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Why Learning Stand-Up Comedy Is No Joke

This post is by Louise Stoll.

Have you heard the one about the professor who did a stand-up comedy course? Well, if you haven't before, you have now. And if you're thinking, "why would anyone in their right mind do that?", that's just what I was wondering after the first two weeks of my seven-week course earlier this year.

Why take on this challenge? Am I about to leave the ivory tower for a life in the comedy clubs? Anyone who saw me perform my final showcase will be overjoyed to hear that's not my motivation. I just became increasingly concerned that when accountability stakes are high, or educational policies steer educators towards prescriptive teaching programs, like a specific literacy approach, many teachers respond by playing it safe and relying on others to tell them what to do.

Around the world, many governments recognize that it's essential for children graduating from high school to be creative and adaptable. But, if teachers don't have the opportunity to be creative, how can anyone expect them to light that spark in their students?

That's why my colleagues and I started working on creative leadership with teams of school leaders in England. We explored and studied different ways the leaders could support their colleagues in coming up with and trying out new strategies to tackle difficult problems inside and outside the classroom. We learned that this involves taking risks, for them and for the teachers, as they were pushed out of their comfort zones. Some of the leaders and teachers resisted making changes to the way they carried out their work, finding every excuse to leave things the way they were. The risk just seemed too great.

That's where the comedy course came in. I wanted to feel what it was like to try something totally different, something that didn't feel "same old, same old," that would seriously challenge me. It was really hard. Those comedians who make it all look so easy when they make us laugh actually put a huge amount of time and effort into practicing and refining their jokes. My classmates (a retired police officer, an airport driver, a lawyer, a restaurant waiter, a documentary film maker, and a prison officer, among others) and I spent hours between the sessions thinking up and developing material, trying it out on willing - and sometimes less willing - friends and family members, then tweaking it or if necessary, ditching it and coming up with something new. Turning up the next week without having put in the effort just wasn't an option if we wanted to stand up in front of our tutor and peers without feeling completely foolish. Luckily, being in this together, we quickly became a supportive group.

Experts take practicing extremely seriously - all 10,000 hours of it, as Anders Ericsson reminded us. In The Expert Learner , to be published at the start of 2014, my colleague Gordon Stobart argues that we can learn many lessons from experts like the composer Mozart, soccer player David Beckham, and the tennis players, the Williams sisters. He argues that we should be applying this to learning in schools - both students' learning and teachers'. Practice needs to be more purposeful, focusing on specific elements. He's not saying that every one of them will become experts, but that learners, however old we are, can improve.

Being a better teacher, leader, parent, policy maker isn't something that just happens. You have to be open to new ideas and try experiences that push you and challenge your thinking. And you need to practice new skills and keep refining them.

When did you last seriously challenge yourself learning something new for the benefit of children and young people? How did it feel? Did you practice it?

OK - time to confess. This is my first blog. Here I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone again, totally unsure of how you'll react to this. I'd welcome feedback. Of course, I'll also need to practice, and you know what they say about practice . . .


Louise Stoll is a professor at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning within the Institute of Education at the University of London.
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