Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning, Part 3 – The Significance of the “And” in “Yes…And”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the last few weeks, I have been exploring the usefulness of an improvisational mindset, specifically the power of “Yes…and” and the dangers of “No…but” in teaching and learning. In this post, I want to focus on the importance of the “and” in “Yes…and.” Seems kind of trivial, but in actuality, the “and” is the key to this improvisational rule. Without the “and” you have a surface, and sometimes mindless, acceptance of what has been offered. With the “and,” you have the potential to transform the original offer and in the process deepen relationships, solve problems, improve outcomes, and change your status.

“Yes” without the “and” places the sayer in a spectator role as opposed to an actor role. By only saying “Yes,” the person is passively receiving what is being given to him/her. As a result, the original offer becomes stagnant. It does not expand. Taken to the extreme, only saying “Yes” can have dangerous outcomes. There is a passivity in simply saying “Yes.” The ownership and the power rests with the person who made the original offer, and the receiver of the offer is merely approving it. On the other hand, there is a thoughtfulness to the “and” in “Yes…and.” It requires the receiver to not only accept the original offer but to add something to it, to take it to the next level, to put a little of him or herself in the “game,” and to share the responsibility of the success of the original idea. Patricia Ryan Madsen writes, “With the rule of yes[...and], we call upon our capacity to envision, to create new and positive images. This yes{…and] invites us to find out what is right about the situation, what is good about the offer, what is worthy in the proposal.”

The other day, I was writing with three classes of first graders. They had been exploring African animals and one of the ways that the teachers wanted the students to share their understandings of the African animals was through writing acrostic poems. To prime the pump, I first wanted the first graders to find their partner in the other class who was studying the same African animal, and sit down and have a conversation about what they had learned about the animal, using the notes that they had taken. Instead of organizing all of this for them, I challenged them to find their partner on their own – a true ill-structured problem. When I said “go,” the students started milling around, looking for their partner from another class. After about 15 or so seconds, a small group of students came up to me and said that there was a problem. One of the girls said, “you want us to be in pairs, but there are five of us who have the same animal.” Faced with this dilemma, I could have gone down a few different paths. The “No…but” path would have looked like this: in the essence of time, I would have solved the problem for them. I would have pointed to the first two girls and told them they were partners, the next-two girls and told them they were partners, and told the last three girls that they were a threesome and that it was ok. This path would have blocked the proposal that the girls were making – there was a problem that needed to be solved – and instead put me in the position of solving the problem for them. The “Yes…and” path looks quite different. Instead of solving the problem for the students, I said yes to their conundrum and I built on it by asking them to solve it. Now, what is interesting is that the students pretty much came up with the same solution that I would have on my own, but the important thing is that they came up with it. They put their brains in gear to figure it out and then were able to witness the affect of their problem solving strategy. The “and” in this case was putting the responsibility of solving the problem back in the laps of the students.

Employing the “and” in “Yes…and” can dramatically influence the power dynamics within a colleague to colleague or a faculty to principal interaction as well. In improvisation, power dynamics are often referred to as situations of status. Every interaction that we have with others involves the delicate interplay of status. Who has high status? Who has low? Does the status change because of the conversation? The interplay between teachers and between teachers and principals is fraught with status. In order to understand status a bit better, let’s take a look at the situation I described above.

When the students came to me with the problem, they were giving me high status. They wanted me to solve the problem. In this case, having high status was not the ideal position to be in in order for that moment to be a true opportunity for learning. I needed to change the status. I changed the status by employing the “and” in “Yes…and.” By accepting the students’ offer that there was a problem, and then building on that offer by suggesting that they find a way to solve it, I moved myself from high to low status in that situation and gave high status to the students so that they could have the power to solve the problem. Within school situations, it is important to remember that status is not static. It constantly changes, and we can make choices as students,  teachers, and administrators in terms of the kind of status that we have in different situations. In Keith Johnstone’s words, status is “understood as something one does (his italics).”  It is also important to remember that having low status is not a “bad” thing and that having high status is not an inherently “good” thing. Instead, if we are truly embodying an improvisational ethic, we are constantly in tune to the situation and what it demands in terms of status for there to be a positive outcome. Too often, I find teachers desperately trying to maintain high status in classroom situations when it would be better for them to move to low status. I can say the same thing for principals as well. High status is often falsely connected with control and power when really the power and control is associated with the kind of status that you choose to have in a given moment. Our power and our success as teachers rests in our ability to read a situation and determine the kind of status that is needed to move the situation in a positive and meaningful direction.

In this current teaching climate, it can be tantalizingly easy to keep our heads down and spend our energy just trying to get through the day, employing “No…but” strategies like keeping our classroom doors closed, not eating with our colleagues at lunch, avoiding the principal on the way out the door, and spending inordinate amounts of time talking about things with little to no action. What’s interesting is that keeping our heads down actually doesn’t make teaching, and our lives, any easier. Instead, it has the potential of keeping us in a static status state which impedes relationship building, creative problem-solving, and ultimately joy in our work. We need to constantly fight these blocking urges, and employing the “and” in “Yes…and” can help us do that. What is particularly liberating about emphasizing the importance of the “and” in “Yes…and” in teaching is that it reframes our work. The profession of teaching can often feel like only “Yes” work. We have a curriculum we need to teach. We have standardized tests we need to give. We have demands from parents to meet. We have committees we need to serve on. We have expectations and demands on us that we did not have a hand in making. By employing the “and” we take some of the power and the control rightfully back. The “and” creates a space in all of these demands to put our own stamp on them, to decide how we want them to go, to have a stake in the outcome. In this case, the “and” provides us as teachers a chance to have high status in an environment that attempts to put us in low status. Ultimately, the “and” in “Yes…and” is the impetus for positive change personally, professionally, and even societally.