How to teach the parts of circus students don’t want to learn

Flying Trapeze

Illustration by Jon Worden from Learning to Fly by Sam Keen

Learning Circus

I’m a big fan of all our students – especially our young people – learning a broad range of circus skills. That’s one of the reasons our classes don’t specialise in just one skill. I believe that there is enormous value in being able to climb a rope, fly the trapeze, juggle, and tumble (amongst other things). But every week one student or another will tell me that they don’t like this or that – whether they don’t like acrobatics, juggling, diabolo or trapeze is different from person to person, and often from week to week. And every time they say it I ask myself the same questions:

  1. Should we really push our students to be a “Jack of all trades, master of none” or would it be better to let students concentrate on just the things they enjoy and become “specialists”? (And is it even true that you can’t be a master of many?!)
  2. How can we get them to see the value in learning something that they don’t enjoy?

Why should we even care if students want to specialize in one skill? What’s wrong with that? Well, there’s nothing wrong with that but there is definitely value in learning more than what immediately appeals.

We’re committed that our students – particularly our youth students – develop not just technical circus skills but also, personal and inter-personal social skills like patience, commitment, focus, determination, teamwork and confidence. And just because they may not have a natural gift (and we will save the nature vs nurture conversation for another time) or an immediate affinity for a skill, doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t learn it.

Learning a variety of circus skills develops the brain and the body in a variety of ways, has different benefits and each leads to developing different skills, strengths and traits. While juggling promotes hand-eye coordination and develops patience, acrobatics develops power and body control. Trapeze & rope develop strength & control and tightwire elevates focus and balance.

And yet I find myself in a Catch 22. If we push them to learn something they don’t enjoy, they won’t come back next term. But if we just let them learn what they want, they won’t fully realise their own potential.

Specialists vs Generalists

Over the last few years there seems to have been a lot of discussion in the media about the value of being a specialist vs a generalist. Mostly these discussions have centred around employability and what skill-sets employers should/are now looking for.

As a professional performer being a specialist has it’s advantages and disadvantages. A specialist may earn more than a generalist but they have only one specialist skill for their income. In unfavourable times (economic downturn, their specialist skill being out of fashion, etc) they may find themselves struggling to find work.

Specialist species thrive only when conditions are perfect. They serve a very specific purpose within their particular ecosystem and are extremely adept at navigating it. However, should those conditions change—as a result of nature or, more commonly, an outside force—specialist species often become extinct.

– Meghan Casserly, The Secret Power Of The Generalist — And How They’ll Rule The Future

But our students aren’t professional performers and don’t have to worry about finding work or maintaining their income so it’s a fairly moot point. Of course, a few of our students may go on to become professional circus artists so having more than one specialist circus skill may serves them well. But is that even possible? Can you really master more than one? And if so, how?

Tim Ferriss is of the opinion that not only is being a Jack of all trades beneficial but that mastering many diverse skills, like Leonardo da Vinci, is entirely possible. As a generalist myself, this idea resonates with me.

It is entirely possible to be a jack of all trades, master of many. How? Specialists overestimate the time needed to “master” a skill and confuse “master” with “perfect”…

Generalists recognize that the 80/20 principle applies to skills: 20% of a language’s vocabulary will enable you to communicate and understand at least 80%, 20% of a dance like tango (lead and footwork) separates the novice from the pro, 20% of the moves in a sport account for 80% of the scoring, etc. Is this settling for mediocre?

Not at all. Generalists take the condensed study up to, but not beyond, the point of rapidly diminishing returns. There is perhaps a 5% comprehension difference between the focused generalist who studies Japanese systematically for 2 years vs. the specialist who studies Japanese for 10 with the lack of urgency typical of those who claim that something “takes a lifetime to learn.” Hogwash. Based on my experience and research, it is possible to become world-class in almost any skill within one year.

– Tim Ferriss, 5 reasons to be a Jack of All Trades

In his TV show, The Tim Ferriss Experiment, he set out to put this theory to the test and attempted to prove that mastering many skills is not only possible but achievable – and achievable in very short periods of time.

Note: the trailer below contains some swearing.

If it’s possible to master many different and varied skills, and be a true polymath like Leonardo da Vinci, surely it must be possible to become masterful within a relatively narrow field such as circus skills – where all the skills are working with the body.

One of the aspects that has this be possible is the amount of overlap that you find within circus skills. If you become masterful – or even competent – at acrobatics, you’ll be able to learn trapeze much more easily, and in a much shorter space of time, than if you were to learn trapeze from scratch. The strength, flexibility, body awareness and control that you develop learning acrobatics is the same as is required for trapeze. All that is left is learning the specific trapeze moves or positions (many of which may even be the same as in acrobatics or gymnastics) and some new techniques (eg. ankle hang).

Circus Skills Venn Diagram

It’s interesting to note that transitioning in the opposite direction (trapeze first, acrobatics second) is not usually as easy. This in my view is because a broader skill-set is required in acrobatics than trapeze (eg. jumping and rebounding is a necessary component of acrobatics but not trapeze). Learning trapeze first leaves you with many more skills & techniques to develop if you wish to transition to acrobatics. (Said another way, trapeze could be viewed as a sub-set of acrobatics. Therefore, becoming proficient or masterful at acrobatics would likely give you 95% of the necessary skills for trapeze. But learning trapeze would give you a much smaller percentage of the skills necessary for acrobatics.)

Given that we are only working with the body (and circus equipment) and there are clear overlaps between the various circus skills, it should be possible or even easy to master many different circus skills. And if we don’t have to choose between our students becoming specialists instead of generalists – but rather we focus on becoming “masters of many” by strategically focusing their study “up to, but not beyond, the point of rapidly diminishing returns” – then we are left with the question of how do we make sure that the students enjoy and see value in learning something that they don’t naturally enjoy?

Flying Trapeze

Illustration by Jon Worden from Learning to Fly by Sam Keen

How can we get students to see the value in learning something that they don’t enjoy (yet)?

After over 15 years of teaching hundreds and thousands of people circus skills I’m confident saying that most people have a very low tolerance for learning things they aren’t either naturally good at or don’t experience progress quite quickly. The typical response from adults and children alike is “I just don’t like it.” In my experience that’s a lie that we tell ourselves. It’s not that people don’t like it, it’s that they’re not good at it and don’t see getting good happening any time soon. People aren’t good at dealing with failure and not achieving some success with a new skill is, for most people, a failure. We attempt something once (this includes one session / lesson) and make a decision about whether it’s for us or not. If we don’t experience progress in that first session, it’s probably not for us. “I don’t like it,” we say. And we believe the lie as it falls from our own lips.

I once worked with someone who had what he called his “Rule of 7.” If he was going to learn a new skill he’d try it seven times before deciding if it was for him. At the time, he was in his 70s and was learning to ski. He went on ski holidays to the alps and for practice weekends at the “Snowdome” but wasn’t going to make a decision about whether skiing was for him until he’d completed his seven attempts.

Most of us aren’t like that. We have one go and either “like it” (are good at it or see some quick progress) or “don’t like it” (aren’t good or don’t see quick progress).

However, there are times when we experience failing at a new skill but we persevere until we achieve success. Learning to drive for instance. Many people aren’t good at driving in their first driving lesson but they continue anyway. Even if they fail their first, second or third driving test they persevere. My friend, Willem, who runs Ice Cream for Everyone, recently failed his driving test. He called me right after and told me he didn’t pass but that he was going to continue taking lessons and retake his test.

So what’s different? Why is it that in some cases we quit and say “I don’t like it” but in others we persevere and “liking it” has nothing to do with it?

In those instances where we persevere beyond our failures there’s a bigger payoff in persevering than quitting. Being able to drive (ie. having a driving licence) is worth the pain of failing – it’s worth more than failure after failure, lesson after lesson, test after test, parallel parking attempt after parallel parking attempt. There’s a bigger future at stake. The future is filled with the possibilities of independence, holidays with hire cars, road trips (maybe even being a racecar driver!) and those possibilities are worth more than a few measly failures.

Sometimes our students (most often teens or adults) have or create that kind of future for themselves already – the possibility of being fit and strong is sometimes enough to inspire them to struggle through a few failures on the trapeze. But it’s important that they discover and create that future for themselves. Telling someone that they’ll be fit and strong if they continue isn’t enough. It’s good advice (and it’s probably true) but unless they discover it for themselves it’s just good advice.

You only really learn what you discover for yourself

All too often teachers, myself included, are driven to speak, to give advice, to tell students what to do or how to do it. But when we speak, we don’t listen and we cease to be in their world. Telling a student what to do and how to do it isn’t effective. John Holt, the author and educator, said that “the biggest enemy to learning is the talking teacher.” When we tell students what they should be learning or how they should be learning it, there is no real learning happening. You only really learn when you discover something for yourself.

“Self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge.”

– John Taylor Gatto

If you discover something for yourself it has far more power than if you are told. Until you discover something for yourself you’ll try to understand, flounder, fail, attempt, and try and try again and again. It doesn’t matter what I, or any other teacher says.

And then at some point something clicks and you get it. In that moment you discover it for yourself – you learn something and you can own your learning because you discovered it for yourself. It’s your’s and your’s forever because you discovered it for yourself.

My job as a circus teacher is to find a way for you to discover for yourself your reason for learning what I’m committed to you learning. Because unless you discover that for yourself my only option is to convince you, force you, trick you or try and persuade you to learn.

The path to discovery isn’t always a straight path

We recently had a student who wasn’t interested in learning juggling. As I said earlier, we’re committed that all our students learn to juggle at least 3 balls because of the value they get from learning juggling – hand-eye coordination, improved patience, etc. – but she was more interested in unicycling. As much as I tried to get her to practice juggling, she just wasn’t so into it – she’d try for a couple of minutes and then get bored and frustrated. So I started working on her unicycling with her.

As the weeks went by she gained confidence on the unicycle, started to progress and began to move through the four stages of skill acquisition. She started being able to balance independently, cross the room on her own and make turns (something which is surprising difficult for a beginner unicyclist).

The Stages of Skill Acquisition

The Stages of Skill Acquisition

As she became more competent on the unicycle (moving from concious competence to unconscious competence) we started to introduce new challenges like mounting the unicycle independently, navigating around objects and throwing and catching a ball whilst riding the unicycle. Throwing and catching was a worthwhile challenge for her as a unicyclist and it naturally interested her. As she got better at throwing and catching (with me and then with herself) whilst on the unicycle, she realist that being able to juggle whilst riding the unicycle was a real possibility for her and became something that motivated and inspired her to practice juggling too.

We haven’t gotten to juggling on the unicycle (yet) but now that she’s discovered for herself something about juggling that interests and inspires her, she’s keen to practice. I don’t have to try to get her to practice juggling anymore, she’s happy to practice it for herself.

People naturally want to learn but if we’re focused on our teaching rather than focused on the students’ learning we actually get in the way of their learning, as well as their enjoyment of learning.

If as teachers we get ourselves and our notions of “how it should be done” out of the way people will learn for themselves. We have to let our students guide us. There isn’t one route to learning, there are many, and the right route for me may not be the right route for you. Who knows whether we “should” or “shouldn’t” be specialists or generalists? The best we can do is support and guide our students’ learning the best we can.

If we let our students’ interests guide us and our teaching, they’ll likely accomplish what we want in their own way. But more importantly, they’ll learn and discover for themselves what interests and inspires them.. And in discovering it for themselves they’ll become a better, more committed, and passionate student.

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions – if they have any – and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

John Holt