Meet our guru
Last week, Harvard professor Eric Mazur was in Utrecht. He’s the visionary behind the learning communities and the ‘flipping the classroom’ method.
According to Mazur, education is not simply a transfer of information. The important step is assimilating that information and applying it to a different context. But that doesn’t happen in most lectures.
In his classes, students think about a question in silence and, afterwards, discuss it together.
Studies prove that students’ understanding and problem-solving skills increase dramatically when they learn through peer instruction.
Dutch students may lack the self-discipline that peer instruction requires. However, the method can be adapted anywhere.
He understands the confusion among Dutch teachers. ‘In a learning community, the better students become the teachers and the poorer students the learners.’
‘Peer instruction is structured, only differently’, Mazur argues. ‘And there will always be students that are lost.’
Reading time: 7 min. (1,591 words)
On their study trip to the United States last February, rector Elmer Sterken and his twelve RUG apostles heard Harvard professor of Physics and Education Eric Mazur’s confession. Mazur confessed that, if he were in charge, the traditional lecture would be dead. He is an evangelist for interactive learning. He is one of the reasons that the Faculties of Medicine, Spatial Sciences and Pedagogy in Groningen are experimenting – and struggling – with learning communities now.
Last Wednesday, Mazur made another confession. At an event celebrating 25 years of bilingual education in Utrecht, he was there to talk about education rather than dual language use. That is striking, if you know Mazur: raised in Amsterdam and Paris by a Austrian father and a Belgian mother, both of whom were academics, he once swore to never start a career in education. Mazur dropped out of his first year of astronomy in Leiden, numbed by the uninspired way the material was taught. He tried again in physics, but it was during his ‘promotie’ (his PhD – he still remembers the word in his rusty Dutch) that he ‘rediscovered the beauty of science’.
Mazur argues that education is not simply the transfer of information, which is what currently happens in lectures. The important step is assimilating that information and applying it to a different context which, in the classic lecture model, is left almost entirely to the student. In Mazur’s view, it should be the other way round.
Lecturing teaches nothing
In Utrecht, Mazur – a slight man with dark hair and prominent eyebrows – wears a dark grey suit, probably similar to the one that was covered in chalk that he wore when he desperately tried to explain one of Newton’s elementary laws on the blackboard to a room full of advanced yet clueless physics students.
It was 1990 and Mazur had given the class a basic physics test on common physical phenomena – according to alarming research by Halloun and Hestenes, students often scored poorly on it. ‘Not my students’, Mazur thought to himself. He handed out the test and saw his students, who had been working on complex problems for almost half a semester, freak out over ‘simple’ questions.
His conclusion: lecturing teaches students little to nothing. Disillusioned, Mazur cut the crap and wrote a book, Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual (1997).
‘First, I ask a question’, Mazur explains on stage and later in the Beatrix Theatre’s board room, equipped with a bowl of Celebrations chocolates. ‘The students must think about it in silence.’ This ensures a fair chance for everyone. Also, the thinking is missing in lectures. ‘How often do you hear someone say: “Professor, be quiet for ten minutes – I have to think”?’
Then, the students give their individual answer, followed by finding a neighbour with a different answer and trying to convince each other. ‘I want my classroom to be a kindergarten’, Mazur says. ‘During the discussion, the class erupts into chaos.’
Finally, there’s a second vote, which usually results in the majority having found the right answer. Everyone is forced to use the knowledge in an active way. ‘It’s impossible to sleep through my class’, Mazur says.
Data – ‘because data are important in education’ – from various studies proves that students’ understanding and problem-solving skills increase dramatically when students learn through peer instruction.
Mazur’s Socratic method went relatively unnoticed until some colleagues at Stanford used it in their Introduction to Physics classes. They reported back to Harvard, full of enthusiasm: ‘Look, we’re using this amazing Harvard method and it works great!’ But the Harvard professors asked, puzzled, ‘What method?’
Suddenly, he had everyone’s attention.
Mazur is reluctant to call it a revolution. ‘A revolution means a counter-revolution, and often throwing away the good things. Changes should happen slowly and deliberately.’
At Harvard, conventional lecturing is still mainstream. Peer instruction is growing, though. ‘Some teachers start with a lecture and one question in the middle’, Mazur says. ‘They adopt and adapt.’
Can peer instruction simply be copy-pasted in Groningen?
It can be adapted anywhere, Mazur believes. ‘Learning is learning is learning. Groningers are also human beings: born learners with an innate curiosity. There are no cultural differences.’
Is Mazur a cultural universalist? When it comes to education, yes. Values, however, are a different story. ‘In Saudi Arabia, the views on religion, on women driving – everything is the opposite of, for example, America. But how they look at education is remarkably similar.’ That is why peer instruction is applicable to many disciplines, varying from medicine to French drama.
Does it matter at all that the method was developed at Harvard, where all students are in an elite class of intelligence and motivation?
Not about content
If there is one difference, it’s ‘this “zesjescultuur”’. The word comes out with disbelief and a hint of disgust. ‘That was completely foreign to me. Harvard students all have a desire to do well – maybe not always for the right reasons, but still.’
Dutch students may lack the self-discipline that peer instruction requires. Mazur leaves the responsibility for the information transfer to them. ‘I expect them to read the book or watch the online lecture before class.’
Flipping the classroom, in other words. That resonates in the communities in Groningen, where PowerPoints are a no-go.
But isn’t some basic knowledge, like multiplication tables, being taught in a traditional setting essential to understanding more complicated material?
‘All those facts’, Mazur sighs. ‘It’s not about content, it’s about skills. You learn to drive a car by sitting in a car, and you don’t give a rat’s ass about how every single car part works.’
Maybe his Montessori background has made him somewhat anarchistic. ‘I hate remembering things. I reject the focus on assessment. Students are just studying to pass an exam. But three days later, the information has left their brains again. Failing and taking risks are discouraged by universities.’
And then, in February, the Groningen delegation came calling. ‘I had met Elmer Sterken before’, Mazur recalls. ‘At Harvard, I told him about team- and project-based learning, which goes further than peer instruction.’ The team and project approach is recognizable in the Spatial Sciences learning community, where groups do practical research in a neighbourhood.
Mazur’s eyes twinkle when he hears about the pilots in Groningen. ‘I usually speak somewhere, leave and don’t know what audiences do afterwards. I’m delighted to hear something’s happening.’
He understands the confusion among Dutch teachers, though. ‘Learning community is a multi-interpretable word. I like it because of the emphasis on learning instead of teaching. In a learning community, the better students become the teachers and the poorer students the learners.’
The Groningen learning communities aim for a social as well as an academic component. Mazur insists on learning being, above all else, a social activity. ‘What helped me in my work are my communication and collaboration skills more than my scientific knowledge.’
Mention team to a Dutch student and another phrase immediately comes to mind: free riders. That’s why students working on a team, just like Dutch government ministers, should always be held accountable individually. Mazur: ‘At Harvard, students evaluate each other and themselves. Those evaluations affect the grade. That subjects students to a prisoner’s dilemma, which forces them to be honest.’
Might studying online at home, due to its lack of supervision, be more likely to affect the integrity of students’ research? The uncontrollable flood of information available online has increased the urgency of the fraud debate. It is almost impossible to check every possible source.
‘If you make cheating possible, you’re not doing the right thing. Students can google whatever they want in my class. Is that cheating? I’m googling all the time. Does that make me a bad physicist?’
Arguments about costs are also invalid, as Mazur sees it. The fact that the RUG has fewer financial resources than Harvard shouldn’t hold it back from innovating. ‘Paying professors to repeat the same lectures over and over, that’s a waste of money. Film it, put it online and fire the professor.’
Commitment to change
Mazur recognizes other problems that could come about in implementing peer instruction in Groningen, such as the workload and dividing massive studies (law, psychology) into manageable teams. ‘There are more obstacles than things that help’, he admits. ‘I admire Sterken for his commitment to change.’
And change is difficult. Why radically swap a system which, in students’ and teachers’ eyes, works perfectly well with some vague and premature system? According to Mazur, the lack of accountability for teachers also plays a role in this.
‘Of course teachers say it works great. The people who teach the course also examine the students and evaluate themselves. It’s almost like the mafia. There’s no other human enterprise where the same person does both tasks.’
But aren’t there deans and colleagues to monitor the teacher’s performance? ‘That’s minimal’, Mazur thinks. ‘The dean isn’t going to evaluate what the students have learned.’
Does that apply to Dutch universities, too? ‘To the whole world’, Mazur says.
What about students who can’t handle the freedom? Students with learning problems, or those who benefit from a structured environment, or simply abhor group work?
‘Peer instruction is structured, only differently’, Mazur says. ‘And there will always be students that are lost, for personal or other reasons, whatever you do.’