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The Flipped Classroom Will Redefine the Role of Educators

AUDIO | The Flipped Classroom Will Redefine the Role of Educators in 10 Years
As flipped classrooms become more prevalent in the next 10 years, the role of the instructor will transform into one of a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”

The following interview is with Eric Mazur, area dean of Applied Physics at Harvard University and the University’s Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics. Since introducing the flipped model to his classroom, Mazur has seen a great response from his students, both in their attitudes and in their grades. In this interview, Mazur explains the benefits of this approach, and how it will redefine the role of postsecondary educators in 10 years’ time.

1. How long has it been since you first experimented with the flipped classroom model, and how has it changed your teaching experience?

Well, it’s been quite a while. It started in 1991, so 22 years ago. And, let me tell you, I made the change overnight. As I started to teach a new semester, I decided, “Okay I’m going to change my approach,” and I have never looked back.

In fact, whenever I lecture for professional reasons, at a conference or anything else, and I don’t have an ability to get immediate feedback from my audience as I get from my students, I feel totally lost. So, I couldn’t even go back if you pointed a gun at my head.

2. When you started the flipped classroom approach in 1991, what style of lecture did you send students home with? Was it an audio lecture, or was it something a little more interactive as a video?

I used the greatest invention in information technology, called the book. Essentially I had the students read the textbook before coming to class, rather than having me regurgitate the textbook in class.

In fact, a lot of people think that the flipped classroom consists of having people look at video lectures, but you don’t need a video lecture. In fact, most video lectures are just as boring and useless as live lectures because you cannot really pause and think. Yes, you can hit the pause button, but very few people do that. In fact, most students, when they look at online lectures, put the playback speed at 1.2 or 1.5 in order to go through it faster, rather than more slowly. The good thing about reading is, you can put the book down for a moment and think. But, in any case, what I want to point out is that the idea of the flipped classroom is much older than most people think.

If you go back to the early 1900s at my own institution of Harvard, in the law school, they started implementing the case study method, which I think is, in a sense, first implementation of the flipped classroom. Instead of teaching the law to the students, the professors were teaching the practice of the law by having students read cases before class and then discussing the cases in class. So I think, you know, there’s nothing really new; the word “the flipped classroom” was not used. But the case study method is, in a sense, one of the first implementations of the flipped classroom.

When I started doing what I did, I didn’t call it the flipped classroom. I called it, “Peer Instruction” and I basically said the following: I said, “Look, education is a two-step process. The first step, you need to transfer information. In the second step, the learner needs to do something with that information —  build mental models, make sense of it, be able to see how that information and the knowledge embedded in it applies to the world around us.”

In most traditionally-taught classrooms, particularly in lecture classrooms, the focus is completely on the first step, the transfer of information. And, essentially, except maybe in humanities and, again, in law schools and business schools, the professors focus completely on the transfer of information by essentially — and I’m going to sound maybe a little bit pejorative, but there’s a deep truth to it, I think — regurgitating printed material.

So, in 1990 I decided that … I was going to — and at that time I didn’t use the word “flipped” — I said, I was going to invert the approach. Rather than doing step one, the transfer of information, in class and then letting the students make sense of that information out of class … I was going to focus on that second step in class and put the information transfer before.

So, I asked my students to read and write my notes, my lecture notes, to read the textbook and then in class I was helping them understand the meaning of everything they had read, by teaching — and this again is a very old idea — by teaching-by-questioning rather than teaching-by-telling.

3. Do you think the flipped classroom model will become a more widespread approach to teaching in colleges and universities in 10 years?

… Let’s go back to the case study method and business schools; if you look there, I would say most business schools and most laws schools, certainly in the [United States], have adopted the case study approach. So, at least in those areas, I would say the flipped model — this flipped model, this implementation of the flipped model — is very widely used. And I think that one of things that is happening now, now that you can make lectures easily available online, I think what is going to happen is that more and more people are going to wonder, “… What is the role of the professor? What are we going to do in the classroom?”

… Before Gutenberg developed the printing press, there was only one way to transfer the information from generation to the next. Put the sage on the stage to disseminate the knowledge and let the scribes in the benches write it down. After the book came out, there was another vehicle for the transfer of information. I think it was probably not until the Industrial Revolution that books became a commodity, so for the past 150 years, we’ve had this book that’s played a not-very-well-defined role in education, because rather than them being used as a vehicle for information transfer, it was used for students as a reference to understand what has happened in the classroom. But I think now with other vehicles — video, online lectures, the internet — I think there’s going to be much more pressure on instructors to reconsider what they do in the classroom. And, I think that the internet also is responsible for promoting this whole idea of the flipped classroom. …

But, yes, I do think that over the coming few decades, there is going to be more and more pressure on faculty to adopt this model because, if you think about it completely pragmatically, it is really the only way to go.

If we continue to lecture, we will very quickly become obsolete.

4. What will this mean for the traditional, lecture-based approach to teaching in higher education?

Well, I think anybody who insists on continuing to teach [using that model] is in danger of losing his or her job. Just as anybody who, in the 1800s, was trying to make a living from lecture notes lost out to professional publishing companies that published books with much better curated content. And I think that could happen with a lot of the online delivery content as well.

But I think that’s really holding a negative view and I tend to have a positive view of it, because what I think, is that the delivery of information is the easy part, that is not the hard part of education. It’s the trivial part of education.

The hard part is: how do you help students to go beyond rote memorization and surface learning and how do you make them become deep learners? So I think that one of things that is going to happen is that what we do in the classroom is going to change dramatically and, as a consequence, there is going to be much more focus on deep learning rather than just surface learning. So, I see this as an opportunity to really raise the quality of education rather than just replacing brick-and-mortar universities with virtual universities of our mind, which I don’t think would do very much for education.

5. If the flipped classroom model becomes the norm across the higher education space in a decade, how will that transform the role and responsibilities of professors and instructors in higher education?

It will change it absolutely dramatically. Rather than being the sage on the stage, the role of the instructor is going to be a coach or … the guide on the side.

And I think we will need to rethink our learning spaces too. Rather than having the amphitheatre, which puts the students in a passive mood immediately and the professor at the center of the attention, we need to design our spaces so they become student-centered.

So, I think the role of the instructor, rather than becoming the source and the deliverer of knowledge, will become much more that of a facilitator, of a coach. … Rather than just telling you what I know, I’m going to probe your knowledge and push you to build your own knowledge.

So I think that there is going to be a dramatic shift but, let me tell you, that shift is overdue. Because our approach to teaching is really as dated as the academic robes that we wear at graduation. It basically dates back to when … a few beginning universities were teaching theology in Europe and that approach that was developed close to 1,000 years ago is living on until right now in the 21st century. So it’s time we rethink our approach to teaching because the world around us has definitely changed in those 1,000 years.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the evolution of the classroom over the next decade and what the role of the teacher will be in higher education?

Well, I think I want to point out one other thing which I’ve become aware of more and more, and that is that it’s not sufficient to think about our approach to teaching. We need to really, really, really start thinking about our approach to assessment. Because just as our approach to teaching has focused on — and again I’m using this pejorative expression — on regurgitation of material, so does most of our assessment focus on the regurgitation back of information by students.

I mentioned before the surface learning. In the surface learning, you retain something and then you repeat it back and you’re really not able to apply whatever you’ve learned to a new context, which I think probably typifies a lot of the learning that is taking place. So I think that unless we rethink our assessment, it’s going to be very difficult to change our approach to teaching. Why? Because most students’ study habits are driven by our approach to assessment. They study not because of this inherent or intrinsic desire to study. No, they study because they want to pass the test. So, the way they are going to study is going to be determined by the way they’re going to be tested. If you look at an average exam, you see people cut off from information, cut off from each other and questions … to which the answer can basically be looked up in books or on Google. And I’d say those types of skills don’t mimic what we need to do in real life. In fact, I ask many people, “Did you ever, after taking your last exam in college or wherever you took it, in your professional life encounter a situation that mimicked the situation in an exam where you’re cut off from other people, cut off from information?” The answer is no. As a professor at Harvard, I can look up whatever information I want. It’s not about remembering the information, it’s about knowing how to use it. So, to me, assessment has all of a sudden become much more important.

I think, in a sense, assessment is the silent killer of educational innovation because, no matter how good your intentions are in your approach to teaching, unless we really rethink how we evaluate our students,  it’s going to be really difficult to change their behavior and therefore accomplish what we want to accomplish.

I’ve been saying a number of negative things about the lecture, and I don’t want to bash the lecture completely; after all, I give many lectures. The lecture still has a motivational component, and just as people still go to concerts, even if they have the recording of a group or ensemble, so do students, I think, occasionally want to hear the expert speak live rather than read a book about it or view the person on tape. So I don’t want to make this sound completely as a black-and-white universe, where you have the people who want to lecture on one end and the people who do not want to lecture on the other. There’s a continuum, of course. But I think that in this continuum, we’ve been very much on the lecture side and used that as almost an exclusive approach to teaching, and I think that in the next 10 to 20 years we’re going to see a dramatic shift towards what I would say are more meaningful approaches to helping students learn and I think it’s a fantastically exciting time. I’m delighted to be alive now.

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