Education should not be a spectator sport

Eric Mazur, dean of applied physics at Harvard University, was the keynote speaker at the Presidential Lecture at Federation Hall on June 8. He is widely known for his work on peer instruction, an interactive teaching method. The following is excerpted from his lecture.

“In 1984, I started teaching at Harvard and thinking back… the interesting thing that I realize now is that I never asked myself the question, ‘How am I going to teach?’

Which is kind of strange because that should be the first question you ask yourself when you do something new in your life … It was perfectly clear what I was going to do. I was going to do to my students what my professors had done to me: lecture.

… Very quickly, I started to believe that I was the world’s best physics teacher. That turned out to be a complete illusion. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was a very pleasant illusion and it went on for many years … I was lecturing from lecture notes and if students would have looked at the textbook they would have seen that the textbook wasn’t that different from my lecture notes … This scene takes place all over the world and therefore you could well ask yourself, ‘Is this what education is?’

Suppose that education was just the transfer of information. What would be the logical thing to do in the 21st century if that were true? … Put everything online. Record the best possible chemistry, physics and history lectures in English, Spanish, Chinese and all other languages and put them online … What would we lose if we did that with all our courses? … Interaction.

… How much interaction is there really in a lecture? I’m trying to interact with you. It’s not easy because of this setup. You’re all facing me. This is built like an auditorium. Who’s responsible for the architecture of auditoria? The ancient Greeks. Exactly for what purpose? It’s for theatre, for plays, for performances so that everybody could see and everybody could hear. Did the ancient Greeks use the performance space as a learning space? The answer is no. If you look at a representation of the school of Athens you see something very different. You see people talk and walk in pairs and discuss. The Greeks were smart enough not to use the performance space as a learning space. Somewhere in medieval Europe we started to use the theatre as a learning space, turning education into a spectator sport. I think that’s where things went wrong for the first time.

… You see as a learner, it’s not enough to open your skull, put the information in, close your skull and try to keep it there long enough so you can regurgitate exactly that same information back on the exam … You need to connect that information to experiences you’ve had, to things you already know. You need to extract from that information the knowledge and the mental models that permit you to apply what you’ve learned in a new context. That’s really the key to education.”

Watch Eric Mazur's full lecture