Eric Mazur, academic dean at Harvard: ‘Failure is essential and grades stigmatize it’

The Dutch physicist believes that banning ChatGPT in class is ‘the most stupid thing you can do’

Eric Mazur
Eric Mazur, Academic Dean of the Harvard School of Enginering and Applied Sciences, in Miami in March.IE University
Elisa Silió

Thirty years ago, Eric Mazur (Amsterdam, 1954) decided to stop giving lectures in class and instead introduced Peer Instruction, through which his students learn about a topic by debating in a group. His method for teaching large lecture classes interactively was copied by many colleagues at Harvard University, where he is the academic dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as well as the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics. Since then, Peer Instruction has spread throughout the world. Now, Mazur has torn down the walls of the classroom and each group of five students works collectively from wherever they want. The basis of it all is Perusall, his social learning platform, which he says is already being used by 4.4 million students globally. Mazur rejects the idea of final exams and embraces artificial intelligence (AI).

Mazur delivered the inaugural address at the Reinventing Higher Education meeting of university experts that Spain’s IE University organized in Miami and to which EL PAÍS was invited.

Question. In your talks you say that adults should learn like we do in kindergarten.

Answer. In kindergarten people learn how to work together, how to interact together. These are basic skills that are crucial to life. And if you look at society, almost all of the problems in organizations and companies and societies as a whole, are people not getting along with each other, not knowing how to work with each other, not knowing how to embrace diversity.

Q. Do you use AI in your classes?

A. Yes. I tell my students that they can use anything they want, any resource that they would use later in their career. But when we assess them, we assess them as individuals, mostly verbally. And they cannot pull out their phone and then ask a question. They have to know how to think, so I train them to use whatever is at their disposal, including the internet, ChatGPT, whatever they want.

Universities need to anticipate that and adjust their education to that future. I think that’s the key question. Many people are scared. They think we should prohibit students from using ChatGPT. That’s the most stupid thing you can do because our students will need to use ChatGPT. Calculators and computers were also banned in class when they came out.

Q. How do you organize your classes?

A. Each team has an average of 25 presentations each semester and each of its members presents at least five times. Everyone has to be prepared, they don’t know which of them is going to have to speak. Not even me. A program tells me: “Today ask Pablo.” And if you are not prepared, all of our great scores go down. So, if Pablo doesn’t do his work before coming to class, the others won’t be very happy and he won’t feel good. There’s a kind of social pressure to do well, like in society, right?

Q. You avoid master classes, but you need some theoretical basis to learn from others.

A. We use a series of scaffolded activities that start with interactively reading the textbook. We developed a program called Perusall, which is a social learning platform. I developed it for my class and now 4.4 million students around the world use it. I would never have believed it.

Q. How does it work?

A. It helps students assimilate, do more than just information transfer, but in interacting with each other and interacting with either text or video to lay the basis. And then we have a set of activities where they work together, but it’s facilitated by me and my assistants.

Q. There is an intense debate about the educational use of screens.

A. It’s not the technology. It’s not the screen itself. It’s what is on the screen that matters. If they’re on Facebook the whole day, that’s not going to help advance them as individuals. I make sure they use technology in class for what they need.

Q. But your students are at the top.

A. Yes, they are, but they are very, very unmotivated. Every year I ask them an important question: if you have to choose between facing challenges or getting good grades, what do you choose? You would hope that individuals who are going to be leaders of society choose challenge over grade. But no, they choose grades over challenges.

Q. But a Harvard graduate will always have a job.

A. You are part of a club and they may offer you a job, but there’s no correlation between grades in college, grades at Harvard and future work success. I heard in the development office that the biggest donors to the university come from the bottom of the class [but were more successful in professional life]. They had better things to do [when studying] than simply trying to please their teachers.

Grades are not only meaningless, they’re a disincentive to deep learning. If you want to be creative, you have to do wild things and try them out and many things will fail. Failure is essential and grades stigmatize failure. We end up generating many individuals who are afraid of failure, who are afraid of creativity and innovation because of that. So some individuals manage to drop out like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, be very creative. Others go through the system and who knows where they’ll end up.

Q. You have received a lot of criticism from Ben Nelson, founder of the disruptive Minerva University, which is so fashionable now.

A. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to experiment and people have let me do what I wanted to do, but Harvard was not always a successful university. 100 years ago it was mediocre. And then we had a president who really was innovative and tried to change the university, Charles Elliot [at the helm from 1869 to 1909]. And then it slowly became a better middle university. But when I joined in 1980, in my department, we had six Nobel Prize winners, six. And Harvard has had tons of Nobel awards. But now there are few. Just as you can build up a brand, you can destroy it very quickly.

Q. Harvard is said to be, along with the Vatican, the richest private institution in the world.

A. Very rich, but the endowment of Harvard now is due to the accomplishments of the past, not the accomplishments of the present.

Q. Larry Bacow, former president of Harvard, said last summer to EL PAÍS that he accepted the position because he felt that the university was in danger.

A. Universities are in danger worldwide. Just as the calculator makes it unnecessary to use a slide rule, or the internet makes it unnecessary to memorize lots of information, AI will make a lot of tasks much more efficient. And therefore many of the people we train will no longer get a job. We need to really rethink how we’re going to train people.

Q. Bacow was referring to Trump.

A. Oh, that’s true too! Society is no longer valuing universities. And I think for a good reason, because we are not really listening to society’s needs.

Q. What does society want?

A. I think the incredible divide and polarization that is happening right now, not just in the U.S., really all over the world, is in part because the universities were created to serve the needs of society, especially in the last few centuries. But I think right now we’re not really fulfilling that need the way we should be doing.

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