Pedagogy in performance: An investigation into decision training as a cognitive approach to circus training

Jonathan Burtt, Edith Cowan University


This research project represents the first formal research conducted into the potential application of Decision Training in an elite circus arts school environment. The research examines the effects of the introduction of Decision Training—a training model developed for sports applications—into the elite circus arts training program at the National Circus School (NCS), a key circus arts school in one of the world’s most vital circus domains, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Decision Training, a cognitive-based training model, has been shown through extensive sports-based research to support the development of decision-making ability and self-regulatory learning behaviour, both of which are fundamental for the long-term retention and application of physical skills. A key research aim was to investigate whether Decision Training had the potential to enhance existing teaching practice at the NCS.

This research investigates how this cognitive training model—developed for use in the world of competitive sports—functions in a performing arts context in which not only physical and technical skills are trained, but also elements connected with performance, such as aesthetic expression and the creation and development of new performance material.

A qualitative action research methodology was employed, consisting of three reflection–action cycles with three case studies of student–teacher pairings. Data collection took place over an extended training period at the NCS from November 2011 to April 2012. Observation, interviews with teachers and students, and group discussions were used to collect data and to provide the impetus for the Decision Training interventions for the three action research cycles.

This qualitative study reveals how teachers implemented the three-step Decision Training model and how students responded to these teaching interventions. This was done through an action research process investigating the lived experiences of the participants involved in each case study.

The research findings indicate that incorporating a cognitive training method such as Decision Training into circus pedagogy has the potential benefit of giving students the means of acquiring important skills such as effective decision making in performance situations, and self-regulatory behaviour such as the ability to effectively self-assess their performance. Teachers have the potential to benefit by not having to be the sole providers of feedback or motivation, allowing the rapport between student and teacher to become collaborative and creative. The research findings show that the effectiveness of the Decision Training interventions was influenced by the different learning and teaching backgrounds and styles of the student–teacher pairings, and the different ways in which the teachers integrated Decision Training into their existing teaching practices.

The research findings led to the proposal of an “integrated” pedagogical approach based on a combination of Decision Training and direct teaching. This “integrated” pedagogy would enable a teacher to use the cognitivist, student-centred learning approach of Decision Training to develop self-regulation and effective decision making in students, but switch to aspects of direct teaching at appropriate times: for instance, when a student needs to be directly aware of safety issues or has little foundational knowledge in a circus discipline; in the lead-up to a performance showing; or during the period in which a student is adjusting to the new cognitivist learning and teaching environment.

Recommendations are made for the gradual phasing in of Decision Training into the main training program at the NCS, and implications for future research are discussed.