Eric Mazur and the Suppression of a Utopian Past

Eric MazurThe past few days my institution has been hosting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has made a name for himself in the world of “flexible learning” for his tweaks to the university lecture format to create what is sometimes called a “flipped classroom.”

His visit was much hyped by the university, and drew a large crowd. As he himself tells us, it was his fourth lecture in as many countries and as many days. Mazur is a big shot.

Essentially, his pedagogical tweaks involve the use of technology to incorporate student feedback and discussion. His technique is for the lecturer to introduce a concept, then pose a question. After responses to the question have been gathered, students discuss their answers among themselves before answering the question again; the lecturer goes over the correct answer and moves on. The point is that ideally students will have taught each other during the discussion phase, as will be demonstrated by their improved responses the second time they answer the same question. Not a bad idea per se, but hardly earth-shattering.

In short, Mazur argues for the inclusion of brief bouts of so-called formative assessment in what is otherwise a rather traditional teaching model. Mazur calls this “peer instruction.” He has a book on the topic. These days, more importantly, he also has a website he’d like to sell you. And so the product pitch is on.

Because otherwise there was little of any substance to his presentation. Yesterday, Mazur spent the first third of his uninterrupted two-hour spiel with some fairly jokey and anecdotal critique of the lecture format as a vehicle for student learning. The second third was devoted to selling us on the peer instruction technique. And the final third was a pitch for the product itself.

Pedagogy of the OppressedMazur’s thoughts on pedagogical theory were astonishingly superficial and, frankly, uninformed. Early on in the lecture, in response to a question, someone in the audience mentioned Paulo Freire’s “banking model”. For this indeed was precisely what Mazur was saying, that (in Freire’s words) in the conventional system:

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

But Mazur had patently never heard of Freire. Nor, it seems, was he aware of any other aspect of educational theory from the past fifty years.

It is not that one cannot criticize Freire (not least for a somewhat simplistic view of how banking works). But such criticism and dialogue with the past is impossible from Mazur’s position of total ignorance. An entire body of knowledge is being forgotten or suppressed. And this is rather convenient for the bevy of people who are trying to sell us their latest tweaks and gadgets.

For the point is that Freire was against the banking model in part because he was against banks: his argument is a radical critique of a hierarchical social structure and its economic underpinnings. His is a “pedagogy of the oppressed” because he believes that the current educational system perpetuates inequality, and he wants to do something about it.

Mazur’s aims are precisely the opposite: he wants to benefit from social stratification (leveraging his Harvard credentials) to make financial profit. A few weeks ago he sold his technology start-up to the corporate giant Pearson for somewhere between five and ten million dollars in hard cash (though he retains a position as consultant). For a company that’s less than two years old, that’s a quick buck indeed.

It is insulting on many levels to sit through a presentation such as Mazur’s: insulting to anyone who has spent any time reading and thinking about education; and insulting to be treated only as potential customers for a hard sell. But the broader issues are more concerning still.

For this is where we are at, with the current fuss about flexible education and the like. The radical educational proposals of the 1960s and 1970s are being rediscovered, now that their promise is finally realizable thanks to technological innovation. But their utopian thrust has been lost, their politics have been gutted, and everything has to be “monetized” as part of a massive round of enclosures in which for-profit start-ups and mega-corporations colonize the captive educational market.

The tragedy and the scandal is that universities such as my own allow this to happen. Driven by a desire to do what Harvard (and Stanford and the like) do, they lay down the red carpet, this week to Mazur’s shallow shill, last week to the founder of Coursera. They turn their backs on a whole field of educational theory and enquiry, in favour of the latest huckster with a fancy website. And they forget entirely what the university is supposed to be about, or what in the 1960s and 1970s we thought it could be about.

We have the means to make a previous generation’s utopian dreams real. But we have forgotten their vision, and want only to buy and sell the means as though it were an end of its own.

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12 thoughts on “Eric Mazur and the Suppression of a Utopian Past

  1. Reblogged this on Nomad Scholarship and commented:
    Jon Beasley-Murray on flexible education; the short version: “The radical educational proposals of the 1960s and 1970s are being rediscovered, now that their promise is finally realizable thanks to technological innovation. But their utopian thrust has been lost, their politics have been gutted, and everything has to be “monetized” as part of a massive round of enclosures in which for-profit start-ups and mega-corporations colonize the captive educational market.”

  2. Jon,

    I enjoyed your spirited take-down of Mazur, though I have a hard time getting quite as worked up about his presentation. Yes, it was more entertainment and soft sell than it was pedagogical innovation. But a few caveats.

    First, his model is better suited (and less offensive) in the sciences than the humanities. As he noted in an earlier talk, in science teaching, you know the answer but need to practice and understand the process of coming to the answer. His recycled peer instruction/”formative assessment” method is a more active, and apparently effective, way to achieve that than formal lectures. But in the humanities, we want students to practice addressing problems without singular answers. Perhaps you/we can come up with better ways of using classroom time effectively in humanities classes–certainly not by purchasing “Learning Analytics” software that allow us to poll students and display their (mostly wrong) answers in real time. But finding alternatives to lectures in classes with 100+ students is an ongoing challenge. I’ll look forward to your blog posts on the subject.

    Second, while I too lament the lost promise of 60s/70s pedagogical utopianism, we have to work with what we have. Our students are not, for the most part, utopian these days. Yes, we should look for (revive) pedagogical methods that will get them to confront difficult questions, both personal and social. I am keen to hear your thoughts on how technology can help us with this. My own take on flexible learning, MOOCs, & even Mazur is that they are encouraging technologies that allow us to move lecture material online & free up class for active learning. What we do with this opportunity is up to us.

    Thanks your thoughtful and provocative post…

  3. Eagle, thanks for your comments. Briefly…

    1) I have no particular problem with the technique that Mazur employs in his lecture. I welcome discussion and shared experiences about what works well (and what doesn’t) in our teaching. Sometimes we pick up on things can be applicable in our own classes, sometimes not. I’m more than open to think about how to adapt what has worked for scientists to the humanities classroom. Lectures are a challenge, which is why I generally teach in seminars and even tutorials. As to my own thoughts about what to do, some of this can be seen in my work on Arts One Digital. There is much room for further thought and experimentation.

    I do, however, object to both Mazur’s shallow thinking on the topic and his commercial pitch. I find them insulting and invidious.

    2) It may indeed be that our students are not utopian these days. But who is to blame them when we (and our senior management) have given up on such utopianism ourselves? When we give the impression that education is only about the efficiency and impact of “knowledge mobilization,” when we act as though our main problem is PR, when we prostrate ourselves before the invasion of venture capital and/or simply try to make a little of our own on the side… What really are we teaching?

    As for my own views on the uses of technology, again see Arts One Digital. And it is not as though the utopian impulse has been completely extinguished. There are people fighting for open access, open technology, open education, and so on. This is the most important issue of our time, I think. This university has shown that it can on occasion stand up to the corporate bullies, not least in its refusal of Access Copyright’s attempts at extortion. So there is hope. But we need to become a little more active ourselves.

    And (bearing in mind your own discipline), let me say that some of that “becoming active” involves learning a little more history: the history of the institution, the history of the debates around education, and so on. It involves doing what we do best, rather than trying to remake ourselves as entrepreneurs and hucksters. It involves, quite simply, our acting as a university should.

  4. A thoughtful analysis that addresses some of my own concerns. As the fast pace toward flexible learning continues, I wonder where educational theory is impacting/influencing decisions. UBC’s own website mentions pedagogy but only in the instance of flexibility of “delivery, interaction, and media of instruction.” Where is the discussion around vision beyond technologic innovation in the classroom? As with the “humanities-based” examples shown in the presentation yesterday, I question how technology translates into reflective discussion, the core underpinning of humanities engagement. I wish to be a part of this discussion.

  5. Erin, thanks for your comments. In some ways, that’s what I’m saying: I wish to be part of this discussion, too. The fear is that with the frenzied rush towards Coursera et al, alternatives (such as Arts One Digital) are being squeezed out. We need to ensure that there is space within the institution for other responses to the many challenges we face: responses that are open, not closed; humane and critical, rather than mere mindless enthusiasm; and that respond to the traditional mission of the university, rather than to market imperatives.

    More broadly, though, I wish for UBC to be part of the more general and more significant discussion that is otherwise going on without it: about the fate of the university and knowledge today. The university’s stance towards Access Copyright promised well; its rather more craven desire to be among what it perceives to be the elite by joining Coursera and inviting Mazur takes us in another direction.

  6. Jon – insulting and invidious indeed. The university’s stance on AC is I think entirely in keeping with its views on Coursera – based as it is on administrative expediency and not on a serious belief in the values of the knowledge commons. From one who was raised within the academy of the 60′s it seems to me that many institutions of higher learning have long since vacated their post as places of critical enquiry. This is not to say that there are not many islands of enquiry there but rather that you, and many of your colleagues, are increasingly fewer and further between. That said, my students at Emily Carr in “Cultural Production & the Law” are the new utopians as they reimagine ways to reshape our present. As I see it my role is to empower them to understand how the nature of hierarchy functions through law (and thus the coercive power of the state) and decide for themselves where they sit on the continuum of copyright. Hopefully they will create a present (future) that can pull us away from the folly of technological utopianism that appears to have taken hold. La lucha continua.

  7. gracias por esto jon, me alivia escuchar este tipo de cosas, esta universidad nos trata al mismo tiempo como “especialistas” y como idiotas. gracias por la accion en contra de la idiotez.

  8. Pingback: MOOCs and the Humanities | Posthegemony

  9. I (and many others) were doing Mazur’s in-class technique 10 years at least before he was. The only difference is that we weren’t at Harvard.

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