Improv & the Innovative Mindset: a SXSWEdu Workshop


I make things up. We all do. Typically, I make things up to entertain my students. I tell them stories of my four-year-old arguing immigration policy with our server at the local wings joint and of our assistant principal wrestling the bear from The Revenant. I share tales of students throwing photocopiers down the stairwells in protest of the “you must take a fruit” signs in the cafeteria and of the expletive laden and fist-punch-punctuated diatribes seemingly mild-mannered secretaries fire at me whenever I’m late with attendance.

No matter how ridiculous the stories become, how bizarre and winding the narrative, they all share a common trait: they have purpose. They make my students laugh, establish rapport, and contribute to a climate where the absurd and the foolish deserve some attention alongside the serious and profound. They fulfill a need so many of my students exhibit — the opportunity to enjoy oneself while learning.

And so I hoped our participants at SXSWEDU 2016, would enjoy this balance of lunacy and enlightenment. Bay Area design thinking maven Ellen Deustcher and I fused our loves of improvisation, design thinking and innovation into an interactive experience intended to grow capacity for problem solving via the pillars of improv.

We accept so we may build from that which we have, rather than focus on what we do not. We communicate in word and action, listening with our whole selves, so we may best collaborate with our peers. And we trust in ourselves and those around us that solutions will be found, that our ideas have merit.

We opened with warm-up experiences to give us a sense of the group dynamics and serve as a risk-taking litmus test. Ellen facilitated “Coffee or Tea,” a game in which the moderator asks about individual preferences in a binary fashion — coffee or tea, truck or car, inside or outside, barbecued or fried — allows a group to find common ground while identifying biases, trends and outliers in a harmless, judgement free space. Ellen’s commentary made the collective aware of its unique qualities as we grouped and regrouped from one side of the room to the other.

Thus, when we hunted for partners for “Handshake, Dance Move, Battle Cry,” we were no longer strangers but mild acquaintances who had already shared in a community of laughter. I cast these partners in summer camp farces, Catskills dance dramas, and southern Californian action yarns as they invented secret salutes, winsome choreography and mighty yawps. They didn’t need the roles to create their work, but I find the stories provide context and purpose for their work. These are not conference attendees — these are friends, dancers, and warriors.

I shall spare my fair readers a play-by-play of what happened next. Anyone who has ever attended an improv show and tried to recount it to a loved one the next day knows the dry glaze of the eyes and the weak smiles of feigned understanding.

We played improv games — many of them. Some in small groups, some in pairs, and one, “Machine,” involving the entire host of folk present. Ellen and I chose from a menu we established prior to the workshop, preferring to meet the needs and feel of those present rather than adhering to a particular playlist. Each game was chosen based on three criteria: the extent to which we thought it suitable to participants present based on observable feedback during the opening activities, the pillar of improvisation it best develops, and its utility and applicability to our impending design thinking flashlab.

Innovative mindsets are cultivated, developed, practiced. And thus we ran the flashiest-of-flashlabs, guiding participants through a design thinking lab that would enable them to put their improvisational skills to use in the service of need finding and problem solving. At each table, current needs and sticky problems were identified and trends sorted. A core user was identified within the group and empathy interviews conducted. Solutions were brainstormed and ideated upon, and then finally a human tableaux created — an experiential prototype captured in freeze.

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I can only hope that folks left our workshop at SXSWEdu with a fraction of the inspiration with which they informed Ellen and I. They provided me with the sort of stories my kids actually love most: true ones.

Dan Ryder is an educator, improviser and design thinker from the foothills of western Maine who spends every day trying to make the world a little more interesting than he found it. A moderator of #dtk12chat and #edchatme, follow him @wickeddecent on Twitter, Instagram, and Medium. Keep tabs on his efforts to walk the talk on his classroom blog at and with his co-conspirators Jeff Bailey and Matt Drewette-Card at Wicked Decent Learning.

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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