This kind of learner-teacher can then promote a culture of play that encourages both students and teachers to listen and respect each other, rely on one another, inquire, take chances, make mistakes, and find new ways to learn together playfully in a supportive classroom climate. We believe that this would lead to a Play Mindset.
This type of learning and classroom culture can develop learners ‘global competencies’, as coined by Fullan and associates (Fullan, Quinn & McEachen, 2018), which include character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.
Adopting a Play Mindset with Improvisation and Playback Theatre
Research has shown that teaching through performance affects the growing person in five dimensions: social, physical, intellectual, creative and emotional development (Hillyard, 2010). We believe that to generate a play mindset involves creating an improvisational classroom learning culture for teachers, where they play, act and improvise together with their students. We have found that teachers exposed to this kind of learning experience discover their personal and professional perceptions about learning and motivation. Shifts in their own mindsets inaugurate a process that can lead to changes in their actual teaching practices and increased self-efficacy for teaching by play and performance (Bandura, 2006).
We have been introducing Improvisation and Playback Theatre techniques to pre and in-service teachers (K-12, English as a Foreign Language, History, Hebrew Language, Physical Education, Special Education, etc.) and to principals and professors, through workshops and academic courses. The methods we have adopted in our own teacher training come from the world of Improvisation and Playback Theatre.
Improvisation is defined as a creative act executed without planning and while listening and responding to others in real-time (Magerko, Manzoul, Riedl, Baumer, Fuller, Luther & Pearce, 2009). Improvisation involves a performance that is invented on the spot by actors in response to a general subject or specific input from the audience. This leads to the creation of something unexpected, playful and surprising. Those improvising must be in the “here and now,” connect to intuition, focus on the process and not the product, and demonstrate a willingness to make mistakes (Magerko et al., 2009). Based on the ideas of Viola Spolin (1999), Keith Johnstone (1989) and others, some of the principles necessary for successful improvisation include: playing while being in the moment; being willing to fail; saying ‘Yes’ to others and their ideas; saying ‘Yes, and,’ by contributing ideas and collaborating to create something new; listening deeply and actively; following the rules; and having fun.
Playback Theatre (PT) is an interactive form of improvisational theatre based on individuals sharing personal stories and receiving an improvised response using theatrical techniques. The actors give the storytellers a gift – seeing the story and themselves brought to life, others’ perspectives on the story and the recognition that the storyteller has been seen and heard. The idea for Playback Theatre came from Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas during the mid 1970’s and was influenced by their own exploration of twentieth century experiential theatre and a fascination with pre-literary storytelling and other oral cultural forms (Fox, 1992).
Stories can be used as an integral part of the learning process to create connections between the themes inside the subject matter and personal stories. For example, Moses’ story as a leader can elicit learner’s personal stories of leadership in their everyday life. Moreover, one can use an improvisational format called Monologues, and give voice to Moses’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Based on the biblical text and other intertextual sources (including personal experience) the improvisation can be expanded to a series of monologues performed by and for the class.
This type of “performance” can encourage deepened perspectives and empathic insights into historical figures, themes and ideas that emerge from a text.
From our experience, when teachers undergo this kind of learning experience (even for a semester course), they begin to dare to integrate these new values and practices in their teaching: being in the ‘here and now,’ playfulness, creativity, improvisation, fun, being open to the unexpected, saying ‘yes, and,’ celebrating the process, perceiving mistakes as part of a learning cycle. In such a classroom culture, stories become a central organizing element in curriculum design, and listening deeply, collaboration and following the rules are the order of the day.
The next section explains some of the benefits that teachers have reported from participating in courses and workshops as learners, who regularly reflect upon their experiences, as they bring these techniques into their classrooms and then share their successes and failures and the effects these have had on themselves and their students.
What Happens When Teachers Come First
Based on participant teachers’ written reflections (blogs), dozens have begun improvising and using Playback Theatre techniques as a part of their teacher persona, in their daily teaching routine and classroom management techniques. They have begun adapting the principles and practices of improvisation to their pedagogical goals and students’ needs. We have seen that this can unlock a creative toolkit that transforms teaching and learning and positively shapes classroom climates.
A first grade teacher shared, “Something has shifted in my teacher identity and the way I conduct myself in class. I now play many different types of games with my students. We frequently dramatize what we have learned, we make up songs for our classroom rules and sing them regularly as needed. I play with the structure of my lessons too – sometimes starting or ending with a game, or shifting the lesson plan according to what I feel the students need. I consciously plan activities that touch on many of their senses, and not only unidirectional listening or seeing.”