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Interview #5: Eric Mazur
I think they are not difficult to implement, but that doesn't mean that change is easy. The first step that any educational institution needs to do is to convince the stakeholders - teachers, administration, students and parents; that unless we change, we won't create individuals who will be successful in their later careers, and also help to create an environment where everybody feels comfortable with accepting potential failures.
It is very important to change our learning spaces. Most learning spaces are designed as an auditorium, and when you put students in a space like that they turn into a passive observer. So redesigning it to be more student centered is crucially important. Changing the role of the faculty member from being the 'sage on the stage to the guide on the side' is very important.
We need to ask ourselves what we are testing.
1) We should reflect the real world in assessment practices - students will have access to information. It forces them to go from the lowest order thinking skills—remembering—to higher order thinking skills—analysis, evaluation, application and creativity. Why cut people off from each other? Later on, they will have to work together, so reflect it in the assessment practices. That doesn't mean you take away individual accountability, but there are many other assessment practices available.
2) Focus on feedback, not grades. We know grades don't reflect future success. It is much more encouraging to learn from people, and we don't end up with misleading metrics that don't tell us how successful people will be.
3) We should focus on skills not content, as content gives the context for developing skills. We don't know what type of jobs our students will have, and these jobs might not even exist yet. Therefore skills are much more important because they are transferable, whereas content is not.
4) We should resolve this coach/judge conflict, because only in education do we have the people who teach be the coach and the judge at the same time. Involve the students in assessment; for students to be able to reflect on their own learning and see where they are relative to their peers is valuable information, and by revealing that, they learn.
I think we over-assess because too much assessment is done simply to get numerical metrics.
However, if we focus assessment on feedback then it's hard to over-assess, because then it becomes an exercise of doing, and the learner will focus on the practice rather than collecting points on some pecking order that might not be very relevant in the end.
I think one topic is the role of technology, because we have discovered that what teachers do can be put on the internet. Even though I'm a big proponent of technology I think that it has done little to impact education; most applications of technology in education is simply old wine into new bottles.
We use technology to do something that we're able to do rather than use it to afford a new mode of learning. I hope that people will start to think how to position technology to free up teachers' time to engage in more meaningful activities with students.
One thing is test your students, but again you would probably come out with one that tests rather low skills. Unfortunately this is the problem in assessing education, the only true measure of success is to track the students and see how successful they are later in life. That is not easy, so we have to strike a balance between testing things that are easy to collect but perhaps not that informative, versus tracking on the long term.
What I saw as a challenge then was how to make sure I delivered the best lecture I could prepare, but what is a challenge now is being the best coach for students, and how to stimulate the most learning rather than being the best teacher.
My advice to new teachers would be to reflect on their own learning and realise that learning did not occur while listening to teachers; it occurred outside. That's the important part that we should bring back into the classroom.
Eric Mazur is the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University, developer of Peer to Peer Learning and creator of the Learning Catalytics program.
Since launching the 'In Conversation' series in 2015, we now have a collection of interviews to present, with more arriving each month!
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