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The (sometimes) magical world of active learning

Posted in Cognitive Psychology and Learning, Ideas and Resources, and Trends and Change

For the first time in a few years, I’ve been off contract for a good chunk of the summer with no looming book deadline. I’ve spent a few weeks now wending my way across the country, seeing family and doing some things I’ve wanted to for a long time.

One of these was to see Penn and Teller perform live, which I got to do with my art-professor sister in Las Vegas a few days ago. Like millions of people around the world, I’ve loved their abrasive personas and their ghastly humor, and of course their stunning illusions. But I’ve also been drawn in by a contingent of people coming up in my academic field who have pointed out the deep connections between cognitive science and stage magic.

Most compelling is the work of Anthony Barnhart, a cognitive psychology Ph.D. who was at NAU for the past few years and now is an assistant professor at Carthage College. A specialist in visual attention, Barnhart doesn’t just study magic – he is also an accomplished magician who performs under the name Magic Tony. I had the great pleasure of seeing Barnhart’s job talk at NAU, and I can say without hesitation that it’s the most memorable one I ever have – it involved a rope trick and a fake pistol, coupled with some pretty compelling data from his dissertation work on attention and perception. Part of what he argued for with this (quite successful) talk was that magic is, in some ways, like an applied branch of cognitive psychology, but that it has a different set of standards and parameters that force us to look at phenomena in new ways.

Barnhart points out that in research psychology, phenomena are considered real – robust, even – when they happen just some of the time, on a fraction of trials. Stage magic, by contrast, has to work 100% of the time. It therefore points us to the most powerful operating principles of perception, and gives new insights into why illusions happen.

This is also a major theme of the engaging book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, whose authors – both researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center – claim: “Magicians basically do cognitive science experiments for audiences all night long, and they may be even more effective than we scientists are in the lab.”

Magic is also a way to teach people about the difference between reality in the world and reality in the mind, illuminating how convinced we can be by information we think we have, even when it’s shown to be completely false moments later. This disparity between what is, and what our minds experience, is one of the big take-home messages we try to get across in our undergraduate courses, especially those in cognitive psychology, but it’s one that rarely sticks from reading about it in a textbook. Seeing a cold reading or ESP trick performed, then dissected, is pretty compelling evidence that there is more to reality than what our intuitions tell us.

This idea is part of a larger movement within the teaching of psychology, one that was getting underway back when I was a graduate student. Well before the notion of formal flipped classrooms or peer learning took the teaching world by storm, certain influential teachers were arguing that interactive demonstrations were a great way to teach about the principles and phenomena in our field. In their classes, lectures were interspersed with asking students to try a memory challenge or play a collaboration game, or check out multimedia – pictures and recordings painstakingly cobbled together in the pre-Photoshop/Garage Band era that illustrated things like the size-distance tradeoff in visual perception or the verbal transformation effect.

Another twist on this was the demonstration that you sprung on students without warning. I once TA’d a section of Cognitive Psychology taught by a professor who was renowned for his work on eyewitness memory. He set up what’s now become a classic procedure for proving, in real time and with high emotions, just how difficult it is to accurately pick out a person from a photo lineup. The key to it is to have a confederate stage some kind of confrontation, nothing actually violent or dangerous but unexpected enough to grab attention. Then right afterward, you tell students about the setup and ask them to pick out a photo of the person they just watched in the confrontation; a variation is to ask them to write down exactly what happened (author and professor Mary Karr explains how she does this in her book The Art of Memoir). Inevitably, students pick the wrong photos or remember contradictory details, springboarding a discussion of the fallibility of memory and inviting reflection on how this plays out in real-world, high-stakes situations like criminal trials.

It’s a powerful approach, but in this particular class – a huge, 300-student lecture – it went thoroughly awry, because of one omission: our professor had neglected to tell the team of TAs about the day’s staged demonstration.

“Dr. G” started out the class by discussing the midterm we’d just done, droning on about mean and median scores, when a student rose out of the middle of the sea of students and started to argue, in a loud and accusing tone, about the difficulty of the midterm, how he didn’t feel he got enough help preparing for it and thought it all horribly unfair.

This wasn’t sitting well with the team of TAs stationed out in our own row of the lecture hall. “Who is this guy?” one of them huffed, as the rest of us tsk-tsked about the entitled attitude and bad manners of the jerk hectoring poor Dr. G, who was meekly trying to counter all these accusations. “Okay, I’ve had enough,” my buddy said, and strode over to confront the troublemaker.

“Hey!” he barked, loud enough for the whole lecture hall to hear. “If you ever have a question, then just come to my office hours and ask! Did you even try that?”

“Yeah, I came to your office,” the confederate ad-libbed, no doubt surprised at this new development in the drama. “You weren’t even there!”

They went back and forth with a few more jabs, my friend getting angrier and the class getting more nervous. Finally, the confederate wadded up a piece of paper, threw it with force at Dr. G (now wide-eyed and probably wondering what to do), and ran out of the hall.

Dr. G went on with the planned photo lineup activity, and the TA, now realizing that we’d just experienced a demonstration  of one of the best-known phenomena in our field, sheepishly went back to his seat. We never did know what the confederate – a drama student, I believe – thought of the debacle, and as for Dr. G, he didn’t say much either, just acknowledging to the team after class that yeah, he should have let us in on the plan.

So demonstrations can go wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. All the same, I’m glad I could be in a graduate program where they were valued and taken seriously, and by the time I left UCLA, I’d built up a repertoire, one that I’ve added to each year. Most of these start out as loose replications of paradigms from the research literature, shortened and adapted for the less-controlled environment of a classroom and paired with some type of a lesson plan.

Some examples: The Stroop effect almost always works, and is surprisingly compelling as a demonstration of how our own minds can produce paralyzing distraction. Thought suppression is another favorite; I have a volunteer sit for 90 seconds while they try not to think about the stuffed polar bear posed on the lecture podium, and ask them to hit a hotel-style bell every time they slip up. Tip of the tongue is harder to induce even in the lab, but with the right list of words, you can stump at least a few students. They vary in robustness and reliability – inattentional blindness, e.g., doesn’t always occur  even under highly controlled lab conditions, so is hard to reproduce in a class. But these all bring some ideas to life that are notoriously dry on the written page, and so, I think that even the weaker ones are worth doing.

I’m enough of a proponent that when I teach cognitive psychology at the graduate level, one of the major assignments is to create, execute and write up an original demonstration that teaches one of the concepts from the course. At the end of the course, I collate and distribute all the write-ups, so that each student leaves with instructions on how to carry out each one.

This has a dual purpose. First, it is a way to get students to think deeply  and creatively about what we’re learning, in a completely different modality than a traditional term paper. Second, it provides practical experience and a bank of ideas to my students, most of whom are headed not to research-intensive careers, but to teaching ones.

We spend the last day of class sharing a potluck and pizza supper while students take turns presenting their demonstrations. And over the years, I’ve seen some remarkable ones.

One in particular came off pretty amazingly, even though it was nerve-wracking to set up. A student wanted to use misdirection to pull off a live demonstration of change blindness, a famous – and unnerving – phenomenon in visual attention whereby a small distraction can allow major discrepancies to go completely unnoticed. She proposed that we try to switch two different people in front of the class, recruiting her two grown sons as confederates. To do this, I’d have to be in on it too: the plan was that she and I would pretend to try to set up a presentation on the pad camera, then fake that it wasn’t working. I’d call “tech support” for her, and at that point, her two sons would come in at different points to fool with the display. My job was to make the tech crisis believable, then move on with other material while one son left and the other came in. If it worked, the class wouldn’t notice that the “tech support guy” was actually two people, even though they were right in front of them.

Nervously acting out the contrived scenario, I though for sure that the “audience” would notice that something was fishy, and pick up on the switch. But I also noticed that they seemed awfully uncomfortable as their unfortunate classmate’s demonstration stubbornly refused to work, which meant they were buying it. At the predetermined point, I stopped the charade and asked them if they remembered the tech support worker who was just there. Heads nodded at this weird question, then the student leading the demo said “Okay guys, come on in!”

Jaws dropped as the two obviously different men walked in, revealing that our illusion worked perfectly. Even though we’d all studied change blindness, every person fell for it.  Their shock and disbelief at seeing the seemingly impossible unfold in front of their eyes – two people in place of one – sticks with me, and I like to think that it was at least a little like that same brilliant moment in a stage magic show.

In an era when active learning is prized, more of us are probably feeling like amateur magicians when we get up in front of our classes. Even in disciplines that aren’t as focused on teaching through illusions as we are in psychology, there are increasingly more instructors trying things like learning games, role-playing and simulations. These may not hinge on  misdirection and surprise in the same way, but they share the goals of realism and going beyond just telling students what we want them to learn. They also force us to engage in a different kind of planning and scripting, and to cope with a new level of unpredictability, up to and including the occasional outbreak of pandemonium.

Does teaching ever make you feel like an amateur magician? Post your thoughts here or on Facebook – I’d love to hear about your experiences.


In a future post, I’ll explore whether and how we can pull off the same kind of interactive demonstrations when we’re teaching online.

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