The Circle is Broken: Forced Distance Learning and the Magic Circle

I have started of several gamification talks telling the story of my then 7 year old son getting into a fight before he got home on day. He was punched, kicked, and knocked down and all of this took place in front of a teacher… and the kid that knocked over my boy was praised by the adult!

The punchline is that this all took place at his Karate Dojo.

This story is meant to illustrate the gamification concept of “the Magic Circle” popularized by Johan Huizinga. The short version of this concept is that when a player enters a game space the normal “real world” rules don’t apply. In normal society if another kid pushed my kid over and punched him I would call the principal but when my son steps onto the Dojo floor a new set of rules overrides the normal expectations. Another example is that in Grand Theft Auto a player can commit a car jacking and earn points. If the police follow the player they can just hide for a few minutes and the police give up. In a real life situation this make zero sense but within the Magic Circle if the game it fits in with the game play logic.


Before our forced distance learning experience an EduTwitter controversy would often flare up around the “Pinterest Classroom”. I never really cared either way. Frankly, it seemed like one of those algorythm tricks EduCelebs have to drive up their social media interactions. Dave Burgess and the Teach Like a Pirate crew get a lot of followers posting classroom transformatiom pictures and critics get a lot of followers by raging against them. I understand the criticisms – not everyone has the time or resources – but I also understand what the class transformers are trying to accomplish. They are trying to create a clearly visible Magic Circle.

Certainly a visual marker is not necessary to create the Magic Circle. The concept is just that the normal rules of the ‘real world’ are altered within the space (which can be virtual or physical). Setting up visual cue like a room transformation can help trigger a mental transition. This is one reason why Disney World spends so much time, effort, and money creating thematic displays around their park. When you enter a space where ‘Disney Magic’ is possible. Other physical cues can indicate to students that they are entering into the classroom Magic Circle. Those individualized handshake are one example but music, pictures on the wall could also be a signal. In the end a classroom’s Magic Circle is a set of shared understandings. Maybe you call them classroom procedures or rules, maybe they are your listed in your syllabus or posted on the wall. Many are just unspoken expectations.

What is important is that students and the teacher know that the classroom is not ‘the real world’. Yes, the people within the classroom are actors in “the real world” and classroom actions might have “real world” consequences. However, just like my son’s Dojo bent the normal rules of society and allowed kids to hit each other and just like Disney World let’s people experience Magic, the classroom is a special Magic Circle that alters normal social expectations. The difficulty with this Forced Distance Learning is that the normal rules of classroom Magic Circle creation no longer apply.

Very few teachers chose to move into this forced distance learning model. For the record, in addition to teaching in a traditional high school setting I also teach online classes for my local university. The difference between these two models is choice. My online college students have chosen to enter the online world of education. They have certain expectations and over the course of the first few weeks expectations and relationships are built. Like a video game, if they don’t like the world they have entered they can choose not to participate. Students that choose to “play” my online courses do extremely well. The problem in this forced distance model is that the students have no choice and no schema for recognizing the distance learning Magic Circle.

Frankly, I am having trouble establishing the online Magic Circle as well. The physical markers of the classroom version are mostly absent. My experience in the online classes is either not applicable, prevented by mandates, or hampered by tech limitations. Both teacher and students are having trouble recognizing the virtual markers.

Also important is that we are living through a Global Pandemic. The real world is both simultaneously Hyper Intense and Hyper Boring. Teachers and Students are both locked down dealing with monotony and drudgery of the same for walls and isolation as well as knowing the incredible danger and catastrophe that lies ahead. Many of my students are among the most vulnerable in this Pandemic. The real world has invaded our mental space and is breaking through the barrier of the Magic Circle. I was at Disney World once when a man next to us collapsed and fell on the bridge next to Cinderella’s castle. For a moment the Disney spell was broken and the real world flooded into the Magic Kingdom. Within a minute that man was surrounded by Disney Characters blocking him and the paramedics from the view of the Disney Guests because Disney knows that when the real world enters the Circle the Magic disappears.

So I am left with the following questions:

  1. How do I create a Virtual Magic Circle?
  2. How do I encourage students to voluntarily enter this Magic Circle?
  3. How do I prevent the real world from breaking this Magic Circle? Should I even be thinking that is a desirable goal?

If you are here for answers I don’t have them yet. I wish I did but we are all stumbling through this and making the best of this terrible situation. If you have thoughts or suggestions or even questions that you want to add send me a message on Twitter (@MrPowley) or comment here. Right now I am trying to do what I can to make this as easy as possible for the kids – both those at the school and my own sons that are struggling through this as well because right now the Circle is Broken.

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