Thanks to Reuben Duncan, Assistant Superintendent at SAU 29 here in Keene for giving me permission to share this piece from his December “Curriculum Corner” newsletter.
Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Area Dean for Applied Phys-ics, Harvard University captivated an audience of high school princi-pals, central office administrators, and college/university leaders in Boston at the 127th Annual NEASC annual meeting entitled, “The Future Face of Learning.”
I remember taking calculus-based physics in college. I was one of approximately 350 students in the lecture hall. The drill went like this—I walked up the back flight of stairs so that I could find my seat in the back corner of the auditorium. After sitting down, I would sign in and write down my social security number (I thought this was odd, but everyone did it). Then I would copy whatever the professor wrote on the overhead projector into my 5-subject note-book. It was painful.
Professor Mazur indicated that he used to teach in a similar manner, lecture and notes, lecture and notes, lecture and notes.
He teaches at Harvard. His students are considered to be rela-tively high achieving. So, it was pretty shocking to him when he surveyed his class one year and found out that 70% of the students could not explain the concept of force. It was at that moment that he realized his exciting lectures had not been quite so enlightening.
Troubled by this, Professor Mazur did some major adjusting to his class. Rather than providing a stand and deliver approach to teaching, he started to orchestrate a little organized chaos. He posed questions to his students and asked all students to weigh in using a simple classroom response system. After receiving the class responses, which took approxi-mately twenty seconds, he then told his students to figure out the solution by discussing the problem with the person next to them. What he found was that a greater number of students understood the concepts, and they retained the information. He attributed this success to several things, but the major reason was the value of student discussion. Students know where the “pitfall” areas are surrounding understanding or not understanding a concept; hence they are better able to explain information and thought processes in a way another student will understand. Whereas, teachers often forget or lose the understanding of the “in between” thought processes.
Student conversation also allows and causes each student to use their minds at a greater level. Professor Mazur presented brain research that showed the level of brain activity of students in various settings. The graphs showed that student brain activity is almost flat lined while watch television. This probably is not surprising to most. The interesting information was that students sitting in a lecture showed the same flat line. Watching television and sitting in classes where the instruction is teacher-centered results in the same amount of brain activity—not so much.
So, I think back to what my parents, teachers, and coaches used to tell me. Rather than watch TV, do something active. My mom said, “TV will rot your brain.” If my mom was right and if passive learning or teacher-centered instruction mirrors the same type of brain activity as watching TV, then I say,
“Stop lecturing; it rots kids’ brains. Stop wasting their time!”