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At the Vanguard of Innovative Education with Eric Mazur
On December 6 Harvard professor Eric Mazur, known worldwide as the father of “flipped learning,” gave a talk at NTHU titled “Innovating Education to Educate Innovators.”Held in the International Conference Room, the event was attended by nearly 400 teachers and students. During his talk Mazur displayed the Chinese characters for “knowledge” (學問 xuewen), and said that they remind us that learning comes from questioning. He also stressed that we need to adopt innovative teaching methods for teaching the innovators of the future.
 
Mazur pointed out that in the past 50 years, many low-level jobs have been replaced by machines, and he foresees that in the next 50 years even more will be replaced by artificial intelligence and computers, including some of the work done by lawyers and doctors. Thus universities need to adopt a new approach to education focusing on problem solving and the work that can’t be done by machines or artificial intelligence.
 
Mazur currently holds a chair at Harvard University as Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and was the Dean of Applied Physics. He is also a member of the faculty of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and President of the Optical Society. He has taught at Harvard for 35 years, during which time he has continually asked himself how to teach better by adopting experimental and innovative teaching methods. In addition to physics and education students, a large number of faculty members were on hand to learn Mazur’s views on education and to ask questions.
 
Professors stuck in the past
 
Early in his talk, Mazur displayed an old painting of a lecture given at the University of Bologna in 1125 and said that in the intervening nine centuries, very little has changed in the way professors teach—standing at a podium, lecturing to students quietly taking notes. Early in his teaching career, Mazur also adopted this traditional approach, but soon began to see its limitations and wonder about how it might be improved.
 
In the process of teaching, Mazur gradually realized that thinking is a very important part of the learning process, but that it’s difficult to both listen and think at the same time. "No student has ever asked me to shut up in class so he could think quietly for five minutes." He also soon discovered that even though all his students could recite Newton's third law, most couldn’t correctly apply it to real-world problems in physics. Mazur said that one of the main obstacles faced by professors is what has been called "the curse of knowledge,” whereby the more you know about a subject, the more difficult it is to present it in a way easily understood by beginners.
 
"I used to think that I was a fantastic professor of physics, and that all my explanations were completely clear, because I always received good evaluations from my students. However, I later discovered that they weren’t really learning as much as I thought they were,” Mazur candidly revealed.
 
Mazur said that the traditional approach to education focuses on the transfer of information and the regurgitation of existing knowledge, an approach which makes it difficult to generate new ways of thinking. By contrast, the approach he advocates focuses on teamwork and creative thinking so as to enhance students' ability to think independently. Moreover, in the traditional teaching method, the simpler ideas are covered in the classroom, while the more difficult ones are given as homework. By contrast, Mazur advocates a “flipped” approach to teaching in which the concepts covered in class are those the students find most difficult to assimilate.
 
An innovative learning process
 
The teaching methodology developed by Mazur can be broken down into the following process: teacher questions → students quietly think for a few minutes → students use a button or cell phone to answer the question → students discuss with each other → answer again → teacher answers. For this process to work as intended, the students have to prepare in advance by reading the teacher’s notes or participating in an Massive Open Online Courses (MOCCs).
 
According to Mazur, it often happens that after just two minutes of lively discussion, students suddenly grasp concepts which they could barely make sense of after listening to the teacher lecturing for ten minutes. Suppose student A helps student B to understand a certain principle, and student C helps student D to do the same. Although the part that B and D failed to understand at first may have been totally different, they both cleared up their misunderstanding, something which a professor in front of a large class could never accomplish. Moreover, knowing that A and C have understood the principle they were grappling with would encourage B and D and motivates them to catch up with their classmates.
 
To demonstrate his model of flipped learning, Mazur explained the principle of thermal expansion and contraction and then posed the following question: "Consider a rectangular metal plate with a circular hole in it. When the plate is uniformly heated, will the diameter of the hole increase, decrease, or stay the same?” Then he asked everyone to choose an answer. Next came the discussion segment, in which he had everyone find somebody who answered differently, and try to convince him to accept one’s own answer.
 
Mazur pointed out how enthusiastically everyone discussed the question, and said that this demonstrates that even though his explanation failed to sufficiently convey the principle, “At least I succeeded in arousing everyone’s interest in this boring topic." He also pointed out that this type of discussion is an effective way to learn how to cooperate with others and hone valuable communication skills.
 
Learning at every turn
 
At this point, Mazur said that his approach to education is very similar to what Confucius was advocating long ago when he stated, “When doing something together with three other persons, there must be one who will have something to teach me. When I see that someone has a strong point, I emulate it; when I see that someone has a weak point, I correct it in myself.”When Mazur's speech ended, the audience burst into warm applause. Afterwards, a number of NTHU faculty members asked questions, beginning with how to balance the dual responsibilities of research and teaching.
 
Mazur said that it’s ironic that teachers who teach well are often asked to teach more classes, while those who teach poorly have their teaching load reduced. He also said that in his experience, when professors are chatting together, they usually talk about such topics as research, seminars, and publications, but rarely talk about how to improve their teaching. They just go into the classroom, shut the door, and teach exactly as they’ve always taught. Such an approach to teaching isn’t conducive to improvement, and this is something universities need to think about.
 
At the vanguard of physics and innovative education
 
Mazur was invited to speak at NTHU by his long-time associate, Prof. Pan Ci-ling of the Department of Physics. In his introduction, Pan said that Mazur is a fellow of the American Physical Society, and is widely recognized for his research work in the field of nanophotonics. He has won many major awards in both physics and education, and has founded several very successful startups.
 
The event was organized by the Center for Teaching and Learning Development. The Center’s director, Professor Chiao Chuan-chin, said that Mazur began developing his “flipped classroom” over two decades ago while teaching university classes with over 200 students. He also said that in an age when lots of professors are at a loss as to how to teach students accustomed to sleeping through class or constantly fiddling with their mobile phones, Mazur’s innovative approach to education comes as a real eye opener.
 
Harvard professor Eric Mazur, explaining that the Chinese characters for “knowledge” remind us that learning comes from questioning.

Harvard professor Eric Mazur, explaining that the Chinese characters for “knowledge” remind us that learning comes from questioning.


Mazur said that his approach to education is very similar to what Confucius was advocating long ago.

Mazur said that his approach to education is very similar to what Confucius was advocating long ago.

Mazur’s talk was attended by nearly 400 teachers and students.

Mazur’s talk was attended by nearly 400 teachers and students.

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