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

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