It’s About Magic

“The cost of perfection will drive you out of business. What you are striving for is magic, not perfection.” – Michael Eisner, former CEO, The Disney Corporation.

It strikes me that when we talk about “transparency” in teaching and learning (letting students in on your internal agenda), we are doing something akin to what the “Masked Magician,” aka Val Valentino does when he exposes how magic tricks are done. Sorry, I’m supposed to call them “illusions,” which does leave a nice 19th-century taste in the mouth. But there is one part of the illusion entertainment industry that gets very upset when someone from inside the fraternity gives up the secrets to the potential marks that make up the Great Unwashed. Another part thinks it makes us respect and enjoy them even more.

Magic Secrets Revealed

What happens if we give away the store?

The thing is, to be a true facilitator of learning, a teacher has to know when to fade into the background and when to step forward. That teacher has to be able to model lifelong learning, which means being open to new ways of thinking at all times. Sometimes that is a hard leap to make. But it is worth it.

We know from current research that teachers who use a constructivist approach to teaching and learning tend to have students who score higher than average on 21st-century skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity / innovation, and self-confidence. (And don’t get me started on the difference between self-confidence, earned through experience and rigor, and “self-esteem,” which some schools of thought think should be earned by breathing.)

If that is the case, then we are now experiencing the turmoil and confusion that naturally results from a revolution. The revolution lies in thinking about something we had not really thought that much about in the first place. Factory education is fundamentally incompatible with constructivist practices. You can’t build a society of creative thinkers by treating them like automatons and miscreants. Teaching practice must change.

Our job as teachers is to expose the how of the magic so that learners will be able to discover their own ways of making magic for themselves, long after they have left our sphere of influence. That means we have to enlist them as willing collaborators in their own learning, which in turn means engaging and playful work should be the order of the day. We have to share the thinking behind our lesson designs, evaluate their effectiveness alongside our students (to assess also means “to sit beside”), and use that information to make the classroom a better place for all learners (teachers included).

Creating dances is meaningful play

Transforming the classroom from a place of drudgery, blame, and punishment into a studio and laboratory for exploration, play, and celebration is a daunting idea for most teachers, who have been trained in traditional lecture-and-notes formats. But if teachers begin to recognize education as yet another form of theater, and engaging students in learning is about that famous theater-goer’s gift to the actors – the willing suspension of disbelief.

The Art of Teaching is exposing the truth about learning: that it is a continual, exciting, and intrinsically rewarding journey of discovery. Brain research has shown unequivocally that not only are there certain ideal conditions for learning – which arts integration helps to create – but that learning shuts down in an atmosphere of fear and competitive assessments.

The current emphasis on assessing not only student learning but teacher effectiveness with instruments (standardized tests) that were not designed for that purpose is driving every last vestige of imagination and magic out of the schools. Education is not a business, students are not widgets, and we cannot expect flexible, adaptable world citizens to grow out of the current system. Something has to give.

Why not give our children, and ourselves, the magic back?


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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