When magic stimulates science education

How can a bowl of water vanish from under a cloth, and what does this magic trick have to do with science education? Harnessing the emotional power of magic, myth and mystery is one of the latest trends in science education.

Many barriers to learning through enquiry currently exist. Foremost among these are a crowded curriculum with little time to deviate from the directed path. And the challenge of training students to take more responsibility for their own learning. For teachers, enquiry means coping with the often unexpected directions of students thinking.

The real challenge is to persuade teachers of the benefits of enquiry teaching. And to support them through the long and challenging process of professional development. It is essential to address both emotional and rational arguments. The challenge of change at a personal level requires strong motivation. Teachers are motivated by positive outcomes for their students. What enquiry-based teaching offers are short term benefits for students who are more engaged in their lessons are easier to teach. And a long term payoff: they will have more useful skills to use the science they learned in school, in their everyday lives.

At the same time, schools are under ever increasing pressure to deliver higher standards. It is proving increasingly difficult to get teachers to come out of school for training and to commit to a long term programmes. Senior management have to be convinced that there will be hard benefits to their staff’s teaching quality, and to student learning.

The EU-funded TEMI (The Teaching Enquiry through Mysteries Incorporated) project, led by Queen Mary University of London, UK, is attempting to promote enquiry-based teaching, despite the challenges outlined above. It aims to develop and evaluate new teaching methods and curriculum resources, including smartphone apps. It is also designed to equip students with the skills they need to do science, the content they need to pass exams, and the motivation they need to learn well.

The project therefore builds on the evidence that well-structured enquiry does have a positive impact on achievement. Building on combined best practices from around the globe, the project is looking to solve the problems of how to make enquiry fit into existing curriculum time. And make it easier for both students and their teachers to learn. In particular, to build teachers’ skills, the idea is to bring in communications professionals, actors, and magicians who have learned successful techniques for managing audiences.

By working closely with key players that impact on science education, TEMI could make a real impact across Europe. It combines innovation, evidence-based practice, and sensitivity to the cultural differences in the 11 countries it is working in.

If its magic trick comes off, the project team hope to pull out of the hat, millions of better equipped students to help European science and technology blossom in the future. And that, they hope, will not be a mere illusion.

Peter McOwan,

TEMI project leader and vice-principal for public engagement and student enterprise, Queen Mary University of London, UK.

Featured image credit: Extract from the cover of a book called 'Illusioneering -- Clever conjuring using secret science and engineering' by Peter McOwan, Matt Parker and Richard Garriott

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2 thoughts on “When magic stimulates science education”

  1. The choice of “magic school” as the theme is important because
    it stimulates the exploration of imaginative possibilities that is the
    crux of both the creative arts and the best science. With the
    popularity of the Harry Potter series of books, and professional
    magicians such as David Copperfield and David Blaine on television, it
    is very easy to get children of all ages excited about all things
    magical.

  2. While maths can be viewed as enabling learning in science and medicine, in reality we see students are bringing their maths anxiety with them to their studies. Our work focuses on dissecting the maths problem as it relates to teaching and learning in these so-called hard disciplines. We have been challenging the inertia of what we see as a stand off with students taking the view that they are unable to do maths and educators frustrated at their disengagement. We have found that the maths problem resonates with several pedagogical frameworks (e.g. Meyer and Land’s Threshold Concepts Framework, Perkins and Simmons’ four frames of understanding) and we have found these useful for unpicking where our students become disengaged. We have applied a number of interventions to assist student learning and are now using our findings to inform the design of an online diagnostic to more explicitly address dysfunctional stances that students adopt when asked to manipulate their quantitative data. Given the extent of the maths problem and the move to increase diversity in the Higher Education sector, we discuss how to enable students to shift to a more positive learning disposition.