at the circus

Innovative Teaching & Cirque du Soleil

The Annual Conference for the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) was held in Quebec City last month. I had the privilege during this conference to hear a plenary from Bernard Petiot who is the Vice-President for Casting and Performance for Cirque du Soleil. He spoke on the environment that welcomes creativity at Cirque du Soleil and I was struck by the number of similarities between the energy, creativity and effort that goes into a Cirque du Soleil show and the energy, creativity and effort that goes into teaching a course.

Circus
Photo by Flickr user Focka

I know.  Sounds I like a stretch, right?  Well, let me see if I can share some of the messages that Mr. Petiot shared and you can decide for yourself whether the logistics and philosophies that converge to create a magnificent Cirque du Soleil show have any relation to the teaching and learning work we do every day.

The goals for the creators of a Cirque du Soleil show seek to invoke imagination, provoke the senses, create change, bend the rules, and evoke emotion.  They bring together a laboratory of creators; they invite people in, they dream beyond the imaginable, and hope to deliver the unexpected.

I would imagine if we all viewed teaching in that way, our students would have an unbelievable college experience!

So what are I some of the key features of putting together a Cirque du Soleil show?

They look for interesting partners who are willing to challenge the status quo.  They promote collaboration, while also acknowledging that this can be easy to say but difficult to do with a large number of people who have different beliefs, experiences, and attitudes.  They work, then, to create a culture where competencies are respected and complementary matches between individuals exist.  They strive to be open-minded and realize that one source of information is not always sufficient and that diversity is a huge benefit, not a roadblock.

How many of us as teachers promote collaboration in the classroom under these same conditions?

They recognize that creativity requires being active and continuing to learn; that it needs an atmosphere, a climate, that is always pushing intellectual ideas. They operate in a culture of risk where performers, designers, and all must be courageous in front of conformism and in front of skeptics.  They focus on being distinctive, on challenging oneself daily and on casting the right “fit” between the artists and the audience.

Sound familiar?  Do we, or maybe the question is should we push our students in this way to maximize their educational experience?

Photo by Flickr user TBWABusted
Photo by Flickr user TBWABusted

Cirque due Soleil is a highly interdisciplinary endeavor as they involve in any one show acrobatic performances, artistic performances, costumes design, lighting and special effects, music and the sound system, scenography, and theater.  Individuals in all of these areas must merge to create a performance.  Mr. Petiot suggested that there is often tension among these groups; that the creative process can face periods of ambiguity and diverging ideas and that these periods are necessary for growth. He stressed the importance of not killing ideas too soon because, if you do, you may avoid an opportunity to really create.

I thought a lot about this, especially as it relates to a student who has arrived at an incorrect solution to a problem.  This student has brought an ‘idea to the table’ and I need to take care to not stop them too quickly – and to not simply give them the right answer – but instead take the time to help them be creative and arrive at the solution.  In this way, I am supporting the learning process – especially when students are out of their comfort zone – rather than controlling it.

Mr Petiot sees his job as creating an environment where an artist can be actively engaged and where a creation can generate change as it defies established paradigms.

Cirque_Du_Soleil,_Varekai_in_Melbourne
Wikimedia Commons photo by whoALSE

I want to see that as my role as a teacher in the classroom. I want to consider my job as one that creates an environment which allows my students to be actively engaged, to be able to create change and to question established theories and findings. And I want to encourage my students to do this all while being themselves. After all, as Mr. Petiot put it, “there is not one single method to create a show, but there is an open mindset required.”

My students have to do their part as well, and come ready to learn, ready to engage, ready to question, all with an open mind.

So, much like these ideas guide the creation of the magnificent shows that come together as part of Cirque du Soleil, I think they, too, could guide magnificent teaching and learning experiences in the classroom.

*Photo cover by Flickr user Caroline Gagne

Jennifer LanterJennifer Lanter
Director of CATL,                                                             Associate Professor,                                                 Human Development & Psychology

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