Deana Criess, former Director of ImprovBoston's National Touring Company, talks about why the practice of improvisation is a crucial skill for problem solvers to master.

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When most of us think of improvisation, we probably imagine a mixture of standup comedy and stage fright. Few of us likely value improvisation for how it commits us — mentally and emotionally — to both a problem and its solution.

Deana Criess, Sr. Organizational Development Specialist at Perkins School for the Blind and former Director of ImprovBoston's National Touring Company, joins us to discuss why learning the improv mechanism of “yes, and” is such a critical skill for problem solvers, and some easy ways to incorporate improv into the school day.

Improv and Agreement

Improv is rooted in the idea of “yes, and.” This is a compelling mindset for problem solving because it does two things:

  • “Yes” means that we agree there’s a problem that needs to be solved.
  • “And” means that we contribute to the solution of the problem.

“At its core, “yes, and” commits us to the problem and to the solution,” Deana says.

Agreement and commitment are the core elements of both improv and problem solving. In improv, “yes, and” is used to make choices with the intention to try and to fail repeatedly. This commitment to try enables us to make room for other ideas that lead to a solution.

Improv is also built on collaborating with others’ ideas. “Yes, my ideas are valued and welcome, and so are yours,” Deana says. “When I hear your idea, I agree that I'm going to hear it with intention, and I'm going to add to it. I'm going to contribute.”

Improvisation models excellent problem solving. Both parties agree on the problem, they commit to collaborating on a solution, and they achieve their goal together.

In math or science, extremely few advances happen in isolation. Innovation also requires agreement and commitment — the fundamental and collaborative “yes, and” principles of improv.

Becoming Comfortable with Failure

The Fear of Failure

People are afraid to fail. This could mean fear of not solving the problem, looking silly in front of peers, or not being the best in the room.

“People who are perfectionists and driven for success often are unwilling to try something if they don't know they're going to succeed at it,” Deana says.

The five pillars of improv help to address the fear of failure.

The Five Pillars

  1. Establish support. We will support every idea in the room, even our own.
  2. Take a risk. We are invited to take a small risk, for which we are rewarded.
  3. Build trust. We feel acceptance from our peers, our facilitator, and ourselves.
  4. Have confidence. We believe in our team and ourselves. 
  5. Have fun. We are able to succeed in our goal.

Improvisation can apply to any situation — stage, classroom, boardroom, or living room.

Listening with Intention

Deana explained that improv goes beyond active listening to listening with intention. 

“It is a level of listening, and it's also observing not just your words, but your tone, your body language … and certainly expressive communication,” she says.

Deana recently taught an improv workshop about the four Cs that represent the benefits of improvisation. 

The Four Cs

  1. Improv boosts your creativity.
  2. Improv fosters collaboration.
  3. Improv requires critical thinking to analyze in real time.
  4. Improv takes communication skills.

Data shows that improvisation builds brain elasticity, improves memory and retention, and helps to build relationships. 

“There's a ton of science to back up what we as improvisers always knew,” Deana says.

Action Steps for Parents and Educators

1 - Incorporate Improv Exercises

Deana suggests there are many moments that can be perfect opportunities for leading a five-minute improv exercise in the classroom, including: 

  • During a morning meeting
  • Before a test to alleviate anxiety
  • After lunch to combat lethargy

Try “Five Things”, a game in which one person names a category and everyone else names five things that belong to that category. Improv warm-ups such as this can also help students refocus during a structured break.

2 - Create a Classroom Contract

Use the improvisational pillars to build a social contract, whether it’s with your family or with 25 students in a classroom.

Deana recommends that everyone participates in building, discussing, writing, and displaying the pillars of the contract.

These can include the spirit of “yes, and” as well as “it’s okay to fail.” Teachers or parents can point to the contract and remind students that failure is expected, normal, and even celebrated. And that we all support each other in trying.

3 - Answer with “Yes, And”

Anyone who has raised a toddler understands the incessant questions. Begin to teach improvisation to your child by answering questions with “Yes, and” in order to reset your default from the negative to the positive.

“Once I changed that mindset, both as a parent and a teacher, it made me much more open to so many moments that I would have missed otherwise,” Deana says. 

It also helps to instill the “yes, and” mindset into young problem solvers.

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This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

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Episode Transcript

Deana Criess Q&A [1:56]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Deana Criess, [00:02:00] former director of ImprovBoston's National Touring Company and current senior organizational development specialist at Perkins School for the Blind, joins the podcast to discuss why learning the improv mechanism of Yes, And is such a critical skill for problem solvers to learn and easy ways to incorporate improv into your school day. Why is learning the [00:02:30] improv mechanism of Yes, And such a critical skill for problem solvers to learn?

Deana Criess: Thank you for recognizing that it is, first of all. And here's why. The idea, the principle of that improv is sort of rooted in is this idea of Yes, And. And the reason why Yes, And is so compelling for problem solving is because it essentially does two things. The yes means we are agreeing to solve this problem. Right? We [00:03:00] are agreeing there's a problem that needs to be solved. Where the and comes in is we are agreeing to contribute to the solution to that problem. Right? So, improv does a lot of other things that lend itself to the nuts and bolts of problem solving, but at its core, Yes, And commits us to the problem and to the solution.

The heuristics of improvisation [3:21]

Eric Olsen: From the outside, improv looks like a superpower and the people like yourself who are great at it seem magical. But the heuristics, the rules involved, may surprise some math-friendly people. Can you help us understand some of the frameworks, the shortcuts for being and becoming good at improv?

Deana Criess: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think that is true, right, people who love math and who love science feel like they're very separate, this idea of and not necessarily of art, but particularly of improv, right? Math and science has rules. And so, how could improv be anything [00:04:00] but chaos? And in fact, as you say, improv has so many fundamental rules that we all agree to. So, things like we agree to solving whatever this problem is. As I mentioned before, improv is all about agreement. So, we agree that we're going to work together, we agree that we're going to make choices.

An essential rule of improv is we have to make choices. We have to try and fail. We have to become comfortable with failure. Otherwise, improv doesn't work. And if we [00:04:30] don't keep getting up and trying again, we're never going to get to a solution. We make room for other ideas. So, yes, my ideas are valued and welcome, and so are yours. Right? We allow, we make space for other people's ideas. We agree to build on those ideas. So, when I hear your idea, I agree that I'm going to hear it with intention and I'm going to add to it, I'm going to contribute. So, it's sort of the key to collaboration.

Improv allows us to share a common goal. Like [00:05:00] I said, we're going to commit to this problem, we're going to agree on what our goal is, which is to solve it. And again, we agreed that we're going to collaborate together to achieve that goal. And sometimes, I think history tends to value single people with achievements, so a lot of people in history are credited. This one guy solved this thing. We know in reality, very few advances in math or science happen in a vacuum by one person. [00:05:30] Right? It takes collaboration. It takes these improvisational ideas. Otherwise, you're never going to find innovation. You're never going to break through to the next new thing.

Learning to become comfortable with both fear and failure [5:45]

Eric Olsen: Let's dig into one of those things you said, the being and becoming comfortable with fear. It's a huge principle here at Art of Problem Solving as well. I imagine for many kids, that first improv class or even exercise is terrifying. It probably stays terrifying for a while, but why is improv such a helpful [00:06:00] way for students to become more comfortable, more used to their fear?

Deana Criess: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, it's two things. It's not it is about becoming comfortable with fear, it's also about becoming comfortable with failure. And I think if you break it down, what are people afraid of? They're afraid of failing. And that can mean a lot of different things, right? They're afraid of not being able to come up with a solution, they're afraid of looking silly in front of their peers, they're afraid that their ideas are [00:06:30] not going to be the "best" in the room, right? People who are perfectionists and driven for success often are unwilling to try something if they don't know they're going to succeed at it. So, improvisation allows you to sort of break down not only the fear, but more specifically the fear of failure.

And the way that improvisation is able to do that is because it is rooted in what I like to call five pillars. So, the very first thing we establish [00:07:00] in any room in order for improvisation to work is we establish support. The very first thing we're going to say is we are here to support each other, and that includes ourselves. So, we're going to support every idea everyone contributes to this room and we're going to give ourselves that same grace and support. Right? We're going to embrace our own ideas just like we'll embrace our team's ideas. When you say that out to the room, I get usually a lot of skepticism, a lot of very like [00:07:30] side-eye glances from kids who are like, "Okay, sure, everyone says that, but not really."

And so, you end up having to take some very safe, measured risks in improvisation. Right? Those first exercises that I do with anyone while their palms are sweaty and their heart is racing are designed to push them outside of their comfort zone, just a tiny bit, in a very safe way. And those exercises immediately have a reward. So, your whole team, the whole room, [00:08:00] the whole classroom is applauding loudly for everything you just said. And then, we can build trust, right? So, we've laid out this idea that support's going to exist. We've taken this small risk, it's been rewarded. Now, we trust. "Okay, what she said is real. We all do support each other." Now, we're trusting each other, we're trusting me as the facilitator or teacher, we're trusting ourself because our idea just got applause.

Well, now, I'm going to have more trust in my ideas. [00:08:30] So, that's three, we talk about support, risk, trust. And then, if all of that is true, we now have confidence. Right? We have confidence in our team, we have confidence in ourselves, that's number four. And then five, at the end of all of that, what it adds up to is we're now having fun. Right? We are able to succeed in our goal because we have this support, we've taken risks, we have this trust, we have this confidence. And so, if we believe all of that is true in improvisation and that's what makes [00:09:00] our scenes work on stage in a show, we can absolutely apply that to any situation you're in, whether that's a classroom setting or whether that's a boardroom.

Eric Olsen: I was going to say, immediately, I thought about, "Boy, those pillars might transfer to the workplace... and they feel like really good work culture pillars as well.” That's fascinating.

Do we have a sense for the learning science taking place here? There are a lot of listening skills happening with improv. [00:09:30] There are obviously language skills and reps happening. What learning outcomes does improv help our students gain?

Deana Criess: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned two key ones, so it's not just about, improv requires not just active listening, which a lot of people will talk about. It also, it requires I think a step beyond that which is listening with intention. I am listening to hear you fully, to honor everything you're saying to me [00:10:00] so that we can build on it together. Right? So, it is a level up of listening and it's also observing. What other information can I take in, not just your words, but your tone, your body language, all of that which we know is essential to success in any job you're ever going to have. And certainly, expressive communication, so it's yeah, being able to be in a room full of people and share your ideas and also the more subtle things that [00:10:30] are involved with communication.

But so, expressive and comprehension, sure, it all also boost creativity. If you think about it, I used to run a workshop called The 4 Cs in schools a lot. And those four Cs were creativity, obviously, improv is going to help you unlock and tap into your own creativity. Collaboration, which we know is key to success in school and beyond. Critical thinking, which is not something people necessarily associate with improv. We think, "Oh, it's just all wacky and it's [00:11:00] made up." The way that we are able to do that in real-time is because we are taking in everything, quickly analyzing it for what it means, and all the things it could mean, and then building on it.

So, critical thinking is actually a really key component to improvisation. And then, obviously, communication being the fourth C. So, if I had to put it all succinctly, those four things are the things that most people recognize [00:11:30] as the benefits, the immediate benefits of improvisation. We also know that science is proven that it also helps build elasticity in the brain and it can help with memory and retention. It can help, it's obviously a great relationship builder. So, there's a ton of science to back up what we as improvisers sort of always knew. And in the last five years, so much research has come out to back it up.

Eric Olsen: In each of your last two roles, you've sent staff into local schools to teach improv to both students [00:12:00] and teachers. Why might teachers need to improve their improv skills? They're obviously comfortable-ish in front of the classroom originally.

Deana Criess: Yeah. And I think that's a great point because so many people think of improvisation purely as a performance art, that it's a show, "How does this apply to my everyday life?" And usually, teachers are comfortable. I would hope very comfortable in, they might not call it an audience, but any teacher, [00:12:30] you know that's a show.

You're putting on a show every day, and I say that as a classroom teacher. So, I absolutely believe it can help people work on that if that's something that maybe is not the strongest tool in their tool belt. Beyond that, it's stuff we've sort of touched on earlier. As a teacher, learning improvisation skills can help you truly listen to your students and therefore better understand what their needs are on any given day. [00:13:00] It allows you to become more flexible. And I was a teacher prior to taking improvisation classes. I became a much better teacher afterward. And I think one of the reasons why is that flexibility piece, is that I was able to then allow myself the freedom, within curriculum frameworks, to seize on moments of learning that were available. Meaning, if a student is really excited about this thing that we are working on right now, [00:13:30] why then would I put that down to move on to something else?

Wouldn't it help their retention to follow their joy in this moment and stick with this problem until we solve it, even if that means pushing something to tomorrow? So, I think improvisation builds in that sort of flexibility and adaptability, and even just the awareness. So, improv is really about exploring every moment. And so, it's not just about having the ability to be flexible and adaptable, but [00:14:00] the awareness of each moment so that you can recognize them and seize on them. Also, it made me a better parent because I was able to then see that in my own kids as they were toddlers.

And so, the ability to recognize and be keyed in with them when I was there, "I'm here, let's be here in this moment," that's what improv teaches, one of the many things improv teaches us to do, allowed me to then be open to those moments of learning and joy for them. It's also about, I think, improvisation, [00:14:30] if you think back to those pillars we were talking about earlier, improvisation can help create classroom environments that are welcoming and safe spaces, spaces that not only encourage ideas, but reward ideas, environments that celebrate failure as a part of success, environments where we can all learn to be collaborative and flexible. And so, I think it's a key skill that should be taught in every education program and every [00:15:00] parenting class.

Eric Olsen: Mm-hmm. I love it and I love the parent application specifically. I can relate to your toddler story. I'm trying to convert my three-year-old from Why, And to a Yes, And mentality right now.

Deana Criess: And believe me, every parent who's ever had a toddler relates to that. It's the incessant questions. And interestingly, Eric, I think that's where I started to sort of disconnect as a parent. I [00:15:30] love my children and I loved the toddler years, but I didn't realize the kind of wall I had built to the incessant questions. Like, "I'm not going to answer the 17th question."

And then, when I started taking improv classes, I realized, "Oh, you know what, I should answer that 17th question and I should add to it and let's see where that takes us." And just the idea of what improv also does is Yes, And is not meant to mean you say yes to everything, [00:16:00] it's meant to sort of reset our default from one of the negative to the positive so that no is a choice rather than our default. And once I changed that mindset, again, both as a parent and a teacher, it made me much more open to so many moments that I would've missed otherwise because I would've said no.

Eric Olsen: Wow, Deana, beautiful. All right. I'm sold. My palms are sweaty thinking about it, but I'm sold. [00:16:30] Give us some next steps, advice. We were bought in, we want to incorporate improv exercises into our students' school day whether they're in a traditional classroom or they're an at home learner, how should we think about it? Where should we start?

Deana Criess: Yeah. I mean, start by starting, which is a thing that I say all the time to my students whether they are young people or adults. So, make a commitment that you want to make this part of your school day and those moments will appear. I think an obvious [00:17:00] place is to start, if you're the kind of classroom that starts their day with a morning meeting, for example, I think improv can be a great way to set the stage for everyday. And there are very simple exercises that anyone can do with any number of people, it doesn't matter the size of the group. And there are things where, there's a fun game called 5 Things where you could just give a category out to the room and one at a time, they go around [00:17:30] and say five things, and there's a thousand ways that that game can play out.

But what it does is sort of kick charge, kick charge, nope, kickstart the brain to be in that sort of rapid fire ideas mode. And wouldn't that be a nice way to move through a school day if you're already invested? There are some really simple physical improv warm-ups you can do with students that really help them physically get ready for their day. Yeah, [00:18:00] so many ways. Another easy thing, so we've got morning meeting and there's a lot of ways you can use improv there. The other thing that I think is really great is creating a classroom contract so you can use improvisation and sort of those pillars we talked about as a way to build a social contract, whether that's with two students or 20 students, and let everyone contribute to that, literally write it out, have it on the wall, have it be in the spirit of yes. Right? "Yes. We agree [00:18:30] to these things."

And then, we can refer to it all year long. So, when we fail, we remember, "That's okay, it's built into the contract. We're all going to fail." It's expected, and normal, and celebrated. We are all going to support one another, it's right there in the contract. Right? So, that's another way. I also love the idea of, I coach a lot of teachers to do very quick games that people might think of as warm-ups, things that take less than five minutes throughout the day. So, [00:19:00] if your students usually hit a wall right after lunch or they're fidgety and anxious right before lunch, those are great places to just throw in a five-minute "Everybody up, we're going to do an exercise together." There's so many ways it can be applied. And I would be very happy to be a resource for anyone who is like, "Yeah, but say more about that. We only have so much time here. So, get in touch with me and I'm happy to talk you through it."

Download AoPS’ Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook [19:30]

Eric Olsen: [00:19:30] Start by starting. I really love that advice. And that's exactly why we created the Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook, to be that perfect next step for families. It's full of helpful strategies to support and challenge advanced learners, curriculum recommendations straight from our Art of Problem Solving families, our STEM Gift Guide, free resource recommendations and much, much more. Download our Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook for free today.

Deana Criess Rapid Fire [20:16]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Deana, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Deana Criess: Equity and accessibility. So, in my work here at Perkins School for the Blind, we realize [00:20:30] the barriers that face children and adults with disabilities every day. So, if I could snap my fingers and have every classroom in the world be completely accessible to every student, no matter who they are, that would be amazing.

Eric Olsen: If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Deana Criess: It's okay to fail. I was absolutely a perfectionist. I was the student who sat in the front row, raised their hand, the one needed to be right, [00:21:00] wanted the validation from every adult, and would very much not want to try if I didn't know I could succeed. It's very ironic what my career has become. I would've saved myself a lot of stress if I had had an improv class when I was like eight years old.

Eric Olsen: What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Deana Criess: Oh, man, the physical space. And it is changing, but you know, that's resources. [00:21:30] So many classrooms and spaces are still holding on to like a sort of, I don't know, a factory, a sort of physical mentality, and I think that doesn't inspire us to be creative. And if I can cheat and say just like the way a lot of school days are still built, I think if we could allow for more freedom and flexibility, both physically and in our school day, we'd have freer thinkers.ake sure all children have the opportunity to benefit from the learning that happens in those years.

Eric Olsen: And what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Deana Criess: This might be cheating, Eric, but I would say sign them up for an improv class. And there are plenty of online classes that are wonderful, there are plenty of books that are available as resources for learning, quick games. It really does set people up for success as problem solvers. [00:22:30] It's everything we just talked about, yeah.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes. Like Pallavi from New Jersey who listens to the Raising Problem Solvers Podcast on their commute into Manhattan and emailed in to say, "For us as parents, the key has been to focus on strengths and areas where our six and a half year old son is self-driven and [00:23:00] self-directed. We involve him in the decision-making on what he wants to pursue." 

Deana, thanks so much for joining us today.

Deana Criess: Thank you so much, Eric. This was so joyful.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [23:12]

Eric Olsen: All right. This one surprised me, friends. Every one of these episodes makes me want to figure out how to add something else to our school day. But wow, I am sold on improv now. I just love the reps that it gives you, the reps of discomfort. Within these safe constraints of creativity and problem- [00:23:30] solving, is there a better mental workout that upskills in the specific areas we want our kids to grow in? So, I'm sold. If you want to see me live, I'll be performing at The Comedy Store in San Diego on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a while to get my reps in. And may you continue your journey alongside us, raising the great problem solvers of the next generation. See you next week.

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