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Using Improvisation for Differentiated Instruction

Dr. Katherine McKnight



Using Improvisation for Differentiated Instruction

It was almost 20 years ago that I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities program for teaching Shakespeare through performance as an inner city high school teacher. It was at this institute that I learned how critically important it was for students to learn creatively and kinesthetically. 

We are all familiar with Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, but as a teacher I struggled with the implementation of this theory into teaching and learning activities.  I decided to try out the many techniques that I learned at the Shakespeare institute with my students. 

I soon realized that it was essential for me to ditch the “one size fits all” study guides. My classroom was made up of diverse learners and I knew that I needed to differentiate the teaching and learning strategies in my classroom.

Improvisation as a Differentiated Instruction Strategy

As my successes with these students increased, I knew that I needed to increase my repertoire of drama activities and exercises for the teaching of literacy skills. I became particularly engaged and impressed with the specific drama activity, improvisation. 

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Improv Sparks Imagination

An ideal pedagogical strategy for teaching, learning and meeting the needs of diverse learners, improvisation is both an inherent structure and flexible.  Like most differentiated instruction strategies, the flexibility stems from simplicity; no props, scenery, costumes, or lighting are required.


The players create everything that is needed from their own imagination. It is this paradoxical nature that makes improvisation a useful tool for developing excellent writers, actors, and thinkers. In this stripped - down, bare – bones dramatic form, there is no limit to what the imagination can conjure into being; yet the form demands specificity, clarity, and logic if it is to be meaningful to the audience. The students are the authors, actors, and audience of work that melds body, voice, and mind through the shared experiences of the players on stage.

Improv Encourages Team Building

I also discovered that drama activities, particularly improvisation, were invaluable in teaching students how to work together as a team and foster an environment where risk taking is valued: important qualities for a differentiated instruction based classroom. I learned that these improvisation activities are ones that foster literacy skill development in all kinds of students. It makes sense since improvisation encourages creation, analysis, and interpretation of text.

Improv Promotes Active Collaboration

The current model for teaching and learning promotes the idea and notion that classrooms should be interactive, where learning activities are a result of the partnership between the teacher and the students. Students have a voice in their learning and are encouraged to be active participants in the classroom. Unlike the traditional classroom, where the teacher primarily directs activities, the contemporary classroom, rooted in differentiated instruction, results from the active collaboration inspired by a common quest for learning.

The contemporary differentiated instruction classroom encourages active teaching and learning, which are powerful in student development and achievement because responsibility placed on the students is greater than in a more traditional teaching paradigm. An active approach such as improvisation is rooted in cooperation with peers as they make sense of a situation and present it to the rest of the class.


Improvisation is vocally, physically, and personally demanding and it requires students to make numerous kinds of presentations. Students are consistently analyzing and thinking on their feet. Improvisation is a source of deepening self - awareness in students as they find ways to express their ideas, opinions, and feelings through the physical action of improvisation. This is why improvisation belongs in a contemporary classroom.

Improv Promotes Intellectual & Emotional Growth

Through the work of improvisation in differentiated instruction and learning, the development of a student ’s critical thinking is symbiotic to imaginative and emotional growth as students creatively solve problems through improvisation activities. Students grow intellectually and emotionally as they speculate, reason, and predict while experiencing and participating in improvisation activities. Improvisation can increase student confidence and competence in problem solving through active and engaging exercises.


If you would like to learn more about improvisation exercises and how to use these for teaching and learning in the differentiated classroom, I co-authored, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom with Mary Scruggs. 


In addition, I think we learn best about the pedagogical power of improvisation by seeing it in action. The following links are to YouTube videos from my recent presentation at the Illinois Writing Project at National Louis University.  The videos feature teachers participating in improvisation exercises and discussing how these activities can teach skills and content.  In addition, I explain how improvisation works in teaching and learning in the classroom. 

Videos on Improvisation Exercises

Writing on Your Feet

Creative Writing in Low Income Schools

Improv Skills Translate to Educational Skills

Using Improv to Teach Adjectives

Narrative Games and Literacy Skills


Book author, Dr. Katie McKnight, for an Differentiated Instruction workshop!

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