“Yes And…” Improv’s Lesson for Education

One of my best teacher friends (Ms. Ritchie – @MRitchieHCS) is an improv actor and she has been teaching me about and modeling the concept of “Yes, and…” I love this concept and I want to share it with you all; but I am probably going to butcher it in my translation so if you are into improv please gentle help me out 😉 Prior to meeting Ms Ritchie my whole experience with improv was old “whose line is it anyways?” Reruns and stories about Robin Williams. So I have no formal improv training and just a curiosity based on Ms Ritchie’s example, but here is how I understand ‘yes, and…’.

Improv relies on trust. Their are few sets or props on stage and no script. In fact often the stage directions are called out spontaneously from the audience. In order for the audience to “see” the scene the actors must all share a vision for what is happening on stage. Since this is all done in the fly and in each individual mind the scene has to evolve as each actor shares their vision. This means that as new information is added by a new player on the stage it has to be incorporated into the other actors’ visions. To reject a fellow improv actor’s vision would mean your own vision is equally invalid. Therefore the concept of “Yes, and…” emerges… YES, I can see your world AND here is what I see within this world. Now we have a bigger world, full of more possibilities, based on our shared input. Without a trusting relationship based on an understanding that “we are in this together” the whole idea of improv falls apart.

I have been thinking about this in terms of our educational reform efforts. We all think we have the right answers but, really, we all have a piece of the truth. There is an old proverb about a group of Blind Men trying to describe an elephant (skip the quote if you’ve heard this one)

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “elephant is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear. (From Wikipedia)

The moral of the story in some versions is that the Blind Men grow to distrust the each other. Each person believes their truth is the only valid truth; each grows to believe the others are acting in bad faith and trying to deceive them. This story and “yes, and” seem to be incredibly important in the modern ed reform movement – especially in the Twitter age. Social Media is great for spreading our diverse messages but can be terrible for “yes and”. It is very easy to create an echo chamber and think of “my way” as the “only way” and all other ways of teaching are somehow less valid.

What really makes me sad though is the tendency to believe that those others are acting in bad faith. “They” are just selling a book or “those people” just have an agenda. Really we should be saying “yes, and“.

  • Yes, I believe in the power of Game Inspired Design and I believe Standards Based Learning is important.
  • Yes project based learning is good and social justice should be taught.
  • Yes coding is an important skill and so isn’t cursive.
  • Yes I lecture and want to create meaningful choices.
  • Yes developing relationships is vital and allowing students to risk and fail is essential.
  • Yes, the amount of stuff a teacher is responsible for in a classroom can be overwhelming and sometimes we do need a bit of inspiration to keep going and I want to get useful strategies.

Something awful happens when we start thinking of others in education as acting in bad faith. We risk losing the chance to create a bigger possible universe for our students.

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