Christopher Emdin: Teaching Teachers How to Create Magic

February 19, 2015

For months, for years, for decades, even, it stays with you. The memory of a teacher who went above and beyond to teach, to inspire, to make an imprint on your life and show you what it means to truly learn. According to Christopher Emdin, the key to inspiring that level of engagement is learning how to bring magic into the classroom.

Meet Christopher Emdin
It's the moment when an otherwise cut-and-dry lesson on gravity or the Civil War transforms into an immersive experience in technicolor 3D, where you're not just taking notes on the lesson at hand, you're engaged in every aspect.

For Christopher Emdin, an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Columbia University's Teachers College, to teach is to engage your students on every possible level. Emdin, who is also the Director of Science Education at Columbia's Center for Health Equity and Urban Science Education, co-created the #HipHopEd social movement to bring the magic you feel watching a rapper on stage into the classroom.

Mark Twain says that proper preparation, or teaching, is so powerful that it can turn bad morals to good, it can turn awful practices into powerful ones, it can change men and transform them into angels.

Finding Inspiration Outside the Classroom
As Emdin states in a TED Talk, "The reality is, the folks I described as the master teachers, the master narrative builders, the master storytellers are far removed from classrooms. The folks who know the skills about how to teach and engage an audience don't even know what teacher certification means. They may not even have the degrees to be able to have anything to call an education. And that to me is sad. It's sad because the people who I described, they were very disinterested in the learning process, want to be effective teachers, but they have no models. I'm going to paraphrase Mark Twain. Mark Twain says that proper preparation, or teaching, is so powerful that it can turn bad morals to good, it can turn awful practices into powerful ones, it can change men and transform them into angels."

That power can't be found in the rulebooks of traditional pedagogy, it can’t be unearthed from educational theory, or reconstituted from a top-down set of standards. It must, Emdin says, be found in the places where its heart and truth beat the loudest: "Barber shops, rap concerts, and most importantly, in the black church."

I'm here to tell you that magic can be taught... You teach it by allowing people to go into those spaces where the magic is happening.

It's at such places, Emdin says, where you're learning and absorbing specifically because you're engaged with what the preacher or rapper is saying by virtue of how they're saying it. Wordplay, tone, cadence, rhythm, and movement: without them, content is no more than words on a page, and the theory behind it can come across as dry as dust.

How to Teach Magic
"So why does teacher education only give you theory and theory and tell you about standards and tell you about all of these things that have nothing to do with the basic skills, that magic that you need to engage an audience, to engage a student?" Emdin says, "I'm here to tell you that magic can be taught... You teach it by allowing people to go into those spaces where the magic is happening. If you want to be an aspiring teacher in urban education, you've got to leave the confines of that university and go into the hood. You've got to go in there and hang out at the barbershop, you've got to attend that black church, and you've got to view those folks that have the power to engage and just take notes on what they do."

if we could transform teacher education to focus on teaching teachers how to create that magic, then poof! We could make dead classes come alive, we could reignite imaginations, and we can change education.

As an educator, it's about once again taking on the role of student and studying what those engaging speakers (including everyone from rappers and preachers to TED Talk speakers and beyond) do in order to figure out how to incorporate some of those elements into teaching lessons in the classroom. Here, Emdin transforms a science lesson through the power of Hip Hop.

"And if we could transform teacher education to focus on teaching teachers how to create that magic," Emdin says, "then poof! We could make dead classes come alive, we could reignite imaginations, and we can change education."


To watch the TED Talk in full, click here. If you would like to find out more about #HipHopEd and dive deeper into Christopher Emdin’s teaching methods and philosophy, visit his website.

By Lisa Merlini

Tag: Exploring Education

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