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The Art of Educational Illusions

The Art of Educational Illusions
By Aline Shaw

Learning from an illusionist (and a ten-year-old boy) how not to manipulate a learner's attention to the stuff you think matters and away from what's important to them and their own learning.

Picture a website with a handsome picture of magician David Copperfield’s face. At the bottom of the screen, the words read, “You will participate in an amazing illusion!” Fade out…

Next line fades in, “You are about to be amazed!” Fade out…

Six face cards of varying sets are placed across the bottom of the screen and to the left of Copperfield’s face reads: “Pick a card...any card...and think only of that card!” Fade out…

“Now think only of that card, look deep into my eyes. I will read your mind.” Fade out…

Next line... “You are about to see magic! I do not know you...I cannot see you...But I know which card you picked!” (click here) We click… Fade out…

Next line fades in… “I took your card!”

For only three seconds five face cards flash up with the card you picked missing! Fade out…

Our ten-year-old son Jeremy had only to run through the set of instructions once before he arrived at the mathematical equation of how the “trick” was done. Jeremy happens to be our family magician, which is why I thought he’d be interested in this website that I’d heard about. As though to once again prove me wrong, he kind of screwed his eyes together as though that gave him the power to see right through Copperfield’s eyes into his brain, then the light went on. “Well…it’s quite simple,” he says. “There are 12 options of face cards, he only shows us 6, then puts up 5 different kinds. None of them are the same as the first bunch!” I thought…Well… LaDeeDah!! The fun of showing my children this amazing “trick” disappeared into a reality puff of smoke. We verified and confirmed his theory, but it took two more runs because reading all five cards that shot up for three seconds at the end was a little challenging, even for two people.

Now, I’m partially bragging, but mostly confessing. Truth be told, I had had some concern about Jeremy having taken such a shine to magic. I had pondered the “appropriateness” of such a pastime and was worried, and somewhat fearful, that it was “wasting time”. Yet our most studied illusionist and biggest family trickster was the first to see through the illusion, and to understand its mathematical probability. It was as simple as having 12 possible options and the magician only showing us half, which gave him another full set of cards in order to play with our minds. Voilà! Solved!

I learned something compelling that day: As educated as I had perceived myself to be, I realized that sometimes the reality of a situation can be found in its simplicity and through basic mathematical equations. In the end, Jeremy had actually been bored by the illusion. When I asked him what he thought of the trick, he answered, “Most tricks are quite simple to see, if you really look.” It was through his inquiry into and participation in many of these so-called tricks that he had developed the mind and skill to see beyond the illusion, and to understand reality simply. K.I.S.S. theory.

I needed to understand this “art of illusion” a little better. So I began going through the website and reviewing the instructions with a much more analytical eye, because I realized I needed much more “educating” than I was fussing about for my children.

The first thing I noticed is how the illusionist subtly leads us from our own awareness, to creatively distract us from being able to “really look.” He first gives us specific instructions: “You will participate in an illusion.” He’s not inviting or simply suggesting, he’s directly mandating our “will” to participate. Much like, “You will learn this or that!” as I coyly try to manipulate my children’s attentions to the stuff I think matters.

The magician then makes us think of one card – “Think of that card” – hence distracting us from noticing and noting all the other cards. It’s called mental intrusion. If we’re so busy thinking of what he’s telling us to think, we’re not allowing or nurturing our own brain process or our own power of observation in order to research what we think is relevant.

I remember all the times I’ve lectured my kids on what to think about, instead of simply nurturing their discovery on how they think and then sharing it with me. I remember how the best discussions we’ve had are initiated and propelled by their own desires and ideas. I also remember the glassy stares when I tried to control their thought processes. It requires such an effort to concentrate on what another person is thinking, that we literally must shut down our own thought processes in order to listen to what others are telling us.

Then Copperfield tells us, “Now look into my eyes.” This continues to distract us from reading any of the other cards or memorizing them, in order to keep us confused. Eyes are the windows of the soul and engaging someone else’s gaze involves our souls. It also involves a certain amount of emotional intrusion, by connecting the other person’s thought process into how we might or might not react. So now he’s got us emotionally hooked into believing that he’s actually reading our minds. With those eyes I definitely wasn’t thinking of studying the other cards or memorizing their order! Does this sound like the billions of parents who are hypnotized by the romance of raising “smart” children, based on other people’s assessment or definition of smart? We all emotionally want to do what’s right for them, and too often forget that “right” is unique and rarely related to their I.Q.

A more compelling lesson for me came when I thought of all the times I’ve raised my voice and said, “Look at me!” to my spouse and children. I’ve felt desperate to know that they got my point. “Look me straight in the eye!” I originally thought I was doing them a favor, ensuring they were engaging enough to really hear me. Now I know I was doing it for control and actually hindering their own thought processes and learning.

I realized that, in the past and present, our own little magician was the least intimidated by my mental control tactics, which used to be a sore point between us. Now I knew that since he mathematically understood the processes of illusion, he could see right through my tricks, and has rarely been willing to suffer the trade-offs. He was not about to debase his opinion in order to simply please me or to get a desired reaction out of me. In our many head-to-heads, he could have easily chosen to say what I wanted to hear to appease me. But instead he tended to hold to his truth. Well, enough about me and my faulty relationships; back to Copperfield.

The next step involves Copperfield flashing us the answers. They disappear quickly. We are barely given time to check to see if our card is still there, let alone verify if any of the previous cards are there. Plus, he gives us a line to read, another task to be accomplished under two seconds. Our eyes are averted from studying the answer he gives us. Plus, who in their right mind noted all the previous cards anyway? We were all too busy looking into his eyes and thinking of one thing and one thing only – the card – and neglecting to see the whole picture.

Sounds familiar: Our five children thinking about whether they agree or disagree with my opinion, rather than coming to their own opinions in their own time and by their own methods. It is so true that every time I try to capture their attention, I need to note whether their attention is already captivated by something much more meaningful and productive to them. It also became apparent that a healthy dose of scepticism is just what they need in order to continue questioning any answer they are given, by me, others or themselves.

I know... I know... Sounds like I’m beating myself up. Tell me about it. I do have such a hard time rising above the “illusions” to see the whole picture, because I was taught the same controlling mind process methods that Copperfield relies on to hook us. Maybe since I came to see it, there’s hope for my family. However, I’m not under any illusions that I’ve done more than barely touch the tip of the iceberg on the reality of my own childhood schooling and the illusions it has left me with about education.

I’m having a horrendous time altering my mind, habits, beliefs, and practices. I’ve had to revisit, review, rethink, and re-establish a whole new/old concept of well-being and what education is and isn’t. I’ve had to shake some previous concepts and beliefs and patterns from my life, in order not to impose them on my children, and to try and do justice to their lives. Fortunately our children’s truth tends to humble me, while never humiliating me. They challenge me, while never disrespecting me. They are my coaches, my motivators, my inspirations, and upholders of truth, even when I try to capture their gaze. I hope to return them the favor in whatever small capacity I can and leave the rest to them. I’m confident that they were born intact, and although I know the perils that can pull them from their true path, the sad reality is that I can become the very peril I fear for them.

It’s called self-fulfilling prophecy. I fear that the world will take them from their path, so I dig a path (rut) so deep that they can never possibly climb out of it. I believe that the only way to protect them from my undoing is to re-find my own innocent childhood ideologies, by nurturing my own education, by thinking my own thoughts, by looking deep into my own heart and discovering the truth that is too often hidden behind our world’s illusions.

Aline Shaw is wife to Robert, and mother to four children. Together, Rob and Aline have fostered over 12 children in their home, since 1996. Their most constant addition is a foster son with special needs, who is considered their fifth addition. In 2001, they decided to withdraw their children from the public school system to life learn at home and have not looked back.

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