Introducing ‘The Improvising Teacher’

At last! My book ‘The Improvising Teacher: Reconceptualising Pedagogy, Expertise and Professionalism’ has been published by Routledge. As any author will confess it is an exciting moment when you are able to hold your book in your hand and witness the culmination of a long journey.

As a way of introducing the book I thought I would share some reflections on why I wrote the book, outlining the personal interests that motivated me to see this project through to its completion.

I have always been aware that one of the characteristics of great teachers is that they have the ability to improvise. In fact most teachers when asked if they think that improvisation is important to their practice will not only say ‘yes’ but will then be able to supply a story about how some of their best teaching occurred when the premeditated lesson plan was abandoned.

Furthermore, when a teacher chooses to improvise, or is forced to do so, it can lead to some of their best experiences as an educator. They come alive as they step ‘into the moment’, respond to the unexpected and gain confidence in their ability to engage with and relate to students. Out of necessity they draw upon their full range of professional experiences and who they are as a person. I consider that teacher improvisations provide a portal into the nature of teacher expertise. However not every teacher has the confidence to talk about the way they improvise and to share that skill with others. Why might this be? I think it is because they don’t have the concepts or the vocabulary to celebrate one of their key skills.

My curiosity about this motivated me to undertake a research project to study the improvisatory nature of expert teaching. Three personal interests drove this research. The first of these is my long-standing interest in improvisation as a musician (I am a jazz saxophonist) and as researcher. My academic interest in improvisation began in the mid 1980s when I enrolled for the Independent Studies MA in Education at the University of Sussex. This provided me with an opportunity to explore improvisation as a significant and identifiable mode of creativity that could be found in all the Arts, not just in music (Sorensen, 1988)

Having gained my Masters I was very aware that there was so much more to be said about improvisation, particularly in the context of ‘everyday life’. In our social lives we improvise continually: whenever we engage in a conversation, try to do something we haven’t done before or ‘make do’ with the resources that we have available. If improvisation is all around us surely it must be happening in the classroom?

The second area of interest, which is derived from the first, came from my professional role supporting the continuing professional development of teachers, initially as an independent education consultant and then as a senior lecturer in higher education (HE) leading a professional masters programme (PMP). I started asking questions about what great teaching looked like.

Thirdly, the debates that arose out of the educational reforms initiated by the UK coalition government from 2010 to 2015 gave rise to a number of questions about what great teaching looked like. What was meant when politicians talked about ‘effective practice’? I felt it was important to develop a grassroots, ‘bottom up’ perspective of advanced professional practice as opposed to the ‘top down’ policy led approaches outlined in documents such as ‘The Importance of Teaching’ (DfE, 2010).

Writing this book has provided me with the opportunity to give a full account of a research project undertaken to explore the relationship between improvisation and expertise for teachers. Additionally it has allowed me to re-engage with ideas that had been developed both prior to and also subsequent to the research. In contemplating the overall design for this book I realised that it would be logical to bring all of these ideas and concepts together in order to be able to explore and articulate the relationship between them.

Early work on the authorised teacher (Sorensen and Coombs, 2010a) and a long-term framework for teacher development (Sorensen and Coombs, 2010b) seemed to complement the arguments for the improvising teacher. More recent writings have explored the implications of the research findings within specific contexts: the craft of teaching musical improvisation improvisationally (Sorensen, 2021a), the importance of the applied improvisation mindset (Sorensen, 2021b) and the development of expertise in Higher Education teaching (Sorensen, 2022).

By bringing these ideas and concepts together in one volume offers a synoptic account of the work that I have done over the past 40 years considering the meaning and value of improvisation and its importance for teachers. The process of writing this book brought about a realisation of how my thoughts have developed over this time and this has resulted in the development of some ideas and the revision of others.

I hope that this book will provide a greater understanding of the creative agency of teachers and the positive impact that this has upon students. Furthermore I hope that it encourages a collective effort by teachers, school leaders and policy makers to create cultures that are conducive to improvisation and the shared development of expertise. Do get in touch if you would like to know more or if you would like to share you stories of teacher improvisation.


Department for Education. (2010) The Importance of Teaching, London: The Stationary Office.

Sorensen, N (1988) The Value of Improvisation in Arts Education. MA thesis. Brighton: University of Sussex.

Sorensen, N. (2021a) ‘The craft of teaching musical improvisation improvisationally: towards a theoretical framework’. Chapter 16 in The Crafts of Music Education: Reframing Practices and Theory. Springer Press.

Sorensen, N. (2021b) ‘Of course we improvise!’ What the best teachers do (and why they do it). Chapter in The Applied Improvisation Mindset. London: Methuen Drama.

Sorensen, N. (2022) ‘Developing the improvising teacher: implications for professionalism and the practice of expertise in improvisation’ in Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: practical ideas for supporting educational development London: Routledge.

Sorensen, N. and Coombs, S. (2010a) ‘Whither Postgraduate Professional Development? Towards a theoretical framework to guide long-term teacher development in England’, Professional Development in Education, 35 (4): 683-689.

Sorensen, N. and Coombs, S. (2010b) ‘Authorized to teach?’, CPD Update, 126 (May 2010): 8-9.

#theimprovisingteacher @RoutledgeEd #creativeteaching #expertise #teacherprofessionalism

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