Improvisation in Professional Fields

Many of the features outlined previously re-appear in the professional literature that invokes improvisation as a heuristic for practice. In therapeutic practices, for instance, sociodrama, psychodrama, social therapy, and music or drama therapy have incorporated improvisational activities as instruments for assessment or intervention with clients (Emunah & Blatner, 1994; Moreno, 1987; Newman & Holzman, 1996; Wiener, 1994). The work of Brazilian activist Augusto Boal (1985, 1992, 1995), which is rooted in Paulo Freire's (1989) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, uses theatrical improvisation for both educational and therapeutic practices. Aside from its use as a therapeutic tool, improvisation has also been described as central in the therapeutic process itself in that it focuses the practitioner on the moment-to-moment unfolding of intersubjective experiences, on not-knowing, instead of a false sense of certainty provided by models or schools ofthought (Keeney, 1991; Ringstrom, 2001). In the words ofIrving Yalom (1989),

[T]he capacity to tolerate uncertainty is a prerequisite for the profession. Though the public may believe that therapists guide patients systematically and sure- handedly through predictable stages of therapy to a foreknown goal, such is rarely the case: Instead . . . therapists frequently wobble, improvise, and grope for direction. The powerful temptation to achieve certainty through embracing an ideological school and a tight therapeutic system is treacherous: Such belief may block the uncertain and spontaneous encounter necessary for effective therapy. (p. 13)

In organization sciences, authors have drawn similar parallels between improvisation and processes of decision-making, achievement, creativity, and product innovation (Barrett, 1998; Crossan, 1998; Mirvis, 1998; Weick, 1998). Insisting that organizations and environments are largely unpredictable, Crossan, Lane, and White (1996) describe improvisation as a “potential link between the need to plan for the predictable and the ability to respond simultaneously to the unpredictable” (p. 21). Weick (1998) suggests that taking improvisation seriously may enable organization theorists to

do more with the simultaneous presence of seeming opposites in organizations than simply label them as paradoxes. There is currently an abundance of conceptual dichotomies that tempt analysts to choose between things like control and innovation, exploitation and exploration, routine and non-routine. . . . Improvisation is a mixture of the pre-composed and the spontaneous, just as organizational action mixes together some proportion of control with innovation. . . . A routine becomes something both repetitious and novel. (p. 551)

For the field of education, several authors put forth the idea of teaching as performance replete with improvisation. Embedded in a performance or social constructionist paradigm, improvisation is not merely a metaphoric descriptor but bespeaks a view of pedagogy as collaboratively evolving knowledge. Less concerned with identification and categorization of the known and more with the unidentified unpredictabilities inside and outside the classroom, educational improvisation means to engage in spontaneous and open-ended activities that develop from raw ideas, activities that respond to change and express transformation, and that develop according to interpretation by participants (Fusco, 2000; Sawyer, 2004a, 2004b). As a “theatrical event,” teaching is viewed as an activity in which “cultural knowledge is performed in the ‘how' rather than in the abstract ideas of its content, replete with stable and uncertain aspects, improvised and planned actions” (Shem-Tov, 2011, p. 105). Teaching thus conceived is not a technical but a hermeneutic activity, requiring those involved in education to be creative rather than prescriptive and to look for meaning rather than truth.

Authors who suggest the improvisation analog for teaching share a vision of education as an activity that seeks to remove obstacles to playful learning and stresses the collaborative nature. In contrast to what Freire (1989) called the traditional “banking model,” according to which the teacher “deposits” his or her knowledge in students' heads, education is seen as an activity geared to “draw out” (as derived from the Latin e-ducere) rather than “stuff in.” As such, education must “tap into the close relationship between play and exploration; there must be permission to explore and express. There must be validation of the exploratory spirit, which by definition takes us out of the tried, the tested, and the homogenous” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 118). Just as in theater improvisations, “in true discussion, the topic and the flow of the class emerge from teacher and students together; the outcome is unpredictable” (Sawyer, 2004a, p. 13).

Such a form of dialogic learning requires teachers to step outside of comfort zones, in which they “know better” at all times or aim for predetermined answers, and instead face their own fears ofuncertainty in a joint discovery process (Borko & Livingston, 1989). This does not mean abdicating the knowledge teachers hold but, rather, integrating it flexibly and staying open to learning something new in the process. Authors suggest that exposing teachers to improvisation concepts and exercises might help them overcome fears of “losing control” of classroom process or contents. It might make them better leaders of classroom discussions, who know how to respond flexibly to spontaneous developments in the classroom and to reflectively integrate the scripts of curricula with the improvised practices in teaching (Sawyer, 2004a, 2004b; Shem-Tov, 2011).

At the same time, any given context frames improvisation through external and internal elements (Zaunbrecher, 2011). The physical spaces we inhabit, the lights and sounds, the number of people present, the silent and expressed expectations, and so on all provide structures and limits to improvised actions. For educational settings, these frames result in what Sawyer (2004a) has referred to as “disciplined improvisation,” meaning that “teachers locally improvise within an overall global structure” (p. 16). Just as the term “discipline” holds various shades of meaning, improvisations that are “disciplined” by the context of education point us to questions about how such restrictions may be wanted or unwanted; how limits are imposed externally or internalized, conscious or perhaps unconscious; and how they are embedded in larger discourse.

The fact that current literature on social work education rarely references improvisation is likely itself a result of such discursive and institutionalized self- disciplining that foregrounds technical-rational ideas of “professionalism” and “competency-focused education.” Only few authors explicitly refer to improvi- sational aspects in the learning or teaching of social work (Feldman, Barron, Holliman, Karliner, & Walter, 2009; Todd, 2012), and none expand on the concept to include its mimetic and critical potential.

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