“Jazz and the Dark Matter of Teaching”

I like jazz. I like Adrian Underhill. I’m not so sure about “the dark matter of teaching”. Hence, I chose to go to this session as part of my Day 1 at IATEFL.

Adrian Underhill got us thinking about:

a.  whether or not we always have a lesson plan on paper or in our head before going into a classroom. Yes, No, Sometimes were the options.

b. our most recent “good” lesson and was it good because we followed our plan? No was the main consensus here.


– “By planning and not following it you give good lessons!”

– Both improvisation and planning are needed to have good lessons

– “Improvisation is an inevitable way of working”

Adrian at this point highlighted a key point: think about teaching in this way:

– The Plan is in the Past

– Improvisation in the Present

Therefore: the classroom needs to be considered as a living interaction.

Yet: “the art of improvisation escapes being discussed, critiqued, or developed”. Here Adrian refers to improvisation being “the dark matter of teaching” in that it is the space that exists without concrete analysis.  However, in other worlds such as performance arts, there is a dialogue on the use of improvisation from the beginning, e.g. jazz and drama.

Teaching is co-constructed: live, in the moment. It is performance art.

So, what can we take from fields that embrace improvisation?  For example, jazz improvisers create variations of the melody – they are expected to divert from sheet music (!) They do not do this alone, and it is playful, engaging, motivating!

You can see where Adrian is going with this now.
Other examples of departures from sheet music include:
1. Play it as it is: just pressing the note is an interpretation
2. Stretch it
3. Add to it
4. Introduce other notes
5. Develop new melodies
6. Depart from the structure

It important to note that jazz improvisation does have a structure: the sheet music is a background framework to allow for interpretation, and spontaneity.

Coming back to TEFL. Adrian got us thinking about writing a lesson plan:
– what does it do? / – when do you stick to it? / – when do you depart?

– what is the signal to move off? / – who is at the helm of improvisation?

And when you depart from the lesson plan, is it:
– a distraction?
– a nuisance?
– a threat?
– a connection?

Conversations are examples of improvisation in real-life that we can use to help with making considerations of improvisation in lessons.

Here are some of Adrian’s rules for improvisation in conversation:

1. Skillful topic knowledge: as part of the interaction, participant(s) need to be engaged.
2. “The offer”: do not let the offer go, use this space to create a movement. Denying the offer means losing the momentum or needing to move away.
3. Refusal: something is lost, energy is lost.
4. Acceptance: Is it fresh, playful, of the moment, or is it a “cliche from the past”? cliche = jazz’s “hot lick” = do so often that it isn’t “real”
5. Listening: need to see the offer!
6. Presence: need to be available

Finally, it is about being in the present moment so to actively co-author in any given interaction/communication. Especially as teachers!


Obvious improvisation:
“Accepting the offer: the interrupter”

This is about getting speakers to: Use the offer, Accept the offer, and Go with it

For example:

Student A: Talk about one topic e.g. journey to work/school/ etc, this morning
Student B: Throw a random word in. e.g. dragon
Student A: Connect the word to the story
Student B: Keep adding random words: e.g. mop, ice cube, moon, Prosecco, water, pencil, cheese, stars,

At this point when we were practicing Adrian had to use his bell: 14.40 “stop enjoying yourself”

Micro improvisation: (This is about the dark matter: the stuff that goes on all the time and bringing it to life)

“Ping, pong, pong, pong” technique:

When collecting answers from an activity consider getting the students to re-evaluate each other, using these prompts from the teacher:
– “Who has another one /something different?
– “What do you think?”
– “Did you hear him?”

Inviting the class to examine the responses:
– “Is that ok”? (T playing devil’s advocate)
– “Do you want to change it?”
– “Are there any mistakes in it?”
– “Who likes this one?”
= gather the collected responses, put on the board, “what is happening here??”

Multiple improvisations at the same time:
Teacher gets the students to engage at a class and individual level:
– “Could you make it sound interesting?”
– Whisper it / make it a question / change one word / look at your pronunciation


Considerations of spontaneity in training and supervision in pre-service course may be problematic but also need to be made.  Therefore, my last thought on this is:

“A question for observers: how much do you want to see “off” plan?”