The Prestige

© Warner Brothers (mp4 (8MB))

Who needs a teacher when you’ve got Khan Academy?

maxAccording to the strapline at the head of this website, “Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine, should be”. The operative word here is can. The context and threat is the increasing use of video lectures and tutorials in delivering learning. The more paranoid teacher will wake up cold-sweating in the night from dreams of having been replaced by online video, screaming Kirk-like: “KHAN! KHAAAN!”. Worse, of having been assimilated within the technology.

The explosive interest in TED and the like reveals a world-wide hunger to know stuff: to learn new things and to keep up with the latest discoveries. The contemporaneous growth in the availability of broadband internet access has fed this demand and the relative inexpense of hand held and tablet video platforms has fuelled the explosion. The attraction is, of course, that users (I don’t like the term, “consumers” of data) can access a vast range of online material at their own convenience: in video bite-sized chunks in the train, the toilet, the traffic jam. As these slices of opportunity to access video get shorter, they fit in the spaces between all the other activities of the day and night like grains of sand in a jar of peas.

Get with it, man, MOOCs are the future

This proliferation of opportunity has led to the MOOC – the Massively Open Online Course – and the packaging of chunks of online reading and viewing into a complete short course has great appeal, judging by the uptake.


Dear Charles Atlas, I have completed your excellent “he-man” course. I look forward to receiving my muscles.

The problem with moocs, however, is that they are massive and open. The course creators rely on large numbers of participants self-organising around social networks to create “vibrant communities” in a paradigm of students supporting and encouraging each other. The reality I have found in the mooc I am following is that the cacophony of the many drowns out the quality of the few. Thirty thousand voices shouting, “look at me!” over the lone quiet voice whispering, “look at this”. This has been of such concern to one mooc educator that they walked away. As a student, I have found that the contributions of the community do contain incisive, stimulating, funny, challenging and articulate contributions but you have to wade through the other 95% to find these. This has become so frustrating that I am now looking less at other contributions, in favour of concentrating the available time on the course materials alone.

Who needs teachers?

Bad ones? Nobody. Mediocre ones? No, thanks. Give me Khan. A book. Anything else. The ones that bring you to the penny dropping, the light coming on, the rush, the boom, the click, the whatever-happens-in-your-head-when-you-finally-get-it? Now you’re talking.

So what is it about the teacher that cannot be replaced by a machine? What makes them so magical? The clue is in the video clip at the top of this post. The magician knows how to manage expectations, create perceptions and deliver a satisfying climax to a sequence of events. Most importantly, he knows all about the observer’s perspective: the entire sequence is designed to achieve an effect in the audience.

The magical teacher plans, organises, details and delivers the learning with a full and detailed understanding of the student experience and perspective. He or she understands that the stages in the lesson have resonance with the stages of magic described by Michael Cain. The Pledge begins in prior learning and relevant context. The Turn is a hook, perhaps new knowledge or skills, something interesting or engaging, full of promise and misconception. The Prestige is the moment when understanding reveals itself – the flourish, the step from dark into light, the feeling that fills your heart, the satisfaction. It takes place in the Zone of Proximal Development.

We can get The Pledge and the Turn of learning by ourselves, given the resources. The irreplaceable teacher brings us The Prestige.

4 thoughts on “The Prestige

  1. I am a great supporter of MOOCs but at the same time know that it is not a substitute for a GOOD teacher. This post brings out that fact that a good teacher can create magic that on amount of other source can match. May both the tribes increase!

  2. I’m not sure whether the analogy works the way you intend it to. The magician knows the audience, yes, but he knows that it’s the same as any other audience, and he carries out the act almost identically each time. The only reason a magician is better live is spectacle and the removal of any doubt about camera trickery.

    The thing is, a good teacher should be able to take all the years of classroom experience and build a sequence that is near optimal for all learners of the stage he typically deals with. A good teacher pushing retiral age could make videos that grind Khan into the dust, because while he’s not bad at what he does, an actual teacher would be better….

  3. @niallbeag:disqus One of the things that prompted me to write this particular post was the perception I had that some of my students (Post-Graduate student teachers) weren’t getting the message about putting the learner at the centre of planning. I wanted them to think about what the learner is seeing and thinking as the lesson progresses, in the same way that the magician does in the movie, to achieve the same result – entirely possible in teaching physics – which is that magical moment, The Prestige, when true insight is had. It’s for me, the defining characteristic of the good teacher, @kajalsengupta:disqus!

    • Fair enough, and in that sense it’s an excellent analogy, because it highlights the massive difference between “knowledge the teacher employs to construct the lesson” and “knowledge the teacher imparts to the student”.

      One of the biggest difficulties I have in discussing language teaching with other teachers is that as soon as I start talking about the meta-linguistic knowledge that the teacher requires in order to plan and order lessons meaningfully, the other person always responds “but the student doesn’t need to know all that technical stuff. True — but the teacher does!

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