Yes, and…

A great deal of what I understand about learning I know because I practised improvisation for many years and with a great deal of personal commitment. One of the principles of improvisation is to accept whatever is happening and build on it. That principle is often explained in theatrical/dramatic improvisation as the ‘Yes, and’ principle. Applying this principle in practice means that when creating a scene, if an actor makes a statement, a gesture, an expression- does anything really (the generic term used is to ‘make an offer’), other actors in the scene agree with that offer and then express something else which in some way references the offer. This principle can be applied in teaching (not easily!) and some teachers are actively promoting this.  

What makes using  ‘Yes, and’ difficult in teaching is firstly that the learners need to be prepared to use it just as much (if not more so) than teachers. The other big obstacle is the extent to which various subjects are based around the idea of correct and incorrect statements. Mathematics is probably the most polarising subject in terms of correct vs incorrect. If ‘Yes, and’ can work in mathematics it can work in anything. So, how can that polarisation be circumvented in mathematics teaching?

To sincerely attempt to apply ‘Yes, and’ in mathematics, a teacher would have to be prepared to accept the challenging of the most axiomatic aspects of the mathematical content that they were trying to teach. For example-

Learner: Does 5 + 1 = 7?

Teacher (For who saying ‘No’ is not option) : It can do, yes- and 5 + 2 can equal 7 as well. Why do you think most people choose that 5 + 2 = 7 instead 5 + 1 = 7? 

Learner (Being deliberately awkward): I don’t accept that 5 + 2 = 7, only 5 + 1 = 7.

Teacher: Yes, and you can define numbers to mean whatever you want them to mean. Everyone who has done mathematics so far uses meanings that make different mathematical statements consistent with each other.

Learner (Seeing how far they can push being awkward- maybe even thinking about it):  5 + 2 = 7 is consistent with 5 + 1 = 7  

Teacher: Yes, and it could be, depending on what ‘=’ means. Can you explain what ‘=’ means?

Two obvious difficulties with this are that some learners are likely to decide to use up a lot of teacher time on this sort of dialogue as a proxy for some kind of status jostling with teachers (and/or with each other), and that while ‘Yes, and’ may be suitable for discussing learning content it may not be suitable for managing conduct. If a learner asks if they are allowed to hit another learner and if a teacher says ‘Yes, and there will be disciplinary consequences’, then the learner may just respond impulsively to the ‘Yes’, and hit someone and say that the teacher said that they could; there is no neat and practical way to completely separate discussion of conduct from discussion of learning content. What this implies is that the learning of one thing is at a deep level inseparable from the learning many other things (which is one of the main insights that I gained from practising improvisation).

‘Yes, and’ based teaching appears to have numerous underlying similarities to Socratic teaching, which I discussed in this post and in doing so alluded to the idea of a Socratic chatbot (which would address the time-wasting and conduct management issues associated with human teaching). Unfortunately, some sort of ‘Yes, and’ chatbot would presumably be incredibly difficult to program. It might well be fun to try and program it though. Seeing a team of machine learning experts attempt to make some algorithms  based on observations of improvisation groups in action could be bizarrely joyful.


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