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IMPROVISATION IN THE SOCIAL WORK CLASSROOM: FROM PRACTICE TO PRAXIS

Improvisation offers social work education a collaborative and playful approach that pushes for more holistic pedagogical practices and takes education beyond utilitarian “competency training.” Todd (2012), for instance, describes how she altered her use of “standardized clients” as role-play partners to train future clinicians to find the “correct” diagnosis. Not surprisingly perhaps, she initially observed students' focus on outcome rather than process in which “getting it right” was the main concern. In order to foreground elements of uncertainty in practice including unconscious and emotional knowledge, as well as the unpredictability of relational encounters, Todd then introduced improvisational theater exercises. As a result, she found the focus of the class shifting from concern about self-mastery to attention to the relationship. Todd concludes that improvisation

facilitates the development of skills that are central to social work yet difficult to bring into the classroom through other pedagogical approaches. They are those aspects of social work practice that are difficult to quantify. Improvisation works against the certainty and overdetermined pedagogical practice. (p. 312)

Further extending these insights, I believe that improvisation in social work education is best served when it explicitly integrates critical pedagogy. Consistent with literature on improvisation in education, critical pedagogy calls for dialogical learning, in which students' perspectives are encouraged and have room (Giroux, 2004, 2011). But drawing on critical theories, including those put forth by the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci, and Paolo Freire, critical pedagogy also seeks to analyze and alter the sociopolitical dynamics, power structures, and ideologies that infuse our thinking ofwhat is “common sense” or “normal.” Arguing for a critical pedagogy in social work, Saleebey and Scanlon (2005) define it as an “educational practice that links theory and action, social thought and social change” into a “union referred to as ‘praxis' ” (p. 4). Ideally, it culminates in activities based on jointly developed critical awareness (Saleebey & Scanlon, 2005). In current classrooms, creating this critical awareness is too often limited to cognitive processes and excludes much of the richness of mimetic knowledge. Therefore, the use of improvisational games and exercises expands critical pedagogy to be more inclusive of embodied knowledge production and in turn benefits from critical analysis so as to not lose its transformative sociopolitical potential.

The following are examples of my efforts to teach from an improvisational mindset and use games or exercises from theater improv as a part of a critical pedagogical concept. My own practice of improvisational theater has undoubtedly made me more comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty in the classroom. But to be clear, creating an atmosphere of nonjudgment, ofplayfulness and risk-taking, remains no easy feat in the existing structures of academic learning. Students and teachers are equally socialized to a form of learning that has little in common with the sacred temenos of free play. It takes creative and resistive acts to fashion nonjudgmental spaces where “performance” denotes not playful learning but “being up to snuff.” Altering traditional performances of “teacher” and “student,” and turning, or returning, classrooms into spaces in which we play together to explore the unknown, is a communal improvisational effort.

 
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