William M. Plater Institute on the Future of Learning – Teaching & Learning Unscripted
Recently I attended the William M. Plater Institute on the Future of Learning – Teaching & Learning Unscripted. The keynote speech “Exploring Improvisation” by Katie Watson, JD Assistant Professor, Northwestern University, was a variation of student engagement activities that I found insightful and inspirational. As I sat there, I was thinking about how to practically apply her improv and other ideas to instruction at the law school.
Non-legal improvisational activities provide learning opportunities where students model learning behaviors that can carry over to legal studies. Law student fear of providing incorrect answers can inhibit learning.
Applied improvisation in the classroom also enhances student communication skills, requiring careful listening, processing of information, exploration of content and seeking solutions collaboratively. Repeated drilling helps to improve ability to respond appropriately to situations, be more comfortable and flexible with responses. The low stakes exercises acclimatize students to receiving constructive feedback and increase their confidence in dealing with situations.
As I stated above, several of these exercises are designed to get students used to thinking in certain ways without the pressure of being ‘right’ or being held responsible for knowing the law. Here are my favorite take-away tips and exercises:
- Getting quickly to the point. Pair the students and have them spend 60 seconds discussing an ordinary topic (cooking, exercise, vacation plans). Next have them hold the same conversation in 30 seconds followed by 15 seconds and finally five seconds. This trains them to refine their thoughts and focus on the essentials.
- Focusing on the essentials. Pair the students, have one student pick a modern convenience (phone, plane, car, appliance, etc). Next have the other be a time traveler from 1776. In two minutes the first student must explain the item to the visitor from 1776 (who may ask relevant questions). At the end of the exercise, have the 1776 visitor explain their understanding of item.
- Law as a Greek tragedy. Find a fictional story and have the students argue its legal issues (sex, birth, death, war, power and money) like you would a case. At the end of the discussion have the students act as judges and stand up to vote on the issue.
- People’s Court. Use a recent legal decision and have students act as litigants. Use the People’s Court precursor statements. Select your own Judge Wapner or empanel the rest of the class as the jury and have them stand up and take the oath. This turns the students into a “character.”
- Learn by teaching. With no prior warning, at the start of a class session, outline the topics to be covered that day. If there are three topics, then have them break into three groups. Walk out of the classroom giving the students 15 minutes to prepare a 10 minute sessions (exercise, discussion etc) on the topic. (note: She said having this one really assured student preparation the following class sessions.)
- Amnesty rows. Make the front two rows protection from getting called on during class. (note: she found that the energy in the first rows is such that the students start volunteering)
- Exploring an issue. Pair students and have them discuss a topic for 2 minutes, (no questions – just statements) each statement must begin with:
- “Yes and…” This exercise creates momentum and builds on prior person’s contribution by affirming and adding. This is good practice for consensus building.
- “Yes, but…” This exercise is more exploratory, implementing more critical thinking skills
- “No…” This exercise provides practice in argument formulation
For additional information, check out the following links.
Slate’s Getting to “Yes, And”: How improv comedy skills became a must-have for entrepreneurs.
Forbes article Four Big Lessons From Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey And Other Improv Masters
PRI’s Science Friday What happens when you give scientists comedy improv lessons?