I am very excited to present this next installment in the 4+1 Interview series, this time featuring Prof. Eric Mazur of Harvard University. Prof. Mazur has been an innovator and driving force for positive change in STEM education for over 25 years, most notably as the inventor of peer instruction, which I’ve written about extensively here on the blog. His talk “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” singlehandedly and radically changed my ideas about teaching when I first saw it six years ago. So it was great to sit down with Eric on Skype last week and talk about some questions I had for him about teaching and technology.

You can stream the audio from the interview below. Don’t miss:

A quick side trip to see if peer instruction is used in K-6 classrooms.

Thoughts about how Eric’s background as a kid in Montessori schools affected his thoughts about teaching later.

Have you ever tried out a new instructional method or course design – like peer instruction or the inverted classroom – and had not just a few students become discontent but entire groups of students who band together to push back? Or even put together a Facebook group to protest? It’s not pretty. Following last week’s Teaching and Learning Institute, where I talked with several college profs about this and other potential pitfalls of the flipped classroom, I happened to catch this answer on Quora to the question, How does a company handle an anti-marketing campaign like Dump Dropbox? and it seemed to me there are a lot of potential applications of this problem to the problem of mass student pushback.

To begin, the answer’s author says:

1. In public, ignore it.

2. Quietly shore up your messaging on any points where they landed a good punch.

I was really fortunate this past weekend to host Dana Ernst and T.J. Hitchman, two colleagues (from Northern Arizona University and University of Northern Iowa, respectively) at the Michigan MAA section meeting. They did a discussion panel on Teaching to Improve Student Learning that I organized, and we ended talking a lot about inquiry-based learning, which both of these guys practice. After Dana blogged about the session, he got this tweet:

@danaernst would you consider modified Moore Method a flipped classroom? I would say there’s overlap in practice but different philosophy

Dana, Brandon, and I exchanged some tweets after that, and I think generally we’re on the same page, but here’s my reasoning about this question and, more generally, what does or does not fall under the heading of “flipped classroom”.

The main thing to keep in mind is the distinction between an instructional practice and a course design principle. This was the gist of my post a…

The Washington Post reports this morning (apologies if this is behind a paywall) about how some universities are (finally?) moving from in-class lecture as the basis for their “large lecture” courses to the flipped or inverted classroom. Says the article:

Colleges are absorbing lessons from the online education boom, including the growth of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. And some professors are “flipping” their classrooms to provide more content to students online and less through standard lectures.

William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the system hopes the redesigned courses save money and boost performance.

“The passive, large lecture method of instruction is dead,” Kirwan said. “It’s just that some institutions don’t know it yet. We do.”

This is nice to hear, but watch out for that phrase, “saves money…

Linear algebra is a strange course in some ways. There are a lot of mechanical skills one has to learn, like multiplying matrices and performing the Row Reduction Algorithm. If you come into linear algebra straight out of calculus with a purely instrumental viewpoint on mathematics, you will almost certainly think that these mechanical skills are the point of linear algebra. But you’d be wrong! It’s the conceptual content of the subject that really matters. Like I tell my students, you can answer almost any question in linear algebra by forming a matrix and getting it to reduced row echelon form….

I’m excited and happy to be teaching linear algebra again next semester. Linear algebra has it all — there’s computation that you can do by hand if you like that sort of thing, but also a strong incentive to use computers regularly and prominently. (How big is an incidence matrix that represents, say, Facebook?) There’s theory that motivates the computation. There’s computation that uncovers the theory. There’s something for everybody, and in the words of one of my colleagues, if you don’t like linear algebra then you probably shouldn’t study math at all.

Linear algebra is also an excellent place to use Peer Instruction, possibly moreso than any other sophomore-level mathematics course. Linear algebra is loaded with big ideas that all connect around a central question (whether or not a matrix is invertible). The computation is not the hard part of linear algebra — it…

I’m really excited to be working next semester as a co-PI on a National Science Foundation grant with my Grand Valley State colleagues Scott Grissom (Computer Science), Shaily Menon (Chemistry), and Shannon Biros (Chemistry). We’re going to be interviewing a large number of GVSU faculty to try to understand why some of us adopt research-based instructional methods like peer instruction and why others don’t.

As we were putting together the grant proposal earlier this year, one statistic really impressed the importance of this study on me. GVSU is a fairly big place – we have nearly 25,000 students on multiple campuses with both undergraduate and graduate degrees offered. I don’t know how many sections of courses we offer in a given semester, but it’s got to be in the thousands. We have over 40 sections currently running for just College Algebra! And yet: How many sections…

Here’s the first (and so far, only) screencast that students will use in the inverted transition-to-proof class:

This one is a bit more lecture-oriented than I intend most of the rest of them to be, so it’s a little longer than I expect most others will be. But I do break up the lecture a little bit with a “Concept Check”, which is the same thing as a ConcepTest except I’ve never warmed to that particular term (the word “test” puts students on edge, IMO).

If you have tried out any of Udacity’s courses or read my posts about taking Udacity courses, you will see some obvious inheritances here. I tried to keep the video short, provide simple but interesting examples, and give some measure of formative assessment in the video. I am exploring ways to make the Concept Check actually doable within YouTube — Camtasia 2 has an “interactive hotspot” feature I am trying to figure out — …

So, the six-week Calculus 2 class is over with — that didn’t take long — and there’s beginning to be enough distance between me and the course that I can begin to evaluate how it all went. Summer classes for me are a time when I like to experiment with things, and I wanted to comment on the outcomes of one experiment I tried this time, which is using a bring-your-own-device setup for clicker questions.

I’ve been using TurningPoint clickers ever since I started doing peer instruction, and I recommend these devices highly. They have a lot going for them in terms of classroom technology: They are small and unobtrusive, relatively cheap ($35), exceedingly simple to use, rely on no pre-existing infrastructure (for example, whether or not you have decent wifi in the room), and are nearly indestructible. They are about as simple, dependable, and inexpensive as a radio-operated garage door…

Slate magazine has been running several articles on education this week, including two today that are of interest. This one by Konstantin Kakaes is worth looking at more closely, if only because it somehow manages to gather almost every wrong idea about technology in education in existence into a single, compact article.

The piece proposes that the effort to increase the use of technology in education “is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.” I’m not sure which “effort” Kakaes is referring to, since there is no single push being coordinated from a secret underground bunker that I know of, and some efforts are better-conceived than others. But nevermind.

There are two overriding conceptual errors that drive this article…

I am a mathematician and educator with interests in cryptology, computer science, and STEM education. I am affiliated with the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. The views here are my own and are not necessarily shared by GVSU.

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