The Limits of Teacher-Centered Magic or Pentecostal Pedagogy

In 2013, Christopher Emdin of (Associate Professor at Columbia Teachers College) gave a charismatic presentation about what he calls pentecostal pedagogy, teaching informed by the style of preaching and teaching in black pentecostal churches.  He seems to come from the conviction that becoming a powerful, compelling and engaging storyteller is the key to being an engaging, effective, “magical” teacher. He suggest that barber shops, rap concerns and black pentecostal churches provide a model for becoming such a teacher. According to Emdin, it is the person who can capture the attention of an entire audience with compelling storytelling who is a master teacher. Emdin says, “Magic can be taught.” Future teachers should study people at rap concerts, black pentecostal churches, and barber shops. Essentially, Emdin is arguing that prospective teachers need to learn about and develop the skills of an excellent rhetorician. Then we will see true engagement in our classrooms. I welcome Emdin’s high regard for powerful storytelling skills, but this is far from the most important skills of an effective and engaging teacher. Consider the following ten points.

  1. What does it mean to be a highly engaged learner of mathematics? Is it to excitedly follow every word of a dynamic math lecture? Or is it to do and use math to solve problems in the world?
  2. What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of literacy? Is it to follow every work of a charismatic teacher, or is it to be unable to put down that great book, to be lost in it for hours without even noticing the time passing by?
  3. What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of science? Is it to be enthralled by an amazing science lecturer, or to to be driven and lost in some science problem or experiment, perhaps in a lab or in the field?
  4. What dos it mean to be a highly engaged student of history? Is it to lean in and listen well amid a history lecture, or is it to be doing historical research, tracing ideas across multiple sources, uncovering unknown secrets about the past?
  5. What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of writing? Is it to hear a charismatic lecture on how to write well, or is to be drawn into the challenge of writing an essay, story, or even a blog post?
  6. What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of health and wellness? Is it to be taking copious notes from a dynamic teacher about the healthy living? Or is it to be engaged in life experiments about health and wellness, learning as one lives out different health and wellness practices, tracking one’s progress, and finding joy in increased energy and a sense of well-being?
  7. What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of art? Is it to be lost is a great art lecture, or to be lost in the work of great artists, or even to be lost in creating one’s own art?
  8. What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of informant interpersonal life skills? Again, is it to be engaged by a powerful treatise on important interpersonal skils, or to be deeply engaged in experimenting with, observing and putting these interpersonal life skills into practice?
  9. What does it mean to be a highly engaged music student? By this time, you certainly get the point. It is to be drawn into the nuances of a great piece of music and/or to have the drive of learning to play music.
  10. What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of digital citizenship? Is it to listen carefully, excitedly and intently as someone teaches a lecture about cyberbulling; or to research, discover, and take action to prevent cyberbullying in one’s life and the life of others?

Emdin has a great point, but it does not capture the essence of highly engaged learning. Rhetoric is a valuable skill for teachers, but more valuable skills are found in discover how to engage students in reading, writing, creating, experimenting, discovering, observing, and interacting. The magical classroom is the one where students are doing these things more than they are listening to a teacher (regardless of how engaging she might be). The magical classroom leaves one baffled because the teacher is not the center of attention like a rapper in a concert or a minister in a pentecostal church. The magic is found in what the students are doing with their time. They are not passive recipients of content, but engaged creators, designers, contributors, composers, analysts, evaluators, activists, change agents, researchers, critics, defenders, interpreters, problem solvers, planners, and practitioners.

The limit of Edmin’s ideas is found when he suggests how to help future teachers become engaging storytellers. First, he suggests that they get out of the classroom and into the barber shops, rap concerts, and pentecostal churches; taking notes and learning from these charismatic communicators. Note that this is different from learning from a single compelling lecture. This is making students field researchers. The magic is not coming from the engaging teacher/rhetorician, but from the students getting out and engaged with the world. Second, watching models of engaging storytelling is not enough to embrace those practices. That requires doing it, getting feedback, practice, and persistence. I contend that the same is true when it comes to creating magical classrooms. They come from what the students are doing more than from the rhetorical prowess of the teachers.  

Posted in blog, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

2 thoughts on “The Limits of Teacher-Centered Magic or Pentecostal Pedagogy

  1. DrEvel1

    It’s pretty well agreed that it’s hard to communicate with anyone unless you can first get their attention and maintain it for some reasonable period of time. Certainly in introductory classes where students are likely to be splitting their attention rather widely, assembling the necessary resources to maintain that engagement necessary for attention getting is problematical.

    When I started teaching many thousands of years ago, I found myself with mostly undergraduates and intro classes (in business), The classes contained an interesting mix of day students who were mostly standard younger people and night classes dominated by mid-career people, many of them assembly-line workers by day.

    I found out very early on that lecturing wasn’t cutting it. First, I wasn’t very good at it; second, it wasn’t connecting. But one day, I dropped in a story that had happened to me once in my previous administrative career, and lo and behold, all of a sudden I had their attention. i found that the more stories I told, the better I was holding their attention; and in fact, the more they were getting hold of the underlying principles, even when I didn’t enunciate them explicitly. The source of the stories didn’t matter; true, false, somewhere in between – all were effective. I found myself reasoning that if teaching by telling stories was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for me; my management parables were both evocatory and illuminating.

    I don’t claim to be all that effective a story teller, but in fact it’s the story itself rather than the telling of it that holds most of the magic. Worrying about teaching professors rhetorical tricks to spice up their story telling won’t help if they don’t have the right stories. Jesus’ parables must have gotten a lot of attention originally because he was undoubtedly a pretty good story teller. But they still have their power today even in the mouths of the worst hypocrites and least apt preachers going, because of the stories themselves.

    Not all teaching is story telling, of course; there’s occasionally some content. but even in the most content oriented classes I’ve ever done, such as advanced statistics and structural equation modelling, I’ve found out that interpolating stories about uses and experiences of users, can be valuable attention grabbers.

    So there is indeed magic in story telling in teaching. But much of it resides in the stories themselves, not just the telling technique. Rhetoric alone is no substitute for the experience that underlies all good stories.

  2. Dustin

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    I have to say that I think you are presenting a classic ‘Chicken or Egg’ causality dilemma.

    I fully agree with you that “creating magical classrooms… come from what the students are doing more than from the rhetorical prowess of the teachers.” Yet, it’s is the Teacher who elicits the level of engagement to which the students will commit and ascend. I think, at the basic level it comes down to the relationships the teacher has built with each student in the class. Relationships are not built on rhetoric, they’re built on two way communication and sensitivity to the each other (Please note: The power dynamic between teacher and student, and the inherent professional relationship, between teacher and student, need to be fully understood and heeded). Those relationships build into a level of ‘trust’ and ‘openness’ that enables the class to responds as a whole. It is at this point the teachers ‘rhetorical prowess’ come in to play. The examples of orators from ‘barber shops, rap concerns and black pentecostal churches’ are examples of orators working the Dionysian aesthetic- spontaneity and emotion to create energy and excitement. But let us not forget those who approach from a more Apollonian manner, playing on the audiences psyche, intellect, and reason. {Do people still use Nietzsche in academic circles?}

    Depending on the audience/class either approach may be effective… especially if you have built previous relations with a class. The exclusive use of one of these methods above the other is limiting… students are individuals and need to be treated as such…

    I see many student teachers who have all the ‘smarts’ and ‘good intension’ yet not the Personality to build the relations with students that leads to amazing classrooms in which students readily engage with the curriculum and run with it, out of their own volition, to their own personal satisfaction. I think Mr. Emdin is correct when he says that teachers can learn from others to be better presenters. And, in becoming better presenters they will have more engaged students. Yet, if teachers are to only relay on contemporary forms of ‘Elocution’ I think it may merely be one myopic move forward in terms of unleashing the full potential of a classroom full of kids. I think this is what you are saying when you write that students should not be “passive recipients of content, but engaged creators, designers, contributors, composers, analysts, evaluators, activists, change agents, researchers, critics, defenders, interpreters, problem solvers, planners, and practitioners.” To which I whole heatedly agree.

    So I humble ask: When it come to ‘creating magical classrooms’ what comes first: The well thought out activities students are doing in-class, or building a high level of trust between teacher and students through communication(Rhetoric), in order that students willing to fully engage in the activities?

    My guess is that both must be in place if teachers, and students, are going to be ‘creating magical classrooms’.

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