Using Improvisation and Performativity as Teaching Tools (Ep. 095)

Dr. Lois Holzman is a developmental psychologist who is internationally recognized for her work regarding the effects of play, performance, and group creativity over the span of a lifetime. In February, she will be presenting at the Art Ed Now conference on how improvisation can improve your teaching and your students’ learning. In this episode, she and Tim preview that presentation and discuss the benefits of play and how it affects both kids and adults (5:15), how you can set your students up for individual successes (11:45), and how you can use improvisation as a teaching tool (17:15). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. As you probably know from me talking about it all the time, I am in charge of putting together the line of the Art Ed Now online conference that we do twice a year here at AOE. It is absolutely one of my favorite things that I do because I’m constantly able to explore new ideas, find new voices, and work with some of the most talented people in art education. Every once in awhile though, I’m able to step out of the world of art ed to find some valuable ideas in academia, or in the world of education at large. And a couple months ago, I was lucky enough to find today’s guest, Dr. Lois Holzman.

Dr. Holzman has researched and written about so many topics: creativity, play, performance, development, psychology, and so many more. You can see everything she does at If you enjoy this conversation today, I would definitely encourage you to explore her blog and all of the ideas that are there. I would also encourage you to view her Ted Talk. It’s called Play Helps Us Grow At Any Age. She’s also authored numerous books and runs the East Side Institute, which is a research and training center that focuses on developing a humanistic approach to education, psychology, therapy, and community building. And I wish I could run through the rest of her resume, but I think that would take up the entire show.

In any case, I’m really excited to have Dr. Holzman on board for the Art Ed Now conference in February. If you haven’t signed up yet by the way, make sure you do that. It’s at She’s going to be talking about how we can use improvisation to make you a better teacher, and to make your students better learners. And in the podcast, we’re going to talk a lot about improvisation today. But I also want to ask her about play, and creativity, group creativity, and collaboration.

There is a lot to talk about. And I hope we can in particular dive into how play can affect learning, affect creativity, and affect our classrooms. Because I know she has a lot of thoughts on the importance of play in our classroom, and I think it’s something that every teacher should be thinking about, reflecting on, and maybe trying to incorporate a little bit more into their classroom. So without further ado, let’s go ahead and get this interview started. All right, and Dr. Lois Holzman is joining me now. How are you?

Dr. Holzman: I’m very well. I’m glad to be home after some trips that I took across the … outside of the country. So it’s very pleasant to be home. How are you?

Tim Bogatz: Good, good. I’m doing well. I’m excited to talk to you. I’m glad that you’re going to be on the podcast. I’m ready to just kind of dive right in here. So I guess to begin with, can you tell us just a little bit about your work and the research you do? Because I know you have a lot of different interests and a lot of areas of expertise, but what specifically in all of those interests are your biggest passions? Like what ideas do you care about the most?

Dr. Holzman: What I care about the most is the way … Is trying to intervene on the way that our culture, and that’s US culture, but also around the world, it looks different, but how our cultures stifle development of not just children, but adults as well. What I mean by development is the ability that we have and that we can see in children all of the time of transforming qualitatively who they are into someone else, into from a baby to a toddler, from a toddler to a child, from a child to a teenager, and so on, that we transform the circumstances that we’re in and become bigger and greater and more knowledgeable and more passionate about things and more imaginative. And many of our institutions stifle that, so my passion is to re-initiate development in all those people that it has stopped, and to provide the best for the very young so that they can continue to thrive and develop.

Tim Bogatz: Okay. I really like that idea. And if we can talk a little bit about culture and how it stifles development. I know you’re very passionate about the concept of play, and your Ted Talk actually focuses on the importance of play, and how it can be revolutionary. So can you discuss I guess what benefits you see when kids are at play, and how that can affect our students in the classroom? Or even affect us as adults as well?

Dr. Holzman: Sure. That’s my life’s work. I’ll try to be short, but if you get me going on that topic, I’ll just not ever stop. So one of the things I mean by play is the obvious thing of playing, of what children do when they pretend and they’re super heroes and they’re Beyonce and they’re who knows who else and also when adults play games. And that’s generally how the public thinks about play. It has kind of bad rep. It’s frivolous, it’s not work, that’s one of the bugaboos I have that it’s the opposite of work or the opposite of learning, but it isn’t. So if we think of play not so much as a particular activity, but how you do something, as opposed to what it is you’re doing, then I think we have a big, big opening for children and teachers in classrooms, and for families when they’re getting together, or they’re just doing the usual routine thing at home.

It’s how you do something, and what I learned from the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who wrote in the 1920s and 30s in the former Soviet Union. What I learned is that play is doing things that you don’t know how to do, things that real life, to use that expression, kind of constrain you. So his example is very old-fashioned. It has nothing to do with technology because of when he was writing. But he said a child picks up a pencil and pretends it’s a horse. And it makes horsey movements, right? If it’s, “real life,” a pencil’s a pencil. But in his play, the pencil is a horse. And just that very mundane example is that the child is doing something, he’s creatively imitating some horse he saw, or some kind of animal, and he’s creating something new with it.

The second example that is so important to me from Vygotsky is how children become speakers of a language, whatever language that is. That they are performing or playing at being speakers before they know how. The child says, “Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,” and the mother, the father, the sister, the grandmother, the caretaker says, “Oh you want your bottle. Here it is.” And then the child might say something a little more approximate to bottle than, “Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba.” That’s a play. I like to call that stages for development, meaning theatrical stages. That we’re creating these stages all through early childhood before school where little children can do what they don’t know how to do, and in doing so, they become someone else.

Same person, but now a person who can speak. Play is like the key to development, and we basically are stopped from playing, or play then takes a backstage to what we call learning. And much of my activities and that of people that have studied with me, trained with me, that are my colleagues now across the country, have brought play into, back into the classroom, even if there isn’t a recess period. You can play with the content. You can play with history, you can play with art, you can play with mathematics, you can play with reading, and so on.

Tim Bogatz: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point. And I wish more teachers were able to kind of bring that into your classroom. And one thing, another idea I guess that kind of affects our classrooms is something I’ve seen you talk about, which is group creativity. So can you explain what the difference is between just creativity, how we think about it, and group creativity? And can you also explain how we can develop that trait or that ability in our students?

Dr. Holzman: I mean, there’s a way that I think all creativity is group creativity, even if one person’s doing it. And I have a lot of reasons for that, but let’s just take … There’s a marvelous Ted Talk. I think it’s called Everything’s a Remix, but I’m not positive that’s the title of it. That’s what I call it. And the speaker is a man named Kirby Ferguson. And he’s actually going through music, and he starts with Bob Dylan, and goes back, and explores this phenomenon where people say, “Dylan stole from this one and that one.” And he takes that and says, “Well you could call it stealing if you want, but everything’s a remix. That’s what creativity is. It’s building on what others have done.”

And so that’s one of the things I mean by group creativity, that everything that we do, the most incredibly brilliant, talented, beautiful masterpiece is building on the history and the culture that has come before it and that currently exists. The second thing though I mean by group creativity is that so much of what we do in everyday life that’s, to use my word, developmental, like when I mentioned earlier the baby learning to speak, is a creative process of a group. That group happens to be the family, it happens to include the television, or the videos, or the iPad, or whatever it is that is also in the baby’s environment. That there’s this activity that human beings do that’s called … I call it creative imitation.

So every time the child is in one of these language games, or playing with being a speaker before he or she knows how, the example I gave of the, “Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba.” That’s group creativity. That is the child and the mother, or whoever else is there, creating new meanings and new languages. Now, they may be the languages and the meanings that are in our culture, but it’s new because the baby’s doing it, and the baby can’t do it alone. So group creativity is an untapped resource in everything in life, but in particular in the classroom, because schools are set up for individual accomplishment, and there are many, many ways, and I have so many examples of teachers across this country who have changed their classrooms around by focusing on creating a community of learners. That’s what they create their classroom to be.

Tim Bogatz: Yeah. I think that’s definitely something fascinating that’s definitely worth researching too. And the point you make about setting up for individual success, I think art rooms are very much that way too. But the collaboration that you do see when teachers do it well I think can be really worthwhile. Again, that’s something that I think more teachers can think about and should think about and should reflect on. But I did want to tell you, I just looked this up while you’re talking. It’s called Embrace the Remix. And the reason I wanted to look it up is because I remember we talked about this in literally the very first episode of this podcast. Like two years ago, we were talking about that same exact Ted Talk and series of videos.

Dr. Holzman: Oh really?

Tim Bogatz: Yeah, I think it’s kind of fun that you brought that up. But I wanted to kind of shift the discussion a little bit from play, creativity, to a little bit more about performance and improvisation, because I know that’s another one of your interests. Can you talk a little bit about how improvisation is something else that can have a positive effect in the classroom with building relationships and building more of those collaborative or more dynamic learning environments?

Dr. Holzman: Sure. Improvisation is on the one hand it’s what people say, “Oh, I have to improvise. I have to be spontaneous.” On the other hand, improvisation is a very particular skill, and a very particular kind of performance that actors do as part of learning to be an actor, and most of us have seen some kind of improv comedy as it’s become more and more popular to go to an improv comedy place or see it on TV. Or in fact, more and more people are using improv not just in classrooms, but to improve doctor communication with patients, business people. It’s like the biggest thing happening.

Now, we’ve been doing it at my institute for about 30 years, so people are catching up. So there’s so many benefits of improv, but let’s just take the rules of improv as improv comedy has done. The basic rule is yes and, and what that means is that your scene partner, somebody says, “Okay, you’re two people, and the audience says you’re on the moon.” Okay, so the first person is going to speak and say, “Gee, it’s so much warmer than I thought it would be on the moon.” Yes and means that your partner can’t say, “No,” can’t reject what you’re saying or else the scene won’t go anywhere. Has to say, “Yes, and I wish I brought my bathing suit.” Right?

If he says, “Yes, but it’s not supposed to be,” it’s really harder to create the scene. So it turns out that this rule, yes and, is so basic and important. It doesn’t mean you agree, it means you accept that this person said that, and you’re going to build with it. I know that one of the things that teachers do to model this sometimes is to say, someone in the classroom, one student will say something, and the teacher might say, “Following up on what John said, I wonder if we could say some more colors, add to what John’s saying.” It’s rather than saying, “Next. What do others think?” It’s trying to create this ensemble or group creativity performance.

The second thing is that improv, second rule, make others look good. So the improv comedians are always looking to make their partner look good, not to catch them and make them look foolish. So what if teachers could help students by literally teaching them improv to always make the other person look good? Not make fun of them, make them look good. There must be something, some offer in what they’ve said that you can build with. The value is both for teachers and for students, is improv makes you a great listener. You’re not listening to correct, you’re not listening to make fun of someone, you’re not listening to see if you agree.

You’re listening, as I like to say, is you’re listening to build the conversation and build the knowledge. It makes you feel like you belong, improv. You’re belonging to something. You’re doing something. Vygotsky called this a collective way of working together, which I really like that expression. “Oh, instead of a competitive way of working together, we’re building a collective way of working together.” And finally, for our conversation here, improv is a way to involve everyone in the activity. In other words, you don’t have to know the answer to participate in this improv activity, or to participate in learning history, or learning perspective, or learning how to add or multiply.

Don’t have to know everything in order to participate, because it’s not focusing on what is in your head. It’s focusing on, “Let’s create this community of learners together.” Again, it’s like relating to the classroom as a stage. How are we going to perform our improvisational learning today? That helpful?

Tim Bogatz: No, I think that is some wonderful advice. And I actually had one more question about it, but you just answered everything that I kind of wanted to know. And I think that’s some really good advice that teachers can keep in mind and something that they should look into. So I think we’ll go ahead and wrap it up there. But thank you so much for coming on and chatting with us. You had so many incredible things to say and I very much appreciate your time. So thank you.

Dr. Holzman: Oh, thank you. Thank you for great questions and I hope it’s of some help to teachers, our goal.

Tim Bogatz: I definitely think it will be. So thank you and hopefully we will talk to you again soon.

Dr. Holzman: Okay. Thank you, Tim.

Tim Bogatz: A lot of great thoughts and a lot of great advice in that interview. It’ll probably take awhile to digest and think through all of that, but I will say this. Anyone who can reference both Beyonce and Lev Vygotsky in the same interview is all right in my book. Now I do want to share a couple ideas from Dr. Holzman with you that I thought were especially enlightening. First was when she said, “Play is simply doing things you don’t know how to do.” And I like that a lot because it broadens our definition of what play is. As she said, play often gets a bad rap as being frivolous or it gets dismissed for that same reason. But if we expand our definition of what play is, or what it can be, there are so many more possibilities in education.

Now, secondly, and in that same vein, she said that play is the key to development and a vital part of learning. And I’ll leave you with this. It’s worth reflecting on how we view play, how we use it in our classroom, and it’s worth it for every teacher, whether it’s part of creativity or part of collaboration, or just simple, every day learning. We need to give our kids the opportunity to explore, to play, to discover, and to learn.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at, and send us any thoughts that you may have. Make sure you check out Dr. Holzman’s work at, and make sure you check out the Art Ed Now conference at We’ll be back next week with an interview with AOE writer, Debbie West, that I know will be an absolute blast. We’ll see you then. Thanks for listening.


Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.