“What I want, is for you to run at each other as fast as you can, crash into each other and then fall to the floor….”
This was once a request from a director I was working for, he had an image in his head of how a moment should look on stage and was convinced because we were dancers, we could achieve it, albeit impossible. Although, his conviction evaporated when I asked him to run as fast as he could at me, after which he quickly understood the implications of his request. But what we were able to do is work with the idea and find a theatrical solution that fulfilled his intention for that moment. It was something he had never considered and he was ultimately happy with the result.
Starting with impossible ideas opens up a plethora of the unexpected and facilitates creative solutions. Especially in the context of the Arts. I’ve mentioned this before in another post about odd combinations, that we encourage students to think of impossible ideas because it either a) makes a surprising new connection or b) while trying to create the impossible they change the course of their process and artwork. For example, tasking students with ‘where would you like to perform your choreography that is not possible?’ – underwater, on the moon, on a battlefield, etc. While these solutions are not feasible imagining you are in one of these places makes you move in a different way. A new quality of movement is adopted and therefore essentially a new dance, one that was not considered before.
John Spencer in a recent post explored the idea of teaching the impractical in schools, embracing complexity and confusion. He was responding to the call from another educator I admire, A.J. Juliani – that “our job is not to prepare students for something, our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything”, and the point is we do not know what the future holds so why get bogged down by practical, common solutions when experimenting with the unknown facilitates the emergence of innovation?
Tadashi Suzuki is a Japanese theatre practitioner who’s methodology of process has had a huge impact on actor training. One thing he works with is ‘impossible tasks’, these exercises are not physically possible, for example, drawing circles in the air with one arm and at the same time a triangle with the other arm. Not doable. Frustratingly impossible. But that is the point, to think while you’re doing it ‘what’s the point?’ and what is the point of doing something that is undoable? Actually, it is surprising how much can be pulled from this exercise. Focusing on the physicality of the action you can make connections or new discoveries about how your body works or how your mind works. It can spur conversations about purpose, process, multitasking and just plain ‘having a go’. These conversations themselves are results of attempting an impossible task, something that might be deemed irrelevant or a waste of time but can be so productive for student thinking.
When we attempt something that is infeasible the path leads us on a world of discovery, and sometimes reasoning. A Math class teacher showed on the board 12 ÷ 4 = 4. An impossible answer. The teacher said she believed she had the right answer and the students had to convince her that she was wrong. They grappled with different ways of trying to persuade her and had to think of various representations that would work. She was looking for something visual that grouped units into four. As she explained to me it took the students some time to find a method that she was satisfied with, but that’s the point the students had to think!
The impossible always gives us an opportunity to engage cognitively. Be it an attempt to reach the impossible or disprove it, it is an active process of thinking and trying.
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Header image by Nela.
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