Sawyer’s “Creating Conversations”

I finished Keith Sawyer’s very interesting book Creating Conversations.  In addition to being an academic, Sawyer is a jazz musician, and spent two years as the pianist for an improvisational theater group.  In this book he brings together his interests in creativity, conversation, collaboration, and improv to argue that conversation (“casual, unplanned conversation” p. 1) is especially creative because it is unscripted and directorless.  It is also creative because it is by nature collaborative: “Collaboration is what makes conversation so uniquely creative” (p. 71).  This collaboration in “creating conversations can lead to unexpected and valuable new ideas.  That’s because creating conversations are unpredictable—new ideas emerge as we talk.  The unexpected ideas that emerge from creating conversations come from the creativity of everyone…” (p. 69). Sawyer draws on findings of M. Czikszentmilhalyi, who interviewed 100 creative people.  “[A]ll said that they couldn’t have done it without conversation—they got some of their most important insights during creating conversations” (p. 195).  Sawyer thus wants to dismiss the myth of that creativity comes from a lone genius working by himself.  Instead, creativity comes from the conversations that occur naturally in collaboration.

For Sawyer, it seems that the best collaboration is that which is improvisational.  Most conversation — especially the informal, unplanned conversation that makes up our social lives — is improvised.  Though we draw on cultural references and scripts, nevertheless all conversation must be improvised.  The parallels Sawyer draws between conversation and theater improv give interesting insights.  For example, Sawyer argues that our conversations are most memorable when “we followed the rules for good improvisation—no denial, don’t write the script in your head, listen to the group mind.  These rules should seem familiar, because in our most creative conversations, we follow the same guidelines” (p. 20).

Yet Sawyer also points out that improv is not without practice or rehearsal.  “Countering the myth that jazz musicians play whatever comes into their heads, Berliner’s research demonstrates that many years of discipline and practice are required before a musician can improvise creatively” (p.  110).  I found this to be interesting, though not surprising.  Though Sawyer focuses on music and theater, I thought about sports.  Team members practice again and again, but on the court, it’s improv.  Even a planned move must be improvised, because you can’t know what the other team’s members will do.  Couldn’t the following sentence be applied to a basketball team, if you changed “rehearsals” to “practice” and “group improvisations” to “team plays”?  “…[R]ehearsals are so important [because] they allow you to learn by doing, to practice quick reactions and the listening skills that you need in group improvisations” (p. 113).  Thus, as players of a sports team, members of an improv or jazz group, or participants of a classroom learning conversation rehearse together, “[t]hey’re learning the process of group improvisation—how to listen to each other, how to get into the odd mindset of not thinking ahead.  They’re also learning to become an ensemble: how to create collaboratively with the group” (p. 113).

I do wonder how to apply these ideas to conversation as a metaphor for instruction.  Sawyer focuses on informal conversations, and thus I am not sure whether he sees any value to more formalized conversation.  Clearly, if improv relies on discipline and practice (p. 110) and his comparison holds, conversation too can improve with discipline and practice.  To some extent, the conversations of a classroom discussion — even if more structured (disciplined) — can also prepare participants for the more informal conversations they will face in the outside world.  But on the other hand, classroom discussions always “break the fourth wall,” a no-no in some theater.  The teacher almost always steps out of the conversation, taking on the director’s role.  Thus Sawyer asks:  “Does conversationalcreativity change when we aren’t all equals?  If one person has absolute authority, they might take control and determine the flow of the entire interaction—like an autocratic manager running a business meeting,  But such an extreme case is rare, at least in everyday conversations in the United States” (p. 58).  Perhaps not in “everyday conversations” — but what of the classroom?  All that Sawyer values in conversation — its improvised, collaborative, directorless nature — is usually ignored in classroom discussion.  How often does conversation in the classroom reach a state of “flow” which Sawyer says our very best informal conversations achieve?  This sounds ideal, but how does one create an instructional model that fits with these ideas?

It takes skill to improvise these conversations—to connect with what has already been said, while at the same time introducing new ideas.  To reach the flow state, our abilities should be matched to those of our conversational partners—we’re not likely to experience flow if we’re conversing with someone who is not as skilled a conversationalist, because we get bored. (p. 190)

I love leading discussions of literature with my students.  But the very nature of a 20+ person discussion means that they may have an idea that connects to something said, and not get the chance to get it in (or have to wait for three others to first share comments inspired by other ideas before they can come to their connection).  How often do the 20+ students feel their abilities are matched by the other “conversational partners” of their classroom — not ones they choose (as they do their friends), but ones they were matched with due to scheduling needs?  And what of my comment: “I love leading discussions…”?  Should I not play the part of discussion leader?  When I do, I take the conversation one step further away from directorless, unscripted improv.


Sawyer, R. K. (2001). Creating Conversations. …


3 thoughts on “Sawyer’s “Creating Conversations”

  1. You have some interesting insights here. I was thinking about the dimensions of time, space, and fidelity and how they affect the “spontaneity” of a conversation. So, is it as easy to develop the same kind of flow in an asynchronous discussion as in a synchronous one. I know that in a time past, great scientists carried out a lot of there conversations over great time and distances. The nature of the conversations was quite different than the ones we might see in a discussion board today.

    Also, as I have been thinking about theories related to blended learning one of the things I have been thinking about is how instructional conversations tend to transmit or diminish the energy of the agents involved. A good conversation or interaction seems to generate energy seemingly out of nowhere – it breaks the law of conservation of energy because it is not energy transmitted from one participant to the other but something that energizes all participants. On the other hand some conversations take a great amount of energy but don’t seem to generate energy at all. The fidelity of the interaction and non-verbal cues seem to be part of what communicates energy in a conversation. Talking with someone who is excited or passionate about a subject is contagious while conversing with someone who is engaged in a conversation because they are being required or coerced to doesn’t have the same energy.

    I wonder also about the roll of the human agent in conversation. Is there something about being human and having agency that allows conversation? Can you really have conversation with materials? or even with an intelligent tutor or simulation?


  2. I love the jazz metaphor. When you taught at OHSU did you have many improvisational, informal, or unplanned conversations? I have very few with my 287 students. When you hear jazz musicians talk they will talk about jamming, gelling, flowing. Can you get to that in an asynchronous environment. It almost seems contradictory to have a flowing asynchronous conversation.

    I would be interested in talking about “energy” more in class. Charles, Have you found articles that that talk about “energy”?

    Lisa, you also asked for some citations on teacher enthusiasm. The two that they first mention are:

    Murray, H. (1983). Low-inference classroom teaching behaviors and students’ ratings of college teaching effectiveness. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75, 138-49.

    Wood, A. (1998) the effects of teacher enthusiasm on student motivation, selective attention and text memory. Doctoral dissertation, University of Western Ontario.

  3. Pingback: Enthusiasm & the Dr Fox Effect « Lisa Rampton Halverson

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