Improvisation and Learning


By John Cremer

Our mainstream education system is based on an industrial model of mass produced learning. We compel lively and inquisitive young people to sit in rows and be “educated” according to an outdated and rigid curriculum. In essence children have their minds filled with information and are regularly tested on their ability to retrieve this information in competitive examinations. They are graded and rated and appear in league tables. The underlying message to the child is that they must conform to the system and turn themselves into efficient filing cabinets. This process stifles the innate desire that young people have for learning because it ignores, devalues and actually subjugates spontaneity, curiosity, playfulness, creativity, collaboration and the enjoyment of discovery.  Subjects that could be truly astonishing to explore become processed and lifeless matter which is to be unquestioningly consumed and regurgitated. Those children who are unable or unwilling to limit themselves to imitating filing cabinets are labelled as being somehow inadequate or deficient.
Michel Thomas was a French resistance fighter who lost most of his family in the Holocaust and subsequently developed a method of rapid language learning. He was renowned for his ability to teach language skills to the most challenging students by cultivating their buried appetite to learn. Here is Michel Thomas talking about mainstream education

“We handicap and hobble and put a heavy lid on the immense innate learning potential of the human mind that is in everyone. Education has become a conspiracy between parents and governments to control children. Every child is institutionalised at the age of five or six and sentenced to at least ten years hard time until so-called graduation. Children serve time by law and I call it a conspiracy because their parents consent to it and the government enforces it. So children become prison inmates – except unlike prison inmates they do not have a voice with which to protest, or advocates to protect their rights. Children don’t have anybody. They have to serve their time unconditionally”

It sounds like Michel was as angry about this situation as I am! He then focusses on the aftermath:

“After such an experience many naturally feel that they have had enough of education and learning. They have no wish to continue. School is over and done with – learning is finished. From childhood on we are conditioned to associate learning with tension, effort, concentration and study. In essence learning equals pain. The educational experience has been a painful one and has capped the immense learning potential of each child. This is a tragedy. Conventional teaching closes rather than opens the mind and cripples even the best students, blocking the subconscious because of the tension it creates”

I am indebted to my fellow improviser Francis Passmore for the following insight “When someone tells you that they are going to teach you a lesson it is unlikely that what follows is going to be pleasant!”
This is where improvisation skills can bring rich rewards. In teaching improvisation it is essential to create a collaborative non – shaming environment where it is impossible for participants to fail. By speaking to the long-buried curiosity and playfulness within all of us we can sneak around the internal education programme and rapidly liberate the innate talents that are waiting to emerge and engage once more. Human beings just want to get along and explore the world together in joyful ways (unless they are sociopaths or psychopaths) This process can be quite miraculous and the after effects often lead to surprising new pursuits.
Here is how Michel Thomas puts it:

“Why not make use the full potential of the human mind, by combining the conscious and subconscious? You can only tap into it if someone is in a relaxed and pleasant frame of mind. It is important to eliminate anxiety and tension. Then and only then is a person completely receptive to learning. People do not want to expose themselves to more pain, or face what they think are their own inadequacies. Yet these are the very people who become most excited when they see that they can absorb and progress quickly and easily”

In a recent TED talk Sir Ken Robinson spoke passionately about this subject CLICK HERE TO VIEW IT
I have seen this transformation occur in individuals and within organisations that are open to change. Learning flourishes when we are freed from competitiveness and delusions of inadequacy. Once people experience the lightness and freedom of a supportive improvisation class and reconnect with their inner spontaneous creativity it is difficult for them to climb back into the filing cabinet.
  1. The article really resonates with my beliefs about learning. The question is how do we move these ideas forward against a political back drop of learning as an ability to recall what is expected to meet a standard?

  2. Thanks Dave and great question Mike. We can’t change the overall system. We can however “yes and” the political backdrop of retrieval learning and offer another more vital and engaging way of learning

  3. Great post John, thanks for sharing.
    This topic has been bothering me for some time and even more so since reading Seth Godin’s manifesto on this topic

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