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Teaching and learning is dispositional.
Our disposition is the tendency of our spirit. It is our mental or emotional outlook. It is the way we live and move in the world. And, of course, our disposition informs how we bring ourselves to learning about things. It impacts the way that we teach, as well.
This is Sam. I'm blogging on the behest of Happy Valley Improv. I've been tasked with writing a little something about improv, pedagogy, and disrupting the norm. So here goes.
I first got involved with teacher education in 2011. I'd been teaching high school for ten years, and was working on my PhD at The University of Minnesota. I supervised student teachers in the spring of 2011. I followed potential high school English teachers, as they completed their student teaching. These people were placed in various high schools throughout the Twin Cities. I was given a rubric to assess these aspiring teachers and their ability to, well, teach. Mostly, I was asked to name their dispositional attributes.
At The University of Minnesota, teaching was a dispositional art. How flexible were these teaching candidates at meeting student needs? How positive were they in relating with their students? Were they confrontational, amiable, rigid, etc.? I was given a survey with over 100 questions. I filled out this form for each of the student teachers I was assigned to work with. I'm not a fan of surveys, and the questionnaire seemed formulaic. Still, I liked the idea that our dispositions are central to our ability to teach. This seemed true to me, even if a survey felt forced. In some ways, I measured students on how they lived and moved in their classrooms.
Assessment is tricky, of course, because it assumes that we've prepared students to be assessed. How could those of us in teacher education hope to teach our students dispositional expertise? We weren't grading these potential teachers on their ability to write an essay or pass an exam. No, we were assessing their ability to be with people. Discussion, lecture, or other traditional forms of learning, to my mind, do not impact the ways we move through the world as much as improv can.
Improv teaches us how to be with people in affirmative ways. We learn to build off each other's ideas, work together non-evaluatively, and exist in a temporary, carefully crafted group-mind. We don't learn about these things. We practice them. And our participation in improv, to my mind, changes us. I've come to think that inviting teachers and learners into improvisation impacts our dispositional ability to be with each other productively. We become flexible. We become adaptable. Maybe most importantly, we become open.
The norms of teaching and learning, in some ways, prohibit authentic connections with people in learning environments. We're so busy with predetermined outcomes, tests, or other standardized practices and procedures, that we don't connect meaningfully with each other. An improvisational disposition disrupts this sort of mechanized, formulaic teaching and learning.
This conversation about teaching and learning isn't really new. John Dewey worried at the turn of the 20th century that classrooms ought to facilitate vibrant, social connectivity. He argued that democracy depended on it. Traditional power dynamics should fall away in a good classroom, and people should form new ways of being together. Participating in good improv might teach us how to better be with each other, to be better with each other.
Happy Valley Improv has a couple of missions. Yes, we want to create improv. Improv makes us laugh, and inspires joy. We also want to share that joy with people around us. Still, we also want to better understand what improv is, and what it might afford us in all sorts of contexts. I'm a professor of education, now, and so I want to learn about the relationship between improv and teaching and learning. This blog post is a simple journal, really. I just wonder how our work as improvisers changes us. I'm curious about the impact this work has on other aspects of our lives, namely, teaching and learning.
I've been working with a colleague at Vanderbilt to think about improvisation and pedagogy. He told me that his interest in improv was simple. He went to an improv show, and was surprised at how much joy there was at the event. He compared that improv show to classrooms which, for him, are often miserable spaces. How, he asked me, might we bring that same joy in improv to the classroom?
This is a brilliant question, I think. And I wonder if the answer might have something to do with the dispositional ways we move through the world.