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. …