Practical advice on magical teaching

People often talk about—even debate—whether teaching is
art or science. After reading magician Teller’s recent article “Teller
Reveals His Secrets
” in Smithsonian magazine, I’m now fully
convinced that great teaching is neither art nor science. It’s magic. And, as
we talk about and debate how best to select, evaluate, and reward great
teachers, we should consider taking some of Teller’s advice.

17/365: i could be your magician
Great teaching is neither art nor science. It's magic.
Photo by jin.thai.

It turns out that his most basic secret—the “magic” of
Penn & Teller’s work—doesn’t involve a clever slight of hand or carefully
developed prop. Instead, it takes hard work, or grit. In simple terms, Teller

You will be fooled by a trick if it
involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker)
would be willing to invest.

It underscores a simple but all-too-often overlooked life
lesson: The only way to be truly great at anything is to set a goal and commit
yourself to achieving it beyond what most normal people would think prudent.
And then just refuse to give up.

Teller explains, for instance, that he and his partner
Penn spent weeks preparing for a minutes-long stint on the David Letterman
show. The trick? They produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat that was
sitting on Letterman’s desk. To prepare for the stunt:

We hired an entomologist who provided
slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t
hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming
like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core
(one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious
routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat.

“More trouble than the trick was worth?” Teller wonders.
“To you, probably. But not to magicians.”

Any teacher will tell
you that outstanding units or lessons don’t just happen.

The same could be said for teaching. Any teacher will tell
you that outstanding units or lessons don’t just happen. They are the product
of careful and deliberate planning and outstanding execution. And, frankly,
they are the product of a dustbin full of the failed lessons that preceded
them. In other words, magical teaching is the product of hard work and
perseverance and experience and self-reflection.

This is a fact that Angela Duckworth has learned
firsthand, first as a teacher and charter-school consultant, then as a
researcher and professor at the University
of Pennsylvania.

As a teacher and consultant, Duckworth realized that one
of the challenges of getting students to achieve at high levels was not just
schools or life circumstances, but the character or “grit” of the students
themselves. In her application essay to Penn, she explained:

The problem, I think, is not only the
schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True,
learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting,
exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing
but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that
character is at least as important as intellect.

Then, according to a 2011
New York Times article

Duckworth’s early research showed that
measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point
averages than their I.Q.’s. But while self-control seemed to be a critical
ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn’t as
relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great
things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an
unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and
however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and
she chose the word “grit.”

Grit is exactly what makes Teller great. Like anyone who
has achieved true greatness in his or her field, Teller has simply used failure
as a lesson that informs his future work. He doesn’t give up. (Even when, at
11, he was pelted with hard candy by fellow Cub Scouts who exposed an early
trick for what it was.)

This basic principle is something that organizations like
KIPP integrate deep into their organizational culture and their approach to
teaching, curriculum, and instruction. Perhaps it also needs to be used as a guiding
principle for what we look for in all prospective teachers?

Teach for America
may be the furthest ahead in this approach, using their considerable recruiting
power to identify
candidates with many of the indicators of grit
so they will be up to the
challenges of a gap-closing approach to teaching. That’s no doubt one of the
secrets to how so many young, inexperienced TFA teachers can perform as well or
better than their much more experienced peers.

But grit is most powerful when it paves the way for practice.
How magical would Teller’s performances have been if he had stopped after two years of

Grit is most powerful when it paves the way for practice.

Before we try to get a TFA teacher in every classroom in America, we
should acknowledge that their model gets it only half right. The way they
select teachers is something that principals and schools of education should
learn from. But widespread magical teaching will only be a regular occurrence
in America’s
classrooms when that kind of raw grit and talent is honed through years and
years of practice.

Imagine a teacher recruitment and preparation program that
selected for these critical character traits and encouraged the longevity that
teachers need to become great?

That would be true magic.

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