What Math Teachers Can Learn from Magicians

Yeah, you read that right! I know many of you are now probably thinking about at least one, or likely, a combination of these questions:

  1. What could math teachers possibly have to learn from magicians?
    1. How could there be a connection between these two very different careers?
  2. How would Mike know?

Beginning with the last question probably makes the most sense.  At an early age I developed a fascination with magic, sleight of hand to be specific. Any magician I saw perform – either on TV or live – filled me with wonder. Certainly, some of that wonder was directed toward how the trick or illusion worked, but even beyond that I wondered how I could learn to create this wonder in others. Since I was about 10, I have studied magic and about 7 years later I began performing magic shows at schools, for church groups, and even for a few holiday parties. Once I began my career as a teacher, my role as a magician changed and I focused most of my energy on teaching.  I’ve lived the life of a magician and a teacher and over the last few years, and I’ve begun to notice the similarities between the two.

A magician’s goal is to entertain his or her audience while bringing about a sense of wonder. The means for accomplishing this goal involves the use of any combination of a number of tools including misdirection, psychology, sleight of hand, and story telling. If a magician does his or her job well, the feeling of being tricked doesn’t really enter into a spectator’s mind.  The big idea here is the creation of wonder.

wonder-bwf-quote

That’s the first thing teachers can learn!  It doesn’t take a sleight of hand artist to build a sense of wonder in students.  It takes some creativity and some work and dedication to the idea that all students deserve the chance to wonder and be curious.  All students need that sense of wonder that builds inside them and creates an intellectual need to know and learn.  

This is a great time to be a teacher of mathematics.  Evoking this wonder in students in math classes is extremely accessible because of technology and the online math community know as MTBoS. There are hundreds of math teachers out there at all grade levels and in all areas who have realized the power of making students wonder.  We’ve all been creating 3-Act Tasks and sharing ideas on blogs and webpages, twitter, and youtube or vimeo.  All for free.  They’re there for everyone to use – because we’ve all learned, through using these tasks, that it helps us build student curiosity, engages them in the mathematics and in their own learning, and it helps us build independent, creative mathematical thinkers. Here is more about why you should use 3-Act Tasks.

This brings me to the second thing we can learn from magicians: we can’t do this alone! If we work together, we all benefit!  Most people probably think that magicians are private wizards who lock themselves in a room to practice and never share their secrets.  That’s a bunch of crap! Magicians realized a long time ago that if they work together, they can work more efficiently and become more productive.  Sometimes magicians work on a trick for a while, get stuck and then bring it to some friends they have in the magic community. These other magicians share their ideas, they brainstorm, and try possible solutions.  Then they test the best solution on an audience.  This can be very scary!  Think about it.  This is a trick they’ve never tried – they’ve practiced (A LOT), and maybe even performed in front of small audiences. They must be nervous!  But they go out on stage or wherever their venue is and perform it.  They have to!  It’s how they pay their bills.  Often, some of their friends who helped them are there to provide feedback.  After several performances, and feedback, the script has been adjusted and the magic has been perfected, and it becomes a part of the magician’s repertoire.

Now think about how many math teachers still work. . . alone, in their room, not sharing their ideas.  Magicians realized this was not very productive a long time ago.  Other professions did the same.  It’s time math teachers realize this too!

Take a look at the MTBoS, and see what you think.  Look at some of the sites below and see if you find something you like.  Try some ideas/lessons with your students.  It’ll be a bit scary in the beginning, but soon it’ll become part of your repertoire!  We’re all here to learn from one another because “All of us are smarter than one of us!” ~ Turtle Toms 

What I’ve learned through this whole process is that I get the same feeling of success when I create the sense of wonder in students as I did as a magician creating wonder in an audience. . . but it’s even better with students!

2 comments

  1. I really like this analogy Mike. Especially when you emphasized the wonder created over the idea of “tricks”. I’ve heard a lot of math teachers focus on the tricks in mathematics and I love how you have dispelled that idea.
    The wonder that this post has created for me is “Do you dare to share your ideas to do what’s best for students? What change can you create by NOT just closing your door and doing your own thing?”
    Thanks for allowing me under your dome.

    1. Jenise, you have free access under the dome! I love your wonders. This post was a way for me to get some ideas out that have been floating around under the dome way too long. Getting it out on the blog really helped me organize it all into something that made sense to me. I think my experiences in both of these worlds has helped me become a better teacher. Thanks for sharing your wonders!

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