I’ve been writing and speaking recently about an idea I’m calling, “Teaching for the Stretch,” which is all about engaging students in “conceptual play” to help them reach higher and deeper levels of understanding. Part of this approach involves asking students more open-ended, speculative questions. As I’ve been speaking with teachers and principals, I’ve heard them express some fear that truly open-ended questions will pull classroom discourse far off topic and away from the lesson as planned. In many schools, we demand that teachers write lessons according to a particular format and turn in their plans every week. How can we now tell them to ask “why,” and “how,” and “what do you think,” and “how do you know” questions that may not have a simple or single answer—much less the kinds of “what if we looked at it another way” questions that I’ve been advocating? Aren’t we just opening the door to chaos, disorder, and the Death of the Plan?Well…possibly. But I think we can open the door a little, just to get some fresh air, without inviting chaos in for dinner. We’ve given teachers-in-training many strategies for classroom management, but I think we’ve shortchanged them on a crucial piece of the puzzle, which has to do with managing discourse.
Whether we’re talking about a traditional, direct-instruction model or something more open and inquiry-based, the teacher is the overall manager of the time and space set aside for instruction, and instruction is a living, breathing, shared experience. It’s not just a delivery of information; It’s a conversation—an exploration. In some ways, it’s a performance, and no performance, even a monologue, is purely monologue. We’re always talking to someone. Someone has been invited into the room, and someone else is there to create an experience for them. Whatever happens in that room, it’s being done for the benefit of the audience.
We often talk as if our time was the precious commodity, as if students were creating obstacles to what we were trying to accomplish. That mindset suggests (whether consciously or not) that students owe us their attention, and that when they become distracted, it’s an insult to us. But what if we thought about their time as being more important? Our students are legally mandated to attend our classes, but they can certainly absent themselves mentally if they’re not engaged. What if we acted as though their attention was a gift that we had to earn? What if we thought about classroom management the way an actor or a stand-up comic thinks about their time on stage? I’m not saying we have to entertain and amuse students every second of the day. Learning is difficult, and we shouldn’t have to pretend that it isn’t. It’s work. But the teacher still needs to “own the room,” as a performer might say—not for her own ego gratification, but to be able to shape and manage the experience for the benefit of the audience.
How do actors or other performers learn how to “own a room?” For a start, they learn how to use their voices and bodies to purpose and effect. An actor spends years getting voice and movement training to help her embody a wide range of characters and emotions. A comic learns when to stand still, when to prowl the stage, and how to use his voice and his microphone to create all sorts of vocal effects. He learns through long, hard experience that a whisper is funnier, or that a pause makes the laugh bigger. Even trial lawyers learn that during direct examination, they should stand to the side and let the witness talk to the jury, but that during cross examination, they should stand between the witness and the jury, so that their questions and commentary become the filter through which the jury hears the witness’ testimony. It’s subtle, but it matters. It shapes the audience’s experience.
Veteran teachers pick up similar techniques—when to get quiet and when to raise their voices; when to move around the room and when to stand still—but by and large, we make teachers learn these things on the job, haphazardly, and we don’t give any guarantees that they’ll learn them at all. They are not part of the curriculum; they’re just things you pick up along the way, if you’re lucky. And that’s a shame. We sometimes say that everything a child does in a classroom is data, but it works the other way around, as well. The way a teacher dresses, speaks, and moves speaks volumes to children, and all of those things can either support or undermine the academic work the teacher is trying to do.
Imagine if part of a teacher’s training included the purposeful and strategic use of voice, movement, and body language. Imagine if novice teachers learned techniques for holding their student “audience” in the palm of their hands and earning their attention and engagement. Imagine if teachers could approach a class period as a shared performance, a carefully and purposefully shaped period of time that has a beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion. That’s what our best teachers do already. If the skills are similar to those learned by actors and trial lawyers, why can’t we “bottle” that stuff and teach our cadets how to do it?
There’s another crucial skill that speaks directly to the “teaching for the stretch” idea, the need to breathe air into a lesson to allow for questioning that probes and pushes a student’s learning. I’m talking about the skill of improvisation. Veteran performers know that every night holds the potential for a hundred disasters. They learn how to roll with the punches and keep the show moving. Athletes know that diagrams drawn in the locker room are lovely ideas that can be scuttled by reality in a split second. They know how important it is to be able to analyze a dynamic situation quickly and take the appropriate action. Teachers need the same set of skills, but again, we do not teach them explicitly. And we should. No matter how perfect and well-crafted a lesson plan may be, reality has a way of throwing curve balls at you, and if you can’t hit them…or duck…you’re in trouble.
How does this relate to stretch and conceptual play? I think it has to do with the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of answers we expect. If our lesson plans set us up to ask only closed, fact-oriented questions, we can estimate lesson time fairly efficiently. We throw out the question, we hunt for who has the right answer, and we move on. But if we’re more interested in the wrong answers and what they tell us about the way students are thinking, it’s very hard to know how long that kind of exploration may take, or where a more open-ended question might take us. If you don’t know what kind of answer you’re going to get—or what kinds of questions students might ask of you—then you need to be prepared to change gears and respond. Refusing to respond (to a genuine question) just because it takes you off track betrays a lack of respect for students. It shows them that your time and your plan are more important than their needs, which I think we can all agree is a little bit backwards.
So how can we help teachers be prepared for the curve balls and know how to respond to them? This is where training in improvisation can come in handy.
A recent blog post from Mindshift talks about the power of improvisation for students, saying that “improv chips away at mental barriers that block creative thinking…and rewards spontaneous, intuitive responses.” But it’s important for teachers, too. As they say, “It also reminds teachers that listening and responding to students, and adapting to their needs, is more educational than obeying a rigid teaching plan.”
Improvisation teaches a wide variety of strategies for being in the moment and being available to respond to whatever gets thrown at you. Some of the techniques you learn include Agree and Add, which is also known as Yes, And. We’re often trained to say No when we get thrown a curve ball—or, at most, Yes, But: “Yes, that’s an interesting point, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.” Improv teaches you to listen to and then accept the things that get thrown at you--and then build upon them. It gives respect to the thrower of curve balls (or, to be kinder, the student questioner) and takes seriously what they have offered. It teaches us to avoid rejecting the things we haven’t planned for, just because we didn’t plan for them—to accept them and find a way to use them in our teaching. It teaches you to be ever on the lookout for the “teachable moment,” and then make the most of it.
Improv teaches you to explore, together with your partner, whatever you’ve found—to dig into it and ask questions about it. What’s in there? How does it work? What else does it lead to? These are all terrifying questions to a teacher who is trying to re-route a student away from a tangential question and back to the main idea. But if we believe that tangential lines of thought are often where students become truly engaged—and that those tangential questions can reveal how a student is thinking (or mis-thinking) about the core lesson material—then we need to have strategies for dealing legitimately, not dismissively with them. Every one of them can be a teachable moment if we know how to make use of them—if we’re ready to change our plan and engage with the moment we’ve been given.
Every great athlete and soldier knows that all plans are provisional; that reality intrudes in surprising ways. We know it, too. So why don’t we meet the challenge head-on and help our teachers-in-training build the skills they’ll need to deal with the crazy curve-balls that will absolutely, without question, get tossed at them?
As the old Yiddish expression tells us, “Man plans; God laughs.” If we know that the universe is liable to laugh at our best planning, maybe we can learn to laugh along with it.