Improvisation as part of teaching

Draft 1

September 5, 2002




The underlying hypothesis of this collection of papers is that understanding the structure of the information in a course can improve teaching and learning. Some of the reasons that I have presented elsewhere include strengthening associations or the ability to abstract from one set of examples to broader questions. This paper argues that improvisation is a critical part of the teaching process, and that effect improvisation depends on working with the structure of the information.

Improvisation is the the ability to take existing pieces and put them together in a new combination for a purpose. The pieces could be bits of information about a problem or they could be parts of a melody. Teachers or students apply tools or methods to these pieces in a very flexible manner.

Improvisation in teaching

If improvisation is important in teaching and learning, what are the conditions that can be set up to promote this in lectures. How can we use improvisation in our own teaching and how can we get students to improvise in order to solve problems and answer novel questions?

In my environmental science courses I usually use some variation on the following class schedule;

  1. presentation of new concepts and associations to previous concepts, sets the context
  2. an assignment that has the students find examples of those concepts in use from the media or literature
  3. lecture period with examples, problem solving and discussion
  4. application assignment where students use the concepts and approaches to address a novel question

In step 3, I use new examples that come from other sources than their textbook or work with examples that were provided from step 2 in the media assignment to demonstrate how to use the material we have learned to solve problems. Step 3 is the key step in these lectures, it is where students move from just memorizing the facts and example problems to being able to solve broader problems. This step requires me to improvise, take a given set of rules and apply them to given problems. I think this step works better when I have a good idea of the structure of the information that I want the students to construct and also an idea of the different structures that the students might be harboring.

Step 3, the examples and discussion, can be viewed as a conversation with the students. This can take the form of a teacher initiated question, student response and the evaluation (IRE). Classroom discourse can be described as building from these simple elements and having an overall set of concepts that are being addressed. In the analysis of classroom discourse there were some cases that couldn't be categorized and broke all the rules, from this Cazen (1998) comes to the "recognition of improvisation as a necessary prart of teaching competence."

Sawyer - get quotes on how important improvisation is in teaching and how it is related to learning jazz


get the reference on novice and experienced teachers -



I am addressing this issue of conversation and improvisation in the context of current course design that uses some amount of web-based resources. A course, such as mine, that uses both face-to-face and web the conversation can be pushed into the class time. In fact, I use the web assignments to prepare the students for the discussion session. Courses that rely heavily on web-based resources or interaction, will need to address the role of the conversation in their course.


Teaching as a performance

the conversation is similar to an improvisation


performance in the sense of Perkins -

performance in the sense of an artistic activity that requires skill, intellect, (** elements of jazz)

similarity to music from Wade 1981

we have an international language of music but -- different reference -- we don't have vocabulary to describe the structure of information

the form of the music builds the expectation of the listener, they expect features of the music

there is a structure to classical jazz AABA,

"imagination flourishes when it is subject to a carefully created structure"


similarity to jazz improvisation

From coker 1987 - "any control over improvisation must originate in the intellect" thus it can be learned

musicians aiming for 50% predictability

the structure of jazz has a melody - developed from motif, contour, rhythm, and essential pitches

there is a "functional structure"

(** a way to describe how the structure makes the improvisation hold together, or work)

notes from Sawyer 2001


Student improvisation

The other side of the story is the importance of understanding how student improvise. Perkins (****) defines understanding as a very active concept where students have to act on their new knowledge in a flexible way. This requires putting new components together in novel ways, improvising for solutions.

The value of understanding the structure of the information in this case is that the teacher should make sure that the students have all of the individual skills and competencies and then provide situations for the students to practice and perform their abilities to solve problems. Solving problems requires the students to improvise.

Viewing the students' task as improvisation povides the insight that faculty should construct the problems as themes that are ammenable, even inviting, to improvisize on. Just as in music, certain melodies are good substrates for improvisation, the structure of the problems posed to students might need to be constructed to contain elements that ****. In jazz, one of the structures that provides this is that the melody contains notes that are in a chord progression.

more thought here -- this needs to be more persuasive

Importance of structure in improvisation



Perkins (****)

Sawyer, Keith 2001. Creating Conversation: Improvisations in Everyday Discourse. Hampton Press.

Cazen, Courtney B. 1988. Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. LB 1033 .C34 1988.

Coker, Jerry. 1987. Improvising Jazz. Simon & Schuster, New York

Wade, Graham 1981. The Shape of Music: An introduction to Form in Classical Music. Allison & Busby, London. MT 58 .W275