Improvisation in the Mathematics Classroom

The following is a guest post by Andrea Young, requested by Dr Nic Petty.

Improvisation comedy

Improvisation comedy, or improv for short, is theater that is unscripted.  Performers create characters, stories, and jokes on the spot, much to the delight of audience members.  Surprisingly, the goal of improv is not to be funny!  (Or maybe this isn’t surprising–people trying hard to be funny rarely succeed.)  Rather, improv comedians are encouraged to be “in the moment,” to support their fellow players, and to take risks–the humor follows as a natural consequence.

What does this have to do with mathematics and mathematics education?  If you are a math teacher or professor, you might want to have a classroom where students are deeply engaged with the lesson (i.e. are “in the moment”), actively collaborating with peers (i.e. supporting their fellow players), and willing to make mistakes (i.e. taking risks).  In other words, you want them to develop the skills that improvisers are trained in from their very first improv class.

I started taking improv classes in 2002 at the Hideout Theatre in Austin, TX right around the same time I started a Ph.D. program in mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.  I realized that the dynamics being developed in my improv classes and troupes were exactly the ones I wanted to develop among the students in my math classes.  So I started using improv games and exercises in my courses.  And I haven’t stopped.  I have now taught mathematics to hundreds of college students, and in every course, I have incorporated some amount of improv.  I have given workshops and presentations to mathematicians, high school teachers, and students about how to use improv to improve group dynamics or to foster communication.   It is powerful to see joy and play cultivated in a college-level mathematics course.  Anecdotally, these techniques work–not for every student, every time–but for enough students enough of the time that I keep using my old favorites and finding new ones to try.

Andrea Young teaches math using Improv principles and games

Some improv exercises to try

Here are three exercises that you might try in your own math classes.  I use these in college classes, but they are easily (and some might argue, more readily) adaptable to younger ages.

Scream circle:  Have the students stand in a circle and put their heads down.  On the count of three, they should all raise their heads and look directly at another student.  If the person they are looking at is also looking at them, both students should scream and leave the circle.  If the other person is not looking at them, they put their head back down.  The game continues until there is only one or two (depending on group size) left.

This exercise is a great way to pair up students to work together.  It also develops the idea of risk-taking because students are encouraged to scream as loud as they can.  It is also quick–depending on the size of the class, this can take fewer than 2 minutes.

Five-headed expert:  Have five students come to the front of the room and stand in a line.  This can be played a few ways.   Here are two:

  1. The students respond to questions one word at a time, as though they are five heads on the same body. Introduce the visiting “expert” and ask them questions, related to course content.  Time permitting, have the class ask questions.
  2. The students respond to questions all in one voice. Otherwise, the game is the same.

This game is a fun way to review concepts and definitions. (For example, what is the limit definition of the derivative?)  It also works on the skills of collaboration and being “in the moment.”  Students must  listen to each other and work together to say things that make sense.

For an example of how this game works in an improv performance, watch this video from the improv group Stranger Things Have Happened.

I am a tree:   Have the students stand in a circle.  One student walks to the center and makes an “I am” statement while striking a pose.  The next student enters the circle and adds to the tableau with another “I am” statement.  A third (and probably final student) enters the tableau like the second.   The professor then clears the tableau, either leaving one of the students to repeat their “I am” statement or not.

This game really highlights the need for collaboration, especially when used in a math context.  I use this as a review or as a way to synthesize concepts. For example, this could be used to review different sets of numbers.  Student one might start with “I am the set of real numbers” and hold his or her arms in a big circle to indicate a set.  Student two could enter the “set” and say, “I am the rationals.”  Another student might intersect the reals with their arms and say, “I am the complex numbers.”

For an introduction to I am a tree, check out this demonstration video from my former improv teacher and troupe mate, Shana Merlin of Merlin Works.

Courage and innovation

I use a lot of active learning techniques in my classes, and I have found improv exercises to be a quick and fun way to develop some of the non-mathematical skills that my students need to be successful in my classroom.  It takes some courage to engage with your students in this way, but I think it is well worth it.

As a final thought, improvisational comedy techniques are not just for students. They can help professional mathematicians become better communicators and more effective teachers. They can even stimulate creativity and problem-solving skills. I encourage you to visit your local comedy theater and to sign up for an improv class.

Andrea Young and fellow trouper performing improvisational musical comedy

Background information and links

Andrea Young is the Special Assistant to the President and Liaison to the Board of Trustees AND an Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Ripon College.  For many years, she performed improv all around the country with Girls, Girls, Girls Improvised Musicals and a variety of other Austin improv troupes.  These days she mostly does community theater, although she regularly improvises silly songs and dances for her toddler.  For more about using improv in math courses, check out mathprov.wordpress.com.

Comment from Dr Nic

Thanks Andrea – it was so great to find someone who was already doing what I was thinking about doing. I would love to hear from other people who have used improv games and techniques in maths and statistics classes. I am learning improv at present, and like the idea of “Yes and…” I will write some more about this in time.

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