The Rule of Yes

Giving Your Students the Confidence and Safety to Speak

The "Rule of Yes"

For me, the most helpful tip here comes from an improv class. When doing stand-up comedy in front of a live audience, there is no time for second-guessing — and when two comedians are doing an improv routine, neither one knows what the other might say or do. Instead, they must trust each other's instincts and see where it goes.

In improv, the rule is to always say "Yes, and..." regardless of how insane, unbelievable, or unwelcome the partner's ideas may be.

For comedy, insanity is generally encouraged — it's the heart of humor. But in professional environments such as the classroom, there's a tendency to avoid anything "unusual" — hence, we tend to discourage or outright dismiss ideas that don't match our own. But as Fast Company explains, improv techniques can make you a better boss — and many of these same tips apply to being an effective teacher. In the classroom, the "Rule of Yes" means is that you:

  • Listen to Every Idea. However strange a student's idea may sound, it comes from a place of thought and experience. Our students have different lives from our own, and it's natural that they're ideas will also contrast with our preconceptions.
  • Say Yes, and...[Provide Suggestions to Research That Topic]. Some of the best projects I've seen were about tattoos, nail polish videos, marijuana legalization. These were not easy projects — my students put in a lot of work with interviewing tattoo artists, explaining the technical and economic considerations of video blogs, and reviewing the history of state laws. And let's be real — I did not know how these projects would go when my students suggested them. But I pointed them toward resources to start the research process, and they followed the leads they found.
  • Continue the Conversation. When I allow students to choose their own topics, they often question whether or not their doing the "right" type of research. Can a tattoo artist be a reliable source? Can a scholarly article about MySpace apply to YouTube videos? Does it make sense to compare marijuana to alcohol when discussing the legal and medical ramifications of substance use? In these cases, "Yes, and..." continues in a cyclic discussion. Yes, a tattoo artist is definitely a reliable source — in fact, how can we understand tattoos without the perspective of someone engaged in the art? Yes, you can definitely talk about how the discussions you see for nail polish videos sound a lot like that academic research into MySpace — in fact, it may be a few years before academic researchers notice the work required to connect with tens of thousands of followers through daily instructional videos for effective nail polish. And yes, there is (was?) a marked difference in the laws applied to marijuana compared to the laws regarding alcohol.
  • Read More on Marijuana Legalization and the Classroom

Be Careful When Agreeing With Students

When you say "yes" to one student, make sure you aren't saying "no" to another. Not all students agree on everything — some will, in fact, contradict each other. To build social presence in a classroom, make sure you don't crush a young writer's soul.


Outside Resources for Improv and "Yes"