Magic In The Classroom Strategies For Critical Thinking

What does magic have to do with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math? Everything! Magic tricks aren’t fooling the laws of nature, they’re only fooling our brains. Best of all, they can incorporate everything from surprising chemical reactions, mathematical patterns, and counter-intuitive physics to “gimmicked” magician’s props and the psychology of misdirection. And because the audience participates in the lies magicians tell (as Penn and Teller have often demonstrated — start at 36:04), magic tricks can also teach critical thinking. A well designed magic show can be as educational as it is entertaining.

Many teachers of physics and chemistry are familiar with using “discrepant events” (puzzling or astounding phenomena)  to illustrate concepts or force students to confront their misconceptions. Teaching with magic tricks is similar. The main difference may be a sense of showmanship (although I fondly remember many chemistry explosions conducted with a sense of showmanship) and a little bit of trickery — is that hat actually empty? No, of course not.

“Using discrepant events is a great teaching strategy if they are linked with the big ideas that you want students to understand,” explains Mark Watrin, a science specialist for Washington State’s Battle Ground school district. “They usually involve an element of fun, which creates a positive attitude towards science and creates a ‘I wonder what is coming next’ atmosphere.” Watrin cautions that a common misuse of discrepant events is explaining them too quickly or not letting students participating in the activity. “Some of my favorite discrepant events involve air pressure differences because the students can do the activities themselves,” he says, adding that getting students to talk about discrepant events is a great way to reveal their misconceptions.” There has been a lot of work done recently on how to get students to reveal their misconceptions, which is important for understanding science concepts.”

I recommend checking out this short guide to developing successful lessons using discrepant events in addition to all the great sources for ideas and activities below.


Winifred Kehl is a science communicator and museum exhibit designer in Seattle, WA. She is particularly interested in public engagement with science, accessibility and inclusion, and creative educational projects. You can find her online at

By Dr. John Rich, Rameeka Manning & Brionne Cage

What does critical thinking in the classroom actually look like? In the interest of bridging the gap between aspiration and achievement in the area of critical thinking, Browne & Freeman (2000) suggest a list of characteristics that distinguish classrooms which regularly encourage critical thinking from those that do not. Their purpose was to provide specific advice to educators and faculty members who are trying to incorporate critical thinking into their practice. Critical thinking was operationally defined as “a set of skills and attitudes that enables a reader or listener to apply sensible standards to the reasoning of speakers and writers”. According to Browne & Freeman, educators can elicit critical thinking by incorporating certain design characteristics in their classes. These include: 1) frequent evaluative questions, 2) the encouragement of active learning, and 3) creating developmental tension.

Frequent Evaluative Questions

Critical thinking is very much a participant activity. However, which student activities are more likely to speed up or enhance critical thinking? According to Browne & Freeman, the primary behavioral characteristic of critical thinking classrooms is that the classroom is filled with a flurry of questions. The teacher asks some of them and the students ask others, often to one another. To start off, critical thinking requires comprehension or an understanding of the material. Teachers can provide a considerable benefit to the students just from asking “Why?” Some other questions that can move thinking to a deeper level include:

  • What words or phrases are used in an ambiguous form?
  • What evidence is provided for the claims in the reasoning?
  • What important information is missing from the reasoning used by the author?
  • What other conclusions can reasonably be drawn based on the evidence provided?

Critical thinking can be usefully promoted as understanding the use of these questions, knowing how to find answers to them and enjoying the process of asking these at appropriate times. However, they do point out that none of these can be effectively asked or answered without the assistance of a trained educator.

Encouragement of Active Learning

According to Browne & Freeman, encouraging the asking and answering of critical questions is just one aspect of a larger body of educational practices called “active learning” that can identify a classroom as one where critical thinking is being encouraged. Teachers in higher education sometimes have a “top down” model of their instructional role. They are the experts of knowledge and students are the seekers. Therefore, the one with the knowledge speaks and the one seeking listens. However they believe this form of teaching fails to provide students with the opportunity to practice using the knowledge under the supervision of a skilled mentor. For the teacher to improve active learning and critical thinking requires awareness of the delicacy of oral communication. Providing students with frequent opportunities for practicing evaluation skills and attitudes allows them to experiment with critical thinking.

Many of the professors at our university put us into “active groups” to answer questions, and then—based on our individual answers we might have to come up with one agreeable answer to the overall question. This helped us as students to develop insight on a subject through the perspective of another student. It also helped us to strengthen our dialogue and articulate the material better. The strength of the “active group” is that it enables personal involvement with the material, thereby creating discussion and evaluation.

Developmental Tension

Another distinguishable characteristic discussed by Browne & Freeman is “creating a little developmental tension” (p.305). This can be done through controversial discussions. Controversy is a type of academic conflict where two or more students’ information, ideas, and conclusions are incompatible and they seek to come to an agreement. Controversy is special because it increases the probability that evaluative thinking will occur. Controversy creates a state of discomfort for the reader. “Thinking begins only when a state of doubt about what to do or believe exists; all conscious thought has its beginning in uncertainty.”(p.305) Doubt, however, motivates thinking and controversy presents situations in which doubt naturally arises.

By inspiring controversy purposely, a professor can engage in a form of “intellectual affirmative action” (p.308) where minority positions are given fair treatment. According to Johnson & Johnson (2002), structured academic controversy increases students’ perspective taking abilities. By evaluating controversies in the classroom, educators are promoting an atmosphere of reflection that can result in acceptance or rejection through reasoned judgment and allow students to contradict ideas more.

In conclusion, Browne & Freeman state that when teachers and students come together to improve critical thinking, “cognitive magic” is possible. However, the effectiveness of these strategies is linked to the willingness of both student and teacher to engage in the hard work necessary to realize this exciting aspiration.

Browne, N & Freeman, K. (2000). Distinguishing Features of Critical Thinking Classrooms. Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 5 No. 3,301-209

Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. (2002). Critical Thinking through Structured Controversy.       Educational Leadership, 58-63

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