Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Could It Be Magic?

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Could It Be Magic?

Article excerpt

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. …

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