Improvisation in the Foreign Language Classroom


by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In April 2010, I was invited to give a talk on the role of improvisation in second/foreign language (SL/FL) education at UC San Diego. My focus was on learning and teaching English as a foreign language in German secondary schools, but I think the overall approach is of great importance to teaching languages in institutional contexts in general. The following keyword summary is indended to briefly outline what improvisation is (or amounts to) and to give you an idea of how it can contribute to the development of a more flexible infrastructure and culture of SL/FL classroom interaction and instruction – one that is sensitive to the here-and-now characteristics and realities of everyday communicative interaction. All this is, of course, highly theoretical, and it is perfectly clear that much more top-down (theory-driven) as well as bottom-up (practice-driven) research is necesssary to  develop a theoretically sound and practically feasable, effective and efficient framework of improvisational instruction and learning. As laid out on this blog earlier on, improvisation seems to run counter  to current standards- and outcome-oriented thinking and policy-making (at least in parts: immediacy, spontaneity, unpredictability in the Age of Accountability?), but its overall potential should not be underestimated.

What do you personally think about this? More specifically, perhaps, how do you (try to/manage to) balance out the expected and the unexptected in the classroom? How much immediacy, spontaneity and unpredictablitly are you prepared or willing to allow in your FL /SL classroom?

9 responses to “Improvisation in the Foreign Language Classroom

  1. The notion of improvisation relates a lot to complex adaptive systems. Traditional jazz music (e.g., of the 40s & 50s) allows musicians to play off each other through a musical interaction that typically blurs the line between the intentional and unintentional; unintentional music (e.g., soloing, interacting between rhythm section, crescendos/decrescendos, etc.) serves as a basis for further intentional/unintentional music and so forth. This is learning. Creating a learning ecosystem that affords participants to interact in diverse and open ways ultimately leads to a non-linear set of pathways that lead to achievement. In other words, lesson plans should stress expressive outcomes, allowing the unexpected to present itself. Through reflection-in-action, teachers adapt and mold the environment (which they are apart of) based on what the students are doing. The trick for educators is to think in terms of being learning environment designers as opposed to solely learning activity designers.

  2. Dear bnleez,
    Thank you very much for your comment! I couldn’t agree more, but what excactly do you mean by “the trick for educators … to think in terms of being learning environment designers as opposed to solely learning activity designers”? What do you think does it amount to in (everyday) classroom practice?

  3. “…what excactly do you mean by ‘the trick for educators … to think in terms of being learning environment designers as opposed to solely learning activity designers'”

    For me, this means teachers thinking about how to use methods, materials, environment, community, collaboration, and assessment collectively in a way that fosters creativity (the arts), criticality (the sciences), and caring (humanities) among ALL students. Specifically, differentiating instruction and assessment in terms of content, process, and product means giving learners choices, allowing (or empowering) them to be more responsible for their own learning. Teachers thus become facilitators, mentors, coaches, etc, as opposed to solely “sages on the stage”.

  4. OK – in my view this raises (among many other things) the difficult question of fostering learner autonomy/self-regulated learning in foreign language classrooms and, furthermore, the question of FL teacher education in the Age of Competence, Standards- und Outcome-Orientation. With regard to FL teacher education, how do you attempt and/or manage to balance the three important perspectives or goals you are referring to, i.e. “creativity”, “criticality” and “caring”?

  5. “With regard to FL teacher education, how do you attempt and/or manage to balance the three important perspectives or goals you are referring to, i.e. “creativity”, “criticality” and “caring”?

    Teachers have to use discretion based on the maturity, academic, and linguistic levels of the students, but choices can come in a variety of ways:

    1. choosing which content from the Internet to use in class and why the content is appropriate
    2. choosing which groups will form and how they are to work together (e.g., team charter)
    3. deciding which products to produce (e.g., video, brochure, presentation, etc.)
    4. determining how to express empathy and perspective

    By pursuing understandings (Wiggins and Mctighe, 2005), teachers can use a variety of assessment methods (e.g., Socratic method, instructional conversations, tests, quizzes, academic prompts, performance tasks, etc.) for making more informed inferences on a student’s achievement. This also implies the need to set expressive outcomes instead of behavioral outcomes in ways that make learning and assessing learning more of a ill-defined, non-linear, and emergent (i.e., authentic) phenomenon. Thus, we are requiring students to know more than discrete facts and figures that they likely will find on standardized tests; it also makes stakeholders more conscious of a learner’s capacity (as a matter of degree) instead of a competence (either you have it or you don’t).

    As for language teaching and learning goes, I label communicative and linguistic knowledge and skill as being (to use Popham’s words, 2008) “enabling knowledge” and “subskills” respectively in terms of how they relate to understandings. In other words, language becomes both a means and an end much like ESL and content teachers working together in the US in teaching English language learners (i.e., Sheltered Content Instruction or CLIL).

  6. “Traditional jazz music (e.g., of the 40s & 50s) allows musicians to play off each other through a musical interaction that typically blurs the line between the intentional and unintentional”

    As an amateur jazz musician, I very much enjoyed Benjamin’s analogy. Many of the great jazz musicians (most notably Charlie Parker) had highly developed memories for melodies, and would weave these into their improvisations. What if this ability were not, as generally assumed, a prerequisite of improvisational talent, but a byproduct of it?

    Another way of phrasing the importance of improvisation in learning is to say that students learn most effectively by recreating knowledge for themselves. By improvising creatively around a given theme, they create extra connections between their experiences just as the jazz musician remembers melodies through recognizing the ways in which they can link and inter-transform. For example, when learning to write Chinese characters, it is helpful to suggest to students that they look for similarities between characters and to invent their own faux-etymological stories to explain the characters’ decomposition.

    Whilst this advice is helpful for the self-directed learner, as Jürgen states, creating a rigorous framework in which improvisation can be incorporated into traditional activities is a huge challenge. In designing software, we are always torn between the desire to give students free reign but limited by the need to provide a practical framework for classroom use. We welcome input and ideas for reconciling the two. As a matter of interest, what research is the above diagram based off?

  7. Pingback: Dealing with the Three Cs in English Language Learning and Teaching » Collaborative Understandings

  8. Pingback: Dealing with the Three Cs in English Language Learning and Teaching | Collaborative Understandings

  9. please can some one tell me the roles of teachers in improvisation in education

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