גיליון 63

Teachers First!: Learning and Teaching with a Play Mindset

הדר כהן
This paper highlights insights from ongoing research that focuses on shifting in-service teachers’ mental models to what we have dubbed a Play Mindset by introducing them to improvisation games and Playback theatre techniques. Teachers become students who adopt a culture of play in a collaborative learning environment with clear rules, where they learn to listen deeply, respect each other, become curious, take chances, make mistakes and discover new ways to learn together playfully while creating a supportive classroom climate. From session to session, teachers adapt these techniques to their own classroom settings, write reflections upon them and report upon successes and failures, and most important of all, keep playing. This method places the teachers first.

What is Wrong with Teacher Professional Development?

Research on education reform has a long history of reflecting on their moderate success (Fullan, 2000). In order for new initiatives to succeed in large scale, as Fullan points out, there needs to be an ongoing connection between three stories. The ‘inside story’ is one of schools that perform as professional learning communities, focusing on student performance by adapting instructional and assessment practices on a continual basis. The second is the ‘inside-outside’ story that has to do with the external forces schools must contend (make peace/ face) with: parents and community, technology, corporate connections, government policy, and the wider teaching profession. Teacher professional development is part of this story. This can be done by regular engagement in partnerships with local universities or becoming members of other networks of teachers. The third is the ‘outside-in’ story, which refers to school districts, whole states and other agencies working with schools. When the three stories of reform and change work together it brings about sustainable school change (Fullan, 2000).

According to a recent OECD report, effective teacher professional development involves an active group of collaborating and learning teachers. These teachers are more likely to initiate a wide range of classroom practices. As it happens, between 30% and 80% are not satisfied with the professional development they have received.

According to a recent OECD report (2017), effective teacher professional development involves an active group of collaborating and learning teachers. These teachers are more likely to initiate a wide range of classroom practices. As it happens, between 30% and 80% are not satisfied with the professional development they have received  According to a recent OECD report, effective teacher professional development involves an active group of collaborating and learning teachers. These teachers are more likely to initiate a wide range of classroom practices. As it happens, between 30% and 80% are not satisfied with the professional development they have received.

The voices that we have listened to in our research (teachers participating in in-service training courses in central Israel), express many frustrations about the existing system. After a long day of work, they are expected to dedicate time and energy to study beyond teaching periods with courses that often do not connect to or have an impact on their teaching practices. One such teacher shares that during such courses, she usually grades papers and attends only as many meetings as will allow her to pass. Others express their frustration at theoretical subject matter, their challenges and needs not being addressed and the profound feeling that they are not good enough teachers. Many share the feelings of isolation and loneliness, struggling to cope with their students and their students’ parents, fellow teachers and school administrators.

Despite the huge investment by both institutions and teachers to promote professional development, what can be done to alleviate this frustration and begin to cultivate change?

Changing Mental Models First

We see it as a challenge of changing mindsets one teacher at a time, as transitioning to mental models of effective student and teacher learning (Henderson, Putt & Coombs, 2002; Senge, 1990). We see learning as an act that integrates thinking, feeling, experiencing, embodying and reflecting. This kind of learning is possible in a collaborative learning environment that encourages agency and reflection, where failure becomes an essential ingredient and process is of primary import. At the heart of this learning act is a ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2010). Our goal is to help grow teachers with a growth mindset first. This type of mindset flourishes in a culture of play.

So what can be done to motivate teachers to re-examine, reflect and shift their mindsets within the framework of their professional development?

We suggest an alternative to the way they experience their roles as learners first and only then as teachers in their classrooms.  We want to give them opportunities to tell stories, play, act and collaborate, to perform, improvise and grow together in a safe space.

This kind of learner-teacher can then promote a culture of play that encourages both students and teachers to listen and respect each other, rely on one another, inquire, take chances, make mistakes, and find new ways to learn together playfully in a supportive classroom climate. We believe that this would lead to a Play Mindset.

This type of learning and classroom culture can develop learners ‘global competencies’, as coined by Fullan and associates (Fullan, Quinn & McEachen, 2018), which include character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.

Adopting a Play Mindset with Improvisation and Playback Theatre

Research has shown that teaching through performance affects the growing person in five dimensions: social, physical, intellectual, creative and emotional development (Hillyard, 2010). We believe that to generate a play mindset involves creating an improvisational classroom learning culture for teachers, where they play, act and improvise together with their students. We have found that teachers exposed to this kind of learning experience discover their personal and professional perceptions about learning and motivation. Shifts in their own mindsets inaugurate a process that can lead to changes in their actual teaching practices and increased self-efficacy for teaching by play and performance (Bandura, 2006).

We have been introducing Improvisation and Playback Theatre techniques to pre and in-service teachers (K-12, English as a Foreign Language, History, Hebrew Language, Physical Education, Special Education, etc.) and to principals and professors, through workshops and academic courses.   The methods we have adopted in our own teacher training come from the world of Improvisation and Playback Theatre.

Improvisation is defined as a creative act executed without planning and while listening and responding to others in real-time (Magerko, Manzoul, Riedl, Baumer, Fuller, Luther & Pearce, 2009). Improvisation involves a performance that is invented on the spot by actors in response to a general subject or specific input from the audience.  This leads to the creation of something unexpected, playful and surprising. Those improvising must be in the “here and now,” connect to intuition, focus on the process and not the product, and demonstrate a willingness to make mistakes (Magerko et al., 2009).  Based on the ideas of Viola Spolin (1999), Keith Johnstone (1989) and others, some of the principles necessary for successful improvisation include:  playing while being in the moment; being willing to fail; saying ‘Yes’ to others and their ideas; saying ‘Yes, and,’ by contributing ideas and collaborating to create something new; listening deeply and actively; following the rules; and having fun.

Playback Theatre (PT) is an interactive form of improvisational theatre based on individuals sharing personal stories and receiving an improvised response using theatrical techniques. The actors give the storytellers a gift – seeing the story and themselves brought to life, others’ perspectives on the story and the recognition that the storyteller has been seen and heard.  The idea for Playback Theatre came from Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas during the mid 1970’s and was influenced by their own exploration of twentieth century experiential theatre and a fascination with pre-literary storytelling and other oral cultural forms (Fox, 1992).

Stories can be used as an integral part of the learning process to create connections between the themes inside the subject matter and personal stories. For example, Moses’ story as a leader can elicit learner’s personal stories of leadership in their everyday life. Moreover, one can use an improvisational format called Monologues, and give voice to Moses’s thoughts, feelings and motivations.  Based on the biblical text and other intertextual sources (including personal experience) the improvisation can be expanded to a series of monologues performed by and for the class.

This type of “performance” can encourage deepened perspectives and empathic insights into historical figures, themes and ideas that emerge from a text.

From our experience, when teachers undergo this kind of learning experience (even for a semester course), they begin to dare to integrate these new values and practices in their teaching: being in the ‘here and now,’ playfulness, creativity, improvisation, fun, being open to the unexpected, saying ‘yes, and,’ celebrating the process, perceiving mistakes as part of a learning cycle. In such a classroom culture, stories become a central organizing element in curriculum design, and listening deeply, collaboration and following the rules are the order of the day.

The next section explains some of the benefits that teachers have reported from participating in courses and workshops as learners, who regularly reflect upon their experiences, as they bring these techniques into their classrooms and then share their successes and failures and the effects these  have had on themselves and their students.

What Happens When Teachers Come First

Based on participant teachers’ written reflections (blogs), dozens have begun improvising and using Playback Theatre techniques as a part of their teacher persona, in their daily teaching routine and classroom management techniques. They have begun adapting the principles and practices of improvisation to their pedagogical goals and students’ needs.  We have seen that this can unlock a creative toolkit that transforms teaching and learning and positively shapes classroom climates.

A first grade teacher shared, “Something has shifted in my teacher identity and the way I conduct myself in class. I now play many different types of games with my students.  We frequently dramatize what we have learned, we make up songs for our classroom rules and sing them regularly as needed. I play with the structure of my lessons too – sometimes starting or ending with a game, or shifting the lesson plan according to what I feel the students need. I consciously plan activities that touch on many of their senses, and not only unidirectional listening or seeing.”

Adopting a classroom culture of play encourages in its teachers and students a respect for rules, a love of the unpredictable, an enthusiasm for the arts, a comfort level and familiarity with failure, and the cultivation of a space where every individual is seen and heard.

In sum, the question of how to get teachers (and students) to dare to teach and learn through storytelling, playing and performing leads to our conclusion that, first, teachers have to try it out for themselves as learners.

An important insight that has come from our collective experience is that a game is never only a game. It is a dynamic possibility with which to interpret and view different perspectives in the classroom.  The game can be seen as a means to improve or review a classroom skill. It can be examined for the way it is played by the class and the way the teacher runs the game and upholds (or does not uphold) the rules.  The game can be seen as a metaphor for teacher and student development and interaction.  It can be used as a diagnostic tool for both teachers and students, who recognize that they don’t have all the answers and can reflect upon themselves as individuals and as part of the group.

Dare to Play? Conclusions and Possible Obstructions

In the system that we function within today, teachers’ successes are evaluated mainly upon the results of large-scale standardized tests and other measures that can  hinder change. We are suggesting that the focus of professional development be expanded to include these  improvisational processes and recognize their importance.  However, if these principles and skills are not encouraged within the education system, even as they integrate many intelligences, they will not become common practice.

We would encourage continued  documentation of teachers’ reflections about their best practices in  shared digital forums, within the platforms of existing professional networks.

Thus, professional development through improvisation and playback theatre can lead to a stronger sense of learner and teacher self-efficacy for creating a play mindset.

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