Category Archives: improvisation

Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the Learning Revolution

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany

According to Sir Ken Robinson, “We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. This is something Jamie Oliver talked about the other day. You know there are two models of quality assurance in catering. One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other are things like Zagat and Michelin restaurants, where everything is not standardized, they’re customized to local circumstances. And we have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education. And it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.” (subtitled in 50 languages)

In Germany and, from my perspective, in many other countries around the globe, SL/FL teachers are put under massive pressure to meet vague and – partially – unconvincing standards, and to conduct tests based on a questionable approach to foreign language education. What do you think about all this?


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.

Amy Tsui: Understanding Expertise in Language Teaching (

by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Academic is a knowledge dissemination site which links the work of TESOL-based academics to teachers, teacher-trainers, teacher-trainees, decision-makers and other researchers. Edited by Huw Jarvis, it provides a global forum for people to talk about how their published research, or an aspect of it, impacts on language pedagogy. only posts talks about research which have gone through the peer review process and this ‘guarantees’ the quality of the submissions.

In the following video webcast, Amy Tsui discusses the nature of expertise in language teaching, its development, and how teachers employ it (click on image to view):

I very much agree with what Amy Tsui has to say about improvisation in structured learning environments. This essential aspect of teaching (which she refers to as “skilled improvisation” in her talk) should definitely not be underestimated (in the midst of the standards- und test-oriented teaching hype).

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?

Getting Students to Stick to the Target Language in an EFL Lesson

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In this interesting and thought-provoking video, Herbert Puchta addresses the important issue of monolingual communicative language teaching in (secondary school) foreign language classrooms.  As is well-known, many foreign language learners tend to switch to their mother tongue ‘whenever’ (this is an overgeneralization, of course) they are asked to work in pairs or in groups, especially when they are engaged in more demanding, increasingly self-regulated communicative activities.  In consequence, very often only the resulting products are presented in the target language in class (often by those students who are more confident – and competent – in the specific target language). This is a huge problem in German EFL classrooms, and perhaps, in foreign language classrooms around the world.

Herbert Puchta suggests that EFL  teachers should think about offering some additional incentives,, e.g. by appealing to the competitive spirit of teenage learners, and, more generally, by creating a classroom atmosphere that is not (or at least less) detrimental to the students’ willingness to speak English. This is plausible,  but in order to get down to the core of the problem (i.e. code-switching), teachers need to think more deeply about the basic design of the activities and tasks they wish to use in the EFL / foreign language classroom in the first place.

Tasks and activities which allow (or even force!) learners to resort to the mother tongue are questionable, mainly because they are not sufficiently tuned to the learners’  target language level of productive competence. Embedding competetive, game-like elements may help, but this is just one way of circumventing the problem.

Theoretically, this largely corresponds with Krashen’s I+ 1 , but O + 1 (O = output; with the improvised +1) is equally important in foreign language education.

On this blog, you can find an activity that softly ‘pushes’ EFL learners to speak English, to use their target language resources spontaneously, i.e. the improvisation ‘Bus Stop’. Try it out and let me know how it worked for you and your learners.

Focus on Form in the Foreign Language Classroom: Planned, Incidental, Improvised?

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In this presentation, Danijela Trenkic and Michael Sharwood Smith (2001) raise some fundamental questions concerning ‘form-focused instruction’ (more precisely, they focus on learners’ attention to formal aspects of the target language in communicative SLA environments). Does it make sense to focus on form (FonF) in the classroom? Trenkic and Sharwoold Smith come to the conclusion that “there is a place for FonF instruction and feedback in [the; JK] language classroom” and “that there is a possibility that it can ultimately influence ‘knowledge of language’” – “a question to be theoretically and empirically addressed by future FonF research.” This is vague, but due to the paucity of FonF research carried out in actual secondary school foreign language classrooms, it is almost impossible to come up with further (research-based) recommendations, appropriate and suitable to the needs of all language learners. Here are, nevertheless, some additional thoughts on this subject:

As two thousand years (and perhaps more) of foreign language learning and teaching show, focusing on the form of the target language is indespensable. However, since (intercultural) communicative competence is the ultimate goal of instruction today,  ‘form-focused instruction’ needs to be placed in the wider context of developing accuracy, complexity, fluency and appropriateness as a whole.

At present, ‘message before accuracy’ seems to be the best guideline for orchestrating everyday classroom discourse and interaction in secondary schools, but – in the age of standards-based instruction and increased orientation toward measurable, skills-oriented outcome – balancing out form-focused and message-oriented communication has (arguably) become more difficult. How can learners be prepared best for the annual assessment and testing marathon (largely focused on skills, on accuracy and on discrete-point testing)? How is it possible to develop communicative complexity, fluency and situational appropriateness under these  circumstances?

Task-based instruction appears to be a promising strategy, but as research in this area shows, it is still unclear when and how a focus of form should come (before or after the task?). At any rate, mixing up form-focused and message-oriented discouse should be avoided as far as possible (see, for instance, Doff & Klippel 2007: 198-204). – ‘As far as possible’ means that learners should only be interrupted by the teacher if their utterances are unintelligable, inappropriate, etc. Otherwise, teachers run the risk of demotivating learners to use the target language productively and spontaneously.

Spontaneity (in general) should not be underestimated in this context. Since instruction always takes place in the here-and-now of the classroom situation, planning a focus on form is possible, and – whenever new grammatical structures are introduced – necessary and advisable, but in everyday classroom discourse and interaction, reacting flexibly to what learners say on the spur of the moment is equally important (i.e. treating errors spontaneously,  expanding learner utterances immediately, etc.). Future FonF research should therefore be directed at developing a more comprehensive pedagogical framework which takes into account the discrepancies of planned and unplanned (incidental), scripted and unscripted (improvised). process- and product-oriented  instruction and learning.


Doff, Sabine & Klippel, Friederike (2007). Englischdidaktik. Praxishandbuch für die Sekundarstufe I und II. Berlin: Cornelsen.

Improvisation and Creativity in EFL Classroom Discourse

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Today I finished reading From Corpus to Classroom. Language Use and Language Teaching (O’Keefe, McCarthy & Carter 2007). In my view, this is a well-written and in many ways thought-provoking book that provides a wide-ranging (largely introductory) overview of corpus-based research and its implications for foreign language learning and teaching. Since I am particularly interested in the role of improvisation and creativity in EFL classroom discourse (see Kurtz (2001) as well as the TEFLSPEAK-G series of posts on this blog), I found the following passage most interesting:

“There is a long way to go in understanding creativity in the spoken language and in exploring the applications to the classroom of such understandings, but the first steps have been taken in recognising that it has been generally underplayed within the language teaching classroom. It is something that we need to work on to bring the best out of us as learners, teachers and collaborators in the language classroom. It is a fundamental aspect of a more humanistic approach to language teaching. And it is the kind of evidence supplied by corpora of spoken language that enable these first steps to be taken.” (O’Keefe, McCarthy & Carter 2007: 197).

However, I did not find any references to research findings not published in English in this book. The more I read, the more I  became aware (once again) of the dominance of the English language in academic communication – which raises a number of fundamental questions (see, for instance, Gnutzmann 2006).


Gnutzmann, Claus (2006). Fighting or fostering the dominance of English in academic communication?” Fachsprache, 2006 (28), 195-207.

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

O’Keefe, Anne; McCarthy, Michael & Carter, Ronald (2007). From Corpus to Classroom. Language Use and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.