The Value of Mistakes

D'oh! “Teachers whose students described them as skillful at maintaining classroom order, at focusing their instruction and at helping their charges learn from their mistakes are often the same teachers whose students learn the most in the course of a year.”

This was one of the many gems in an article about a statistical analysis of what makes an effective school teacher. What are other gems you see here?


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I’ve just arrived in Vancouver, BC where I’ll be attending the NASAGA 2010 conference, including co-facilitating a pre-conference session with Thiagi. I’ll be micro-blogging my experience at the conference on Twitter. Follow me on twitter at @hollythorsen . You can also find other tweets by looking for the #nasaga2010 hashtag.

Stay tuned . . .

Where the Wild Things Are

I want to give a plug here for two associations of interactive learning designers that both put on a great conference. The first group, the Applied Improv Network (AIN), uses exercises from improvisational theater training to facilitate learning on other topics, such as business communications, personal or spiritual growth, or social change. AIN just finished a fantastic conference in Amsterdam. It was the largest gathering of applied improv practitioners ever at 140 people, and what a joyously creative experience they made for me! Their next conference is planned for the middle of June 2011 on the East Coast of the US. For more details as the emerge and to interact with applied improv practitioners in the meantime, join the AIN ning at

The second group, the North American Simulation And Gaming Association (NASAGA), is just about to kick off their conference in Vancover, BC on October 13th. I’ll be joining to help facilitate a pre-conference certification session with Thiagi on facilitating games and activities. NASAGA creates interactive experiences of all kinds, including those based in improvisational theater, to facilitate learning. I’ll report back on what I learned at NASAGA2010 in late October. For more information, visit

Rewriting Your Story

An interesting trend I noticed at the Applied Improv Network conference in Amsterdam last month was the abundance of workshops that used Kenn Adam’s Story Spine as an applied learning activity. The Story Spine popped up in branding workshops, in fundraising workshops, in romantic relationship workshops, in prejudice workshops and, less surprisingly, in writing workshops. I personally have used The Story Spine for everything from writing an elevator pitch to grant applications to envisioning career change.

In Amsterdam, it struck me – how much of our life to spend telling stories, both to others and to ourselves? Do we know what stories we’re telling, and are we sure it’s the one we want to be telling? The strong undercurrent of narrative at the Applied Improv Network conference reinforced for me the power of stories to explain our situation and guide our decision-making. I invite all of you to think of an area in your life, either personal or professional, where you’d like to make a change and rewrite your story :

The Story Spine by Kenn Adams

Once upon a time . . . (finish the sentence)
Every day . . .
But one day . . . (this is where your desired change happens)
Because of that . . .
Because of that . . .
Because of that . . .
Until finally . . .
Ever since that day . . .

And now, debrief: How was this exercise for you? How do you feel about your chance now that you’ve rewritten your story?

Improv Makes The World Go ‘Round

Many of you know I’ve just returned from the International Applied Improv Network Conference in Amsterdam. It was an amazing experience with 140 talented and dedicated practitioners of the art of applied improv. Next up on A Spoonful of Improv is a series of posts inspired by my week in Amsterdam. Where will we start? Why, at the end, of course!

My last day in Amsterdam ended with two pretty incredible hours of improv. A Japanese improv colleague and I taught a class of Dutch students to improvise, all in English. We had no time to plan our session, and luckily, being improvisors, we didn’t need it.

The gift we discovered in the moment is that since both my colleague, Hikaru Hie, and I had studied at BATS Improv in San Francisco, we had the benefit of a shared vocabulary. Our class consisted of a wonderful give and take during which the students learned to count to 3 in Japanese, learned to fail good-naturedly, and most importantly, learned that the most important principles of improv are practiced on other continents, as well.

Our Dutch students had a wonderfully playful nature and surprised and delighted us with their ability to play with their own prejudices. This was undoubtedly due to the influence of Marijn Vissers, an acclaimed international improvisor who teaches this group regularly with Sven Lanser. Marijn, Sven, Hikaru and all of the students gave me a wonderful gift of discovering the international language of improv. Thank you.

In The News: Training with Improv and iPods

Did you see the interesting article in the business section of Monday’s New York Times?

Today’s training continues to move away from powerpoint lectures toward forms of higher engagement, both toward interactive exercises (often derived from improv) and toward technology.

In particular, this article highlighted the value of sales and service employees who deliver “intuitive” and “responsive” service. Trained improvisors know that improv is more often the art of responding, rather than the art of creating. What would happen to your business if your colleagues were more intuitively responsive to your customers?

This article also highlights what I believe is a false contradiction in modern training techniques. Can we offer training solutions that feature both technology and interaction with other humans? Are trainings with improv and iPods mutually exclusive?

Of course not, as any experienced gamer knows. Today’s simulation games offer a plethora of ways to interact with other humans, and increasingly, this technology is available on mobile devices. The challenge for trainers and instructional designers is to keep the interpersonal skills at the center of the learning activity. This article highlights a few different ways that modern training organizations have discovered to do this.

How about you — have you seen other examples of computer-moderated training interactions that keep the soft skills front and center?

Preparing For a Gig: An Insider’s View

Late last week, I had the pleasure of preparing for a team-building session with Rich Cox of Improv Impact in preparation for an upcoming 4-hour training. What goes into preparing for an improv-based training, you ask? Let me tell you.

First, we get very clear on what the learning objectives are for the session. We often walk into teams where there are many kinds of need and as a team of trainers, we have to be clear with each other what we’re trying to accomplish in four short hours. Rich had had extensive conversations with the executive director of the client organization and came prepared with specific language.

The next step, and perhaps the most fun step, is to brainstorm curriculum ideas. We talk about activities we’ve done before that might be on target and design new ones that we think will match the personalities in the room and encourage the learning we hope to foster. We make sure to have active, on-your-feet activities as well as passive, reflective games. We configure people in large groups, small groups, and individually. We design games where learning happens on multiple levels. If we’ve done our job well (and with Rich, we always do), the participants learn from both the content and process of the exercise. It’s a multi-tasking version of learning.

The most impactful part of our session is the debrief after the activities. After completing a simple exercise, our participants suddenly morph into Solomon and Buddha and say profound, insightful statements about what they learned, turning the entire training team into proud parents for a moment or two. The wisdom that results from debriefing an activity provides for the deepest learning we’ve ever seen. When designing a session, we aim to provide quick, rich experiences that provide lots of material to debrief upon.

The next step in planning in a session is to nail down every minute of the agenda, right? “At 8:03, I’ll welcome them into the room. At 10:12, we’ll take a 4.5 minute bathroom break. At 1:37, we’ll stand up and do something energizing because people will be falling asleep . . .” Not in the world of an improv-based trainer.

We prepare a list of ideas for the session and then know that we’ll give the participants what they need when they need it. We purposefully remain flexible so that we can respond to the successes or hitches in the room, all with the aim of producing that “ah-ha” moment for each and every person in the room. We’ve walked into a session where the client told us the team needed teamwork skills, only to find that they really needed change management skills. Not being attached to a training script keeps us looking for what the participants need in that moment so that we can focus on change management skills if they need that to think about teamwork.

I suppose a recent participant was right when she said: “You guys are like Gumby. You bend, but you never break.”

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