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Learning at its Best

Teaching as Improvisation

After years of faking it, I recently decided that it was time to give myself over to the study of jazz piano. In particular, I want to develop a greater sense of confidence in the area of improvisation.  I can read music quite effectively, and I was taught at a very young age that it was totally permissible to use the chord structure of a piece in order to move beyond the written page.

In fact, one of my favourite musical things to do is sit myself behind a piano at a local restaurant or bar and just play. Just bring me an occasional glass of wine and I will provide a rather pleasing and continuous pallette of ambience for 4 or 5 hours. For me, it’s a very creative space in which to be, and it’s not unusual for me just to keep playing without a break for the entire evening.

But I know that I have a lot to learn, and the ultimate indicator of that learning will be to freely and authentically improvise! And for me, jazz provides the biggest challenge in this regard.

Here’s a definition of improvisation that I pulled from Wikipedia. I think that it reflects my own understanding of what this skill is all about:

Improvisation is the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one’s immediate environment and inner feelings. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols, and/or new ways to act.

Some people may most closely associate improvisation with the practice of “winging it” or “making it up as you go along”. To be sure, those proficient in the art of improvisation certainly can make it seem like this is the case. There often appears to be a relaxed, comfortable sense of ease involved, one that is inviting, engaging and almost seductive for the audience.

Beneath this veneer of comfort and ease, however, lies a deeply integrated knowledge of the language being used. Whether it is music, drama, visual arts, dance or oral language, the improvising artist knows how things work in their particular domain. They are intimately and intuitively aware of the syntax, structure and grammar of their art form and it is this knowledge that guides their creativity. Masters of improvisation really knows their stuff!

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the art of improvisation in terms of today’s teaching profession. In a educational world populated by pre-packaged curriculum, highly structured—even scripted—lessons and databases of “best practice”, it is getting more and more difficult to find evidence that the improvisational spirit is still valued and acknowledged.

Yet, the most powerful stories of teaching that I carry with me are stories of improvisation: times when the lesson plans written the night before were put aside in favour of a learning opportunity that presented itself, quite unexpectedly; times when the emotional climate of the classroom called for a response that wasn’t part of any script; times when the urge to go deeper resulted in us tossing aside the schedule placed on the board at the beginning of the morning.

Improvisation takes a type of confidence that comes from deep professional learning, lots of experience, and the freedom to try (and fail at) new approaches.

Improvisation proceeds from an existing structural framework, but it goes beyond that framework, seeking to tease out as many of the subtleties and nuances that may not be readily apparent.

Although it is possible to replicate note-for-note, or word-for-word copies of improvised work, there is always something missing in the mere reproduction of something that was originally created out of an improvisational mindset.

Despite the fact that music and other art forms can be analyzed mathematically and even scientifically, the emotive power generated is really owing to a sense of flexibility in the hands of the artist.

So, how does all of this apply to the teaching life. Well, I’ll leave you to make some of your own connections but I will give you a sense of the main ideas that are swirling around in my own mind.

I think that our well-intentioned efforts to develop a canon of effective teaching practice has forced us to look at classroom and school life through a scientific lens. We’ve spent a good deal of time of late establishing a syntax and grammar of practice, but less attention to allowing/encouraging teachers to explore this “structure” in new and creative ways.

To be sure, good teaching must be based on professional knowledge and experience—a mastery of the fundamentals is essential. To be sure, good teaching needs to be grounded in a definite structure relating to what is to be learned.

I believe that the real art of teaching, however, lies in the ability of the teacher to move beyond that knowledge and structure and, through an improvisational spirit, lift the official curriculum off the written page, transforming it into something that is inviting, engaging and even seductive for students.

Learning to improvise is tough work but, for me, it is the holy grail of professional practice, whether in music, or in teaching. I continue to work at both!

I would love to hear your stories of improvisational teaching and even how you have been drawn in by the artistic approach of other educators. In the meantime, I’ll let you know when I have some of my own jazz improvisations to share with you!


About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


19 thoughts on “Teaching as Improvisation

  1. Excellently stated. As a jazz pianist and teacher, I’m never surprised that I get the same charge out of a “lightbulb” connection from my students in the classroom as I get from a well placed riff in a jazz trio. Both moments come from an understanding that the right answers are not always in front of you, but come out of the most unexpected places. The trick is to fine tune your knowledge / experience to both welcome and take full advantage of those moments. Improvisation isn’t the abdication of structure, it’s the full realization of its potential to breed expressive and cognitive freedom.

    Posted by Allen Paul | May 11, 2011, 4:56 pm
    • Thanks for the great comment Allen! I love the emphasis on the fact that improv. doesn’t throw structure out the window…it fulfills it! Beautiful.

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 11, 2011, 6:59 pm
  2. I love combining useful constraints and play – and I love this metaphor.

    What are your favorite ways to get students to play along and improv with you in a band? What lessons have you learned about building an improv culture in the classroom?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2011, 8:53 pm
    • Hi Chad,

      I think that the constraints add the structure that both teacher and student need. In a literal context, we have a 28 keyboard lab and, over the course of the week, I bring several classes down to the lab. For the younger students this year, they were happy to just explore the sounds, the keyboard, the onboard rhythms…and the ability to talk to other students on their headphone sets. As the year has progressed, however, they have benefited from a gradual imposition of structure: particular exploration tasks, learning about the basics of the keyboard, some basic work in music elements and principles. If there music instruction was to continue here over the years, more of the structure would be introduced, and there would be a difference in the way they went about their “exploration” time. So, learning the structure is important, but I think that the timing around introduction of that is important.

      In a metaphorical sense (and I love the idea of an improv culture), the freedom to improvise for students is important. Again, I think that it comes from a gradual introduction of the structure, building in space and time along the way to experiment and play with ideas and concepts.

      I guess the biggest lesson that I’ve learned has to do with balance. For me, I have had to learn just how much structure to introduce before allowing to take off. Improvisation opportunities don’t have to be held to the end of a unit of study, relegated to the role of culminating task, or left until the end of the year. Instead, introducing small chunks of structure (in either inductive or deductive ways) and then allowing some time for play has been ideal. This way, the larger tasks that students undertake truly become culminations of the pieces along the way.

      For me the real key has been time and space to do this. You can’t build an improvisational approach in 40 minute chunks. An expanse of time, and the freedom to use that time to really dig deep and explore has been very important. I don’t have that this year, and I am feeling the pain!

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 12, 2011, 5:20 am
  3. The crazy thing for me is that I used to feel guilty about improvisation. It was a betrayal of the sacred lesson plan book.

    Posted by johntspencer | May 11, 2011, 11:32 pm
    • Ah yes, the lesson plan book! I used to have to submit my lesson plan book for approval at the beginning of each week. It was good training…got me thinking in the right direction!

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 12, 2011, 5:04 am
      • How do you frame the lesson as improv if you are filling out a lesson plan book? One way might be to think of it as a “lead sheet” as jazz musicians call them…it has the barebones structure and a few key features, but the rest is for you to fill in based on how things play out.

        BUT, how do you explain this to a principle who is breathing down your neck, looking for you to write down ahead of time which “standards” you are going to meet, and worried about AYP…

        Posted by Luke | May 12, 2011, 1:42 pm
        • I love the extension of the metaphor to the idea of a “lead sheet”…that’s perfect.

          With regard to the principal/administrator question, I have always simply said, “Come in and see. And come for an entire day!”

          Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 12, 2011, 5:02 pm
  4. Wonderful post. Check out Keith Sawyer’s 2004 article “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation” in Education Researcher, I bet you will love it.

    Posted by Luke | May 12, 2011, 1:39 pm
  5. I think another great benefit of improvisation in the classroom is that you can serve as a model to how one approaches learning. If we teach from a fixed perspective the students come to see learning as a set of facts and rules to digest. If you teach from a “what if?” perspective, students are shown a different learning model. One in which the learner and learning are engaged in a dance.

    I always thought that Improv could be described as a series of subtle “What if?” questions. Like you said though, not random “what if?” questions but questions that come from a deep understanding of the framework and limitations. Good improv doesn’t merely break or follow rules; good improv bends rules, challenges the underlying assumptions of rules, finds loopholes, and raises questions.

    One more thought. Improv often works best with more than one player, when it is a dialogue not a monologue.

    Posted by Patrick Misterovich | May 15, 2011, 11:03 am
    • Thanks so much for the comment Patrick!

      Whenever I listen to jazz, I always challenge myself by trying to discover the underlying structure during the improv solos. I have to admit in some of the more modern forms of jazz it can be a little challenging, especially when the bass player (the one I count on to “hold the fort”) goes off on a musical journey.

      So I’m wondering to what degree we still need to maintain a structure in our classrooms that is both familiar and recognizable…one that allows us to come back home once our improvisational exploration is done for the day?

      This last question is also an attempt to actually formulate a question that forces me to explore the analogy a little more deeply.

      Subtle what if…

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 28, 2011, 6:35 am
  6. Stephen. Awesome post. A couple of things. I have begun using improv specifically in professional development, after having the great pleasure of learning a little bit about the rules and practices of improv from my friend Gwen Lowenheim, at the Snaps Project, where they specialize in improvisational workshops for teachers, students, and school teams.

    Learning the three basic rules of improv: “accept all offers” (how infrequently do we do that in school?), be in a “yes/and” frame (how can I build on what you’ve done instead of critique it?); and “how can I make my partner look good?” (how can I plus up what you’re doing?) have been transforming for me. These ideas move you out of a punitive, judgmental culture into a place of play, creativity and appreciation.

    On a personal note, I have also become much more aware, say when I am presenting with a partner to a group, how much my own thinking is built by my partner if we are in an improv space. We actually can co-create learning together, and make each other better thinkers and presenters in the moment, if we decide we are going to “plus each other up.” I love that feeling of fun when something someone says invites you to build into your own next level of thinking, which invites them…all while you’re standing there, “performing” for a group. They get invited into the play

    Thank you for bringing this here. Play, fun, pleasure! We can learn to do these things much more explicitly, I’ve found!


    Posted by Kirsten | May 16, 2011, 9:49 am
    • Hi Kirsten,

      I haven’t been back here for the past couple of weeks, but I was delighted to find your comment waiting!

      Reading about your improvisational experience reminded me of a parent meeting that I held for the integrated arts program that I ran for three years at my elementary school. I had included in the presentation package some writing on “habits of mind”, which I used as a guideline to the type of inquiry and dispositions that the program set out to nurture. At the end of the evening an artist who ran a local theatre company came up to me and excitedly declared, “your habits of mind are my rule of improv!” We’ve been working together ever since!

      Thanks for the project link. i’m off to check it out!

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 28, 2011, 6:39 am
  7. “Learning to improvise is tough work but, for me, it is the holy grail of professional practice, whether in music, or in teaching. I continue to work at both!”

    Me, too. Improv has the delicious frisson of esoteric knowledge that is…forbidden? Thanks for broaching this subject. I would certainly love to read more about teaching improvisation and I have a few stories of my own. I would recommend you grab a copy of Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. (

    There is a great quote in that book from Miles Davis that is my classroom mantra, hell my life mantra, that I know you will appreciate, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” Keep on!

    The link below has an annotated page that has more comments.

    Posted by Terry Elliott | May 19, 2011, 7:41 am
    • Sorry for the delay in responding Terry! Wow, thanks for the comments and the book reference. I just logged on to my KOBO account and picked up the eBook version. It looks both exciting and relevant!

      I love the quote/mantra. This is definitely something that I would like to have posted somewhere in my classroom. Wait, not somewhere! Right at the entrance.


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 28, 2011, 6:29 am


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