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In whose interests? Possibilities and potential juxtaposed in reflecting on research with Australian circus communities

Beverley Moriarty and Peter Hallinan
Studying the ways that circus personnel work with their audiences and behind the scenes, as well as the ways that they communicate with outside groups, offers educators novel and interesting ways of re-examining their own practice. If there is a misconception that education can occur only in institutions established for that purpose, it may be assumed that circus people have little to teach educators. A study that examined circuses as co-operative communities found many parallels between circuses and schools. Research that brings together stakeholders from these two sites helps to resolve this misconception and leads to benefits for all parties.

Most people in developed countries have been to school. Perhaps this is one reason why everyone appears to know about education and how to teach. Members of the public are often asked their opinion about the ability of schools to teach children to read and write; we often hear employers bemoaning the inability of job applicants to spell or carry out simple tasks in arithmetic. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about education, teaching, teachers and schools. Perhaps the question should revolve around whether these opinions are based on past or current conceptions of what happens in schools. As Schofield (2000) pointed out, schools have changed on the inside but the exterior remains unchanged. Are schools judged on performances linked with the past because they still look the same on the outside?

It could be argued that a corollary of schools being judged for what others perceive that they can or cannot do is that schools are seen as 'the' places in which education takes place. How many people would think of circuses, for example, as places of learning? Even more daringly, do circuses have anything to teach mainstream educators?

The answers to these questions might seem obvious. Of course learning in a formal sense does not take place at the circus and of course circus folk have nothing to offer schoolteachers. If you ask circus personnel about their learning and whether they have anything that they could teach educators, however, the response is likely to be different and their arguments convincing. Even superficial observation of circuses supports this argument.

This paper examines the work that circus personnel do with their audiences and behind the scenes as well as their interactions with the outside community, framing the analysis under the umbrella of co-operative community theory. The data for this research were gathered and analysed through semi-structured interviews with Australian circus personnel between 1998 and 2000 (Moriarty, 2000). The results indicate that universities and schools have much to learn from and with circuses and that circus personnel have been generous in sharing their knowledge and expertise with university researchers as well as teachers. At the same time, the work done in circuses is given validation by being taken more seriously. It can be argued that co-operative community theory not only describes how successful circus and school communities work among themselves, but can form the basis for mutually beneficial collaboration. Far from there being a dilemma regarding the authenticity of lessons from the circus being applied to school communities and to classrooms, therefore, the potential for mutual benefit through research collaboration has only just begun to be explored.


Research into learning environments, and co-operation in particular, has been quite prolific since the 1920s, with some evidence of interest in the area even prior to that time (http://www.clcrc.com/pages/cl.html, accessed 30 October, 2001). The earliest benefits of co-operation that were substantiated through the research related to social cohesion and enjoyment of learning. Over the decades, and particularly in the second half of the twentieth century, comparative research conducted in laboratory settings and later in classrooms sometimes achieved conflicting results with regard to co-operative, competitive and individualistic efforts and achievement. David and Roger Johnson were central figures in a 'well-known debate' (Moriarty, Douglas, Punch & Hattie, 1995, p. 74) about this issue. It was then noted that these discrepancies related to fundamental differences in the ways that co-operative learning environments were defined (Punch & Moriarty, 1997). Subsequent research focused on identifying the elements that were present in co-operative learning environments that were found superior to other learning environments in terms of student achievement.

More recently, David and Roger Johnson, who have led the field in research into learning environments over the past quarter of a century, have conducted extensive research into co-operative communities. In 1998, they provided a particularly clear and concise explanation of the five principles that they found underpin successful co-operative communities, particularly classrooms and schools. In the same year, the Traveller education research team at Central Queensland University took these principles and began to examine circus communities in the light of those principles, seeking to discover how the circus, as an institution, had managed to survive for so long and how circus people were educated. It is interesting to note that circuses have formed and sustained successful co-operative communities for a far longer period than educational researchers have shown an interest in co-operative learning environments, yet it is only in the last few years that educators have looked at circuses.

Successful co-operative communities embrace five principles of operation: positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotion of one another's success, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing or reflection (Johnson & Johnson, 1998). Positive interdependence occurs when people believe that they are mutually dependent for success but this success depends largely on each person being individually accountable for having something different to offer, making each person's contribution distinctive. Interpersonal qualities are essential; unless members of groups can encourage and help one another on the road to success and practise interpersonal skills related to 'leadership, decision-making, trust, building, communication, and conflict management' (Johnson & Johnson, 1998, p. 5), then they cannot co-operate effectively. Group members also need to discuss their achievements and the effectiveness of their working relationships.


The extent to which these principles apply to the ways that Australian circuses operate and become educated has been a focus in the research since 1998 (Moriarty, 2000). At the same time, the Traveller education research team that has conducted this research has also applied the same principles to the ways that its members work together and possibly the ways that they have worked in partnership with circus personnel during and after data gathering (Moriarty, Hallinan, Danaher & Danaher, 2000).

Research team members worked together to produce semi-structured interview schedules and, either alone or in pairs as the circumstances allowed, interviewed circus personnel mostly on site in caravans or under the big top. We have always conducted the interviews ourselves rather than employ research assistants. On the one hand, we believe that it is much easier to gain a sense of what happens at the circus by being there ourselves, able to observe and ask questions that may not have occurred to us otherwise. Of course, for us, this is the much more interesting alternative. We also feel that there are ethical considerations: we have asked people for their trust and it seems to us more trustworthy on our part to deal directly with the people whose lives interest us. Perhaps most important of all, this shared commitment by each member of the Traveller education research team in itself enhances and fosters the underlying tenets of co-operative learning we espouse both implicitly (in the sense of a shared ethos) and explicitly (through research practices such as the above).

The research team conducted interviews, both jointly and individually, with 30 circus people, from performers to workers to owner-managers. Many circus personnel occupy several roles. Some participants have been interviewed alone, others in pairs or in small groups and yet others in large groups, such as when they might all come together after a performance.


It can be quite difficult to separate work from other aspects of life at the circus, even for circus people. One way of looking at it is to think of the performance as being central and everything else fitting around the performance space and time. Setting up the tent, pulling down the tent, travelling to another location and rehearsals are just some of the activities that need to fit in and around the performance. The old adage 'the show must go on' is important; no matter what events precede a performance, the smiles must come out, the lights must go on and the magic between the performers and the audience must be there.

Working with the audience

From a teaching perspective, it is fascinating to watch circus performers with their audiences. Timing, suspense, engagement, enjoyment and captivation are all there, masterminded by the ringmaster, the lion tamer, the acrobat and the magician. A real appreciation of what is happening could possibly be gained only by having cameras operating simultaneously at different angles, focusing at once on centre-stage, the background and the audience, particularly the faces and behaviours of the young children. Carefully chosen words, intonation and pauses, facial expressions and sleight of hand on the part of the performer can make an audience go completely silent while the faces of the young children turn blank as they stare with silent anticipation, waiting to see what happens next. All is then revealed and roars and claps are heard from the audience as the young faces light up again. A young child turns to another and says something like, 'I saw him do it. I know what he did', as though an important secret has been uncovered and nobody else knew.

The performers know how to work the audience. They also know the power of active involvement and may ask for members of the audience to join them during an act. This hands on experience makes the occasion all the more memorable for those children. It would be an unusual child who did not share with family and friends after the show or at school the next day the story of his or her participation. Any teachers observing children at a circus performance would have to be impressed by the ability of the performers to gain and maintain the interest of the children in the audience. Perhaps such teachers might consider what life would be like at school if children could be equally motivated and engaged in classroom activities.

If circus personnel and their audiences are akin to teachers and students, then what circus personnel do backstage and between performances might be compared with what teachers do outside the classroom that impacts on their teaching. Another way to consider these situations would be to think of what happens under the big top or in the classroom as being inside an innermost circle in the two respective environments. The activity that occurs outside the ring and outside the classroom that impacts on performances in the ring or in the classroom might be thought of as another circle, further from the centre, which encases the centre.

Backstage and outside the ring

At the circus, backstage and outside the ring encompasses a range of different situations that complement and make the performance possible. The people on the lighting and sound have specialised tasks and they are able to read the performance well. If something goes wrong in the ring, for example, if the ringmaster announces the acts in a different order from that which is expected, then the light and sound need to be adjusted instantly to accommodate this sudden change. While there is a set agenda, therefore, the people involved with the lighting and the sound need to be aware and flexible enough to respond to any changes so that the audience does not realise that anything unplanned has happened.

Outside the ring there are many other tasks that also have to be done. People need to care for the animals and ensure that they are in the right place at the right time. These jobs require a responsible person who knows when and what to feed the animals and to be able to identify changes in behaviour that may indicate a problem, such as illness. The animals need to have consistency of treatment and to know the person who is handling them.

Apart from caring for the animals, costumes have to be made, equipment needs to be checked and maintained, the tent needs to be erected and disassembled, and programmes, refreshments, show bags and tickets have to be sold. The circus community is like a microcosm in which individuals take on responsibilities that contribute to the total working of the circus. While most people in the circus can and do take on a range of roles, everyone is highly dependent on one another and individually accountable. Somehow, too, everyone needs a degree of social sophistication that enables the demonstration of effective interpersonal skills, so that leadership is successful at different levels and decisions by which people are prepared to abide can be made.

Where do people learn these social skills? Studying the circus can be compared to analysing Bach's Fugues; we were not there when they were composed but we can analyse them now and study the patterns and interrelationships among the notes. In other words, we can work out the principles by examining the product. That is exactly what teachers have to gain from analysing how circuses operate. Circus communities have been operating successfully for so long that they simply must have something to teach us about effective community involvement and about engaging the young in interesting and worthwhile activities through which learning may occur. While the circus is magic for children, it represents a higher level of metalearning, or learning about learning, for educators.

By examining what happens outside the ring and backstage, teachers can also reflect on the life of a school community beyond the classroom but inside the school gates. Schools are also complex communities, with people often performing more than one task, but with responsibility, individual accountability and interdependence as critical elements. Another word is possibly identity, which is the whole reason why people commit to any community in the first place.

The wider community

Circuses and schools cannot operate in isolation from the wider community, nor can this occur at the performance or classroom level. The trend appears to have proceeded more in this direction over the past few decades with globalisation also having its influence. Circuses need audiences and schools need students; otherwise they cease to exist. Communication with the outside world is therefore important, both to encourage involvement and also to respond to concerns. This level could be seen as the third concentric circle, the inner circles beginning from the centre being the circus performance and backstage and outside the ring on the one hand, and the classroom and school community on the other.

Unlike agricultural shows (see Anteliz, Danaher & Danaher, this volume), circuses in Australia do not follow regular circuits throughout the year. Their itinerary is planned at shorter notice and negotiated along the way, not only with circus personnel but also with outside bodies, such as town councils. In recent years, the animal liberation movement in Australia has impacted on the traditional circus; sometimes groups object to animals being included in performances (Moriarty, 2000). Perhaps it is partly for this reason that 'the new breed of animal-free circuses ... have taken the world by storm' in recent years (Strickland, 1999, p. 6).

Similarly, schools now also operate in a much more politicised environment than they did previously, with key issues recently including purpose and accountability (Schofield, 2000). If schools fail to embrace marketing and publicity activities, they may find themselves being overshadowed or misunderstood. Personnel who take on the role of public representation may not necessarily have been trained for those roles or sit comfortably within them. To what extent schools and circuses can learn from each other in this regard has not been examined, but there is enough evidence of commonality of purpose to suggest that this could be a worthwhile research pursuit.

Clearly, the work done by personnel from circuses and schools to teach people from outside their communities about what really happens in the 'inner circle' is crucial in gaining community support and understanding. With the emphasis that present-day employers place on teamwork, it should not matter so much where examples of effective teamwork within communities occur, but rather what can be learned from those examples. The willingness of circus and school communities to share what they know and the skills that they have attained by working in their own settings, together with theoretical frameworks like co-operative community theory that researchers can use to guide discussions, could help all parties to re-examine their own practice. For both circuses and schools, the willingness to learn from each other may be underpinned by a need to educate outsiders about their work, which may be advanced by their sharing. A symposium presented jointly by stakeholders from the circus and the university to teachers throughout Australia in which parallels between circus and school communities were explored (Moriarty & MacDonnell, 1998) was one outcome of the research reported here.

In working towards their common goals, circuses and schools could base their interactions on the five principles of co-operative communities in inter-community settings. Thus the possible misconception that could arise if people outside the circus and school settings assume that education occurs only in institutions established for that purpose may be circumvented if stakeholders from the circus, the university and schools could work together as a community exploring the circus and school communities for the benefit of all.


Educators who attend circus performances and analyse the ways that performers work with their audiences and the ways that audiences respond could not fail to see parallels with teachers and their students. At one level, they can examine how the performers engage and sustain audience interest. Techniques such as intonation in the voice, pauses, eye contact and gestures are all interesting to examine because they are magnified, much as they are with stage actors. At another level, there are many educational theories that can be used to explain the relationship observed between performers and audiences.

Behind the scenes and outside the ring, the interactions among members of the circus community may be compared to the interactions among members of the school community outside the classroom. These are the parts of circuses and schools that are not always visible to audiences and students. Nevertheless, it is an important part of community life in which members would be expected to work towards mutual goals and have a common identity.

The third aspect of circus and school communities relates to interactions with the wider community. While many circus performers and teachers would rather concentrate on their audiences and students, both circuses and schools are affected by conditions and reactions from outside. How they deal with these situations has implications for their success and perhaps even survival.

These three sets of parallel interactions in circus and school communities indicate how experiences in one situation can be considered authentic and relevant to the other, thus addressing any concerns that education occurs only in institutions established for that purpose or that circus people have nothing to teach educators. Similarly, examining the circus as a worksite contributes significantly to understanding the range of workplaces and the diverse and dynamic nature of work. There are advantages in being able to observe situations that are different in some ways yet similar in others (see the discussion of outsidedness in Anteliz, Danaher & Danaher, 2001, in this issue). It is also a novel way of re-examining or re-evaluating practice in one's own situation.

This article has focused on education in the broader sense and argued that schools can learn much by observing circus communities. Research that has examined circuses as co-operative communities encapsulates much more than has been possible to consider here. Even with the preceding evidence and discussion, however, it can be suggested that the research so far could be a starting point from which future collaborative research involving personnel from circuses and schools could be conducted. The benefits to teachers and schools, including ultimately the children, appear obvious to the researchers in this project as they are educators who have worked in institutions traditionally recognised for their educative role. Teachers who have been involved in workshops conducted as a result of this research have also celebrated what they have learnt from circuses.

Future research will hopefully also benefit circuses. Establishing and maintaining integrity in research through partnerships involving circuses, schools and the university could facilitate movement away from questions related to where education occurs and who benefits to what different communities can learn from one another. Research facilitated through the university and using an overarching theoretical framework such as co-operative community theory might involve circus and school personnel learning from one another. In doing so, circuses and schools might be able to convince people outside their communities that education takes place in a wide range of settings. By working together, everyone should benefit on a range of levels and they may consider what they would gain from future research collaboration. The show has begun, but there are some spectacular acts still awaiting us in the wings.


Anteliz, E.A., Danaher, G.R. & Danaher, P.A. (2001). Norias and ferris wheels: Benefits, interests and ethics in researching Venezuelan and Australian fairground people's educational experiences. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 221-236. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/anteliz.html

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.T. (1998). The three Cs of effective schools: Cooperative community, constructive conflict, civic values. Connections: Journal of the Australasian Association for Cooperative Education, 5(1), 4-10.

Moriarty, B.J. (2000). Australian circuses as co-operative communities. International Journal of Educational Research, 33(3), 297-307.

Moriarty, B.J, Douglas, G., Punch, K. & Hattie, J. (1995). The importance of self-efficacy as a mediating variable between learning environments and achievement. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 65, 73-84.

Moriarty, B.J., Hallinan, P.M., Danaher, G.R. & Danaher, P.A. (2000). All I know is what I learned from my colleagues: Reflections on research from Australian Traveller education. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 16(1), 56-75. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer16/moriarty.html

Moriarty, B.J. & MacDonnell, J. (1998). Co-operative communities and circus life. Paper presented at the symposium of the Australasian Association for Co-operative Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney (2 October).

Punch, K. & Moriarty, B.J. (1997). Cooperative and competitive learning environments and their effects on behaviour, self-efficacy and achievement. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 43(2-3), 158-160.

Schofield, K. (2000). The purposes of education. Paper presented at the Education Queensland Facets of Change conference, Brisbane.

Strickland, K. (1999). Wizards of Oz off the funds tightrope. The Weekend Australian, December 18-19, 6.

Author details: Beverley Moriarty is a current senior lecturer, and Peter Hallinan is a recently retired senior lecturer, in the Faculty of Education and Creative Arts at the Gladstone and Rockhampton campuses respectively of Central Queensland University.

Address for correspondence: Dr Beverley Moriarty, Central Queensland University, PO Box 1319, Gladstone QLD 4680. email: b.moriarty@cqu.edu.au

Please cite as: Moriarty, B. and Hallinan, P. (2001). In whose interests? Possibilities and potential juxtaposed in reflecting on research with Australian circus communities. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 209-220. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/moriarty.html

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Created 12 Dec 2004. Last revision: 18 Dec 2004.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/moriarty.html