A Sit Down With The Godfather of Flipped Learning Eric Mazur: PART – I

Editors Features April / April 1, 2018

   Jon Bergmann with Eric Mazur

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Jon: Like you Eric, I’ve been traveling all over the world, and I’ve seen an evolution in flipped learning over the past number of years. I discovered … our team has discovered that flipped learning is not static and seems to keep evolving. How have you seen flipped learning to evolve since you helped pioneer the model?

Eric: Well, I think that initially people’s conception of what constituted flipped learning was kind of loose and a lot of people I think initially thought just having students watch a video before class was flipped learning. Of course, the real flip is taking what you normally do in the classroom information transfer put it out of the classroom and use the classroom to do the hard part of learning, which we typically assign to our students. That’s the basic idea and I think that many people started to realize that just having students watch videos and then not really thinking about what we do in the class doesn’t really work.

So, I think there is a more rigorous approach to flipped learning and more thought is put into what the pre-class assignment is because it doesn’t have to be a video it can take on many different forms. I would almost argue that video might not necessarily be one of the best activities to do for students on their own because it doesn’t have any social component, it basically moves a flawed approach to teaching and moves it outside. Anything that engages the students outside of the classroom would be preferable over just watching videos.

And secondly, I think people have started to think, really, how do you spend your time as a teacher in the classroom maximizing the learning in the classroom by the students? So I’m really thrilled to see that, that is now being taken much more seriously and much more rigorously. Also, one of the things that’s absolutely terrific is that over the last two decades, there’s been more and more people doing quantitative research and showing it’s data, improved learning gains, improved retention and how robust the model is in terms of constructing contextual differences and cultural differences.

I promise you one thing, if you were ever to visit my classroom while teaching, you will come away thinking, “Professor Mazur teaches kindergarten.” Because that’s what it looks like, okay? It’s totally chaotic… they’re so busy they essentially ignore me. And that’s the way it should be.  – Eric Mazur

Jon: Actually, it leads to the second question. We’ve identified three factors why flipped learning continues to evolve. They are research, innovations in the classroom, and then technology. So, what are your thoughts on that?

Eric: Well, research I already mentioned. I think learning space design is crucial. The standard learning space design, especially in higher education is the auditorium, the theater, which was designed by the Greeks not for educational purposes but for performance.

You only have to look in an auditorium, you see right away the attention is focused on the person in front of the classroom, which is the teacher.  The most important people in a classroom are not the teachers, but the students. So, we should really focus the attention on the students. If you go to my new classroom, it’s totally different. It’s not an auditorium, it’s a flat space. It’s round tables for students sitting in teams. I promise you one thing if you were ever to visit my classroom while teaching, you will come away thinking, “Professor Mazur teaches kindergarten.” Because that’s what it looks like. It’s totally chaotic. Even if I take the microphone in my hand and say, “May I have your attention please!” I have to yell because they’re so busy they essentially ignore me. And that’s the way it should be.

So, I totally agree. The learning space needs to be innovative and needs to be student-centered rather than faculty-centered.

Jon: We’re starting to see some of that. Schools are designing spaces … innovative schools are saying, as they have a budget and are building a new building, “Let’s design this for flipped learning.”

It only makes sense, because you’re right. Even a K12 classroom, the teacher is at the center of the room because there’s a big, interactive whiteboard at the front of the room with chairs facing the front.

Eric:  Yes, yes. So,  I’m a total technology freak, okay? In the sense that I’m the first one to line up for new technology. I’ll get up at 3 am to order the newest iPhone … because it comes out in California, so we’re in the wrong time zone for that. I’m an avid adopter of new technology, but over the years I’ve gotten very skeptical of the use of technology in education because most uses of technology simply permit the teacher to find a new way of doing an old thing. That’s not innovation. I think the real effective uses of education and education technology are those that afford a new mode of learning. In other words, that permit you to do something that could not be done before. If you sort of measure education technology against that filter, very little passes. A whiteboard would not pass, because I can take a chalkboard, and then take a picture with my smartphone if I want. So I think very little technology actually passes that filter.

However, I think that technology has had a huge impact and I will explain it in just a second. Perhaps more importantly, I should first say that to me, what matters is not the technology but the pedagogy. So in other words, pedagogy first, technology thereafter.

However, just like me, a lot of people are attracted by technology. I think that’s why maybe technology has had an impact on education. For example, after I started implementing peer instruction in the early 90s and my book came out, what happened was that a number of teachers started to adopt the method and then clickers came along, which you don’t really need because you could do the instruction with flashcards or hands on the chest. There are many low-tech ways of implementing it. But as clickers came out, a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon.

Unfortunately, many teachers actually started to implement clickers in a way that was not at all what I intended. Throwing out, to some degree, the baby with the bathwater. Rather than ask questions that would stimulate students to think, they would ask simple factual questions, not have students talk to each other —  taking the peer instruction out of peer instruction, so to speak. And then they would continue to lecture. So, it was a quick wake-up call but there was no conceptual engagement, there was no real student engagement in the classroom. I was horrified. I was annoyed.

Luckily,  faculty then quickly discovered, “Oh, this is not really improving my learning, and students don’t like it because they’re asleep for most of the lecture and then they just click their button in order to get the point for their clicker question.” So, I think that even faculty who adopted the technology without really thinking about the pedagogy eventually migrated towards a better implementation of the technology. Which is not the way I would really want it, because I would want people to first adopt the pedagogy and then think, “What is the technology that’s going to support it?” Rather than putting the cart in front of the horse, so to speak.

However, overall, I see the technology as having pushed people to think more deeply about the pedagogy.

Jon:  I think you’re right. Starting with pedagogy is obviously the best way. So we are often surprised to find that people here in the U.S. are unaware of what’s going on with flipped learning around the world. What are you seeing around the world in terms of the interest in flipped?

I like to say, “learning is learning is learning.” Not only in different parts of the world, but also in different disciplines.

Eric:  I do fly an average of 350,000 miles a year, so it brings me in all corners of the world. What I notice is that if there’s one thing that unites mankind around the world, it’s education. Whether you’re in Medina, Saudi Arabia or Malaca, Malaysia or Tokyo, Japan or Patagonia in Chile. Other people are facing the same problems in education, engagement of the students in the classroom, lack of retention and a sudden awareness that the type of skills that we taught students in the 20th century are not that relevant anymore in the 21st century because we have constant access to information and it’s no longer about memorizing that information, it’s really much more nowadays about how to use the information, how to apply knowledge.

So I find a surprising robustness of the problems across cultural context. The thing that people in a conservative religious society like Saudi Arabia talk about are the same problems that they speak about in Beijing, China or in Australia or in Europe or in Latin America and Africa. So, the problems are the same. I like to say, “learning is learning is learning.” Not only in different parts of the world, but also in different disciplines.

When I started developing peer instruction, I did so for my class. I never thought we’d be having this conversation right now and there’d be books on peer instruction written, not by me but by others and so on and clickers and you name it. I was surprised to find it first spread to other physicist’s classrooms, and then I was totally surprised to see it being applied in other disciplines.

Jon: But back to the worldwide, you were saying that worldwide, learning is learning. What worldwide are you with seeing flipped?

Eric:  Awareness. I would say the movement may have started in the U.S.  I think that… Asia has caught on extremely rapidly. Australia has been ahead of the pack, even of the U.S.  So, I would say in Asia, in Latin America and in parts of Africa, the whole idea has caught on very rapidly in part because there are so many universities there that are really focused more on education than on research. And I would say the biggest resistance has come initially from Western Europe, where, of course, a lot of our current approaches to education originated and where there has been a very successful tradition of strong research universities.

Jon: That’s a good point.

Eric:  And although, I must say, in the past five or ten years, that has dramatically changed. Very dramatically changed. Of course, there’s been one country that has always been experimenting in Europe with education, which is Finland. But now, all of a sudden I find a sea change in France, Germany, the Netherlands, England … it’s just absolutely amazing. So, all of a sudden Europe is catching up too.

Now, an institution like mine, Harvard, it’s a tough place to change because of two things. One is, of course, a very heavy emphasis on the success of the institution rests on research rather than on education. And the second thing is that we attract the type of students who you could put in a closet for four years and they’d come out smarter. So, we filter at the input end, not at the output end. And because we filter at the input end, we don’t need to do very much in order to have an output at a high level, which is not a reason not to do the best possible job. Unfortunately, you only measure the output, you don’t measure the differential. That’s not how you get ranked as an institution, right? It could be that a much lesser R3 or R4 university, which takes the students very low on the input end but brings them significantly higher output out is actually doing a much better job than an institution like mine.

 It just shows how education innovation is often siloed by discipline or by educational level.

So one is, it’s easier to be unaware of any problems in education here, simply because of the quality of students that you get. On the other hand, this is a very important place to change because a lot of people look up to an institution like Harvard, MIT or Stanford or Chicago.  And most second tier, third tier institutions will try to mimic what happens at these institutions. So, in a sense, it sets a model for other institutions worldwide, which is probably one of the reasons that education is so incredibly hard to change.

Jon: So true, yeah. I am visiting Richard Schwartzstein’s hematology class on Friday.

Eric:  Oh, great.

Jon:  He’s been flipping now for a couple of years and doing some cool stuff. A lot of the medical schools have done some interesting stuff, so I’m looking forward to that visit.

Eric:  I’ve spoken several times there at their grand rounds, which is great.

Jon:   I’m sure you had some impact on how…  because around the world, medical schools and nursing schools at the tertiary level have been the early adopters of flipped more than any other sector in tertiary. That’s what we’ve noticed in education.

Eric:  In part, it’s also because of this other movement, team-based learning. It just shows how education innovation is often siloed by discipline or by educational level. I had not heard of this until probably ten years ago. So, team-based learning … which, of course, is a term that has pretty broad meaning but if you go to teambasedlearning.org, you can find a good description of the whole approach. It was started by Larry Michaelson, I don’t know if you know him, at a small college in Oklahoma. He was teaching management. He came up with sort of a well-defined approach to team-based learning. You’ll find that actually, he didn’t call it flipping, but a lot of the ideas of flipping the learning are incorporated into team-based learning.

Michael Sweet, who was for a long time at the University of Texas Austin is now at Northeastern University. You may want to meet with him. I met him about ten years ago at UT Austin. He sort of pointed out the parallels between peer instruction and team-based learning and I never really realized it. Of course in peer instruction, students form little teams where they debate with one another. I never thought about it from that point of view, but he said, “what’s the difference between team-based learning and peer instruction?” I thought, you know I don’t know what team-based learning is. I only know what peer instruction is. Then I came to realize that team-based learning has a lot of interesting aspects that peer instruction does not have at all, although they have things in common. They’re sort of two circles like in a Venn-diagram that overlap part of the way but have other things that don’t overlap.

But the other thing I found out is there was a large following. Team-based learning has standards, it has an annual conference, which is fantastic. You should go once. The other interesting thing is that it’s mostly, or was mostly limited to tertiary education and medical education and management. I would say in the last ten years it’s spread outside those silos, but the medical school here, for example, and many medical schools like Vanderbilt Medical School and Penn State Medical School have completely adopted team-based education in order to improve. They’ve often made a combination of team-based and problem-based education, and the problem-based education means you’ve gotta throw the information transfer out. Which, you know, does the flipping even though they don’t call it that.

So, you see a lot of these new approaches emerge that sort of circle around the same ideas and that move education in the right direction, where you and I want to move it.  (End of Part I)


So What?  Six Quick Takeaways

Eavesdropping on a conversation between two of the earliest pioneers of flipped learning was eye-opening and thought-provoking.  Both Jon Bergman and Eric Mazur have traversed the flipped learning universe logging hundreds of thousands of miles.They arguably have the widest view of flipped learning of any practitioners on the planet. Each has essentially seen the same things through both a K12 lens and a higher education lens. I gleaned the following from their exchange:

Globally Relevant: Both Jon and Eric confirm that Flipped learning is a global movement and that the epicenters of growth have shifted from the US where it began to Australia,  Asia and beyond.  Both have found that flipped learning is as relevant and effective in different cultures and across diverse disciplines.

Classroom Innovation:  Clearly, the most fundamental classroom innovation is classroom design. R.I.P. rows, aisles, and rooms that place the teacher at the center of the action.  Perhaps the most startling innovation is what we could call the pedagogy of chaos.  Eric’s vivid picture of a Harvard classroom that looks more like a kindergarten class gone wild,  stands in stark contrast to the order and compliance we often associate with effective instruction.

The New Frontier:  Jon and Eric acknowledged that flipped learning is not static and has evolved beyond shifting direct instruction to videos viewed by students at home.  Indeed, the location of the new frontier is visible in their discussion —  The group space is where the magic and promise of flipped learning lives. Clearly, group space mastery is the next frontier for flipped learning practitioners.

Next Practices: It’s ironic and worth noting that while many who have recently discovered flipped learning see “video instruction” as the secret sauce of flipped learning,  the godfathers of flipped learning are saying that videos are not necessarily the best way to flip instruction. They point to another new frontier in flipped learning —  social learning in the individual space.

Pedagogy Before Technology but… When a self-proclaimed tech geek tells us that most education technology doesn’t pass the basic smell test it makes me sit up and listen.  The takeaway for me was that if we can’t do something with education technology that we couldn’t do without it, the technology is smoke and mirrorware.

Silos are the Enemy of Innovation: Eric acknowledged that team-based learning was developing right alongside flipped learning but out of sight in another silo. For many, the potential synergies between team-based learning and flipped learning went undiscovered.

Standards Matter: Hearing Eric talking glowingly about team-based learning having a clear description, a well-defined approach, and standards validated the need for the FLGI Global Standards project and a framework to support flipped learning worldwide. Next month we’ll publish part two of the sit down with the godfathers of flipped learning.


Errol St.Clair Smith


FLR cover photo credit:  SEAS: Photograph by Eliza Grinnell, Harvard University, 2012
Article photo screenshot: Serious Science
Feature Photo Credit: Ericmazur.com

Jon Bergmann
Jon Bergmann Bergmann
Jon Bergmann is one of the pioneers of the Flipped Classroom Movement. He is leading the worldwide adoption of flipped learning through the Flipped Learning Global Initiative (FLGI) flglobal.org. He is working with governments, schools, corporations, and education non-profits. Jon has coordinated and guided flipped learning projects around the globe. Locations include: China, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, the Middle East, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Canada, South America, and the United States. Jon is the author of nine books including the bestselling book: Flip Your Classroom which has been translated into 13 languages. He is the founder of the global FlipCon conferences which are dynamic engaging events which inspire educators to transform their practice through flipped learning.

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1 Comment

on April 17, 2018

Eric and Jon,
I am so glad that you said, “Pedagogy first, technology thereafter.” My department’s Twitter tagline is, “Pedagogy first. Technology second.” (See https://twitter.com/wcsd21) This is our mantra. Yes, I agree with Jon, technology is super cool and a great way to get teachers interested in innovative teaching methods. However, we believe that you can have a 21st Century classroom even without technology. For example, our Practitioner course covers these six dimensions: Collaboration, Skilled Communication, Knowledge Construction, Use of Technology for Learning, Self-Regulation, and Real-World Problem-Solving and Innovation. (Yes, technology is in there…but it’s ONE of six dimensions and it focuses on how technology supports Knowledge Construction.) See our framework here https://www.washoeschools.net/Page/8186 . This framework is based on the Microsoft ITL Research and their 21st Century Learning Design. We have seen HUGE impacts on teachers’ practice over the last five years since our Practioner course began. We also have just recently developed the Student-Facing Competencies so that students can understand why teachers are incorporating these into their learning activities. See those here: https://www.washoeschools.net/Page/11268.

I am so glad to hear that a higher ed voice is reinforcing this “Pedagogy first” philosophy. It really is the best way to impact classroom innovation and use technology to enhance learning.

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