton notes that in divided organisations, or those where a more traditional hierarchy is in place, managers define problems and creatives solve them. In a genuinely creative organisation, managers and creatives negotiate the boundaries and parameters around the problem together.

Are the boundaries between management and creativity clearly defined or porous? What about in learning? When it comes to the exchange between student and teacher are the rules of the game fixed?

We can assume the rules of education are up for review. In Scotland anyway, the term ‘blended learning’ was put forth as a solution to post-covid educational model, then hastily retracted – possibly due to mass confusion over what this would actually mean and how schools and parents would find it practicable. In the absence of clarification, I take the liberty of interpreting blended learning not being about content, and whether this is accessed online or face to face, but the fine balance between release and control. Using a form of blended learning that is centred on managing the learning process through release and control, can we rebuild the education system based on empathy and prioritise self-management and motivation? We can start by valuing teachers, and their instinct for developing students’ ability to learn – a motivation that will serve them throughout life.

*It is noted by Bilton elsewhere in his text, that the term ‘Creative Industries’ was first coined in a document published by the UK Govt’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 1998.

Links and References:

Bilton, Chris. Management and Creativity Ch.4: Managing Creative Work Through Release and Control.

Hidden Giants, experiments in Learning

https://hiddengiants.org/2020/06/09/creative-systems-theory-a-post-covid-19-model-for-education-guest/

Times Educational Supplement 04 July 2003

https://rainbowrubbish.com/tes-2003/

Telegraph Magazine, 08 March 2003

https://rainbowrubbish.com/telegraph-magazine-2003/

Silver Lining for Learning blog: article by Fiona Young and daughter Mika:

https://silverliningforlearning.org/designing-schools-with-the-experts-co-creating-learning-spaces-in-a-post-covid-world/

Education Scotland: Curriculum for Excellence

https://education.gov.scot/education-scotland/scottish-education-system/policy-for-scottish-education/policy-drivers/cfe-building-from-the-statement-appendix-incl-btc1-5/what-is-curriculum-for-excellence

Professor Mark Lepper, Bing Nursery School experiments

https://bingschool.stanford.edu/news/mark-lepper-intrinsic-motivation-extrinsic-motivation-and-process-learning