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Probe: Learning as Improvisation

Learning and improvisation are intimately related. I would also suggest that they are unavoidably interconnected. In the Arts, improvisation means freedom of expression in the present moment. With respect to learning, improvisation allows us to open ourselves up and literally play with the things that we think, feel and do. Through improvisation we discover our own unique expression and identity through open expression in our own particular circumstance. Improvisation in learning means that there is an authentic and immediate response to a situation. Throughout the confluence of everyday life we are all improvisers...

What is Improvisation?

Improvisation is not a definition, it is an experience. Perhaps it is through the arts that we find the most prevalent examples of improvisation to explore. For the artist, improvisation is the primary interface with the Muse and is therefore at its most fundamental level a form of soulful or spiritual communication. Improvisation in Art is not merely a means to create things and objects, it is an outlook on living and a way of life, or more simply, a lifestyle. Jerry Wennstrom invites us to consider this perspective on improvisation using how own life and personal experiences as an example (see: Creative Process: Jerry Wennstrom - Wandering). This perspective on improvisation - this way of experiencing life - is, for me, one of the most important ways to think about the intersection of improvisation and learning.

It is not a well-known fact that famous classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart were constantly immersed in improvisatory expression. Today we tend to think about these Artists through the compositions that we endlessly re-perform. This is not to say that performing their compositions is somehow misguided, but it is to say that performing their compositions is an act of interpretation, not improvisation in any meaningful sense of the word. The act of interpreting music is a completely different kind of experience compared to the act of improvising music.

Our culture seems to value acts of interpretation over improvisation. That is, we tend to seek variations on the things that we already know instead of risking improvisation and the unknown. Interpretation points us to what is already there; improvisation demands we accept the mystery. For Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, improvisation was an assumption in their musical creativity. Bach was an incredibly inspired improviser. Beethoven was known to vary his own compositions in live performances. Mozart literally lived and breathed a life of improvisation. It was their connection to the Muse and the practical means by which they built incredible musical compositions for humankind.

The reality and pervasive presence of improvisation in the classical composer's life seem to go unnoticed today. In losing improvisation in the Arts we lose our connection to the Muse and our means of communicating through our soul and spirit. In losing our connection to improvisation, we lose our connection with creativity itself. It is both startling and unsettling to see the Arts taught in education in the absence of any meaningful experience of improvisation.

Why is Improvisation Essential to Learning?

The word "improvisation" is often associated with words like extemporize, ad lib, impromptu, informal, jam, and scat. Sometimes improvisation is also placed into the more derogatory context of unrehearsed, unprepared, unplanned, thrown together, rough and ready, crude, make-do, temporary, jury-rigged and slapdash. The hidden, and incorrect, criticism is that something done on the spur of the moment is less significant than something that has been planned and rehearsed.

If we bring the idea of improvisation into a closer proximity with learning a different kind of perspective emerges. By embracing improvisation, learning is immediate expression - an unrehearsed pulling out of knowledge, skills, attitudes, awareness, and perception into something that has personal meaning. Improvisation means that the individual is the source and origin of design, not the object (see: Design: The Object of Design vs. The Source of Design).

In other words, improvisation demands openness and freedom of expression in a learning environment. It shatters the idea of curriculum as mass communication (see: Curriculum: The Design of the Prerequisite) and assumes that learning in its most natural element is about building connections, relationships and associations throughout our everyday experiences. Improvisation forces content (i.e. - knowledge and skills) to be responsive to the moment and sensitive to the existing circumstances. What was once imposed and static content becomes malleable and dynamic content under the pressure of improvisation.

The Artistic Sensibility of Learning

It is not possible to sever improvisation from learning just as it is not possible to sever improvisation from the creative process - even though we try to. Our educational orientation to music today is largely typographic (see: Probe: Learning Environment - The Medium Is The Message). This means that we have a tendency to bias the sensibility of the eye over the sensibility of the ear. More simply, we tend to educate ourselves about music through our eyes, and in doing so tend to make it a static, analytical and technical experience.

Oral traditions in music embrace the sensibility of the ear. This means that people learn music without the bias of print manuscripts, musical notation, musical theory, or sheet music. Music ideas and "compositions" were shared through aural experience, or literally "ear" experience. Improvisation was so prevalent in this tradition that it becomes hard and perhaps impossible to isolate it, separate it and classify it. To an individual biased by the "eye" sensibility this is a form of trauma. However, it is in the oral tradition of music that we find the same sensibility as embraced by the classical composers, that is, committing music to paper was largely an administrative task, not a creative process.

Arts education in general today, it seems to me, focuses on the administrative tasks of art while ignoring the fundamental purpose of Art. For example, in music it is entirely possible to experience several years of education without once being encouraged or even allowed to improvise. This means that we are, in fact, denied the freedom of authentic expression. The reason for this is simple - education is a typographically biased enterprise and as such seeks to literally freeze knowledge and therefore expression and communication in time. Improvisation demands precisely the opposite.

Learning Is Improvisation

The probe "learning is improvisation" forces us to consider the unavoidable interconnections between learning and improvisation. Of course, a probe is not to be taken as a definition. Instead, the idea of "learning is improvisation" is a provocation designed to make us think about the proposition, and that in the end is the most important direction.

Of course, the artistic sensibility in learning is not limited to musical experiences. Improvisation can be experienced in all of the Arts. In addition, the idea of improvisation is not limited to the Arts, we can find it in other dimensions of life as well. At the same time, it seems to me that we could embrace the lessons of the great Artist-Improvisers that have embraced improvisation as a pathway to authentic and open expression. The ways in which they have learned their Art - the ways in which they worked - are a gateway to the fundamental importance of improvisation in learning.

Much of what we do on the Internet embraces aspects of improvisation. Tagging, for example, is improvisation. Tools that facilitate tagging, such as or Technorati are not so much social bookmarking tools as they are tools for social improvisation in a digital environment. George Siemens' work with Connectivism also embraces improvisation as a form of knowledge improvisation in a digital environment. Much of this stems from the underlying fact that digital networks themselves are fundamentally acts of improvisation and they therefore promote ideas about dynamic and evolving sets of knowledge connections in cyberspace.

Improvisation is an idea that easily transcends any Internet metaphor. A physical network, then, is something less that improvisation itself. The statement seems obvious, but is often ignored. Without improvisation, learning is pathology. Improvisation places us firmly into a multi-cultural perspective in order to explore how people in different cultures used improvisation to express their beliefs and attitudes toward life. Improvisation places us firmly in the artist's domain in order to explore what our lives can be and how we connect our lives to sources of inspiration greater than ourselves. Improvisation places us firmly into that vast reservoir of history in order to investigate and examine how people openly expressed themselves in various circumstances. And finally, improvisation places us into direct and intimate contact with our own identity, our own interior world, and inspires us to pursue purpose and meaning in life.

[Revised November 2005]

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Hi Cyn,

Comments fixed . Thanks for letting me know.

I ilke that phrase, "improvisation is truth-making." It forces us to let go of ourselves and live in the moment.

I changed the phrase in the original article you mentioned to bold text above:-)

Hi Brian,

I think the key here is "improvisation as the pathway to authentic and open expression".

By learning to trust ideas, sounds, movement we can unlock the cage where the artist lives. By taking risks we can challenge what we believe to be the truth.

Improvisation is truth-making. You put your life on the line when you 'let go' and allow yourself to be naked before an audience. Without the ability to let go, to trust, to say YES, does the true-self emerge? What becomes of _expression, if, as you say Brian, we are left with mere interpretation? What has been experienced or learned?

Much of what we strive for as artists is authenticity, often though, we can't let ourselves go into the darkness. (Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet). We flounder at best looking for the answer outside of ourselves and miss so much learning.

This is great Brian. Thanks for posting.

Hey Sean - I know you are doing a lot of thinking about the connections between social networks and intelligence. I also know you're a musician too!

I'm wondering if you have some ideas about how improvisation (in the broad non-musical sense of the word) plays out in social networks and intelligence.

In my book I toyed with the idea of improvisation as it relates to communication and learning. Rather than the communication of knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA) as the chords and rhythms of learning, I shifted the assumptions in curriculum and instruction to communication between people, places and things.And this communication was something that was designed by the learner as much as it was "taught" by the education system. If I remember right, I called it "Interaction Design" in learning.

This was the approach I used for redesigning the education system in Madeira, Portugal a few years ago. One of the problems, though, is that when you empower learners to design and implement their own systems of communication, the exisiting authority structures come under intense pressure.

At the same time, one of the benefits is that ideas about knowledge, skills and attitudes became part of a system that was oriented to being open, organic and emphasized designing, building and personal meaning.

KSA still had a fundamental role, but the network-learning environment changed the way people thought about them. I still don't believe that catalogues of KSA delieved via systems of mass communication are the best way to structure education. In fact, I believe that approach is quite limiting in the end.

Also, is anyone that you are aware of looking at ideas like these (i.e. - improvisation + social networks + intelligence)?

I'd be interested in learning more.

"Jazz musicians are not unprepared to improvise. " This is a great point.

Even master improv comedian Robin Williams admits that he has hundreds of rehearsed "bits" in the back of his mind that he pulls out based on what is happening in the moment.

For me, a lot of the magic moments in comedy are when the rehearsed bits go in unexpected / "accidental" directions for the comedian.

It seems that many people recognize the power of those mistakes but few want to practice the craft that leads to those moments.

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