ALT-C 2012 – a confrontation with reality

I spent most of last week down in Manchester at the ALT-C 2012 – a confrontation with reality conference.  Unusually for me I was not presenting (I had not submitted anything for consideration), so this was a chance for me to relax and enjoy watching others present.

The first keynote, and the highlight of the whole conference for me, was by Eric Mazur, a professor of Physics from Harvard who is better known to me for his work in education, notably Peer Instruction (about using “clickers” in order to promote active learning in lectures).  Mazur began his talk by showing us some scans of people’s brains which had been conducted during various activities.  Amusingly, or worryingly, these showed that brains are more active while they are sleeping than they are during lectures (unless, I presume, one is also asleep and in a lecture?).  One other “activity” (or, rather, lack of it) compared to being in a lecture – watching television. (Although, presumably, this will depend on the content of the programme.)

There was a lot more in Mazur’s lectures that can be found in his slides, and that showed that we should move away from traditional models of teaching as mere transfer of knowledge.  One further thing that really struck me, however, was in the final section of his talk.  It turns out that being confused about a subject can indicate that high level learning is going on.  Mazur conducted an experiment in which he asked students to answer two factual questions based on a reading, then to comment on whether they found the exercise easy or difficult.   When he analysed the responses, he found that students who said that they had found the exercise easy were more likely to have got it wrong, while those who expressed confusion about particular concepts were more likely to have got a correct answer.   This, then, suggests that  little confusion is a good thing – or, as he put it: “to wonder is to begin to understand”. (slide 66)  However, this does not mean that we should seek to obfuscate … what seems likely is that students who report that a subject is easy while showing that they have not understood it are not engaging with the subject.  In other words passive learning can lead to a false sense of security.

There was a lot more to Mazur’s talk, and I would highly recommend that you go and see him for yourself if you get the chance.  I came away with a lot of bits of philosophy buzzing around my brain and a renewed vigour for teaching.  I often joke with my students about the aim of my tutorials being to confuse them – and this is, I think, what Mazur is saying.  As Wittgenstein says, I want to show the fly the way out of the flybottle.  And in order for me to do that, the fly has to be actively trying to get out for itself.

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