Penn & Teller teach assessment

Last week, I attended a conference in Las Vegas.  I’m not the biggest fan of the “Sin City” and I usually avoid it as a conference location.  This conference, however, was one of the premier events for faculty and administrators involved in teacher education and I really wanted to attend.  So, I overcame my apprehensions and biases and traveled to the land of neon.  I was fortunate in that I had several colleagues who also braved the trip.  Their presence definitely made the experience more enjoyable.

On our second night in Vegas, one of my colleagues wanted to see a show.  While I’m not really into Brittany Spears, Cher, Crique du Soleil or many of the other shows along the strip, one option really stood out:  Penn & Teller.  In my eyes, the magicians are the quintessential performers.  Not only do they astound the audience with feats of amazement but they also let them in on the act.  In their show, they tell the audience how certain stunts are conducted and how “charlatans” and “fakes” fool people with slight of hand.  Their indifference to the larger magician community is really refreshing.

The one trick that amazed me the most was a stunt the pair performed with boxes of joke books.  They sent ushers into the audience with joke books and asked two attendees to each grab a book out of the box.  The books were then passed around the audience randomly until Penn called for whoever was currently holding the book to open the book and select a joke to silently read to themselves.  Penn then “psychically” determined the joke that each of the audience members had selected.  It was pretty impressive.  While the audience was in awe from the performance, Penn explained that the secret to each of the tricks could be found online by searching for “cold reading” and “hot reading.” Which is exactly what I did.  Here’s what I found.

Hucksters who present themselves as mystics, psychics, mediums and mentalists employ both of the “reading” techniques.  Put simply, cold reading involves the “reader” analyzing visible characteristics of a person and asking leading questions that can inform their practice, whether it involves communicating with the dead, foretelling the future or guessing a selected joke in a joke book.  As the reader asks questions, he watches for slight changes in expressions and body language that guides the next question he asks.  By asking the right questions and closely monitoring the person, the reader can hone in on important data that can be used.

Hot reading, on the other hand, involves the reader collecting some background information about a person, usually subversively, and using that information to guide their actions.  Searching online, I found stories where audience members were asked to complete short surveys prior to a psychic show that were later used to guide the psychic’s “predictions.”  One medium reportedly recorded attendees’ conversations prior to the show and placed surrogates in the audience to eavesdrop on nearby people.  When the performer claimed to have heard from a person’s dead aunt, for instance, they already knew much of the information they needed to guide the ruse.

While both of the readings are simple to explain, seeing them play out in crowded theater is still really amazing.  On my flight back from the conference, I kept thinking about cold and hot reading and how the techniques could be applied to the work we do as educators.  In a lot of ways, questioning techniques are at the heart of what expert instructors do to assess their students and help them build understanding.  Paying attention to students’ facial expressions and body language can provide powerful informal assessment data that can guide instructional decision-making.  Collecting formative data, like hot readers do, can also help instructors plan student-centered lessons that target learning and support development.  While it’s clear that these “readers” have completely different motivations than educators, I think they have something to teach us.  While many of us focus on our own performances as instructors, the teaching and learning process is not a solitary activity.  It involves expert instructors engaging and “reading” their students.  That’s how truly magical educational experiences are created.


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