The Juggler and the Magician

An aspiring magician watches a master of the art perform a compelling illusion, where a horse is led onto stage and then appears, in the blink of an eye, to simply vanish. The young magician ponders the trick, thinks of all the solutions she can, but ultimately doesn’t see how it’s done. Eventually she approaches the master, and asks for his secret. At first he is coy, but after he sees how serious she is about her art, decides to share his secret. It involves mirrors, as the young magician knew it must, but also an ingenious combination of a false floor and curtain. Once the younger magician sees the layout and engineering of these contraptions, she is able to have her own made, and this brief encounter transforms her own act. She goes from being another toiler to a genuine star.

A young juggler watches a master of the craft keep five spinning clubs in the air with apparent ease, manipulating their flight, creating patterns in the air, turning around on the spot. It is inspiring stuff. He approaches the older juggler as asks for his secret. No secret, replies the older juggler. Just a lot of work. Can you juggle three clubs? Of course. And you can throw a double spin? Of course. Okay, well here’s the drill. Practice it. For how long? It took me three years, says the master, but that varies. The young juggler leaves, feeling a little downcast.

Clearly this is a fable about education. What is the role of the teacher? To oversee the development of the student, to set up the circumstances under which skills and knowledge can flourish. Sometimes, the teacher is able to reveal a little trick, a new way of thinking about a problem, a slight nudge in the right direction, that is transformative. The teacher is the magician. There is a secret, and this secret is revealed. Times like this, the teacher feels very powerful, and the student hugely appreciative. Often, when a student tells you they have a great teacher, they mean the teacher is very good at showing them tricks, shortcuts that will make them appear far more impressive than they actually are. It’s a feel good situation for everybody involved: adulation for the instructor, and reward without effort for the young learner. What’s not to like?

Most times, though, learning isn’t like this. For the greater part, the learning happens because the learner does the work. And often that work is dull and repetitive. How many equations do you have to rearrange before the rules of algebra begin to feel intuitive? How many times must an actor repeat the line before the brain can be tricked into believing the words are its own? A skilled director will step in to correct errors that are forming, just as there are moments in the journey to competent reader where hints or correction are useful. But for the most part, it is being exposed to language that makes us fluent in it, and it is the sheer quantity of reading we plough through that develops the hugely sophisticated skill of decoding text.  Trouble is, the teacher who tells the student, you just have to work harder, is rarely the most popular.

Broadly speaking, the teacher is faced with two choices. Either they can deconstruct their subject, break it down to a series of discrete skills and tricks that, with appropriately targeted assessments, can apparently be mastered with minimal effort. They can create the illusion of progress. Or, they can seek ways to motivate their students to undertake the hard and often unglamorous graft of repatterning the mind. I think there is an easy way of telling which path a particular teacher has taken. The first type will speak often of the mode of assessment. It will be front and centre. They will make a fetish of being the most up to date user of the assessment information, and their instruction will be peppered with hints and tricks on how to survive the examinations. They will have excellent information on student performance, and will give detailed feedback on how to improve it. They will be, in many ways, a model teacher, and the students will feel safe and secure in their care, certain that they are getting the very best advice and making progress.

The second type will appear a little vague when it comes to assessment tasks, perhaps even muddled. But get them talking about the subject itself, why they teach it, why the students should take it, and their passion will become apparent. They are the teacher who can always, without hesitation, answer the question ‘why are we doing this?’ and the answer will never be ‘because it’s in the exam.’

Clearly the two groups need not be mutually exclusive, but in my experience a certain amount of clumping occurs about these two norms. The hope for education, I would propose,  lies with the second group: those who love their subject too much to trivialise it, reduce it to a series of hoops through which the performing animals must jump. Those who understand that learning is hard work, and progress can only be made when the student understands its intrinsic value. If you are one of those whose children are taught by such a teacher, do make sure they know how lucky they are.

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