Learning is a stage

Kids playing with colorful blocks

What is learning?

Strangely enough, after hundreds of years of research by some of the world’s greatest minds we still have no clear agreement on what learning is, or how it happens.

In a recent article, Michael Luntley (2017) makes this point rather well by proposing that learning is a ‘staging area’. In order to learn something, he argues, we first have to possess a framework or concept to help us represent the thing in our minds. But how do we learn the framework or concept in the first place?

One possible answer lies in the idea of ‘play’. In a recent podcast, creativity expert Dr. Loiz Holzman discusses the importance of play and performativity in learning and notes how children begin to learn language by playing at speaking. Holzman’s research shows how children use play to do things that they don’t know how to do, and that play enables them to learn and transform themselves. Children literally create ‘stages’ on which they play out a range of imaginary scenarios which help them develop new ways of interpreting the world around them.

Holzman also draws attention to the value of play in adult learning, and draws particular attention to the benefits of using improvisation in the classroom. For Holzman, a key problem is that much of education is set up for individual accomplishment and not for group creativity, even though the latter provides critical opportunities for discovery, exploration and learning. She points out three key aspects of improvisation that make it a valuable technique to support learning:

  1. Using the ‘Yes, and…’ technique that is used heavily in comedy. The aim is to always add to what someone has said. This doesn’t mean you have to accept their statement, but simply build on it by responding ‘yes, and…’ before going on to add your own contribution. This makes the ‘Yes, and…’ technique a useful tool for initiating discussion and feedback in group learning situations.
  2. While using ‘Yes, and…’, the idea is that you should always aim to make the other person look good. This aligns with the educational aim to create supportive and inclusive learning environments, reinforces learning through positive feedback, and helps students feel as though they belong. Improvising using the ‘Yes, and…’ technique also makes you a great listener because you have to use active listening to build the conversation through collaborative, rather than competitive, working (Vygotsky, 1978).
  3. Finally, Holzman observes that using improvisation is an effective way to involve everyone in an activity. The classroom is the ‘staging area’ – you don’t have to know everything about a topic, you just have to know how to use your imagination to contribute to the conversation.

Perhaps Shakespeare was right – maybe all the world really is a stage. If play is integral to learning, and is one of the key factors that distinguishes humans from most other animals, then we should be finding more ways to build play into classroom learning.

And whatever happens, it’ll certainly be fun.


Holzman, L. (2017). Using improvisation and performativity as teaching tools [podcast] Art Ed Radio, episode 095. Available at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/art-ed-radio/id1088942953?mt=2 [Accessed 6th February 2018].

Luntley, M. (2017) Forgetski Vygotsky. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 49(10), pp.957-970.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge University Press.

This entry was posted in Action Learning, Art & Design Education, Student Centred Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Learning is a stage

  1. hmm–in printmaking the practice of group portfolio projects seems to have been abandoned….Illu students will collectively make individual prints for eg book fairs……yes to a degree (oops pun) educational systems are very competitive…..group projects are arrived at by consensus within the group and in relation to other competitive groups within unit assessment criteria…..but a collaborative print (traditionally artists worked by consensus with printmaking ateliers by own request or by being commissioned and even ateliers themselves acing as “editeurs” eg famous
    Franck Bordas ((grandson of Mourlot who worked with Picasso Braque etc)) atelier ‘paquebot series”) could start progressively by one starting with a line…next adds tone…next adds etc…kinda like chinese whispers……….as well as the “yes…and ..” methodology you described above, for which printmaking is ideal by taking a proof ( a record of progressive development —-ie “skills gain”?????)at each stage……..

    …..comparison by Picasso is the famous bull series lithographs

    Liked by 1 person

    • tonyjreeves says:

      Love the idea of applying the ‘Yes, and…’ approach in this way Jonathan, the really interesting stuff often happens when people collaborate – and particularly on a process that is often an individual one, such as printmaking.


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