Improvised Learning

Gar Reynolds of Presentation Zen is a big fan of Bill Murray (me too!) and in a recent post calls attention to a discussion with Howard Stern 1 on how he connects with an audience and his experience with improvisational performance.

However, it was Reynolds concluding section that really caught my attention, first as it relates to students.

Public speaking and improv should be part of our education. It should not just be for a few students in the speech class or the even fewer students in the drama department. All of us can learn from the experiences with improvisation, and with performances such as plays and music, etc.

Outside of drama and speech classes, how many teachers actually encourage, much less tolerate, students who “improvise” in class. Improvisation implies more than one way of communicating ideas, more than one way of viewing the world, which often doesn’t fit with our standardized approach to education.

This idea of “state” is very important. Over time, with experience, you learn to put yourself into a different state when communicating before an audience. This is something that even experienced teachers do, perhaps without even thinking about it. Step by step, with experience, almost anyone can become much, much better.

Great teachers are also great improvisational performers, able to quickly adapt their approach and message to fit the needs of their students. However, this not a skill valued by all administrators, and in this age of scripted test prep, often as actively discouraged as student improvisation.


  1. of whom I’m not a fan

Gotta Fill Up Those Young Brains

Jay Mathews believes we are not teaching young children enough facts.

Before continuing I should note that I’ve spent most of my instructional time working with middle and high school students and adults, which means I have very few qualifications to pontificate on elementary education. However, there are a couple of thoughts in Mathews piece that need to be challenged.

First, he quotes the parent of a first grader and president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank.1

“Notice what’s missing,” Petrilli said. “Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents? People who study education for a living understand what’s going on — this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such ‘conceptual understanding’ over ‘rote facts and figures.’ ” He had found the kindergarten fare similarly mushy.

I can’t help thinking that if elementary teachers were able to do more with that “conceptual understanding” early, instead of all the drilling on “rote facts and figures”, kids might be better prepared for advanced study later in their educational lives. Not to mention less inclined to dislike school by the time they reach the middle years.

Of course, since the standardized tests that Mathews and the Fordham people adore so much depend heavily on kids being able to spit back the facts and figures, I understand the longing for stuffing the curriculum with more of them as early as possible.

Then there is this statement from Mathews himself: “But filling young brains with useful facts has to start early if they are to read.”

Again, I can’t speak to the process of how young children learn to read, but the concept of “filling young brains with useful facts” is straight out of the classic, simplistic concept of education as a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.

It’s an incredibly clueless idea, one still widely embraced by “reformers”. And one of the major impediments to ever bringing true reform to American schools.


  1. The National Zoo also has a “think tank”… for orangutans. I wonder which one gets more useful results. :-)

Still Waiting For The Revolution

While performing one of those periodic and necessary cleaning out of drawers and boxes, a process where you rediscover long forgotten crap, I came across a 1992 book called School’s Out. I vaguely remember reading it and my current reading list is long enough that it’s certainly not worth a repeat.

But the description from the back cover was interesting.

Our schools are dying – suffocated by overcrowding, restrained by outmoded teaching techniques, and strangled by bureaucratic red tape. Students are dropping out in alarming numbers – and too many recent graduates lack even the most basic skills necessary to compete in today’s society.

It goes on to state that the author will provide “radical, imperative and affordable solutions” to these and other problems, “calling for no less than a complete overhaul of the American educational system while laying the groundwork for a remarkable revolution in learning that is long past due.”

Pretty sure the author didn’t make his case to more than a few of us since more than twenty years later, that “ remarkable revolution” is even farther past due.

Think Like a Child

creative-cycle.png

From NPR’s Morning Edition, a new study: “Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have found that 4- and 5-year-olds are smarter than college students when it comes to figuring out how toys and gadgets work.”

Creative cycle

However, “smarter” is probably the wrong term in this case, as the sentence prior to this one explains: “It turns out that young children may be more open-minded than adults when it comes to solving problems” and later in the piece that “children are better at solving problems when the solution is an unexpected one”.

But you really don’t need research to understand that young children are far more willing to experiment and play with new situations, like electronic devices, than older kids and especially adults.

So what could possibly happen in the years between Kindergarten and college to alter that approach to problem solving? I wonder…

Anyway, all of this reminds me of the work of Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, who a decade or more ago was writing about how we need to spread the learning process followed naturally by 5 year olds into the rest of K12.

Instead of forcing the artificial processes of “formal” learning from upper grades down into early education.

Because We’ve Always Done It

From the latest edition of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, titled Think Like a Child, this exchange between the host Stephen Dubner and Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. They’re discussing the differences between the way young children and adults learn about the world.

DUBNER: Implicit in that is while we have this strong set of priors, right, prior beliefs that we act on. And also implicit in what you’re saying is we have a lot of heuristics, we have a lot of shortcuts that we’ve learned work well enough, and so we do them always, right?

GOPNIK: Exactly. Let me give you an example in the universities for example. It’s a good example, my world.  We give lectures. And the origins of that are the days when there weren’t printed books, so you had one manuscript and the professor was reading from the manuscript because the students didn’t have books. It is literally a medieval instructional technique. But we’ve been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s kind of what you do when you’re a faculty member. And the fact that we have no evidence at all—in fact, we have some evidence to the contrary—that this is a good way to get anybody to learn anything, doesn’t keep us from doing it. Mostly we’re doing it because we’ve always done it.

I’ve stashed that phrase “medieval instructional technique” away in my notes for later use.

Gopnik continues.

I think what they say is, ‘Well, we’ve kind of always done it, and it seems to work OK, and we’re good at doing it.’ And I think, here’s the most relevant thing: It would take so much work to try and think through all the alternatives, and try them out and see which ones work and which ones don’t. That would just be such an effort that, even if maybe in the long run it would be a bit of an advantage, in terms of my short-run utilities, and in particular, just for me, it’s not going to make a difference.

Think about it. That whole paragraph could describe the American education system, even after the reform efforts of most politicians and billionaires are applied.