Reflections on #lrnchat: Magic

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.

The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was “MAGIC”.

I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the discussion questions that were presented to the group:

Q1) What does magic mean to you? When you hear the term, what do you think about?
Q2) What happens to you when you watch stage magic? What qualities of magic caused that reaction?
Q3) What can stage magic teach us about how people learn & perceive the world?
Q4) What do magic & learning have in common?
Q5) How might you employ principles of magic in your work?

I saw that this week’s topic for #lrnchat was Magic and admittedly my first reaction was “Really?”  I wasn’t thrilled to be honest.

Part of that deals with my thoughts about magic in general.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy magic; in fact I feel just the opposite about it.  It’s just that, for my initial thought process, magic and employee learning & performance conflict with each other at a fundamental level that made it difficult for me to link the two.

Which, of course, makes building that link all the more powerful a learning experience.

A Critical Difference Between Magic and Learning

So where do I see this divide between learning and magic?  It’s at the basis of what magic is.  Magic is something that conveys the feeling of wonder and belief despite logical evidence to the contrary.  I liked the description that @minutebio provided during the chat, describing magic as “The illusion of the impossible being possible”.

That’s not what I do as a learning and performance professional.  In fact, the last thing I want to do is try to convince workers that something is possible when in reality, it’s not.  Learning & performance professionals should be pushing back when desired objectives are out of reach, not trying to find ways get workers to believe the objectives are possible.  And let’s face it, when we try to fit 132 slides into a 60 minute virtual training session, our starting point is “The illusion of the impossible being possible”.

From that perspective, magic is fundamentally different than what we do and learning and performance professionals.  Still, there are things that learning professionals can learn from magicians themselves, and that was the lens through which I viewed most of the discussion.

What Learning Professionals Can Learn from Magicians

It started with a great point from @Quinnovator: “magic is making the exciting happen while hiding all the dull mechanics”.  That’s a tangible lesson for learning and performance professionals.  Slides with learning objectives, quizzes, lectures… they all scream “You’re about to learn something”.  The mechanics are right there on the table. We need to focus less on providing a show or a course, and more on building an experience. If we focused more on facilitating experiences rather than building courses, learning and skill development would just happen naturally as part of the process.

Magicians are also masters at getting audiences to focus on specific things.  From their perspective, it’s misdirection: getting audiences to focus on something unimportant so they don’t notice the slight of hand that would ruin the trick.  It’s about getting the audience to focus on a specific area at a specific time, so that the illusion of something impossible taking place holds.

That attention to what the audience is focused on at any given moment is something learning and performance professionals can learn a great deal from.  How many times have you reached a screen of an elearning course that was so busy with graphics, text, and/or animations that you didn’t know where to look or click first?  That instantly muddles the message.  We should consider where and when we want workers to be focused, and design accordingly.

Another lesson magicians provide is their dedication to being prepared.  What looks like completely natural and spontaneous actions is actually a finely tuned and precise routine.  That level of preparedness is critical in order for the audience to believe the magician.  The same is true for learning and performance professionals, who have no excuse for not being prepared.  Ultimately it comes down to the same risk: if people don’t believe you, they’re going to spend a good amount of cognitive energy trying to poke holes in your message.

Need an example of a magician’s attention to detail? Check out this video of Penn & Teller and ask yourself if you hold the learning expereinces you create to the same standards.

The last comparison I took away from the discussion wasn’t so much about magicians and learning and performance professionals; it was about learners and the magician’s audience.

Where does magic take place? Usually magic shows take place on a stage which is specifically outfitted for the tricks being performed.  In some cases it’s less stage-specific, but can take place wherever the magician takes his or her ‘bag of tricks’.  However, that’s not where the magic takes place.  The magician does the trick, using misdirection in ways to make the audience believe that the impossible is – somehow – possible.  It’s about changing the audiences perceptions and creating a new reality wherein what is being seen actually IS possible.  From that perspective, the ‘magic’ actually takes place within the viewers mind.  This is very similar to learning, as mentioned during the chat by @cammybean when she said “I create my own learning magic. Not some trainer on a stage.”

While attending ASTD’s TechKnowledge Conference this past January, I had the pleasure of attending the Penn & Teller show at the Rio with a group of friends, including Koreen Olbrish (@KoreenOlbrish).  Koreen was called onto the stage to participate in a trick that really drove home this idea that magic (and learning) happen in the individual’s mind.  During this trick, Koreen had her eyes closed while magical things were happening with rings all around her.  Only Koreen expereinced the magic though; the entire audience was able to view the trick, and see how Koreen’s perceptions were being controlled.

Here’s a video of Penn & Teller performing the trick to someone else at the 2010 Comic-Con.

Koreen also blogged about her experience at the Penn & Teller show, and what it taught her about perception shaping reality and immersive learning.  Be sure to check out that post via the link at the end of this posting.

All in all, I really appreciated this chat, as it did help me see connections between magic and what I do every day, despite the fundamental differences between the two.  I think @aaronesilvers summed up the comparisons well with this tweet: “People want to be amazed. They want “a ha” moments.”  I think that’s very true. We just need to structure learning experiences so that learners can discover the “a ha” moments on their own instead of labeling them as such in a PowerPoint slide.

Oh, and there’s one more thing that magic shows and learning programs have in common: neither one should end with a request to complete an evaluation before you leave.   I’d be a lot more willing to believe that magic is real if someone could find a way to make the smile sheets disappear.

Until next week…


RELATED READING: The Magic of Attention and Focus by Koreen Olbrish

Check out additional related reading in the comments!

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