{ Learner Engagement } Christopher Emdin on Teaching “That Magic”

My research and coursework has been converging this semester around the concept of motivation and learner engagement. I’ve been thinking and reading about various models of motivation, specifically around expectations (whether a student believes she’ll succeed or fail at a given task) and how to change students’ mindsets such that they view failure as a necessary, important learning experience rather than something to avoid. I’ve been working on designing interventions that teachers can employ to help their students cope in the face of failure, which I hope to share here once they are a bit more flushed out.

HOWEVER, my fellow rethinkED…* member Karin shared this fantastic TED talk with me last week. Christopher Emdin is a professor at Teachers College, and I aim to take a course with him at some point before I graduate. He takes an entirely different approach to learner engagement. Rather than thinking about the science, he focuses on the art of teaching or what he calls, “that magic.” We all can think of an amazing teacher with “that magic,” who can keep her students rapt, wholly engaged and hanging on every word that she says.

Dr. Emdin’s claim is that this “magic” can be taught. He’s named his idea “Pentacostal pedagogy,” and its foundation is that many of the most engaging speakers are NOT in teaching positions. They are rappers, preachers, and storytellers. Focusing on urban education in particular, he suggests that teacher education mandate that future teachers get OUT of the classroom and into these spaces to watch and learn from community leaders and captivating speakers.

I love his idea and I think, while very different than my focus, it is completely complementary. To my knowledge, there is very little training in how to be an engaging speaker in current teacher education. Having worked in a Harlem elementary school, I believe strongly in the importance of understanding and joining a community that you plan to teach in. Furthermore, the idea of seeking analogous situations for inspiration is one that is fundamental to design thinking.

However, I would argue that while speaking with the cadence of a preacher from a Black church may resonate in urban education, this is not necessarily the only effective “magic” style, nor will it necessarily be as effective for students from other demographics or geographic spaces. One of my favorite high school math teachers was a fairly “nerdy” man who taught AP Calculus with such a love for math and respect for his students that we all held ourselves to a higher standard in his presence. He spoke quietly and every word he said was important.  I envision a course where future teachers are exposed to a variety of engaging speaking styles and allowed to experiment with each one until they find a voice that works for them.

An issues with the type of research I do which focuses on scale-up, empirical studies that could have wide implications for learning is that I often lose sight of the art that teachers employ day to day. Listening to Dr. Emdin’s talk, I’m reminded that there are many different ways to attack the issue of student engagement, and I’m inspired and excited that so many researchers are working towards this goal from a variety of angles.

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