The failure bow
About a year ago, I started taking improv classes at a local Austin theater. Most of what I perform is bad. As in, not funny, not interesting, not technically competent, mostly just painful. That’s neither self-depreciating nor unexpected—you’re supposed to fail a lot at the beginning. This goes for any art, but especially the performing ones: playing music, acting, comedy, spoken word. It’s why the elites in those fields, the Claptons, the Viola Davises, the Richard Pryors, the Sarah Kays, are so enthralling. Like Olympic gymnastics judges, we recognize both the high level of technical difficulty and the soaring level of execution and artistry in their performances.
Teaching often involves performing as well and, as teachers will tell you, it’s incredibly improvisational. I recently took an improv class whose central tenets were: be bold, be calm, be curious. Instantly, I thought these same techniques could be applied to teaching – and thought Teacher Appreciation Week was an apt time to share these thoughts.
In improv, you have one job and one job only: to make bold choices. A bold choice is one that pushes your audience just beyond their comfort zone. (If this sounds familiar, it’s also a principle of deliberate practice). It steers the scene or your character into new territory. Being bold is having an impulse or instinct and following it immediately. In improv, hesitation is the death of creativity.
In teaching, too. A visitor to a classroom can often close their eyes and hear the rhythm of a classroom. In my observations, a successful classroom often has a steady, allegro tempo, with student and teacher interactions occurring frequently and flowing seamlessly into one another. Directions are direct and clear, and given boldly, without hesitation. A more experienced teacher, like a more experienced improviser, will be able to better anticipate the consequences of bold moves. My colleague, Charis, wrote about how experienced teachers use sophisticated mental representations for this power of anticipation.
Not everyone is Robin Williams. That’s an important lesson to remember in general, but especially in improv. Williams, one of my heroes, had a manic, staccato pace, often seeming to blurt out whatever came to his mind—his mind just happened to be filled only with funny things. In improv, this is dangerous. There’s a place for mania, but if you start at the top, it’s hard to build on that. So in improv, we work on being calm, listening to the other performers, moving deliberately and boldly, but not spastically. This means listening and acting with purpose, not necessarily being quiet.
In the classroom, calm is key. The great teachers I’ve observed have all maintained an emotional constancy that allows for quick diffusion of potential problems. Wait times for student answers are long and low pressure, giving a calm space for students to think. In improv, being calm on stage allows the audience to relax—they trust you to carry them through. Teaching, a performance art, benefits from the same self-assuredness. Our own The Science of Learning notes that, “Students will be more motivated and successful in academic environments when they believe that they belong and are accepted in those environments.”
Improvisers must be curious about what comes next; curiosity is the creative engine that drives an improvised scene. How would my character react to that? What is true about my character? What does my character want? Why? These questions push forward all improvisation, be it a short sketch or a long narrative piece. Without curiosity, there is no show.
Great teachers, in my observations, are intensely curious before, during, and after a lesson. Their students are curious too, digging through the material. In this way, “off-topic” questions aren’t off-topic at all, they are simple diversions rooted up by a curious mind. Curious teachers are constantly making tweaks and adjustments, even in the moment. They are curious how each tiny part of their lesson affects their students.
Teachers are intensely curious about every aspect of their practice and that curiosity translates into wanting to constantly improve. As discussed at the Practice with Purpose panel, teachers want to get better at their craft (and we think and understanding of cognitive science and the principles of deliberate practice can help them do just that).
Being bold, calm, and curious is easy to say but tremendously difficult to execute on stage, mainly because an improviser is constantly juggling an array of different things in their head—character names, traits, jokes, what’s happened, what’s about to happen, what could happen later, what the audience thinks of all of it. A teacher has perhaps even more things to juggle at once. It’s easy to drop a ball here and there. Teaching, like improv, inevitably involves some failure. But failure is both an expectation and asset in improv. In failing, the improviser learns and improves. Every time a performer fails while practicing, they take a failure bow and everyone applauds. In school, failure is often seen as a negative, even though it’s a key part of the learning process. So be bold, calm, and curious, and don’t be afraid of the failure bows you’ll take while you’re doing it.