Improvisatory Youth Work [and all that Jazz!]

Hans Skott-Myhre - youth work advocate and jazz musician
Hans Skott-Myhre – youth work advocate and jazz musician

The final cornerstone of practice in our original Open Letter, still retained, reads:

  • The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.

In the book,’This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice’ we talk of improvisational skills underpinning a process, which cannot be scripted in advance.

Whilst in a piece for Youth & Policy 105, ‘What has Cornelius Castoriadis to say about Youth Work? I note that:

Speaking of Castoriadis, David Curtis, his indefatigable translator, is right to stress the presence in his writings of the evocation of a way of living together that is cooperative and improvisatory,  like the best kind of jazz or the finest moments in Youth Work! It is ‘a kind of life that does not deny rationality, planning and organising, but does not confuse the plan with living nor does it live for the plan’.

In this context we urge you to make time to read Pete Harris’s important, significant and challenging article.

The youth worker as jazz improviser: foregrounding education ‘in the moment’ within the professional development of youth workers
This paper argues that readiness, willingness and ability to improvise are central to the role of the youth worker. It describes a small-scale participatory action research
project, conducted in collaboration with third-year Youth and Community Work students and lecturers, which sought to clearly theorise improvisation in a youth work context and explore the challenges and possibilities inherent within the teaching and assessment of improvisation as part of youth workers’ professional development. By drawing on jazz musicology that details the extensive preparation involved in acquiring the ability to improvise within jazz, it asked whether more can be done in the classroom setting to embed an improvisatory disposition within youth work students on professional development programmes.


Theorising youth workers’ expertise as improvisation (in its jazz-related guise) could have several wider advantages for youth work professional development programmes.
It could serve to strengthen practitioners’ confidence in their craft and help meet the need for greater public understanding of the value of youth work practice. When incorporated into classroom teaching and assessment, it allows students in training to experience visceral, ‘in the moment’ practice within an overtly reflective and supportive environment. Furthermore, it could support the development of dispositions within students in training so that they begin to actively seek the unfamiliar, rather than simply learn to cope with it. It may also represent a more fitting response to the complexity of human relations in which youth workers operate and thereby help to preserve the integrity of process-based practice.

Pete’s emphasis is very much on classroom teaching, but I think his thesis has much wider resonance. Certainly from an IDYW perspective it seems vital and necessary to build on Pete’s work in exploring improvisation workshops, which draw in, alongside students, practitioners from the field.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.