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Improv-First Learning: Designing Experiences for Structured Play

Learning activities should be like jungle gyms, not lectures and not sandboxes.

A lot of the current popular wisdom about education is not new. In fact, it goes back over 100 years, almost unchanged, to Herbert Spencer, Jean Piaget, and John Dewey. The general idea can be summarized like this:

Children are not passive vessels you can stuff information into; anything they learn they must construct for themselves (hence, “constructivism”).

This has strong implications for the types of learning experiences that are deemed worthwhile.

In general, there seems to be a strong push toward discovery learning, though it goes by many names. The more choice and autonomy the student has, the better. That is why project-based learning is so popular. And yet it also seems to be shown to be not as effective as everyone wants it to be, over and over again.

The only other option, as it is often portrayed, is Traditional Education, which we all know consists of the “sage on the stage” and dry lectures that turn students off from learning and quash their “natural curiosity”. Of course when this is the alternative, we keep coming back to the romantic idea of students discovering and constructing their learning from scratch.

Well, what if I told you that there was a paradigm that combined the best parts of both?

The Sandbox, the Gym, and the Jungle Gym

three children in a sandbox
Photo by Fabian Centeno on Unsplash

We can think of discovery learning as a sandbox. This is a metaphor often used in computer programming to denote a space dedicated to total structure-less experimentation. The idea, I think, is that sand can be molded into any structure that anyone wants, and easily taken apart and put back together. The material offers no constraints on one’s creativity. It is completely open.

This also means that not much can be enforced. Even if a student has the intention of learning what they are meant to learn, it can be very difficult to do so in a completely open environment, with few guideposts and little feedback.

weights at the gym
Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash

To extend this physical metaphor, suppose the other extreme is a regimented fitness routine at the gym. It’s not fun and there’s no choice involved, but you know that if students get on the machines and do the exercises, they are strengthening the muscles they are meant to be strengthening.

But what if there was another option, which was both fun and restricting in the right ways. And maybe the restrictions could even contribute to the fun?

I would argue that the correct metaphor here is an (expertly designed) jungle gym.

a girl swinging in a jungle gym
Photo by Team Fredi on Unsplash

Jungle gyms, like sandboxes, allow for true, autonomous play, in which children can make choices and see their consequences, and explore based on what interests them. At the same time, they are not totally open-ended. There are specific ways to interact with a jungle gym, and these ways are fun, but trying to interact with the structure in ways that it was not intended for generally will not lead to something as fun. So the structure imposes a particular landscape on which the fun and agency can take place.

One can imagine an expert that could design a jungle gym that would specifically work calf muscles, from lots of different angles and in lots of different ways, but interacting with that jungle gym, whether you knew it or not, would build your calf muscles. When experts truly understand both the subject matter and learning, they can create such experiences.

The Lesson

Too often in education, we forget that this is an option. We offer either very complex experiences and hope for the best, or when we need to make sure that students learn something specific, we sit them down, strip them of their agency, and make them memorize, seemingly giving up on our progressive values.

The jungle gym version of the lesson is one in which the students still have meaningful choice, but their interactions are restricted to those that will result in useful learning taking place.

The inspiration for this came from the pedagogy used to teach improv comedy. The skills necessary to do improv are at once very broad and very teachable, so each game that was used to learn the skills precisely targeted one or two of these, giving students time to practice the skills in an embodied way.

For example, to teach building on what’s been said, a teacher might choose to play a game where students contribute one line at a time to a story. The game teaches you how to add to what’s been said, because doing so results in fun, and adding your own thing that doesn’t build on it viscerally makes the game less fun. Thus, the game teaches you the skill, while you think you’re telling a story.

An Example

“Sure, you can do this in improv”, you might think, “but I teach [a very serious subject] and I can’t make my learning goals into a game”. As you might imagine, I disagree with that perspective. The following is just one example of how to create such a precisely designed game for a particular aspect of critical thinking, which is necessary for all persuasive writing, not to mention for being a responsible and capable citizen.

Many are familiar by this point of the classroom game called “Four Corners”: the teacher shouts out a sentence or question, and the students scramble to the corner which represents them — whether that’s their opinion, their identity, their guess, or something else. Often, teachers will ask students to talk about or defend their choice.

Well, there is a great spin on this game if you want to teach your students (one aspect of) critical thinking. In addition to asking students to defend their choice, they are also asked to defend one of the choices they did not pick. After this happens repeatedly, students begin to automatically construct arguments for all four options, instead of just their own.

This is an incredibly important skill that helps keep us intellectually honest and keep our imaginations flexible and open, and it is really hard to teach without designing an activity that shows the students’ brains that it’s important.

There are lots of other ways to try to teach this. A pretty good one is debate, which has been shown to be relatively effective. But it’s not clear that debate leads to transfer of that knowledge. In other words, maybe the students learned to do it for that assignment, maybe they even learned the skill and can use it in any debate, but they will likely not have developed that kind of thinking as a habit, and thus will likely miss many opportunities for using the skill.

In contrast, this exercise goes quickly, and thus effectively relays to students’ brains that it’s important to not only be able to do this kind of steelmanning of others’ viewpoints, but to automate that process, always having a part of their brain that’s ready to jump in and build up an argument from another’s perspective. This makes the skill much more robust and transferrable, through simple but carefully designed exercises.

Can all learning be precisely designed?

It’s definitely not easy, but I personally don’t see why not. We are living in an age where there are 248956 lesson plans for every topic for every age. We are no longer in a paradigm of scarcity where teachers must settle for whatever keeps their kids in a manageable form.

We can now collect all of the best learning experiences, and not only teach from them but also learn from them.

EDIT: An earlier version of this article was missing three paragraphs starting with “The inspiration for this”.

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Maya Bialik

Maya Bialik

Teacher, author, and speaker making learning meaningful through curriculum strategy & creative experience design.