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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Empathy, Magic, and the Experience of School

In a recent conversation with Simon Coronel, World Champion of Magic, Podcaster Tim Ferriss refers to a new kind of ADD: Awe Deficiency Disorder. It is almost certainly a reference back to the work of clinical neuropsychologist, Paul Pearsall and his central conviction that most of us lead awe-deficient lives.


Speaking of awe, it is an emotion that is notoriously difficult to define. For Pearsall, it does not refer to a state of constant happiness nor a shallow moment of delight, but rather a moment in which "the mind is subdued to profound reverence" or even "an overwhelming and life-altering blend of fright and fascination". The kind of moment, perhaps, that you feel when you watch a magician like Simon Coronel perform up close at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. At least, if you believe the words on the Castle's website, A Miracle Here, A Miracle There, Pretty Soon It Starts To Add Up.


And to be clear, the awe-struck guests in the Castle don't really believe that the impossible or miraculous has taken place or that the rules of space and time no longer apply. No, their profound reverence and conjoint feelings of fright and fascination stem instead from a recognition that they have witnessed an illusion that has somehow distorted their sense of reality, leaving them with that feeling of, I don't know how he did it.


Photo of young man performing a card trick


But what does the human need for more awe, or a world champion magician mastering the art of illusion in Los Angeles for that matter, have to do with the work of intentionally designing the experience of school?


What I learned from the conversation between Simon and Tim, which is also the answer to this question, was something very powerful about the importance of empathy when designing moments of any significance. And it made me realise that, if we are going to get anywhere close to creating such moments for students and their families in our school, we need to work harder at putting ourselves in their shoes.


Tim describes the problem of empathy as follows.


I’ve spent time in China, I’ve spent time in Japan. And I often wonder what it used to be like to look at Japanese or Chinese writing when it just looked illegible… but I can't revert.


Simon agrees and says that the same problem is at the heart of any illusion.


It is very hard to maintain that sense of what it is actually like to literally see the magic, to see the thing that looks impossible. Because you can’t once you know… I [fortunately] have those memories still and those guide so much of my creative process with magic, I remember what it felt like to see these things, just barely. I try to hold those memories because they’re so precious and valuable, because they enable that empathy with the audience.


What I learn from this exchange is that the job of standing in someone else's shoes is hard, yet necessary. If we have learned a language, we cannot unsee the meaning in those marks on a page. If we are a magician, we cannot but deconstruct the illusion into its various component parts. And so, as educators, those of us who are all too familiar with the form and structure of learning, find it much more difficult to stand in the shoes of students and parents who join our community for the first time. We just know way too much and we can't revert.


So what do we do? How do we resolve this dilemma?


Perhaps, as Simon suggests, true empathy is really in the remembering - the conscious holding on to those memories that take us back to a place when we were on the outside looking in; when we didn't understand the edu-speak either; when we saw and experienced the way things happen around here for the very first time.


So, as we go about the business of school, I wonder if we take just five minutes a day to remember these things, we might just move the needle a little bit towards creating more powerful, even sometimes awesome, experiences for the students and families in our school.




Photo by Fengyou Wan on Unsplash.


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