We all know the advantages of visual media such as video; or we think we do. However, when we examine more closely, it turns out that all is not what it seems. This is due to the mechanics of magic and the way it should be taught. Many magic techniques have key actions or moments. These key moments are like bullet points and, mechanically speaking, are the fundamental actions around which the whole manoeuvre (sometimes literally) pivots. The Erd—- Change for example (in the way it is done nowadays) can be broken down into seven or eight key actions. The fluid movements between the key moments are important too, but without those key moments made clear, the in-between bits are irrelevant.
Traditionally, illustrated magic books have attempted to capture those key moments in the photos or illustrations. In the case of the Erd—- Change, a textbook would ideally feature seven or eight illustrations (very often, books will show the most important of those actions). Only a handful of books such as the Slydini ones (eg, The Best of Slydini… and More), have attempted to capture the in-between movements too (thereby possibly clouding the key moments; ironically, in a similar way that inexperienced magicians try to teach a routine all in one go, without separating out individual sleights and treating the routine as one, long chain of dozens of small actions). The Card Magic of Le Paul has about as many photos as you would need without having too many.
Addressing the issue that video often fails in this regard, Stephan Schwan et al suggested (now getting on for 15 years ago, but still relevantly) that:
‘[F]ilm depictions of complex activity sequences could be made more intelligible through the placement of film cuts, thereby facilitating the process of cognitively segmenting the stream of activity into comprehensible units.’ – ‘Getting Interactive Media Into Schools’, in Tom van Weert, Information and Communication Technologies and Real-Life Learning: New Education for the Knowledge Society, 2005, pp. 98–99.
What they are indirectly suggesting is that video edits could somehow mimic the illustrated textbook format in its approach of providing key moments in visual form. A clearly written text accompanied by photos of key moments provides exactly what the student needs at that moment, and what they would have to freeze-frame (with added subtitles) or have freeze-framed for them by video editors, if watching video. A book allows the reader to flit back and forth between text and photo – sight and sound, if you will – to integrate the two. Later, watching a video or live demo of the same thing can help with the in-between movements and the way they link together. Naturalness, speed and timing enter the equation here, elements not so easy to convey in print; but not until the key moments are established.
When teaching something live, particularly something complex such as ‘Penetrating Rubber Bands’, I have to freeze my hands at the key moments, and the student often has to ask for me to repeat my verbal instructions several times. We are then in the paradoxical position of trying to mimic an illustrated textbook and the flitting back and forth mentioned above. It is normal after a lesson for a student to request a video and written explanation, and again they have to know when to freeze-frame at the right moments. Once again, the illustrated textbook format is being overlaid onto the video learning process.
There are lots of learning models that analyse how people learn in a multitude of ways and, like all psychological models, contain truths without necessarily explaining the whole truth. My own experiences of teaching and learning is that some people can visualise in a conceptual way, such as a k– card lying next to a selection, and some can’t. Some, maybe some engineers, can visualise without much difficulty which side of the selection the k– lies. Others (one student who comes to mind was a world-leading expert in finance) find the whole concept difficult. It may not be that people cannot learn in certain ways but that maybe they haven’t yet learned different methods or approaches, or they have become overly trained in limited (yet sometimes powerful) ways of thinking.
When we read we need to digest and process information into visual form if we can. If we already have knowledge of something related to the present subject – what you might call mental templates such as ‘Bid— Grip’ or ‘Mult—- Shift’, anything at all, even only approximately fitting the present text – they can help us recognise something partially familiar. In other words we try and relate what we’re reading to what we know, but at the same time keep an open mind in case it’s completely new or different.
As we read, we don’t just interpret what we are reading but also keep a view (sort of a running commentary) of the trick as a whole in mind to follow how the trick is developing. This requires a lot of mental processing. As each piece of the puzzle fits in we modify the overall picture and start to see where we’re heading. When the whole picture suddenly becomes clear, we experience a small moment of enlightenment as we finally understand what it’s all about. This connecting of dots takes time, but it ingrains information into our memory and turns it into understanding. We may have to read something two or three times, but each time it becomes easier and clearer.
Hearing the written word
When we read, as well as visualising we also ‘hear’ ourselves reading the words (phonological recoding or subvocalisation; see Stephani Sutherland, ‘When We Read, We Recognize Words as Pictures and Hear Them Spoken Aloud’, Scientific American website, July 1, 2015). Written words are a substitute for spoken words (we say ‘that sounds good’ of something we read). Significantly, then, when we read we are creating short bursts of audial and visual memory; a sort of internal, personal video, if you like.
Watching a video is quick and easy, but herein lies its disadvantages. Video overrides much of the mental processing involved in reading. When we think about what we have learned from video, we don’t see our own created imagery or ‘personal video’; we see memories of the externally viewed video imagery. Everything is handed to us on a plate and we assume we have captured and processed all the relevant details. We then go off and practise what we saw, not what we have thought about; we try to recall what we have seen, not what we mentally processed. The interesting thing is how many people assume that because they see something, they are capable of observing and remembering; indeed, the assumption is fed or reinforced by the very ease with which ‘sitting back and watching’ is done.
‘[A]udio-visual learning material has been… shown to possess the danger of being more shallowly processed than printed materials.
‘[I]t comes as no surprise that reading a text on a given topic outperforms watching a respective video in terms of memory and understanding…’ – Stephan Schwan et al, Ibid.
In fairness, the above quotes were made in the context of classroom learning, whereas we have the luxury of learning (possibly alone) at our own pace and being able to pause the video and handle relevant props while watching, and play back the video as much as we want. But all things being equal – we can, of course, read the same paragraph or page multiple times too – the above conclusions from academic experiments are worth noting. These are not inherent pros or cons of reading versus video – people who learn by video may make great efforts to examine what they have learned, and those who read may rush and get things hopelessly wrong (they often do). As obvious as it sounds, certain learning types may be attracted more to certain learning media than others, whereas it may benefit them to master other means as well.
Me, not you!
People do have problems with the written word. I have problems with numbers. There are people who visualise and people who don’t. Some have problems with interpreting left and right especially when you are facing them. In lessons I often turn my back towards the student to show them the magician’s own view of a sleight and to clarify that my right is their right. Students who get their orientation mixed up often instinctively turn their back at the same time to get a clearer view!
A fairly new and interesting problem (mentioned previously on this blog) is when students don’t have an intuitive sense of left- and right-handedness. A right-handed person will unwittingly learn from a left-handed magician (or vice versa) on YouTube and won’t know they are doing things with the wrong hands. What should raise alarm bells – any awkwardness that suggests something is amiss – somehow fails to activate. As you can imagine, this plays havoc not just with individual execution of sleights, but with choreography as the performer keeps switching between left- and right-handed actions.
One can easily see why some people dislike reading. Becoming used to learning only from video can impair our ability to focus on and think about the written word. It can get so bad that the brain is almost expecting the little black letters to start swirling around on the page to animate the trick. You resent having to go to the effort of engaging the brain and looking at this dull, two-dimensional ‘imagery’ when a video would be so much easier; you almost have to re-learn how to read and focus. Somehow I don’t think these symptoms are a positive thing or a sign of the superiority of video learning.
Among many magicians, those who are well read are often respected and accepted more than those who aren’t. But if the aim is mastering magic, both intellectually (in the overall sense of ‘with the mind’) as well as physically, then regardless of any kudos earned through reading, it is of supreme benefit to try and master the written medium as best one can.