The past two years have been a never-ending lesson in coping with change. Naturally, mitigating the spread of Covid and addressing the mental health concerns of students have been and remain top priorities.
But going forward it is urgent not to miss opportunities, whether in the curriculum or through external programs, to offer students training and skills in managing and coping with change. Incorporating agility training is one powerful way to achieve this.
While research on resilience in education has shown that students’ positive social relationships, identity development and sense of self-efficacy are essential ingredients for helping students cope with the consequences of uncertainty, a more proactive strategy to develop agility in young people would empower these students to thrive in a world where change and uncertainty are constant.
As a business professor interested in preparing students for a dynamic workplace, I have studied how improvisation training can enhance individuals’ agility for quick-thinking tasks, willingness to collaborate to solve problems, and divergent thinking skills — the ability to generate several possible solutions to a problem instead of just one.
In my work, even a single improv classroom module led students to produce 36% more responses to a creative challenge than a control group of otherwise comparable students. Interestingly, the effects of improv training endured for months after the training and were evident on a variety of unrelated tasks. A 2020 study also showed that such training improved tolerance for uncertainty.
Importantly, the benefits of improv training can be replicated in an online improv activity, as well, which suggests educators can integrate this valuable training during in-person as well as online classes.
Improvisational comedy — the dramatic art form made popular by Saturday Night Live, The Second City and scores of comedy clubs across the country — consists of several tenets including listening, building on others’ ideas, expecting the unexpected and living in the moment.
Through the use of short-form and long-form “games,” participants learn how to flex their improvisational muscles to the point that they can perform a five-, 30-, or even 90-minute unscripted performance based on an audience suggestion.
There are a few tried-and-true programs within the school curriculum or as virtual options that could provide schools with quick, affordable and accessible agility training solutions.
One program, the Unscripted Project, leveraged improvisational comedy to teach agility to students at Charles W. Henry Middle School in Philadelphia. Of the 146 student participants, 88% reported greater confidence in front of their peers while other data suggested a 15% decrease in social anxiety among the students. These effects replicated prior research showing the beneficial effects of improv training on mental health, social skills and creativity in teenage students.
In addition to the integration of improv activities in the classroom, another tried-and-true program for agility training is Odyssey of the Mind, a national program that, for over four decades, has nurtured divergent thinking skills in K-12 and college students in almost all 50 states and over 30 countries.
By solving open-ended, long-term creative problems for which there is no “one right solution,” and participating in a day of competition that requires teams to work together to solve a spontaneous problem, young people participating in Odyssey of The Mind can become resilient thinkers with the skills needed to address the unknown.
While many schools participate in these programs, including several throughout Northern California and Southern California, some schools have historically lacked the staff or resources necessary to facilitate them.
However, the introduction of a virtual option from Odyssey of the Mind and the ever-increasing (and free) supply of online improv activities give schools and educators more opportunities to engage students in agility training.
What coping through the pandemic teaches is that no one is entirely certain what surprises are in the future. Perhaps training young people how to adapt to and manage surprise is key.
Agility, nimbleness and an improvisational spirit can help many embrace the change and innovation ahead.
James Alvarez Mourey, Ph.D., is an associate professor of marketing, director of the Business Education in Technology and Analytics Lab at DePaul University and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project. He is president-elect of Creative Opportunities Unlimited and author of “Urge,” “Fusion” and “The Relationship Diet.”
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