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The New Normal

What a Physics Professor Can Teach Us About Collaborating with Clients

Posted Feb 28, 2012 3:13 PM CST
By Roya Behnia

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Usually, when my alumni magazine arrives in the mail, I skip the articles to go straight to the class notes section and catch up on my classmates. This time, however, I stopped on a headline proclaiming the “twilight of the lecture” and that a “trend toward ‘active learning’ may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years.” Intrigued, I took a closer look at the story of a physics professor, Eric Mazur, who has abandoned the traditional lecture format in exchange for “peer instruction” in his introductory physics class.

What is “peer instruction” or “interactive learning?” If, like me, you haven’t been a student in a classroom in more than 20 years, you may not know. As this article by Chris Lambert explains:

Interactive pedagogy, for example, turns passive, note-taking students into active, de facto teachers who explain their ideas to each other and contend for their points of view …Thousands of research studies on learning indicate that “active learning is really at a premium. It’s the most effective thing,” says Terry Aladjem, executive director of the Bok Center and lecturer on social studies….Active learners take new information and apply it, rather than merely taking note of it. Firsthand use of new material develops personal ownership. When subject matter connects directly with students’ experiences, projects, and goals, they care more about the material they seek to master.

What does “interactive learning” look like? In the case of physics professor Mazur, his students “teach” each other:

Reviewing the test of conceptual understanding, Mazur twice tried to explain one of its questions to the class, but the students remained obstinately confused. “Then I did something I had never done in my teaching career,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why don’t you discuss it with each other?’” Immediately, the lecture hall was abuzz as 150 students started talking to each other in one-on-one conversations about the puzzling question. “It was complete chaos,” says Mazur. “But within three minutes, they had figured it out. That was very surprising to me—I had just spent 10 minutes trying to explain this. But the class said, ‘OK, We’ve got it, let’s move on.’

You can hear directly from Mazur about how he arrived at peer instruction and tested comprehension and success in problem solving here. His lecture is a little long, but if you are having a quiet Sunday afternoon and there isn’t a game on TV, I recommend a look.

Having learned something new, I did an internet search on interactive learning and discovered how behind the times I am. Interactive learning has been a topic of conversation, mostly around the use of digital technology in the classroom, for a long time. Its growing popularity may be a result of its demonstrated success in improving student engagement and comprehension, as this May 2011 post in Science2.0.com reveals.

The common thread in all the writings on interactive learning is that collaboration between students in solving problems results in greater engagement and better decision-making in the end.

But what does interactive learning have to do with The New Normal?

I have written previously about collaboration tools in sophisticated in-house legal departments such as Cisco and Pfizer and how smaller legal departments with fewer resources can work with business colleagues to solve business problems together. What the literature on interactive learning may confirm is that these collaboration methods in the work environment may not only help solve short-term or specific challenges in the short run, but may also more permanently enhance mutual engagement and understanding between the legal department and other business functions. The engagement goes both ways.

This point hit home to me a couple of weeks ago when the chief financial officer of my former company and I gave a presentation on the intersection of law and business to a group of undergraduates and law students. Afterward, we both realized that we easily could have traded places in the presentation. I could have painted the financial picture and he could have talked about the legal challenges we faced in an informed way. As he said to the class: “When I graduated with my accounting degree, I never thought I would be able to describe judicial estoppel, but I can.”

What can we take from the methods used by Professor Mazur in our own work lives?

Take the time to sit down with your colleagues in other functions to teach them in a deeper way about what we as lawyers do. Take the time to understand in a deeper way what they worry about and why.

Extrapolating from the science on interactive learning, this “peer instruction” can only lead to better and faster decisions.


Roya Behnia was senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Rewards Network Inc. (NASDAQ: DINE) until December 2010 after completing the sale of the business. She led the legal, human resources, and compliance functions and served on the company’s executive management committee where she was centrally involved in developing and implementing business strategy for the company. She has been an in-house lawyer since December 1998, working with Brunswick Corporation and SPX Corporation. Before that, she was a partner at Kirkland & Ellis.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.

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