16 Circular Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning as Improvisational Performance – by Sean Park

Sean Park

As an antidote to education as a dead, scripted performance, I put forth teaching and learning as a circular and improvisational performance. In improvised performance arts such as improv theatre or jazz, practitioners learn presence, spontaneity, resourcefulness, empathy, irreverence, critical thinking, and how to create within a framework of advancing the action of performance. Likewise, creative teaching aims to transform both the educator and the student, which may involve new framings of issues, new questions and possibilities, plans for action, and radically reperceiving self and other. Creative teaching that can hold the paradox of planned and unplanned learning directly addresses the late Canadian curriculum theorist Ted Aoki’s (2000) question: “Where is living pedagogy located?” Aoki urged us to engage in pedagogy as improvised conversations that educators and learners have “in the midst of the plannable and the unplannable, between the predictable and the unpredictable, between the prescriptible and the nonprescriptible … between the curriculum-as-plan and the live(d) curricula” (p. 2).

The implications for improvisation and creativity in teaching are significant because contemporary education, unfortunately, is heavily dominated by an emphasis on individual intellectual achievement, testing and grades, and preparation for livelihoods in a materially-oriented society. Educators, learners, and wider society work in an instrumentalist paradigm that views human beings as knowledge producers (Willinsky, 2005; Robinson, 2001). Aoki (2005/1990) warned us that we are “in the seductive hold of a technological ethos, an ethos that uncannily turns everything virtually into ‘how to do’s,’ into techniques and skills.” (p. 369). An instrumentalist and scripted education is dangerous in that it chips away at both the passion and love educators have for teaching as an art, and it robs learners of the opportunities to engage in curriculum as a life-affirming and community-building endeavour.

I put forth here some preliminary ideas about teaching and learning as improvisational performance in terms of a cybernetic conversation that pays attention to how one pays attention. These ideas embrace paradox and circularity as foundational to how the lived realities of educational encounters unfold. I draw from the work of Bradford and Hillary Keeney—family therapists, cybernetic theorists, and artists—to lay down some solid cornerstones for thinking clearly about teaching and learning. Building upon this foundation, I present some of Keeney’s ideas on paying attention to ‘resources’ as a means of moving a conversation from a problematic or vicious state of affairs towards ones that are more generative and virtuous.

Utilizing whatever is offered as an invitation into improvisation, I suggest that the educator be prepared to enter all encounters empty-handed and without a preferred theory for how interactions with students will unfold. Instead, the educator pays attention to and inquires about whatever may lead to territory that is different enough to make a difference. I share a case transcript of a conversation between a group of students, and I reflect back upon Aoki’s question in the context of how improvisational interactions may feed virtuous circles and nurture wholeness.

Cybernetic circularities

Cybernetic epistemologist Bradford Keeney suggests that “to understand any realm of phenomena, we should begin by noting how it was constructed, that is, what distinctions underlie its creation” (Keeney, 2002, pg. 21). At the very outset of any work, one’s “epistemological slip” (pg. 22) is showing. How one first draws the line and subsequently draws it over and over, in effect, creates the room that hosts the conversation. As mathematician G. Spencer-Brown in his Laws of Form (1969) put it, “a universe cannot be distinguished from how it is acted upon” (pg. v). Spencer-Brown’s statement referred to “how a universe—whether linguistic, mathematical, physical, or biological—comes into being the moment a distinction is made, that is, any attempt to distinguish or separate whatever is regarded, proposed, defined, perceived, found, decided, allowed, or intended as different” (Keeney, Keeney & Chenail, 2015, pg. 5). Distinctions are anything that generate a meaningful difference from the undifferentiated. What we pay attention to through our gaze and our naming of things is the manner in which we cut up the world into a this and that.


the words this and that with this circled

Figure 1. This/That

The act of distinguishing what our primary aim is as educators—our primary distinction—differentiates who we are and who are not, what is and what is not considered a part of the curriculum, and so on. Where and how we draw the lines tells us just as much about who we are as it does about what is considered an education or a classroom. Our distinctions matter because “a distinction that is re‐distinguished becomes more distinguished than before; each subsequent re‐distinguishing contributes to it becoming more ‘real’ until it becomes experientially realized as ‘thing‐like,’ reified as more than a conceptual abstraction” (Keeney, Keeney & Chenail, 2015, pg. 6). Another mathematician, Heinz von Foerster, conveyed Spencer-Brown’s axiom in a different way when he said that objects (including objects of awareness) don’t speak for themselves; it is us that generates the descriptions and we must thus include ourselves and our means of generating descriptions (von Foerster, 1984). This circularity of subject-object co-creation is reflected in architecture with Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”.

A situation in which a student is not speaking up in class, depending on how the line is drawn, might be a ‘problem’, ‘a resistant student’, ‘someone who is listening deeply’, ‘excluded because of oppressive forces’, or ‘an indication that permission to speak has not been granted’. Re-distinguishing the behaviour over and over, using such language and pointing, establishes a frame that now organizes how the phenomenon is perceived and what constitutes binaries of choice. Problems require solutions, resistance requires the application or removal of force, listening deeply is differentiated from surface listening, oppression requires emancipation, and so on. A distinction is simply where a “line” is drawn to distinguish a this from a that. It is in the act of generating a difference between this/that that information is created. The subsequent act of reinforcing a distinction constructs a frame. A frame is simply the result of making a distinction over and over again such that it organizes the relationships between everything inside it.

Teacher-learner relationships can be distinguished and subsequently framed as a dance, a battle, or a work of art amongst countless other metaphors. Dance, for example, provides us the structure of a whole lifeworld—leading and following, posture, space, movement, breath, formal styles, basic moves, improvisation, emotional expression, and the joint aim of beauty, grace, authenticity, spirit. To be open to marking the acts we engage in as teachers and learners as a dance—or some other rich, creative metaphor—enables us to make moves and gestures that approach the performance with an aesthetic appreciation for that which has vitality and life.

Orienting with an epistemological perspective that embraces the paradox of the thing and the process that leads to thing as indistinguishable enables a presence and view within conversations as a circular and recursive universe (Keeney, 2002; Varela, 1976). Consider the following example. I was on a boat trip just off of Cape Cod in the US Atlantic a few years ago. Speaking with the boat’s pilot, I learned that, to navigate the channels from the port out to the sea, he had to pay close attention to where the buoys had been placed and what was showing up on the radar in real-time. Because the tides and storms radically shift the sand under the water each year, maps from previous years are not very reliable. Successful navigation—getting to the destination without crashing—was a process of mapping that involved the continual generation of and discarding of provisional maps in real-time. The pilot had to take up the cybernetic invitations to “act in order to know,” to sense in real-time and generate meaningful distinctions or “differences that make a difference” (Bateson, 2000).

This relationship between map and territory is circular and recursive to the extent that distinctions (e.g., where the way is clear and where it is blocked) arising from acting upon the territory with our senses and instruments, generates perspectives that inform the next actions. This simple feedback loop is understood as a form of first-order cybernetics whereby:

“Feedback is a method of controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of its past performance. If these results are merely used as numerical data for the criticism of the system and its regulation, we have the simple feedback of the control engineers” (Wiener, 1989, p. 71).

Visually, we can represent this circularity as set frame reversals of part/whole relationships.

Image representing the ways in which Part is greater than the Whole (when map/reified knowledge is central, and when Whole is greater than the Part (when Territory/changing mix of known/unknown/unknown unknowns is central)

Figure 2. Part and Whole

The boater moved from left to right because the complex and changing territory could not be viewed through the perspective of the old map. As easy and convenient it would be to impose yesterday’s map onto today, it would put him and his boat in peril. The flip to making the map a part of, but less important than paying attention to, the territory (it may still provide some overall perspective) makes the changing whole more significant than the part. In an instant, through mapping as continual process, a provisional new map is created to inform the next movement about how to move in the territory. There is another way of looking at the circularity that involves a second-order change, whereby “if … the information which proceeds backward from the performance is able to change the general method and pattern of performance, we have a process which may be called learning” (Wiener, 1989, p. 71).

For the boater, the information generated from sensing the shift and shape of the ocean floor could simply be used to regulate how he reaches his destination, or it may be used to change the boater himself. Speculatively, the boater could:

  • Learn that he is too stressed out by having to continually pay attention to the radar, give up using a motorboat altogether, and switch to kayaking;
  • Assemble information about the tides, currents, weather, and climate over long periods of time into patterns that might suggest what a given season of boating might be like, and thus inform him of when boating might be favourable;
  • See the impact of extreme weather and rising sea levels on the local environment, learn about the impact of motorized vehicles on the climate and aquatic life, decide that boating is not good for the environment, and give up boating.

These changes are changes in the premises or frames that organize how a person acts. The “goal” of the cybernetic feedback, what it appears to be orienting towards, has changed. And, thus, it is both a question of how educators and learners craft tools for living and maps of understanding from the territory of their lives towards certain desired ends, but also how such interactions can be organized by different premises that aim towards different ends. This is important because, unlike a boat ride which may have an agreeable and fixed destination, it is difficult to agree upon or know ahead of time what good outcomes to the complex social challenges we live with look like.

We return here to the paradox of being enmeshed in both map and territory, the thing and the process leading to the thing, the individual within a context, and so on. The problem with distinction of map and territory according to Gregory Bateson, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, is that we get stuck in binary thinking. Paraphrasing Bateson, “neither map nor territory is to be preferred, but instead the difference between the two is utilized to inspire, irritate, transform and generate other differences” (Keeney, Keeney, Chenail, 2015, p. 11). It is not which maps and territories should be used, but what to do when their circular relationships become habitually stuck in a repetitive loop by their premises, and because we are organized by these premises, we see no other way out.

On the left hand of the figure, we fit the data to the paradigm. The paradigm itself generates what the data is (and what is not data). The fixed map, a reduction, a part, is treated as being larger than the whole. Here, we know first and then we act. In the set on the right side of the figure, the reified knowledge that is the map is seen as a part of a larger changing whole. The territory is beyond understanding, it is the sum total complexity of which one is a part. Fixed models are provisional and one of other potential possibilities. Improvising, acting, sensing, connecting with the ever-changing territory generates new maps. One acts in order to know.

In the context of teaching and learning, we need the know how to help students and ourselves move from one side to the other and back again—reducing and increasing complexity, putting everyone into a paradoxical bind. The real conversation is in the movement, the flipping back and forth. Imagining the relationship between left and right as a wheel, how do we get the wheel turning in directions that are more virtuous and less vicious?

Vicious and virtuous circularities

The dilemma we face as educators is that we must respect a student’s request for being educated as well as the ways in which this request is made, while simultaneously not feeding the vicious circularity exacerbated by reinforcing that we as educators have the answers to questions students bring (we do not). Educators and students alike would benefit from being freed of having to live in a problem-answer universe. A radically different universe would involve paying attention only to that which might serve whatever has some life and vitality for the student. To do so would be to enter into a generative, creative universe with students rather than suffocate and limit the range of options for action. Practitioners of change are encouraged to:

“…feed the virtuous circle that is emerging while starving any vicious circles. Once you get a circle of virtuosity moving, it becomes effortless. It brings forth more expression and discourse that keeps its circularity moving. Notice that both vicious and virtuous circles work in the same way: they circulate whatever is fed into them. In this recirculation, an experiential reality is born and kept in existence” (Keeney & Keeney, 2013).

The Keeney’s recommend “starving a vicious circle” by weakening the importance of problematic talk, noticing that even solution-oriented talk is just the flip-side of the same coin; they advocate that we pay attention to whatever is resourceful. They point out that “a resource differs from a solution in that it simply contributes something positive to a person’s life. It is a source that feeds virtuous circles and beneficial change, however that is uniquely defined” (Keeney & Keeney, 2013, p. 41). A resource could be anything someone says, including “I liked the seafood more than the chicken” or “we learned from our interviews that it has to do with a sense of belonging”. Discerning a resource and then feeding it is required to bring forth more resourceful expression. A preference for seafood might be sea-zed as an indication that one is no longer chicken and ready for a high sea adventure. One might inquire about the importance of a sense of belonging and ask if it is best smelled, touched, seen, heard, or tasted.

Any statement and one’s response cannot be understood in isolation; instead it must be considered as part of an ongoing call and response that tacks in different directions. If, in response to being asked about being ready for a high sea adventure, someone questions what direction they are headed in, the conversation may turn towards what are considered worthy destinations. As the circle turns, conversations between teachers and students move forward without a strategy or set of best practices that direct the action. In the realm of improv theatre, the action can only proceed when participants take a ‘yes, and…’ approach in which no offer from any participant is blocked, and it must be built upon in some way that recursively moves the participants along in a story line built in real-time (Johnstone, 1981). Creativity researcher Keith Sawyer (2004) regards such conversations as a collaborative, disciplined improvisation that, in an educational context, illuminate the emergent nature of teaching, learning, and curriculum engagement as creative art.

Not my problem

Five students in a course message me and ask for a meeting to talk about their project. Their project involves designing an intervention to increase a sense of belonging amongst undergraduate students. They have been asked to test out their ideas with others and use the feedback to gauge whether they are addressing something that is important to a particular group of people and if their intervention is helping to address the needs, hopes, dreams, and desires of the group.

Sean: Morning guys, how’s it going with all this snow?

Student 3: Good.

Student 1: Pretty good, it was actually fun playing in the snow, yeah, we had a snowball fight last night at my house.

Student 2: Really?

Student 1: Yeah.

Sean: Awesome…so what kind of fun brings you guys in to want to meet?

Student 3: So, the feedback we got from people about our prototype wasn’t great. We’ve been working on understanding what’s involved in building community. We learned from our interviews that it has to do with a sense of belonging and that people wanted spaces for it. As you probably remember, we made a physical prototype of a community room—a diorama—that had various features designed to help people connect, like games. When we tested it with people, they pretty much said they wouldn’t be that keen on using it. Something that really stuck out was when someone said, “something is missing”. We don’t know what to do.

Sean: Hmmm…What constitutes a sense of belonging? How is it generated?

Student 2: I think it has to do with knowing how your environment helps you connect with people. Feeling like you can be you without judgement

Student 4: Yeah, like people can be themselves.

Student 5: …and also that people can talk, and that people will listen. People will understand where you’re coming from. It feels good.

Sean: Ok, so let’s look at one of these. Yeah, so people listening to you and hearing you out, seeing where you come from. Let me ask, do you guys think that this is something that is developed or that it’s just random?

Student 4: I think people are shaped by their experiences, you know, life happens to happen. People don’t really change so I don’t think you can learn it.

Student 1: I disagree. I sometimes want to build on ideas with people, but I have so many in my head that I want to share. It’s hard, but I’m trying to work on hearing people out instead of it being about my ideas all the time.

Sean: So, you [points to Student 4] think it can’t and you [Student 1] think it can.

Student 4: Well…hmmm.

Sean: Let’s dig a bit deeper here. What’s actually happening in conversations where there is a sense of belonging. I mean, what are the actions and behaviours people are doing.

Student 2: There’s listening.

Student 5: Appreciation for what people are contributing.

Sean: What do you mean?

Student 5: Like someone telling you that you did a good job, not just ignoring you behind their laptops.

Sean: What needs do you think people have around these things? Are they easy to do?

Student 3: No. Lots of people are shy. It’s hard being honest with people. Vulnerability is an issue for sure.

Sean: So, I think we’re getting really close to generating some really great ideas about what’s next for your team, I can see it coming. It’s kind of exciting.

Student 5: Sorry, where is this going?

Sean [to Student 5]: You look a little concerned. What’s up?

Student 5: Well [laughing], I really need to know the outcome. I need to trust the process.

Sean: Great, let’s add that last one to the list of things that’s part of a sense of belonging [everyone laughing]. So, how are we with a sense of belonging right now? Are we listening, is there appreciation, is there trust of the process?

Student 1: I think so.

Student 5: Yeah.

[others nodding]

Sean: You had a wonderful metaphor with your first prototype, the physical space as an embodiment of something that supports a sense of belonging. What if space can be more than physical? Is there also not a space here with each other?

Student 1: Hunh.

Sean: The line that demarcates the inside and outside of the physical room you guys were working on doesn’t seem that much different from the boundary we have here with the circle of us. Or the one we have in our classroom. It’s also social, yeah?

[students nodding]

Student 2: So, our prototype doesn’t have to be physical? It can be educational?

Sean: Why not?

Student 1: Hmmm.

[Student 5 looking perplexed]

Sean [to Student 5]: I have a special assignment for you if you’re willing to accept it.

Student 5 [laughing]: What is it?

Sean: Your job now is to increase the ambiguity in the group and ask lots of questions that take the group off course. Mess with everyone [everyone laughing]. Relieve yourself of the burden to have to know where this is going.

Student 5 [smiling]: Ok, I think I can do that.

Sean [to Student 5]: Seriously, I think it will be fun. It’s something the group needs, actually.

Sean [to others]: Who in here is really good with ambiguity, taking it easy and going with the flow?

Student 2: Uh, maybe him.

Student 1: Yeah, I love going with the flow. But so does he [pointing to Student 2].

Sean [to Student 1 and Student 2]: So, you guys like to take it easy?

[both nodding]

Sean: Ok, well I have a special assignment for you guys now. Should you be willing to accept it [everyone laughing]. Both of you now have the job of having to focus on the goal and worry about the outcome.


Student 1: Sure!

Student 2: Alright.

Sean: The group will be counting on you to do it. [Student 5] has done enough worrying, someone has to share the load.

Student 5: You wouldn’t believe this [pulls pen out of bag]. I have a pen in my bag that says “Not my problem”.

[everyone laughs]

Sean: Really?!

Student 5: Yeah.

Sean: Wow, that’s amazing. How about that? But wait, I think we should also have something for these two fellas [grabs sharpie markers]. I’m going to give you guys these special pens as you will need them to help you stay focused on the outcome of all of this. You’ll need to use it on tasks and some sticky notes for helping the group. These aren’t just ordinary pens though [writes ‘My Problem’ on the pens]. It’s now up to you to worry for the group.

[everyone laughs]

Student 1: Cool.

Student 2: I can do this.

Sean: Alright, you guys good? Sounds like you have stuff to work with.

Student 5: Yeah, not my problem guys!

[everyone laughs]



Figure 3. Not my problem 

Lips on the trumpet

The above conversation that I had with students serves to help me reflect on the circularity of cybernetics, control in education contexts, and the place for the kind of improvisational, absurd play that might lead to using different instruments to inscribe upon ourselves distinctly different ways of being in the world. Ted Aoki tells a story of how he once asked a visiting jazz trumpeter—Bobby Shew—to come and talk to him and his students about education and curriculum (Aoki, 1990). He asked Shew two questions: when does an instrument cease to be an instrument, and what is improvisation? Aoki’s invitation arose from his observation that in the field of curriculum, there is an obsession with goals, objectives, achievement, and assessment. The obsession, he notes, is the hold of an instrumental and technological rationality that privileges understanding and control. Aoki recounts how Shew told a packed room how he introduced new students to trumpet playing:

“He told us how he would allow the student to hold the gleaming trumpet, not in front, but at his back, and to withhold him from bringing the trumpet to his lips. The first few lessons would be all lip and scat-singing work. And only when Bobby Shew felt that the trumpet in joining the lips would become a part of the body—become an embodied trumpet—would he allow trumpet and lips to meet. He insistently said, “The trumpet, music, and body must become as one in living wholeness” (pg. 368).

In response to Aoki’s first question, Shew said that an instrument is no longer an instrument “when music to be lived calls for transformation of instrument and music into that which is bodily lived” (pg. 369). The curriculum is not something which one gains control of—it is something lived and felt by the learners in relationship to the ideas and ‘instruments’. Curriculum is not just the content and strategies, but also the inner lives of the students and teachers and how they join together like lips on the trumpet. The whole student, like the educator, must become prepared, or ‘tuned’, just as any other instrument would before it is played. There is a gentleness and respect paid to the instrument, preparing ourselves to receive it by holding it ‘behind our backs’ until we are ready. Exercises in utilizing our own bodily instrument—our senses—calls us to see how our world is constructed through sensory participation, a foundation for new organs of perception and making a wider range of distinctions. The necessary absurdity of scat-singing, with its nonsense syllables and improvised melodies, is not a prescription for randomness; instead, it is a prescription for using our own instruments for knowing and expressing in melodic and rhythmic ways that are new, for keeping the circularities moving.

In response to Aoki’s second question about improvisation, Shew speaks both of responding to other musicians but also “to whatever calls upon them in that situation” (Aoki, 1990, pg. 368). The asking of the first question before this second one seems important. In order to live the music, the player must be played just as much as the instrument and the music. This co-responsive wholeness enables the musician to be called forth by the uniqueness of the situation rather than by a detached view that looks from the outside and imposes oneself upon the instrument.

The experience with the students was enlivening and exciting for me. They came in frustrated and left laughing with some new roles and an emerging sense of what their next steps should be. It seems that in stepping into a recursive universe with students, into wholeness and what was called for by the situation, that the felt, embodied sense of change was the most resonant feature of the experience. Indeed, the motion into life-generating, creative circularities that sustain paradox “often requires emotion so that change is actually felt…there is exhilaration, an excitement that signals that something is happening” (Keeney & Keeney, 2013, p. 45). The wisdom in Aoki and Shew’s conversation on curriculum is that students and ourselves are best served by tuning ourselves to feel, notice, and sense what is resourceful. In so doing, we move from curriculum as something to be implemented to curriculum as something that is to be lived, something that may transform us and make us whole.



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