Could it be magic?

4th April 2014 at 01:00
Teaching should be like conjuring a rabbit from a hat or sawing your assistant in half, writes Dale Salwak. With a sprinkling of showmanship and a splash of wizardry, your lessons will cast a spell over your audience

Teachers may be surprised to learn that every time they step into the classroom and work with their students, they are using techniques that belong to what has been called the world's second oldest profession: the art of prestidigitation. Or, for laypeople: magic.

Implicit in that word is a repertoire of psychological principles with which the performer entertains and engages and directs the attention of the audience.

Without disclosing any of the tricks of the trade - in my life beyond the classroom I am, after all, a professional magician bound by an oath of secrecy - I would like to explore how an understanding of the art and craft of magic can help us to teach more effectively and memorably.

Every experienced magician understands the importance of catching and holding the audience's attention from the start of the show. Imagine this: as the music begins, the house lights dim and a spotlight pierces the darkness. The curtains part to reveal a stage splashed with cobalt-blue light. At its centre stands a gold table holding a small, seemingly unexceptional green bush. Individual blooms begin to emerge spontaneously from the branches, scarlet petals fall and then a puff of smoke mushrooms from the top.

Suddenly, the music fades out and a siren wails, as a ghostly white silk scarf streams across the stage and out of sight. At that exact moment, a man resplendent in white tie and black tails enters stage right holding the scarf. Within seconds, the audience has formed an impression of him. Their interest captured, they commit themselves, anticipating that something wondrous is poised to unfold.

Most teachers do not have the benefit of theatrical lighting or mysterious props and they certainly don't arrive dressed in formal evening wear. But as soon as they walk into the classroom, students should feel that something very special is about to happen.

Everything about the entrance - from clothing and physical bearing to facial expression and tone of voice - helps to capture attention, establish a sharp focus and create expectation. Teaching is partly a performance, and a strong opening invites students to become participants in the show.

The art of magic depends upon the principle that things are not always as they appear to be. Now that our magician with the mysterious white silk scarf has won his audience's attention, he begins to take them on a journey of the senses.

While maintaining an atmosphere of naturalism and plausibility, he materialises the first of many white doves from the scarf with effortless ease. Lighted candles pop into view between his fingertips. Fanned playing cards suddenly appear, then vanish just as quickly. His look is that of a man who is impeccably practised, supremely confident, even beatific; he is always one step ahead of his public as he creates one surprise after another. Because he seems to believe so completely in what he is presenting, the attentive viewers cannot help but share and accept that assurance. They willingly follow him into whatever world he creates for them. The magician is a master psychologist who now owns both the stage and his audience.

Although a teacher's purpose is not to deceive, the best ones find ways to create wonder and amazement in the classroom. They hold their students spellbound with artfully delivered words. Like the magician, they are in command of their material but never predictable in presentation. They carry conviction as they speak and possess an air of authority that is not to do with giving orders, but an expectation that they will be listened to. They know they will be accompanied by the audience on an intellectual exploration of the new, the intriguing, the unknown.

The enthusiasm the best teachers have for their subject is contagious. When they speak about Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, for example, it is with the freshness of a fascinating new conversation with an old, trusted friend - and the students can feel it. The human mind, said the magician Harry Kellar, "dearly loves mystery", and teachers should look for opportunities to create and maintain that aura for students as they unlock for themselves the secrets held in a text.

Back to our magician. Suddenly, one of the doves refuses to return to its cage and just sits on the floor in spite of the concerned performer's gentle prompting. The audience is caught up in this benign conflict, hoping the magician will not fail, wondering what will come of the bird's quiet resistance. Finally, after repeated attempts to coax the dove, he shrugs, picks it up and tosses it into the air, where it is transformed back into a white silk scarf. The moment of vulnerability (which, of course, was well-rehearsed) is resolved.

Like the audience members, every student yearns to connect not with an automaton but with a real human being who confronts problems, has limitations and overcomes obstacles. Opportunities to establish such connections occur when the teacher, or magician, seems to encounter unexpected dissonance but finds a way back to harmony. Restoring order, like solving a mystery, carries with it the same spark of challenge and sense of satisfaction when the truth is revealed.

On occasion, for example, I retell a story the students have read in advance, but I purposely insert errors in names, details or plots. This technique does much more than ensure that the students have read the assignment carefully: it creates an illusion of spontaneity and poses a lighthearted challenge to their command of the material. They can identify and engage with a problem - my faulty memory - and in uncovering that glitch, they become connected to our discussion of what the text does say, how it says it and why. Such choreographed, subtle surprises can help the teacher to create an alliance with the class. We become partners in getting it right.

And while the opening and body of a magic show are important, the closing is crucial. It is the climax.

As the music builds, the magician covers the dove-filled cage with a purple cloth. With great care, he picks it up, walks forward and suddenly throws it into the air. The stunned audience realises that both the cage and the doves have vanished, as the empty cloth drifts down into the magician's waiting hands.

The magician has concluded his performance with a resounding crescendo and left the audience wondering where on earth the doves have gone. The unanswered question lingers long after the curtain comes down. They want more.

Likewise, a class benefits from a strong finish. Students remember best what they hear last, so I try to save the most important truth or crucial lesson for the end of the period. Sometimes I leave them hanging by stopping on an unfinished message or giving them a preview of "coming attractions". I often ask a critical question that we will find an answer to in the next class.

Like the magician's grand finale, the challenging question provides a burst of intellectual energy that can tug at students' thoughts as they process what has happened in the session. An individual lesson, like an individual performance, has its beginning, middle and end, and the person onstage must structure these elements with care.

Still, it isn't just the magician's pacing, skill, demeanour or confidence that assures success. There is another element, which, for lack of a better word, we call "it" - a combination of fire and soul. No artist ever reaches the heights or truly touches his audience without it. Putting himself in his work is the magician's secret weapon. As he does so, he and his public forge a personal relationship; first his viewers care about him, then they care about the magic.

Likeability and warmth, blended with just the right dose of mischievous wit, are among the defining marks of a successful professional. Our master magician has personality in spades and knows how to make it apparent to his viewers.

As teachers we can learn from the magician Howard Thurston, who developed a strategy for dissolving the barrier between himself and his public. Before going onstage, he repeated over and over to himself, "I love the audience." This feeling was genuine and it spilled over the footlights. The public sensed that he was not there for himself, but for them.

Projecting this aura can create much more than mere entertainment. In every audience some people are hurting in some way, and Thurston believed that one reason for being onstage was to lift their spirits. Even if only for a few minutes, the magician who allows this awareness to infuse the performance becomes, in the words of the late British historian J H Plumb, "heart-wise".

One way that we can become heart-wise in our teaching is to imagine at the start of the term that the person we care most about is seated in the classroom. It might be a close friend, a husband or wife, a sibling - someone to whom our soul is knitted. During the class we take in everyone but we teach as if speaking to that individual. If we do this faithfully, over time that sense of shared humanity will embrace the entire body of students and they will feel it for us in turn. People are most ready to learn when there exists an emotional attachment not just to the material but also to the one who is leading them through it. If we grab hold of this truth then our delivery and our students will be transformed.

But achieving this connection requires daring and patience and dedication. Magicians can practise for years before a set of mirrors in the privacy of their studio, and aspiring teachers can live privately in a rich confusion of books, always reading and writing. But at some point they must step out and risk what they have learned. Some days will be troubling, others near transcendent, but that is the risk that all magicians and teachers must take if they are to grow in their profession. Skill, judgement and confidence are developed through experience.

Over time, as days become weeks, months and years, we hone our presentation and awareness - show after show or class after class - until we understand our art and ourselves so well that we no longer have to think about what comes next. Then our audience will commit to us, trust us and say, in effect, "Go ahead. I am willing. Surprise me. Teach me. Justify my time. Reward my effort."

I am not suggesting that everything a magician does has an analogue in the teaching profession. At its best, the art of magic is a rich and powerful gift allowing the performer to create wonder and amazement that opens the audience's minds to new possibilities. Every word or action is designed to create a false reality.

Like magicians, teachers try to open their students' minds to new possibilities. But unlike magicians, the teacher's ultimate goal is to keep it real.

Dale Salwak is a professor of English at Citrus College in California, US. In his other life, he is a professional magician

Use your illusion

Bring a touch of wizardry into your own classroom with these magic-themed resources from TES Connect.

Magician's hat

Difficult words appear and disappear with this animated presentation. Click on the hat and out pops a rabbit with a word to read. Click on the wand and it disappears again.

Reflective magic

In this disappearing coin trick, use the refraction of light to fool your students.

Magical maths

Mystify children with this maths conundrum using a calculator and dice.

Harry Potter genetics

Give alleles a magical twist by explaining how Muggle parents can have witches and wizards for children.

The subtraction wizard

Young learners help Sidney the Wizard to keep track of his disappearing teeth as he tries to make a necklace for Tilly the Tooth Fairy.

Magic potions

Children develop their measuring skills and awareness of capacity as they create these special concoctions. Orange juice will substitute nicely for melted tiger fur, and lime juice for monkey snot.


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