On failing and learning. Together. Mit Elefanten.

An ethnographic method prioritises participant observation, the context which surrounds these observations, and how the events observed are meaningfully experienced by the participants themselves. This enables researchers to tell a story that reflects the interaction between events, in real-world situations, that happen over long and short timescales. This moves analysis away from a single moment, say an experiment in a lab, and opens it out to consider how something that happened a day, week, year, or more ago may have contributed to what was said, or done, during another moment of interest. Done well, ethnographic work challenges theoretical assumptions made without a broader contextual understanding of the phenomena in question and raises multiple questions about new areas to study or investigate using a range of techniques.

When Kristina Brümmer, an energetic, joyful and passionate sports sociologist from the University of Oldenburg in Germany, visited our Cognitive Ecologies Lab at Macquarie University in Sydney in 2019, we were both excited to discover that ethnographic research on sports training was something we shared. She’d been using this method to study skilled performance processes in gymnastics and football teams, I’d been using it to study skill learning on the trapeze.

Curious to discover what two ethnographers would observe while learning together in a gym environment, we decided to embark on six weeks of handstand classes together during Kristina’s stay. The result? A chapter about learning and failing together, about frustration and laughter, about feeling like elephants in one session and trying to not be elephants in another. The chapter is titled: ‘”No elephants today!” Recurrent experiences of failure while learning a movement practice.’ In bringing our different theoretical interests together to unpack these experiences, this writing is also about the instructive, supportive impacts of objects and other people in the learning context, of a spontaneously generated metaphor in guiding movement, attention and regulating emotion, and the important roles of a learning companion during the up-down, topsy-turvy experience of learning a new movement practice.

Our analysis examines the first and second appearances of elephants in the room. Image: Kath Bicknell

This chapter forms part of the new volume Collaborative Embodied Performance: ecologies of skill edited by John Sutton and me. A PDF pre-print copy of the draft chapter is here. We hope you enjoy the read. Academic friends, please encourage your university libraries to purchase a copy of the book.

For people who’d prefer a video introduction to this work, here is a recording Kristina and I made for the Collaborative Embodied Performance book launch. Shot in one take via the marvels of Zoom, it gives a sense of the fun we had working on this chapter and the collaborative partnership we formed in doing so. We thought it might be nice to share it here as a more personal orientation to the work and its themes, and also as a teaching resource for anyone looking to use this chapter in the classroom. We hope you enjoy it too!


‘No elephants today!’ Recurrent experiences of failure while learning a movement practice.

Kath Bicknell and Kristina Brümmer

“The move feels odd and – accompanied by a loud thud – both of my feet crash on the floor…. Jokingly, we say that maybe we are elephants” (fieldnote, handstand class, 28 March 2019).

Drawing on ethnographic data, and integrating theoretical concepts from the sociology of practice and cognitive science, we argue that learning and performing movement practices involves cyclical experiences of success and regression. This is unsurprising to most people who have tried to learn a new movement practice but is widely ignored in many concepts of practice and skill learning which emphasise improvement and mastery over recurrent experiences of regress. Focusing closely on handstands classes as they actually happened, we examine the roles of exercises, objects and other people within the socio-material learning context in enabling novices to work with failure, rather than fearing it. Our study reveals the non-linearity of learning a movement practice and the understudied benefits of two novices engaging in learning together.