Sunday, May 31, 2015

Improvisation Activity #1: Improvisation with an Object

Now that I've provided a general overview for improvisation activities, I'm ready lay out the learning design philosophy and basic setup instructions for the core improvisation types I like to use in both online and face-to-face learning.

The first type, and the one I often use when I'm working with groups of any kind is Improvisation with an Object. The purpose of this improvisation is the encourage participants to see the familiar differently, from new perspectives. It is an extremely flexible activity, and can be set up easily in any kind of environment.

The basic setup for this improvisation is really simple. I tell the group that I'm going to show them an object and then give them a set amount of time to write down as many ideas as possible about what the object might be. The only ting they can't write down is what the object really is or what it's actually used for.

In the simplest version of this activity, I ask participants to work individually and I set the time limit at 30 seconds. The time constraint works well as it helps provide focus for the activity. It also produces creativity by "forcing" people to accept possibilities that they might reject if they were given sufficient time to evaluate.

When I do this improvisation for the first time, I deliberately choose an object that is readily recognizable, such as a pencil. I do this because I want participants to begin with a sense of familiarity, and using a familiar object helps achieve that. I also want to force them to see things differently, think beyond the familiar, translate the known into what they can imagine. 

This jump from the concrete-known to imaginative possibilities is not automatic, however. Typically, when I begin an improvisation series with a pencil, the initial set of suggestions I generally hear are simple translations from one concrete, known object to another. For example:
  • It's a thermometer
  • It's a straw
  • It's a cigar
As I facilitate further stretching with this activity I will ask participants to work in pairs, and  I will also re-introduce objects we have used before. At this stage, both because of group synergies and because they have already discarded obvious translations, the suggestions will evolve into more distant and/or narrative-driven possibilities.

  • It's the model the Beatles used as inspiration for Yellow Submarine
  • It's a rocket ship from the planet Balsa
  • It's the Egyptian skyscraper they called the Needle
At this point, the elaboration portion of the activity is particularly fun. As a facilitator, I'm able to ask questions, extend the narrative and imaginative possibilities, and draw other group members into the discussion.

There are many possible permutations of this improvisation. I have done this online and face-to-face, and as both oral and written activities. I have used it successfully to reinforce concepts with language and composition students, and with software developers and biology researchers. 

It is also an improvisation that I can implement successfully in any situation with, literally, no advance planning.

The bottom line is that it’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s a great way stimulate lateral thinking and imagination. It’s also an activity that gets us out of our set ways of seeing things.

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