17. Reflections on a Workshop 2: JAZZ AND THE DARK MATTER OF TEACHING


Reflections on a Workshop 2: JAZZ AND THE DARK MATTER OF TEACHING

WORKSHOP/SEMINAR:  Jazz and the Dark Matter of Teaching
TRAINER:  Adrian Underhill
DATE:  Sat 07/11/2015
EVENT:  English UK Teacher's Conference 2015
LOCATION:  Prospero House, London

As someone with a background in theatre, I’ve always been acutely aware of the parallels between teaching and performance, and feel my experiences as an actor have contributes to my teaching in the following ways (not an exhaustive list, just what springs to mind at present):

  • My ability to build rapport with an audience (see Statement of Relevance)
  • My creativity in designing lesson materials and activities
  • My tendency toward visual and kinaesthetic activities

While I recognise that so much of teaching is intuitive (a recurring point in my thoughts of late – see Activities for Revisiting), to my shame I had failed to make the conscious link that improvisation is at the heart of both teaching and performance (in some ways).  That is, until I attended Adrian’s seminar on Saturday.

The session was about the role of improvisation in ELT and Adrian began by asking how many of us present plan their lessons (almost everyone raised their hand) and then how many of us stick to the plan (no-one raised their hand).  This illustrated that improvisation in the classroom is inevitable, as the class becomes a ‘living interaction’.

He then went on to talk about the golden rule of improvisation which even before he’d said it I knew well from my work in theatre: always accept the offer.  This was where the parallel really struck me.  Responding to one’s audience lies at the heart of clowning and at the heart of teaching.  In many of my posts I keep returning to the same point that Peter Wilberg makes about teaching, ‘responsibility is response-ability’ (Wilberg 1987:14).

Accepting the offer means not blocking or refusing what a participant puts forward.  In the classroom the offer has many guises: questions, errors, incomprehension, frustration … in the complexity of the language classroom (again a point I keep repeating), the list is endless.

As Adrian pointed out, the role of improvisation is little discussed in ELT methodology.  But it occurred to me that methodology contributes enormously to improvisation because, just as in theatre, understanding and experience of a discipline provides us with an internal catalogue of techniques, skills and activities which we draw on intuitively as ways of responding to what’s happening.  Our beliefs inform our practice.  Methodology, hand in hand with experience, frequently informs our beliefs, consciously or otherwise.

Discipline liberates us.  In theatre, touring a show, reciting the same lines and making the same movements hundreds of times result in those lines and movements becoming such a part of us that they occur naturally.  On stage, performing my last solo show, I’ve had moments in which I’ve been at a complete loss as to what I’m supposed to say and do next – and then it just comes.  Muscles – I believe – have memory.  We speak without thinking.  Paths are formed like footsteps in the snow (see Walking in the Snow).

But knowing something so deeply doesn’t work in opposition to improvisation – it afford us the freedom to play, to respond to the people we’re working with (be it fellow performer, audience or student/s – each is a multi-directional and interactive relationship) and the ever changing nature of the classroom keeps us fresh.  This is where it comes alive.  Adrian said, we ‘co-author the present moment into existence’ – a beautiful description which for me emphasises the collaborative and democratic nature of the classroom.  But this relies on us as teachers responding – accepting the offer, because when we don’t, it denies learners their role in the process of learning.  There’s a can of beautiful, juicy worms here, which I haven’t time to open right now, but suffice to say there are inevitably connections here with learner motivation and responsibility.

In the seminar Adrian went on to demonstrate ways of ‘accepting the offer’.  I’ll describe them here just in note form.

  • The Interrupter – as a means of practising improvisation or as a game to use with learners – telling a story and incorporating the random words your partner calls out into the story.
  • Collecting all learners’ responses to a question then asking the group to examine them in detail, rather than just stating what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.


  • One to one in whole class – working with one student in open class encouraging others to notice
  • Multiple improvisations – pushing each individual student further, never settling for what they give but always encouraging more (demand high)

In relation to my own practice, I hope the input from this workshop will help me to become more aware of how I’m responding to learners.  Here’s what I need to ask myself:

Capture 2


Wilberg, P.  (1987)  One to One.  Hove: Language Teaching Publications.  p14.

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