This is the second time I have heard Dr. Eric Mazur from Harvard University (Exemplary Practices in Leadership Conference on October 17, 2013 sponsored by CSU Fresno's Central Valley Leadership Institute), and I am enriched and even more equipped in my knowledge of classroom practices and how they affect learning.
It was interesting to see the majority of the answers consistently polled among all of his audiences to the question, "How do we best become really good at what we are best at dong?" Unequivocally the majority answer in his word cloud has been "practice." He emphasized nobody answers “lecture.”
He went on to display 24-hour period EEG brainwave activity slides of students. The brain goes flat while students are in class and watching television! He noted the brainwave activity is greater during sleep than class.
The explanation? The brain shuts down because the learning is passive, and we become receivers of input (lecture and television) in lieu of having the opportunities to think and pause and reflect when the brain is working.
What happens in a lecture? We are watching, listening, observing, and the mind is often wandering, (brains not wired to multitask), daydreaming, etc. We are in a passive mode.
He brought up the idea about the typical classroom architecture. It was derived from the ancient Greeks that designed these as performance spaces; not learning spaces.
Key question: is education simply a transfer of information? If it is, what pragmatic thing should we do? We could then get a computer to transfer information, correct? Would that then accomplish the same purpose? Students don't study to learn, they study to pass the test. So much of education is about the student regurgitating information back to us. Is it more than just getting them to do what we want them to do?
The obvious answer is education is more than the transfer of information. It is about engagement, passion, collaboration, hands on, brains on, practice, doing something with information, and thinking about the information. Education is more about exploration with opportunities to create and think. (You cannot think while you are listening).
He noticed a problem with his Physics students showing an ability to do complicated textbook problems, and yet, not able to understand a basic Physics concept such as "force." He realized this was so because they did so by rote. There was no transfer of knowledge. There was a lack of retention of the material with an absence of application.
The reality is there is a initial need to transfer information, and this first step happens in class where the teacher assimilates the information, help students make sense of it, and connects it to their experiences.
The second more important step typically happens outside of class. How does the “aha” moment happen? This occurs most times outside of the classroom. This second step is the hardest and the one that should be focused on. We leave students to do the second step on their own. Unfortunately, ninety percent of the flipped classroom movement is on step one.
The answer is really nothing new: teach by questioning rather than by telling (Socrates)
He has a process in place that leverages this principle: question, think, poll, discuss (find neighbor with different answer and try to persuade), re-poll, and explain. This provides students the opportunity to assess their own knowledge. Information now goes both ways.
He found by structuring and encouraging peer discussion, he could overcome the “Curse of Knowledge.” Recent learners’ explanations can be much more powerful in their effectiveness because they just encountered the struggle and the “aha” in their learning. We teachers forget the struggles in learning because it is so far removed from us in time and experience.
This whole process puts the information in context. Students just do not receive the information as passive learners, but now they are in a position to actively think about the question. They turn to a neighbor to not just discuss the answer but are forced to discuss the reasoning behind the answer. Now there is an ownership and even an emotional involvement in the discussion, which amplifies learning even more.
Results? There were doubled conceptual learning gains with an increased performance in traditional problems. Just as marathon runners require running to prepare for running, Physics students have to practice Physics and solve Physics problems instead of watching a Harvard professor do problems.
FYI, Peer instruction.net is a resource for teachers to find other people who are using peer instruction in Mathematics.
Ultimately these principles and findings about powerful learning is still about human interaction!
Copies of the above slides were obtained from Dr. Mazur's October 17, 2013 lecture at the above referenced conference.
Dr. Mazur has referenced a copy of his presentation at: mazur.harvard.edu