Thursday, July 25, 2013

How might Eric Mazur's Ideas Apply to a History Class?

Yesterday, I viewed this video of Eric Mazur discussing his experiences as a young physics professor at Harvard in the early 90s. Mazur titled this talk Confessions of a Converted Lecturer. In it, he addresses the following questions: As an instructional strategy, what is the value of lecture? How are we to know? And what are alternatives to lecture?

We've all sat through lectures. And many of us, when we think of teaching, think of lecture. This visual, and even Mazur's 'talk', typify the lecture, which consists of a sitting and reasonably attentive audience and a single presenter, who is usually standing and often has access to a projector displaying images and text. The presenter, who may or may not be working from notes, talks, and many in the audience write notes on his thoughts or copy them directly from the slides over his shoulder.

This model of teaching is focused on the transmission of information. The presenter's knowledge, it is assumed, is transmitted to those in the audience. But is this what happens? And even if this is what happens, should we be satisfied with that?

The lecture is definitely popular. It was, for most of us, the primary method of teaching used by our teachers when we were in high school and college. If we were able to learn effectively from lecture, we reason, so should  they.

In fact, as an undergraduate, almost every one of my history classes was instructed by professors who taught via lecture. When viewed in this context, it makes sense that I would have chosen to adopt a lecture dominated approach to teaching. And in twelve years of teaching, I have spent hundreds of hours lecturing to students while standing in front of a PowerPoint presentation.

There is an opportunity cost associated with choosing to lecture. Every minute spent lecturing is a minute students do not engage in some other kind of instructional task. While there may be instances where lecture is the most appropriate method of teaching, it is important to acknowledge that when we choose to lecture, we limit our students' potential to engage with the process and thinking associated with the subjects we teach.

Learning through lecture occurs, but it is a specific kind of learning. A kind of learning that for most people fades fast.

In fact, critiques associated with traditional methods of history teaching can be traced back to history teachers who rely almost exclusively on lecture. No matter how dynamic a lecturer, there is an underlying epistemological message sent to students when we teach history using lecture.The message is that history consists of a single story. That history ultimately is part of a single narrative that can be pulled from textbooks, easily understood, and communicated to others. There is a danger in teaching students that we should be satisfied with simple narratives of the past.


There is more to explore about Mazur's approach in history classrooms, and I will devote future posts to this topic. 


  1. Hi Joe-I just stumbled across your blog through Eric Mazur's Twitter feed. I am a historian working in Learning Development, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. Have you read Postman & Weingartner's Teaching As a Subversive Activity? They discuss that the method of teaching becomes the message, and through a session where students have no liberty to query, discuss, explore, question etc we send the message of one universal message, the truth of the lecturer. This is particularly pertinent for our field, where the idea of a universal truth is problematic to say the least.

    Marios Hadjianastasis

  2. Hi Marios,

    Thanks for reading my post and commenting! I have not read Postman. Will put it on my list. If you have a moment, and haven't already taken a look, you will see some of my more recent posts discussing an idea I am calling Text on Trial. I am hoping this framework will help to show students all of the ways that we, including textbooks and teachers, impose our attitudes and views on the past the moment we start to make decisions about the questions we ask, what evidence we focus on and use, and how we organize and communicate our assertions about past to others. By ignoring this reality, we are naïve at best and intellectually shallow and deceptive at worst.