The ability to improvise

Warning–this is a somewhat esoteric post, but something that grabbed my interest and I wanted to share.   This morning, to rev myself up for a day of workshops, I was listening to some podcasts on the way to work and ran across an Accidental Creative podcast interview with Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Freeplay: Improvisation in Life and Art.

Nachmanovitch’s interview fascinated me because of the implications for schools of what he had to say about improvisation.

He tells a story of  a labor strike, which involves workers doing everything exactly by the book until the organization grinds to a halt.  

The reason all work stops?  Because all organizations function on improvisation and people functioning creatively and spontaneously to solve problems that arise all day long.  It seems to me that in schools sincerely trying to respond to changes in education, this ability to improvise is critical, and schools (and libraries) which cannot cultivate a culture of improvisation and flexibility will have a very difficult time with change.   

 In the podcast, Nachmanovitch and host Todd Henry speak about the dynamic between the “practical” and the “possible,” and how there is a delicate balance between the two that has to be maintained for an organization to function.

 Too often it seems that in schools the practical overshadows the possible, and thus squelches creativity, sometimes particularly in regard to creative uses of technology.

On his website, Free Play Productions, Nachmanovich writes:

“For me, improvisation is all about human relationship. It is about listening, responding, connecting, and about generosity. When a group of free improvisers gets together. . .it is like watching separate beings become integrated into a single nervous system and become, for a time, whole. It is a partnership, with each other and with the audience, in the deepest sense of the word. . . .”

He goes on to write about teaching:

“If you are going to teach, you will plunge into encounters with people who come from different cultural backgrounds, with different tastes, different personalities, different priorities. Your capacity to improvise is one way into these encounters: the art of listening and responding to other human beings.

Each tone and gesture can be seen as an invitation to deepen the information and feelings that are unfolding. The discipline of improvisation is to learn to accept these invitations, to say yes, and to support each other. This is not only a recipe for making wonderful music, it makes for a happier life. “

 When I think of things that cause difficulty at my campus, it is when we have systems that aren’t allowing for the spontaneity of events–that are setting up roadblocks at every turn that we must overcome.  It’s when the inflexibility of the system is blocking the creative efforts of educators that I get most frustrated. 

How can we find, in schools, that balance between what is “practical” and still allow for what is “possible”?   How can we say yes to each other, and create a “happier life?”

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