Notes from the
was a great escape artist, but not so good a conjurer.
(04/09) Houdini was a lousy
magician. I know that this one statement will probably get me
hate mail from the four corners of the globe, but it's the conclusion
you reach after reading Jim Steinmeyer's book Hiding the
Though most people would not recognize his name,
Steinmeyer is one of the most brilliant, modern creators of magic
tricks (he's the guy who taught David Copperfield how to make
the State of Liberty disappear). Steinmeyer has built tricks for
some of the best in the business, including Lance Burton, Doug
Henning and Rick Thomas.
In addition to making magic tricks, however, Steinmeyer
is also a student of magic history. His book tells about the golden
era of magic starting in the mid-19th century and running through
the 1940's. Houdini lived in the middle of this time period from
1874 to 1926.
What interested me in Steinmeyer's book, however,
was not just the history of magic, but some parallels that can
be drawn from it to learning and education. I think the difference
between a great teacher and a mediocre teacher is a lot like the
difference between a great magician and a mediocre magician. Most
teachers have the same basic knowledge to give to students in
a similar way to how all magicians have the same basic illusions
to display. What makes a magician great is how he presents his
illusion. The same is true in teaching.
Before we get into that discussion, however, we
need to go back to Houdini.
as a Conjurer
Despite what I've said up to this point, after reading
Hiding the Elephant you don't come to the conclusion that
a Houdini show was dull or boring. Not at all. As an escape artist,
a subset of magic he practically invented, he had no equal. As
a child Orson Wells, who wasn't a bad magician himself, saw Houdini
perform his escapes and pronounced them "thrilling." However,
when Houdini's act moved on to conjuring - that is making things
appear and disappear - Wells was disappointed. "It was awful stuff,"
Why did Houdini have such a hard time with this
type of magic? It required a finesse which he simply didn't have.
Steinmeyer writes in his book "Watching him play the part of an
elegant conjurer was a bit like watching a wrestler play the violin."
Perhaps the best example of Houdini's problem in
this area is the story of the vanishing elephant.
York's largest theater in 1918, the Hippodrome.
Houdini was well aware of his shortcomings as a
magician and very much wanted to show the public and his fellow
prestidigitators that he was a world class conjurer. In 1918 he
got his chance. Early that year Houdini was engaged for 19 weeks
as a feature player at New York's Hippodrome. At that time the
Hippodrome was the largest theater in the city seating almost
6,000 people. The immense stage featured lavish spectacles complete
with circus animals, diving horses, dancing girls and choruses.
The entire stage could be turned into a massive pool that was
sometimes used to re-stage famous naval battles.
According to Houdini, it was while he was watching
the elephants perform at the Hippodrome that he had a wonderful
idea. One of the most impressive feats of the conjurer was to
make a live animal appear or disappear. Because magicians were
constantly traveling from location to location, the creature used
was usually something small like a bird, rabbit or dog. Some of
the more impressive tricks, however, had involved a larger animal
like a donkey. Here Houdini would have elephants available to
him for the entire 19 weeks he was working at the Hippodrome.
Suppose he made one of them disappear? He would be considered
the greatest conjurer of all time!
It took Houdini several weeks to work out the details
(in conjunction with Charles Morritt, another magician and illusion
designer), but by the time he debuted at the Hippodrome the trick
and Jennie in a publicity still.
Houdini would appear on the stage and Jennie, a
10,000 pound elephant, would be led out by her trainer. Houdini
would introduce her as "The Vanishing Elephant" while 15 assistants
rolled a giant box out onto the stage. The box was eight feet
high and eight feet wide and probably about fourteen feet in length.
It was also elevated more than two feet in the air so that the
audience could see underneath it and know that the elephant wasn't
going through a trap door in the floor. Houdini would have the
small end of the box turned to face the spectators. He would then
open doors on either end so they could see through it and be assured
it was empty.
The box would then be turned so the long part faced
the audience and a ramp would be put up by the door. The trainer
would lead the elephant inside and the doors would be closed.
The assistants would then turn the box again so it faced the audience
and the doors would be opened. The spectators looking through
could see out the other side. No elephant. It had apparently vanished.
The trick was heavily lauded in the press and publicity
for the Hippodrome. However for the audiences actually in attendance
in the huge theater the illusion was mostly a flop. Why? Not because
it was a bad trick, but for the reason that Houdini didn't present
it right. He didn't prepare the audience for what was about to
happen. Even worse, very few in the audience actually got to see
the illusion. As one observer at the time wrote:
The Hippodrome being of such a colossal size,
only those sitting directly in front got the real benefit of the
deception. The few hundred people sitting around me took Houdini's
word for it that the "animile" had gone - we couldn't see into
the box at all!
now demolished Egyptian Hall in London exhibited Stodare's
Compare this with the "Sphinx" illusion presented
by an earlier Victorian magician named Colonel Joseph Stodare.
Stodare was working a theater called Egyptian Hall in London.
The theater had once been a museum and was adorned with Egyptian
sculpture and hieroglyphics. When a new illusion mechanism became
available to him, Stodare decided to work the theater's theme
into the trick. For weeks before unveiling his illusion, Stodare
placed cryptic ads on the front page of the London Times
like "The Sphinx has left Egypt," and "The Sphinx has arrived
and will soon appear." When he finally premiered the trick, the
hall was packed with the curious.
When the curtains were opened the audience was greeted
with a small, round, thin, bare three-legged table with no tablecloth.
Stodare would walk onto the stage carrying a fabric covered traveling
case about a foot high, wide and deep. After placing it on the
center of the table, he would open the hinged doors in front to
reveal what appeared to be a sculpture of a head in Egyptian headdress.
Stodare would move to the edge of the stage, then
command, "Sphinx, awake!" The eyes of the sculpture would pop
open and look around, slowly appearing to become aware of its
surroundings. Suddenly it became clear to the audience that they
were viewing a disembodied human head. Stodare would ask it questions
and the Sphinx would answer. The head finally gave a short speech
and closed its eyes. Stodare would then return to the table, close
the doors and spend a moment reflecting on the mysterious nature
of the Sphinx. When he reopened the box the head was gone, replaced
with a pile of ashes. Stodare then carried the box to the edge
of the stage so the audience could get a better look at it.
The Egyptian Hall rang with applause and the next
day the papers were filled with acclaim. "The Sphinx is the most
remarkable deception ever included in a conjurer's programme,"
proclaimed the Daily News. The following month Stodare
found himself performing for royalty at Windsor Castle.
Why did Stodare's illusion work so well and Houdini's
didn't? From a technical point of view, both tricks were amazing
for their times. One, however, created a sense of wonder with
the audience and the other didn't.
drawing of Stodare's Sphinx Illusion.
First, Stodare got people engaged in thinking about
the illusion before he did it. His cryptic ads caught their imagination.
They made people think about the sphinx. What did they already
know about it? What did it mean that it was coming to London?
Secondly, Stodare's presentation had a story arc.
He placed the sculpture onto the table. He awakened it. He engaged
it in conversation. Finally he closes his presentation reminding
his audience about the mystical nature of the sphinx and when
he opens the box again it has turned to ashes.
Finally, Stodare not only made sure the entire audience
could clearly see the Sphinx during the performance, at the end
of the performance he carried the open box to the edge of the
stage so they could get a better look. This way they could see
it with their own eyes and be absolutely sure it was empty.
This differed from what Houdini did with the elephant.
He did plenty of advertising, but it didn't really entice people
to think about elephants the way Stodare's cryptic statements
did about the Sphinx. Houdini had no story behind his trick; he
simply shoved the elephant in the box and presto it was
gone. Finally, and most importantly, lots of people couldn't really
see the elephant disappear. They only knew it had because Houdini
had told them so.
What does this have to do with teaching? Everything.
A good lesson is like a good magic trick. As Stodare enticed his
audience with his riddle-like statements even before they got
in the theater, a good teacher must grab the student's attention
at the beginning of the lesson. I've heard a couple of terms for
this, but where I got my degree they called it "the hook."
Hooks can be as simple as an intriguing story, joke
or riddle or as complicated as a fun quiz or video clip. The key
is that they grab the student and are somehow linked into your
subject. The best hooks also "activate" the student's current
knowledge. That is, they remind the student of what he already
knows about a subject so he will be more prepared to learn the
Steinmeyer's book on the history of magic tells you something
about education too.
Stodare's trick had a whole story to it. A good
lesson, in the same way, is like a story. It has a beginning,
a middle and an end. There is a flow to it. One item logically
follows another in quick succession.
A good lesson may even have elements of drama in
it. While this is easier when dealing with social studies and
history which lend themselves to good stories, it is also possible
with the sciences. A couple years ago I integrated a 40-year-old
science fiction TV drama about scientists lost in time into learning
the mechanics of reading clocks and calendars for my 4th grade
class (Time Tunnel to Fourth Grade).
It was one of the best units I ever created and one of the most
fun and memorable for my kids.
A good storyteller also makes sure that he gives
his audience the necessary background information needed to understand
his tale before launching into it. He needs to make sure his listeners
aren't lost from the get go.
This kind of thing sounds obvious, but when doing
a lesson many teachers find they have assumed their students have
come to class with more background information than they actually
have. It is very easy for a 40-year-old teacher to forget that
his 4th grade students weren't even alive a decade ago. They might
well know that Hillary Clinton ran for President, but not be aware
that her husband, Bill, actually was the president back
in the 90's.
Your Own Knowledge
Finally, in a good lesson, the student must be able
to see (or discover) for themselves the point of it. In education
we call this "constructing your own knowledge." Stodare's audience
was able to construct their own knowledge about the Sphinx disappearing
because they saw it for themselves, not because he told them it
disappeared. The same idea works in a classroom. For example,
in a science lesson a good science teacher doesn't just tell his
class that you can separate hydrogen and oxygen from water by
electrolysis. He demonstrates it for them in front of their own
eyes. Even better, if he has the time and the equipment, he lets
them do the experiment and figure out how the reaction works by
themselves, rather than just giving them the information. People
remember things they have done and have figured out on their own.
Things they've just heard about they often forget.
fall leaf can always be a source of wonder to a student
if presented right.
A lesson done right, like a magic trick done right,
leaves the audience with a sense of wonder. In his book, Steinmeyer
tells a story about how as a boy he was fascinated with why the
leaves of tree turned red in the fall. When he reached the 4th
grade, his teacher told him that the chlorophyll in the leaf dies
in the autumn, leaving a bright color. "I appreciated that the
mystery had been completely solved," he writes, "and I could stop
worrying about it." However Steinmeyer also writes that "Unfortunately,
science often serves the purpose of actively teaching us to stop
wondering about things, causing us to lose interest."
I submit that this is true of science, and learning
in general, only if it is done wrong. Good science, like good
learning, answers questions at the same time it poses more for
the student to think about. Wondering what it would look like
to ride a bicycle at the speed of light helped Einstein
to create his theory of relativity. Wondering why apples fall
helped Newton think about how the laws of gravity and motion might
Like good magic, good teaching should always leave
the viewer with a sense of wonder.
Copyright Lee Krystek 2009.
All Rights Reserved.