Magic in the classroom: teaching our ancestors

When I have an idea for how to teach something I always ask myself if it’s the best way to teach a distant, yet equally intelligent, ancestor…

As a child I was fascinated with magic. I suppose it was the thrill of knowing what others don’t and using it against them for the sake of shock & awe.

A typical day for me was sitting on the floor, tricks sprawled around my room iterating on a trick until it was ‘sister ready’.  They were a tough audience, never actively falling for my tricks, instead trying and point out how I did it. By the time dinner rolled around I was usually ready for the performance, albeit with a slightly more forgiving audience.

Now I’m drawn to use magic tricks as a framework (or hook) for explaining concepts. It proves powerful because people instinctively know how to think about magic tricks. Solving a math problem is very much akin to this methodology. They expect a challenge (show), they expect a process (hunt), the expect that if they think about it long enough (payoff) they will figure it out. What better way to prime an audience to think about math?

At the Khan Academy Discovery Lab I decided to try this out with a group of kids – a physical “magic” version of a video. First I introduced some physical magic tricks to get the point across that magic can take many forms: slight of hand, distractions, specialized tools, or an understanding of math…

After this I did a famous trick where I left the room and had half the students flip a coin 100 times and the other half guess (fake a clip) 100 times. When I returned I was able to select (with 100% accuracy) who flipped and who guessed. Of course I added some flourishes imported from classic magic trick procedures (such as faking a struggle, and diversion). This opened up an amazing debate about how it was done. The students had no clue they were talking about deep properties of independent random events, instead they continued to iterate their idea on how it was done.

Finally I revealed how my trick was done – the lesson ended by revealing math. At this point they were hungry for more, challenging my theory and wanting to “do it again” in order to trick me 🙂

I could imagine an entire curriculum framed as a series of magic tricks…how cool would that be?

Also, here is a video from the camp where we did some explorations of agent based simulations (in this case predator prey populations)


2 Responses to “Magic in the classroom: teaching our ancestors”

  1. Good trick

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