Turbo-Charge Your Learning: Make more mistakes

Success

Circus Skills are Hard

Circus skills are hard – and they should be. We wouldn’t call them circus skills if they weren’t a skill, and we wouldn’t call things tricks if they weren’t tricky. Circus skills take time to learn and a lifetime to master.

But students get frustrated if they don’t feel like they are progressing. Whatever you learn, there comes a point when you will probably plateau for a while. You’ll make mistakes, and you’ll probably make the same mistake frequently. This is common in learning physical skills – sports, music, martial arts and definitely in circus – where motor control is key.

As you practice you’ll notice you make mistakes and after a while you’ll probably start to start to notice that you keep making the same mistake. When students see that they are making the same mistake over and over (sometimes they don’t see that it’s the same mistake but see that they are making a mistake over and over), frustration and annoyance kicks in.

It’s very common when first learning to juggle, for instance, that after two or three throws your body suddenly freezes and you don’t make your third or fourth throw. It feels like the ball is stuck in your hand. If students get stuck at this point for too long they get frustrated and sooner or later will probably give up.

Practice Makes Perfect… Or Not.

When you repeatedly perform an action, you teach your body and your brain to perform that action, and the action (or movement) becomes easier. Each time you perform the action, the neural pathway for that action becomes stronger and the action itself becomes easier.

Looking at our juggling example, the neural pathway for juggling is new and that the brain can’t coordinate throwing the “stuck” ball – the synapse hasn’t been used before. Not throwing and feeling like the ball is stuck in your hand is the result of the neurological pathway being unused.

When I’m teaching I tell people that they have to throw the ball even if it’s a terrible throw. Once they force the ball out of their hand once or twice, the neural pathway starts to get worn in, the synapses in the brain become easier for the electrical impulses to cross, and throwing the ball starts to becomes easier and more natural.

Whatever movement you make, if you repeatedly perform that movement, the neural pathway activates more fluidly and the movement becomes easier. Of course, the movement may be correct or incorrect – but neurologically speaking the result is the same: more fluid neural pathways.

When you make a mistake over and over again you’re teaching your brain and your body to perform that mistake more easily. You’re actually practicing the mistake and the mistake starts to become automatic. You are getting better but not in the way you want. You’re getting better at making the mistake. This is what we call a bad habit.

We all know that “practice makes perfect” but by practicing incorrectly, it also makes bad habits.

To ensure that we’re on the path to perfect (rather than forming bad habits) we have to perform a new movement or action. It doesn’t have to be correct, it just has to be different.

Performing a different movement or action is difficult. It doesn’t feel natural or comfortable. You’re brain is “walking an untrodden path.” It’s using neural pathways that haven’t been used before and it takes a concerted mental effort to do something differently.

Until the neural pathway for that movement is “well-trodden” it will take focus, attention and mental effort.

Don’t do it right, do it different.

If making the same mistake over and over isn’t going to achieve what we want, we have to something different. I don’t care what our students do differently and often tell them to “make a new mistake.”

I want my students to keep making different mistakes. If they keep making new mistakes eventually they’ll get it right and then we can try to replicate the correct movement. This is especially important if they’ve already formed a bad habit. They must unlearn what they have learned.

Making mistakes is never a problem. I want my students to make mistakes – lots of them! Because only when they make mistakes will they get better.

Make mistakes. Make lots of mistakes.

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?

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How to Fix a Teddy Bear with a Broken Leg

Be in their World

Being ineffective is never fun. But if we teach ineffectively it’s even worse – it’s hard work, disheartening, and tiring. One of the things that can have us teach ineffectively is not communicating with a student in a way that makes sense to them, and that they can get.

Another way of saying this is that, when we teach ineffectively, we teach from where we are rather than where they are. If we taught from where they are they (and we) would get better results. This may sound like a strange thing to say because most of the time it seems like we are teaching from where they are. If they can juggle a 3-ball cascade, we teach them an over the top throw. If they can kick up to a handstand, we teach them a handstand forward roll. This is simply an appropriate progression for what they can do; but it is not teaching them from where they are. Continue reading

Teaching Tip 4: Treat Them Like an Adult

A colleague made a comment a while ago that when I teach kids (I teach everything from 2-year-olds through teens to adults) I treat them like adults. And although that isn’t exactly true, it’s been sitting in my mind for a while.

Over the years, when I’ve watched other people teach young children, I’ve often cringed a little inside. It’s not that what they’re teaching is bad because it’s not. Often they’ve been teachers that I respect very highly. But what makes me cringe is when I see teachers patronise kids.

Children are smart. Until someone (including themselves) tells them they’re not, kids are unbelievably bright, intelligent and present. To talk to kids as anything other than smart belittles them. Continue reading

Teaching Tips 3: Take Fun Seriously

Ever since I started teaching I’ve strived to continually develop myself as a better teacher – either by learning (or refining) circus technique, learning related subjects (eg., gymnastics, first aid, leadership), or developing new ways of being and working with young people to get the most out of them.

Through these posts I hope to be able to offer you some new ideas, tips, and thoughts that will encourage and support you in being a better teacher.

Take Fun Seriously

Some of the worst teaching I’ve ever seen has been watching people work with children or young people and be very serious. I’ve watched coaches and trainers reprimand children in front of a group for doing nothing more than Continue reading

Teaching Tip 2: Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

Lesson planning has been the bane of my life. Or at least it was until I started to get good at it. I think a lot of teachers – regardless of whether they are school, circus, or any other kind of teacher – hate doing lesson planning. Lesson planning takes time, and in this day and age time is something of a precious commodity. But I don’t think that’s what really bugged me. It wasn’t the time; I can always make time for stuff that’s important. It seemed like a lot of effort for something that wasn’t very important and didn’t really make any difference.

But as teachers all know lesson plans are really important and do make a big difference.

But if we know they’re important, and we know they make such a difference, then why don’t they seem important when it comes time to sit down and write them? And why are they always so much effort?

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Teaching Tip 1: Know Why You Are Teaching

About a year ago I wrote six tips for teaching youth circus and I thought it was about time I followed up with something similar. Rather than write six more tips I decided that I’d go into a bit more depth into those six original tips one by one.

Photo by Claude Fisicaro

Context is decisive

I enjoy teaching far more than I ever enjoyed performing. My performing career was pretty short-lived. I didn’t love it. I performed because I should; because that’s what circus artists do. It wasn’t an authentic expression of my passions, my desires, or of me. It was a struggle, an effort and, although I enjoyed performing while I was actually performing, it was ultimately unfulfilling for me.

When I was about 10 and learned to juggle the first thing I did was try to teach the other kids in my class. Teaching for me has always been a much more natural expression of myself. It’s easy for me; it’s fun.

Why do you teach?

Stop and consider for a moment why you teach.

If you’re teaching because you love it, brilliant. But if you’re teaching because you have to, because you need the money, or for any other reason, you’re probably not going to be satisfied by it, and your students won’t get as much from your teaching.

Context is everything.

Even if you need the money – and believe me I still need the money I earn from teaching! – creating a bigger, more powerful context for yourself will give new life to your lessons, it’ll bring you more enjoyment, and it’ll have students respond better to your teaching.

Creating a Context

There are many ways to create a new context but before you try to create a new context make sure you distinguish your current context. Up until now, why have you been teaching?

Think about your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations leading up to, during and after your class. Think about the things you said and how you responded to students questions, comments or actions. Look at who you’re teaching for (are you teaching for yourself or are they for another person or organisation?) and what you or they have said about the classes, students, or even the business.

If you look at your whole experience of teaching you’ll start to discover the context you’ve had for teaching so far.

There’s nothing wrong with your current context, it just may not be as empowering or enlivening as you’d like. And there’s nothing to say that you can’t have an empowering context one day and a disempowering context the next.

Maybe it’s empowering, maybe it’s not, but whatever it is it’s the context you’ve had.

Once you’ve discovered and distinguished the context you’ve had so far you have an opportunity to create something new.

Creating a context could be as simple as making declaration of why you are teaching.

[A declaration] brings forth the possibility that it speaks, in the very act of speaking it.  Such speaking has a direct and lasting impact; in the very act of speaking, it alters the course of events.

~ Werner Erhard

It could be imagining or creating a vision board of where you see your classes or students in 5 or 10 years time.

It could be creating a dream holiday and realising that each class is moving you one step closer.

It could be creating a show with your students for the end of the year or term.

Whatever you create, it’s got to be big enough that it inspires you, that it pulls you forward and gives you a new lease of life for your teaching. A small, ordinary context will shrivel and die a quick death.

Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, goals restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel. If the potential payoff is mediocre or average, so is your effort. I’ll run through walls to get a catamaran trip through the Greek islands, but I might not change my brand of cereal for a weekend trip through Columbus, Ohio. If I choose the latter because it is “realistic,” I won’t have the enthusiasm to jump even the smallest hurdle to accomplish it. With beautiful, crystal-clear Greek waters and delicious wine on the brain, I’m prepared to do battle for a dream that is worth dreaming. Even though their difficulty of achievement on a scale of 1-10 appears to be a 2 and a 10 respectively, Columbus is more likely to fall through.

The fishing is best where the fewest go. There is just less competition for bigger goals.

~ Tim Ferris

Once created, your new context needs to take root. If it only lives in your head it will be like a mug of hot chocolate: gone too soon, leaving nothing more than a yummy memory.

Now, there’s nothing to stop you from creating and recreating each time it fades, but for your new context to live, grow and even expand it needs to live outside your memory. Share it with your friends, family, colleagues, students; make a vision board, stick post-it notes around your home, book your holiday flights, create a business or draw a picture. It doesn’t matter what you do as much as it matters that you do something. The more it lives outside of your mind the stronger it will be and more real it will become.

Context is everything. And knowing why you do what you do is at the heart great teaching.

Six Tips for Teaching Youth Circus

Ever since I started teaching I’ve strived to continually develop myself as a better teacher – either by learning (or refining) circus technique, learning related subjects (eg., gymnastics, first aid, leadership), or developing new ways of being and working with young people to get the most out of them. Sometimes I get it wrong but I think that most of the time I manage to get the best out of the young people I work with and manage to have good working relationships with them.

Below are six tips for teaching circus to children and young people that I hope will give you some new ideas and thoughts that will help you to be a great teacher.

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