E Okobi is currently studying an MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London (UAL). In this article, E explores the meaning of the term ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and connects practices of play and improvisation to how mindset theory can be embodied by students. E is representing UAL on the student panel at the Changing Mindsets Conference.
The term ‘decolonize the curriculum’ has been a bit of a leitmotif since I enrolled at UAL last fall. It crackles with the zeitgeist of certain university communities. Its juxtaposition hits me viscerally. I read the phrase and instantly understand. But lately, I’ve been pondering how best to evoke and embody the concept for those for whom the words may seem less urgent, less obvious.
I am an educator. I am an interdisciplinary artist. I am a student. I have been a good student, I have struggled at subject mastery, I have been apathetic, I’ve been mischievous. I have benefited from some of the best education, and I have been deflated by indifferent, lazy and even malevolent instruction. These experiences and skill sets have provided me holistic insight into all the elements that affect classroom instruction: the political machinations that determine policy and funding, the process of developing and deploying one’s pedagogical praxis, and the interpersonal interactions loaded with socialization and social identity.
Improvisation is the key to transformational education.
“People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good teachers are engaged in opposite activities…” (Johnstone, 1979, p16)
So writes Keith Johnstone in his landmark book Impro. I hesitated a bit to quote a White, male author in this article for what may be obvious reasons. However, it was reading Impro, and training in improvisation that profoundly influenced my personal outlook and eventually came to form the bedrock of my own teaching philosophy. Johnstone, Viola Spolin and Del Close are all theatre practitioners who espoused improvisational performance based on the idea of Group Agreements, or “yes, and…” Drawing a connection between Carol Dweck’s mindset theory and the tenets of improvisational acting may help educators overcome implicit bias and tackle the Attainment Gap.
Group Agreements are key to effective improvisational acting, they ask that players remain open and alert to scene partners’ suggestions–or “offers”, they ask that players accept these offers when they are given, and not only accept these offers, but build on them as well. This is a process that takes practice. In his books, Johnstone goes into depth how most people are hard-wired to say “no” for fear of succumbing to unknowable change. Reading Impro during a particularly turbulent time in my life helped me understand how to better navigate my social interactions. Onstage and in life, those who do not pledge to remain alert and open to what life offers may be more likely to instinctively reject the unfamiliar for fear of change. And while fear of change is understandable, it cannot always be indulged. Onstage and in life, momentum stalls when the narrative is not pushed forward. In order to avoid stultification, it is necessary to embrace the unknowable future by sharing control of the narrative. We have to build educational systems that respond to the students they serve in a way that promotes curiosity and joy of discovery–two elements that are ever present in a particularly satisfying and well-played long-form improvisation.
Educators can lay Mindset and Group Agreements on tandem tracks leading to an Attainment Gap that narrows as they converge. One can operate on a Fixed Mindset–an outlook that neither recognizes nor appreciates the potential of change, or one can collaborate with a Growth Mindset, by opening to the idea that the capacity for knowledge and learning is limitless. Fixed and Growth Mindsets mirror the improvisational attitudes of ‘yes, but’ and ‘yes and’ respectively. While ‘yes, but’ can be turned into its own deeply entertaining theatre game, those who unwittingly deploy it in improvisation may find themselves floundering in dull scenes they are desperate to exit. ‘Yes, but’ reacts in fear and refuses to play, ‘yes but’ sticks it’s fingers in its ears to order drown out other voices. ‘Yes, and,’ on the other hand, wants to listen, wants to know and wants to play.
I’ve drawn explicit connections between displaying an onstage ‘yes, and’ attitude, and deploying The Growth Mindest as a life-skill when I taught drama to young adults at a high school in New York City–one element of a class that also included journaling. Several students wrote in their journals how connecting a Growth Mindset in life to ‘yes, and’ onstage enabled them to reconsider and re-evaluate interactions with peers, teachers and family members. What I like about twinning these concepts in classroom instruction is that Mindset describes an intellectual experience supported by empirical evidence, while improvisation provides an embodied opportunity to prove the point in practice with peers.
It’s all well and good to teach Growth Mindset to students, however the real work lies in finding ways to use both Mindset and improvisation in the training and transformation of the individuals and systems responsible for transferring knowledge in lecture settings. Implicit bias and a fixed mindset are analogous. An educator who views her students’ capacity for knowledge as fixed and finite may be less likely to accept the gifts that they present to her. She may be less curious about them if they don’t look like her. A Fixed Mindset instructor may be less likely to plan lessons and lectures that are inclusive of the histories of her students, she may be reluctant to share the narrative.
I have seen for myself how talking about Mindset in the classroom can positively affect student outcomes. I’ve seen shy students grow bold onstage and make compelling choices after learning to say ‘yes, and’. What I would like to see now are programs that train educators to view Mindset and Group Agreements as critical pedagogical tools that are crucial for developing the ability to craft learning experiences that are open, responsive and productive.
The term “Decolonise the curriculum” implicates not just a system, but also individuals who refuse to recognize the rich pedagogical potential of global cultures. They ask those who fear change why they do. The best Improvisers remain open to possibility and so do the best educators. The best improvisers and the best educators fearlessly- and generously – say ‘yes’ to sharing the narrative.
Johnstone, K. (1979), Impro, Methuen Drama: London
Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset: changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Hachette UK.
Spolin, V. (1963) Improvisation for the Theater, Northwestern University Press: Evanston, Illinois
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.