Has Eric Mazur read the PISA reports?

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So, Eric Mazur, Harvard physics teacher, has been in Australia promoting his teaching method: ‘Peer Instruction’.

It’s a variant of group work that rests on the assumption that some of the class know the answer to a question and so a teacher can leverage this in such a way that these students will teach the others. Gone is the need for a teacher with expertise. It’s not about how much you know, it’s about how you teach.

Mazur makes unflattering references to traditional types of teaching which, he suggests, squashes the innate desire to understand and replaces it with an extrinsically driven desire to get the answer right. According to Mazur:

“If you teach the old-fashioned way with the instructor being the source of knowledge, then the highest level you set for the students is the teacher… If you teach by inquiry, then it is possible for students to exceed the teacher.” [my emphasis]

Apparently, Australia needs this kind of teaching because of our dodgy PISA science results:

“I was just reviewing this morning, the results of the latest PISA test, which are pretty disastrous… It shows that there’s really something amiss with education in the Western world, and Australia didn’t come off that well at all.”

But, hang on a second, the results of PISA 2015 showed that students who were exposed to more inquiry-based teaching performed worse in the PISA science assessment. So what is he talking about? Whatever the merits of peer instruction, he seems to have his wire crossed here because he is quoting a source that provides evidence of the opposite of what he claims.

This is why the press have been negligent to largely ignore the story about PISA and inquiry learning and to focus instead on pretty much anything else, such as the thoughts of Eric Mazur.

6 thoughts on “Has Eric Mazur read the PISA reports?

  1. Hi Greg,

    Peer Instruction (if you mean the in class workflow) isn’t really a variant of group work at all. There is a pair work element to it though where you turn to your neighbour so you definitely could see it as being a variant of pair work with individual work built in to the workflow as well. Much of the in class workflow overlaps with Dylan Wiliam’s work so conceptests for example in peer instruction play more or less the same role as hinge questions by providing feedback to the instructor to inform instructional decisions whether to reteach or move on.

    Obviously, that point doesn’t in any way negate your argument about PISA though.

  2. It’s been fashionable to comment that we cannot control what goes on out of school, so let’s focus on what we CAN do, which is making learning happen at school, inquiry or other. It’s been fashionable, in fact, since children came down from the trees and started spending afternoons indoors on their parents’ phones. Poverty, dysfunction at home, and diet don’t matter. Let’s cancel recess, cancel homework, and post those objectives so children whom we’ve not taught to read will know what they’re doing. Let’s pay consultants who no longer have the stamina to work with children, or never did, to teach us how to teach.

    When assessment research goes into the homes of the students it analyzes to see the differences between MOST of the academically successful students and MOST of the other students, then the establishment can proffer advice.

    (I do not pretend to know anything about classrooms outside the US.)

  3. If you teach the old-fashioned way with the instructor being the source of knowledge, then the highest level you set for the students is the teacher.

    I have taught lots of students smarter than me, and lots harder working too. None have come close to being as good at Maths as me. A few, very few, sometimes beat me in individual exercises, but none have the depth of knowledge or spread across the whole field.

    It’s no surprise. Not only do I have more years of experience and knowledge, I do as much practice as them each year on top of that.

    The concern that a student can only be as good as his teacher is a non-concern anyway. There are plenty of sports players who are coached to be better than their coaches. And pretty much all players are coached, and don’t learn by individual inquiry. Roger Federer has a coaching team.

  4. I agree with Ryan’s comment. I don’t know if you have watched Mazur’s lecture on peer instruction to the SSAT – which is the source that I have cited extensively (https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=y5qRyf34v3Q&t=1128) but it is about encouraging students to *apply* information (whose transmittal is a vital prerequisite). I think the knowledge-based curriculum agenda becomes vulnerable when it fails to address this point.

    Second, you are wrong to say that peer instruction rests on the assumption that half the class has got it wrong. He polls the class so he *knows* whether an appropriate proportion of the class has got the answer right/wrong or not. And this need to ask the right question of the right class (as I discuss in my conclusion to “Why teachers don’t know best at https://edtechnow.net/2013/08/27/blind/#section_3) means that the technique is tricky to use properly.

    That does not mean that Mazur may not have had an off-day, or that his ideas may not have developed in an unhelpful direction, or that he might not have misinterpreted PISA.


      1. Well, I think you read too much into what is a brief article, written by a third party. It only mentions “inquiry” once – but I think you fall on that as a “boo” word which suggests to you that Mazur deprecates knowledge – but this is not the case. I think that those who advocate the knowledge-based curriculum (a general argument that I support) also need to recognise the importance of modelling and applying knowledge, if they are not to fall into mere Gradgrindianism. Crispin.

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