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Eric Mazur Keynote: Innovating education to educate innovators

Eric Mazur keynote: Blog post by Derek Wenmoth


Eric MazurEric Mazur is a unique and inspirational choice as opening keynote for ULearn17. The Balkinski Professor of Physics and applied physics at Harvard University - not only is he is a globally recognised physicist, but also a published author in the field of education - and also, and perhaps most importantly for his presence at ULearn, he is a technology entrepreneur, supporting startups in the education and technology markets. He has founded four tech startups.


Starting with an image of an early lecture theatre session, Eric unpacked with us the sorts of activity going on among the students - emphasising the difference between transmission of information and construction of knowledge that must take place in the minds of the learners. So the lecturer’s focus is on the transmission of information, focusing not so much on how they will teach, but on what they will teach.


His personal story of how he moved from this emphasis on sharing information, including sharing his lecture notes at the end of the class, illustrates the futility of this sort of activity, but reminds us all of the approach that still exists in many


When asking the audience “is education merely the transfer of information?”, the overwhelming response was NO - so the challenge for educators operating in this way becomes “what will you do when you no longer have a job?”


Ulearn audience


More significantly, as educators we should ask ourselves “what would we lose if we put all of our lecture notes online, or made them available for students online?” Would we lose interaction? collaboration? Contribution? Mazur claims we’d lose very little dialogue, very little interaction if we shared our notes with students.


So if education is more than the transfer of information, what is it? We need to take that information and extract from that the knowledge, the mental models, that let us do something with that information. Problem is, much of our current approach simply promotes the memorisation of information.


Using the example of the Force Concept Inventory, designed to assess student understanding of the Newtonian concepts of force, Mazur illustrated how the traditional, information sharing approach to teaching was inadequate in terms of how he was preparing his students in classes at Harvard University.


As a consequence, Mazur began to think of his teaching as more than the transfer of information. Firstly, he needed to create the opportunity for his students to digest that information, and apply it within the realm of their own experience - and in contexts beyond their own.

Eric illustration 1  


Mazur began to think about the need to invert (flip) what happened in the class with what happens out of class. This begins with appropriating the wisdom of Socrates, to teach by asking questions. His ‘aha’ moment came when, after trying unsuccessfully to explain a physics problem, he invited his class to discuss the problem with each other - and within minutes found they had figured it out. The realisation here is what we in NZ would understand as the power of tuakana teina, and the power of sharing ideas with someone who has only recently learned it, not necessarily the ‘expert’ whose knowledge is well established and intuitive. From this Mazur developed an entirely different approach in his class, starting with posing a question, polling the immediate responses - and then, instead of responding as the teacher, inviting students to discuss their responses among themselves and re-enter their response. The shift here is characterised by making the lesson more active (not passive), and allows for the personalisation of learning - with students able to engage with each other in ways that an individual teacher never can.

Eric illustration 2


Mazur’s clever use of the physics problem of what happens to the hole in the middle of a metal plate when it is heated demonstrated very powerfully the way we can increase learning power when we turn on the innate learning curiosity of our learners. The exercise moved from a focus on the fact, to the reasoning - he ignited the fire of the audience curiosity! His point was powerfully made with regards to how we need work with students in our classrooms. Mazur’s use of this approach has been researched to demonstrate the impact of this on student retention - the significance here being the difference between simply transferring information (focus on facts) to the engagement in creating knowledge (emergence of reasoning).


Ulearn 2We need to allow time for the brain to process the information - not simply ‘remember’ it. Moreover, but involving students in sharing among themselves, the learning is no longer an isolated experience. Education, deep down, is a social experience - not an isolated one (reference here to Vygotsky’s theories here)


Drawing to a close, Mazur introduced us to Perusall, a social learning platform developed by him and his colleagues, providing powerful asynchronous learning experiences for students out of class.


The big question to finish is, “who owns the learning?” (from Alan November) - and the need for us to deeply understand that must be the learners who own the learning, while in much of our current system it is the teacher who owns the learning. Mazur illustrated how a rubric-based assessment approach can be used as a powerful way of engaging students and enabling them to take ownership of their learning. This social interaction is what provides the intrinsic motivation for learners to learn.


Thank you Eric for a truly inspirational start to our ULearn conference - reminding us that learning is not about the transmission of information, that it is a social activity, and that it must be owned by the learner. And thank you for sharing this in a way that engaged us all and demonstrated so well the very points you were making.


Eric and the illustrations


What did you think of Eric's opening keynote for uLearn17? What one thing has inspired or triggered you to think or teach differently? We'd love for you to leave a comment and share your thoughts below...

Tessa Gray

Tessa Gray

Ko Tessa Gray toku ingoa, edSpace online facilitator. Passionate about growing thriving online communities. Based in the sunny Bay of Plenty.
    • Michele Tidswell
      Michele Tidswell

      As Eric pointed out "who owns the learning"  students do! We as teachers must remember "its not about us!' its about them...Its their learning journey....As one of my students said "Hey Mrs T, I'm the pilot on my learning journey..you're my co-pilot"..." I replied, for sure! and sometimes it can be a pretty bumpy ride ,your learning journey  but as co-pilot i'm right there with you!...

      • Tessa Gray
        Tessa Gray

        Thanks Michele Tidswell, I laughed at the pilot co-pilot story, I haven't seen Eric's keynote myself yet but will watch it over the next few days. I've already changed the way I engage with students are viewing Dr Ann Milne's presentation. I guess some people are born to inspire!

        Anyone else who missed Professor Eric Mazur's keynote on Innovating education to educate innovators, can view this below or in EDtalks.

        Love to hear more thoughts on this...

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