Improvisation and Collaboration in the Writing Classroom

written by Kendra Ross 

for Dr. David Stacey's English 612

at Humboldt State University

Spring 2008 

Reflective Research Essay ----> 


        When Dr. Stacey asked our English 612 class if we would like to have James Peck visit from Del’Arte International to lead us in improvisation games for one of our class meetings, we all responded enthusiastically. As the scheduled night approached, though, I started to become a little more apprehensive about the applicability of such fun. I’ve had a little experience with improvisational theatre before, so I had a vague idea of what to expect; I just didn’t know how this was going to apply to our development as writing teachers.

            I found that this experience of playing and improvising with Mr. Peck applied to our professional development in many ways. Not only did we all bond together as a group , as the flushed faces and genuinely happy smiles in the pictures show, we also gained valuable experience forcing ourselves to be fully present and aware of others. These principles of being purposefully alert and receptive built a valuable set of insights into teaching, especially regarding the use of collaboration in the classroom. Collaborative learning has received much attention over the past few decades in the field of composition, leading to a comprehensive understanding of what collaborative learning entails and specific suggestions for how educators can help to foster it.

            The educational potential of collaboration has always been clear to me. Through my bachelors degree in women’s studies, I have seen the value of collaborative learning as a participant, a facilitator and a scholar. All of my classes in women’s studies were dialogue based and relied heavily upon collaboration. The women’s studies combination of discussion, critique and critical analysis developed my writing skills while also building social consciousness. Because of the marginalized position of women’s studies in the academy, the department demanded a high level of scholarly work. We often completed group projects that involved collaborative work in and outside of class in an effort to fill specific collaborative writing and presenting requirements. Furthermore, most of the teachers in women’s studies reject an authoritative classroom presence, requiring substantial participation and cooperation among class members. In short, my undergraduate courses leveraged collaboration quite successfully.

            I also gained valuable experience with collaborative learning working as a peer tutor. I began training as a writing consultant in my sophomore year. I was eighteen years old and unsure of my own writing abilities, so I just observed the experienced tutors for the first semester. I realized that the reason I was doubting my ability to help others with their writing was that I thought tutors needed to be experts in their field. Thinking of how knowledgeable my botany lab instructor was, I felt extremely unqualified to work in the Writing Lab or Center in that first semester.

            Through training sessions, theoretical reading and observations, I realized that expertise was the last thing tutoring writing requires. I learned instead that what was important was a tutor’s ability to build trust with a student, and to create an open space where students can ask questions and tutors can communicate as equals about the writing process. The focus is on the student and his or her development as a writer rather than the particular assignment at hand. This empowerment approach requires tutors to look for the bigger problems with writing rather than the nit-picky errors. Talking about ideas, structure, development, arguments and such places the control of the paper back in the hands of the student and allows them to make decisions as a writer. This kind of peer tutoring depends on collaboration and facilitation rather than expertise and direction.

            My position as a peer tutor enabled me to recognize and facilitate non-authoritative collaboration, and led me to this Masters of Teaching Writing Program. Both my tutoring style and my women’s studies education relied heavily upon dialogue. I see dialogue as the epitome of collaboration in education. Dialogue is necessarily collaborative, with its success relying upon the interaction among the members of the discussion. While dialogue was the most heavily emphasized aspect of my coursework, it was also the most fundamental tool that I used when tutoring. In this way, my whole post-secondary educational career has been an experiment with collaborative learning.

My interest in teaching grew out of this experience with collaborative learning, so I have always planned on bringing collaborative learning models into the classroom when I become a teacher.

            In the MATW, theoretical figures that we have studied compliment this interest in collaborative learning. We studied L.S. Vygotsky and M. M. Bakhtin in our Seminar of Teaching Writing course last semester. These two theorists both focus on social aspects of learning and language. Vygotsky advocated collaborative learning directly by asserting that “an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers” (90). Bakhtin recognized the multi-voiced and dialogic nature of language and writing, which provides a sound basis for using collaboration  in the writing classroom. We have also been studying rhetoric, from the classical period to figures like Kenneth Burke. This focus on the interpersonal, persuasive, but at root social purpose of language use leaves me wondering whether anyone today can actually disagree that collaboration is a valuable teaching and learning tool.

            Kenneth Bruffee is one of the most influential scholars on the subject of collaborative learning. Bruffee explored the theoretical underpinnings and potential strengths of collaborative learning throughout the last three decades. In particular, his essay “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind,” builds on the conversational nature of thought and knowledge, and argues for collaborative learning within the academy. Bruffee states, “To think well, individuals must learn to think well collectively--that is, we must learn to converse well” (640). His conversation metaphor directly connects with my experience of dialogue-based education. Bruffee advocates writing teachers “engaging students in conversation among themselves at as many points in both the writing and the reading process as possible… The way they talk with each other determines the way they will think and the way they will write” (642). This emphasis on dialogue validates my experience and understanding of discussion as an educational tool in the writing classroom.

            Outlining the history of collaboration arising in American universities around the 1970s, after the term “collaborative learning” had already been coined in Britain, Bruffee connects the emergence of peer tutoring programs and the growing interest in collaborative learning (637). His essay illustrates why my understanding of teaching writing may be different than students from other disciplines (even from English). My experience with dialogue-based classes and peer tutoring influenced my conception of teaching in general, and of teaching writing in particular, leaving me convinced of the potential that collaborative learning holds for the writing classroom. What we read that argues to that end is enjoyable rather than challenging for me, because I already believe the argument.

            Bruffee’s essay delineates the particular fit of collaborative learning for the writing classroom. Using the theoretical groundwork of Thomas Kuhn about processes of knowledge production, along with the later theories of Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty about knowledge communities and knowledge as a social artifact, Bruffee closes his discussion of collaborative learning by showing how it models the knowledge production process. “Knowledge is the product of human beings in a state of continual negotiation or conversation. Education is not a process of assimilating ‘the truth’ but, as Rorty has put it, a process of learning ‘to take a hand in what is going on’  by joining ‘the conversation of mankind.’ Collaborative learning is an arena in which students can negotiate their way into that conversation” (Bruffee 646-47). This conversational conception of education and knowledge holds particular value for the writing classroom because the writing process also mirrors this knowledge production process.

            A writer embarks on a project with a purpose and aims their work at affecting a particular audience in a particular way. This specificity of focus grows out of a conversational exploration of the writer’s topic. The revision process is guided by an awareness of the audience in focus. Not only is the writing process conversational by nature in the use of language (words and sentences), but also in the persuasive and expressive purpose of writing. Bruffee explains, “Writing is a technologically displaced form of conversation” (641). The parallel and interrelated processes of dialogue, writing and knowledge production hold important implications for writing teachers and for the field of composition at large.

            This focus on collaborative learning has gained popularity in composition scholarship over the past three decades. An essay by John Trimbur,“Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning,” written five years after Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind,” complicates the picture of cooperation and consensus in Bruffee’s conception of collaboration. Bruffee’s work remains foundational to the movement for collaborative learning in higher education, but Trimbur’s essay politicizes the concept of collaboration in a way that was vitally necessary.

            Trimbur explains that Bruffee’s work has been critiqued for ignoring the wider social forces affecting knowledge production. Trimbur argues for “a critical version of collaborative learning” (612), that includes “a critique of the dominant power relations that organize the production of knowledge” (603). This aligns with the kind of collaboration that took place in my women’s studies classes as well as in the tutoring program. The desire to reject an authoritative stance as a tutor grew from my experience with feminist teachers who did the same; our efforts to work collaboratively were based in a recognition of unequal power dynamics among participants.

            Trimbur argues for the concept of consensus in Bruffee’s work to be understood as a utopian ideal that is unreachable. Instead he advocates working collaboratively for “consensus in terms of conflict rather than agreement” (609).  Trimbur argues for “collaborative learning not merely as a process of consensus-making but more important as a process of identifying differences and locating these differences in relation to each other” (610). Trimbur’s essay builds a more realistic vision of collaboration among participants with vast differences--differences that matter.

            Trimbur recognizes that collaborative work does not necessarily abdicate the authority of knowledge or the teacher; in fact, collaboration that takes place with little to no guidance or justification will tend to reinforce relations of domination and subordination that structure our society. Bruffee recognizes the vital responsibility of the teacher to carefully plan and facilitate collaborative activities and projects to ensure their productivity, but Trimbur bases this necessity in an understanding of social life as pervaded by systems of power. Trimbur believes in collaborative learning as a way to work together in our increasingly multicultural world of multifaceted individuals. “We need to see consensus, I think, not as an agreement that reconciles differences through an ideal conversation, but rather as the desire of humans to live and work together with differences” (615).

            This recognition of difference provides a more complex conception of collaborative learning. Because I am familiar with the tradition of ongoing feminist critique, where complication is a strength, I see the complexity illuminated by Trimbur as a progressive improvement in the underlying meme of collaborative learning rather than a complication that takes away from the validity and potential of collaboration. Collaborative learning is not a simplistic concept, so it deserves scholarly attention. Vygotsky’s notion of a ZPD encourages differences in a learning environment-- a connection that Trimbur brings to Bruffee’s work. Collaborative learning is a fertile ground for expansive investigation.

            Our experience this semester with James Peck opened another new dimension of collaboration. Improvisation can be incorporated into collaboration to intensify the experience. This was an epiphany for me. Dr. Stacey has mentioned in class before how it has been shown that more experienced teachers, and more successful teachers, tend to improvise more with their classes than newer or less effective teachers do. I experienced this progression when I interned in the tutoring program and ran the training workshops. Over the course of five semesters, my co-intern and I progressed from a meticulously planned-to-the-minute model to an entirely participant-generated schedule that was much more flexible and reliant on collaboration amongst the workshop participants. With experience (and the internalization of the information that needed to be covered) we learned to improvise, and that made the workshops more effective, relevant and successful.

            In his essay, “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation,” R. Keith Sawyer eloquently analyzes potential principles of improvisation to enrich the practice of teachers who bring collaborative learning models into their classrooms. “Conceiving of teaching as improvisation highlights the collaborative and emergent nature of effective classroom practice, helps us to understand how curriculum materials relate to classroom practice, and shows why teaching is a creative art” (Sawyer 12). Creative teaching has likely always involved improvisation, and that is why I find Sawyer’s essay to be so enjoyable--it’s common sense. This is not an ungrounded vision of radical theory articulated in terms of pedagogy; this is a no-brainer recognition that creative teaching is adaptive to circumstances, and hence involves improvisation. Therefore, principles of improvisation should be studied further to discover how teachers can be more effective in their practice.

            Sawyer explores improvisational theatre and jazz performance to flesh out basic principles of improvisation that can be applied to collaborative learning environments. Improvisational theatre “performances emerge from unpredictable and unscripted dialogue, on stage and in front of an audience. In a similar way, an effective classroom discussion emerges from classroom discourse, and is not scripted by the lesson plan or by the teacher’s predetermined agenda” (Sawyer 13). Effective dialogue-based classrooms mirror improvisational theatre’s emergent nature. Sawyer calls this kind of discourse “collaborative emergence. Both classroom discussion and theatre improvisations are emergent because the outcome cannot be predicted in advance, and they are collaborative because no single participant can control what emerges; the outcome is collectively determined by all participants” (13).

         Similarly, both improvisational performance and collaboration in the classroom require level playing fields and active engagement among participants. “Collaborative learning only works if there is a give-and-take, the mutual responsiveness associated with jazz and improv theatre groups” (Sawyer 16). This is not in contradiction to Trimbur’s emphasis on difference in collaborative work. In Trimbur’s model of “dissensus-creating collaboration,” there is still the mutual responsiveness that Sawyer observes in improv and jazz performances. In fact, Trimbur’s model analyzes differences in relation to each other, in effect creating a heterogeneous yet collaborative community. “The consensus that we ask students to reach in the collaborative classroom will be based not so much on collective agreements as on collective explanations of how people differ, where their differences come from, and whether they can live and work together with these differences” (Trimbur 610). Trimbur’s focus on differences is for the purpose of creating true community, and enabling real collaboration.

            As further evidence of the validity improvisation holds for collaborative learning environments, I realized that the dialogue-based women’s studies classes I took were necessarily improvisational on some level too, because the teacher can never really know where the participants will take the discussion. “In sociocultural and social constructivist theory, effective teaching must be improvisational, because if the classroom is scripted and directed by the teacher, the students cannot co-construct their knowledge” (Sawyer 14). This sociocultural and social constructivist standpoint that influenced my women’s studies education links with the theoretical underpinnings of my practice as a writing teacher. “In improvisational teaching, learning is a shared social activity, and is collectively managed by all participants, not only the teacher. In improvising, the teacher creates a dialogue with the students, giving them freedom to creatively construct their own knowledge, while providing the elements of structure that effectively scaffold that co-constructive process” (Sawyer 14). This socially situated model of learning builds collaboration and dialogue into a process of collaboration through the deliberate employment of improvisation. This is the exact experience my co-intern and I had with the tutor training workshops, although we referred it to being facilitative and flexible.

            Conceiving of teaching as improvisation enhances the dialogue-based, collaborative classroom. “When we realize that teaching is improvisational, we see that teachers are creative professionals, requiring not only pedagogical content knowledge but also creative performance skills--the ability to effectively facilitate a group improvisation with students” (Sawyer 17). The level of comfort and ability that James Peck bought to our class shows the implications for teaching that improv training holds. While my experience acting in the moment and as a group that night was also a valuable activity in terms of my development as a teacher, Mr. Peck’s model of facilitating improvisation was exemplary. He was knowledgeable and comfortable, and his facilitation of the class was flexible and emergent. His presence in the classroom built on the experiences we created as a group that night. My e-portfolio project is accessed via a URL that references the ability of Mr. Peck to scaffold our understanding of improvisation sequentially; the phrase “Jimmy in space” was a funny way for us to remember the principles of improvisation (namely, collaboration) that we were establishing as a group; hence the URL

            Improvisation in teaching also holds implications for the quest to balance freedom and structure in the classroom. Just as Mr. Peck had to keep us from running in this tag game we were playing so that none of us got hurt, teachers who embrace improvisation still must use it within an existing curricular structure. Sawyer refers to this as “disciplined improvisation, [where] teachers locally improvise within an overall global structure” (Sawyer 16). Improvisation isn’t a cop-out for teachers who don’t want to make lesson plans; in fact, successful improvisation requires just as much forethought and planning as does successful collaboration. This may indeed be more work required on the part of the teacher than would be a scripted lecture, but the increased educational potential is well worth it. In the example of the training workshops that I was involved with, our transition to an improvisational model occurred simultaneously with our own internalization of the material that had to be covered. This curricular knowledge must be thoroughly understood for collaborative improvisation to be productive.

            The realization that improvisation is a richly productive tool for facilitating collaborative learning was not a surprise to me, though it holds deeper implications than I had initially grasped. This semester I gave a presentation that I think totally bombed. This was my first experience creating a script for myself; I’m not sure why I did it, but I do know I will never do it again. Usually I have little trouble speaking in front of people, but this time I showed all the common signs of public speaking phobia. I was shaking, sweating and couldn’t keep my voice from cracking. I was short of breath and stuttering; not only did I immediately lose my place in the script, I also jumped to the ending prematurely and had to attempt to backtrack. It was  a mess. In my very last line, which was supposed to be calling for the audience to include a book I was arguing for in their professional library, I said the word “exclude” instead.

            At that point I had to laugh at myself because I realized how stupid it was for me to try to memorize a script instead of just improvising off of an outline. In the question and answer section of my presentation, I was clear, professional and composed. When I was on the spot, answering questions that I couldn’t have foreseen, I was more comfortable and effective as a public speaker than when I was trying to read my script (which I thought I had memorized). This was another important learning experience for me, one that cements my understanding of improvisation as a crucial tool for teaching.

            As a graduate student considering becoming a college teacher and therefore remaining in academia for a good portion of the rest of my life, I believe that collaboration and improvisation will continue to gain popularity and respect as a valuable tool to create engaging, participatory learning environments. Foundational work like Bruffee’s, complimented by intelligent scholars like Trimbur and creative perspectives like Sawyer, will further enliven the discussion. In the increasingly bleak picture of an academic enterprise in perpetual budget crisis, leveraging collaborative learning and improvisation can renew the inspirational aspect of education, suggesting a robust, efficient and effective alternative to standardized scripts and rote memorization (or even less efficient, simply “teaching to the test”). In short, collaboration and improvisation are “where it’s at.”



Works Cited


Bruffee, Kenneth. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’.” College English. Vol. 46, No. 7. November 1984, pp. 635-652.


Sawyer, R. Keith. “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined             Improvisation.” Educational Researcher. Vol. 33, No. 2. March 2004, pp. 12-20.


Trimbur, John. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English. Vol. 51 No. 6, October 1989, pp. 602-616.


Vygotsky, L.S. Mind In Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press, 1978.


There. Now I feel that I earned my A. Thanks Dr. Stacey!