Category Archives: creativity

MIDTESOL 2016 Conference: Innovation and Improvisation

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Midtesol 2016 Conference Kansas City

The MIDTESOL Annual Conference 2016 will be held September 30 to October 1 at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown in Kansas City, MO. The conference theme is “Innovation and Improvisation“.  I have been doing qualitative research on improvisation and improvised speaking for about twenty years now, so I am very glad to say that my proposal for a paper entitled “Structure and Improvisation in the EFL Classroom” has been accepted for presentation. This is what I am planning to talk about:

Improvisation is a complex phenomenon that has attracted little attention in foreign language learning and teaching research until now. Since improvisation is not only related to cognition and competence, but to goal-directed and spontaneous behavior and performance as well, it is difficult to bring in line with the traditional view of teaching as transmission of knowledge and skills, i.e. of delivering a prescribed curriculum, attending to a particular methodology, following a specific procedure, actuating a lesson plan, and interacting in pre-arranged ways. Moreover, since it encompasses attunement to a situational context (including attunement to others, also referred to as ‘tact’ or ‘tactfulness’ in scholarly discussions), spontaneous decision-making, and problem-solving, improvisation also contrasts with current educational ideologies and trends that place extreme emphasis on standardization, outcome-orientation, and testing.

In my video supported talk, I am going to illustrate and discuss the potential of improvisation for flexible (or ‘adaptive’) instruction in the EFL classroom. I will also present an instructional framework for enhancing oral proficiency which is based on the assumption that increasing the improvisational demands on EFL learners by confronting them with progressively less predictable communicative settings and scripts can contribute substantially to the gradual transformation and expansion of their participatory repertoires in the target language English.

Out Now: “Creativity in the English Language Classroom” (Maley & Peachey 2015)

by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

In his foreword to this brand-new British Council publication entitled “Creativity in the Language Classroom” (Maley & Peachey 2015), Chris Kennedy argues that creativity is a concept that is in danger of being “hijacked by public bodies and private institutions which employ them as convenient but opaque policy pegs on which practitioners, including educators, are expected to hang their approaches and behaviours” (2015: 3). Correspondingly, Alan Maley views creativity “as an endangered species in the current model of education, which is increasingly subject to institutional, curricular and assessment constraints”. The publication is now available online. I was kindly invited to contribute a chapter on fostering and building upon oral creativity in the EFL classroom. For a free download of this book, please click on the image below (also available in print form).

Creativity in Language Teaching

I have been interested in creativity and improvisation to foster oral proficiency in EFL classrooms in Germany for roundabout 20 years. When I started thinking about task-driven instructional designs which offer learners more room to talk and to express their own ideas in the target language in the mid-1990s, mainstream educational philosophy and policies in Germany were only just beginning to change,  from so-called input- to standards- and competency-based, measurable outcome-orientation. The backwash effects of such reforms are still unclear.

Common sense tells us that ‘weighing the cow does not make it fatter’. I think there is a pressing need to reassess assessment and the current obsession with efficiency and measurable outcome in foreign language education. What effects and side-effects does it have on teaching and learning English as a foreign language in secondary schools? (see also the current discussion on The Steve Brown Blog).

This is one remarkable finding of a (non-representative) pilot study with 697 EFL teachers carried out in the German state of Hesse: “After nearly a decade of [..] nationwide standards-based assessment in Germany, researchers and teachers alike are still struggling with the task of implementing educational standards and system-monitoring in schools. […] The majority of teachers neither consider the test results useful in improving classroom learning nor the potential impact on school development.” (Skejic, Neumann & Mangal 2015).


Kurtz, Jürgen (2015). “Fostering and building upon oral creativity in the EFL classroom”. In: Maley, Alan & Peachey, Nik (eds.). Creativity in the English Language Classroom, London: British Council, 73-83.

Skejic, M.; Neumann, D. & Mangal, H. (2015): Vergleichsarbeiten im Fach Englisch. Einschätzungen von hessischen Lehrkräften. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung [in print]. [non-representative pilot study carried out in the German Federal State of Hesse; n = 697 EFL teachers]











Interview with Alan Maley | Liverpool Online: “The Dark Matter of Classrooms”

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Over the past 15 years, I have been interested in the question of how to balance scripted (pre-planned) and unscripted (spontaneous) communication in English as a Foreign Language classes. I started off with what H.H. Stern (1992: 199) referred to as the predictability-unpredictability continuum of instructed learning. Focusing on the notion of ‘improvisation in structured learning environments’, I created a number of prototype activities designed to give learners more room to talk and to allow for more spontaneous, creative, and flexible language use in the classroom (as documented on this blog and, in much more detail, e.g. in Kurtz 2001 and Kurtz 2011).

A few days ago, I stumbled upon the following interview with Alan Maley, who also problematizes this issue. What I like best is his distinction between preparation and preparedness. In my view, this hits it on the nail.

Interview with Alan Maley | Liverpool Online. (29.03.2014: Unfortunately, the interview is no longer available online. In order to find out more about what it means to be prepared for the unexpected, watch this:

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001): Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2011): Breaking through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School EFL Classrooms. In: Sawyer, R. Keith (ed.) (2011): Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 131-160.

Stern, H.H. (1992): Issues and Options in Language Teaching. Oxford: University Press.

New Publication: Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching

by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

This new book, edited by R. Keith Sawyer (Washington State University, St. Louis), takes a fresh look at one of the core issues in education and learning. Focusing on the predictability and unpredictability of learning (and teaching) processes in schools, it raises a number of fundamental questions concerning flexible and creative curriculum and instructional design in the 21st century, providing readers with the know-how as well as the ‘do-how’ necessary to create rich, meaningful, and encouraging learning environments in the age of outcome-orientation and testing. As Keith Sawyer points out on his blog:

“The key idea is that good teaching involves both structures and improvisation, both advance planning and adaptability. Expert teachers know how to use structures (lesson plans, activities, techniques to discipline unruly students) in an improvisational way that’s customized and targeted to each class and each student. This is what “creative teaching” really is: it’s not a flaky, New Age performance artist who mesmerizes the students. It’s an expert with a deep knowledge of the craft of teaching, and of the subject being taught, and an expert who can use that to orchestrate valuable learning activities among the students.”

The book comes at a time when education systems are under massive socio-economic and ideological pressure world-wide, and it would be fatal if all this resulted in what David C. Berliner calls creaticide in the foreword: “With a few notable exceptions, policies designed to improve schools have resulted in a diminution of those classroom activities that are more likely to promote higher levels of thought, problem solving, and creativity in academic areas. It is not that the research community can agree on how to produce higher-order thinking and creative responses among youth. Far from it! But there is remarkable agreement about how not to produce the outcomes we desire. And by constraining what teachers and students can do in classrooms we do just that” (2011: xv).

Chapter 7 of this book focuses on the significance of structure and improvisation in teaching English as a foreign language. Title: “Breaking through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms.” (Kurtz, 2011: 133-161).

For further details, please click here.