A funny thing happened with my last blog post. I shared some of my initial thoughts about the use of ChatGPT and what it might mean for education. And my lonely little corner of the internet blew up! Visits to my blog increased by about 1000%! I guess I unintentionally hit a hot topic. I wasn’t trying to be trendy or increase traffic, just writing about something that intrigued me.
Since then, the whole internet has kind of blown up about AI and education. In fact, the New York City school system has banned the use of ChatGPT. Their reasons make some sense to me, or at least indicate that their hearts are in the right place. They said that this would circumvent critical thinking. I’m all for critical thinking, so let’s apply some of that to this particular pronouncement. First, how will this be enforced? They said that all schools have to block the website, but can apply for special dispensation to use ChatGPT in certain rare instances.
Every student and teacher in the city of New York has powerful computers in their pockets, which are not controlled by the NYC board of education. And also at home. So I’m not sure what the thinking is here. There is no practical way to enforce this ban.
But more importantly, this appears to be the latest in a long series of attempts by schools to keep “technology” from disrupting the status quo.
Let’s start with a definition of terms. “Technology”, used in discussions that usually bemoan the introduction of said technologies, almost always means “technology that didn’t exist when I was in school”. Here’s a partical list of things that were considered new and harmful technologies in education, in reverse chronological order: phones, videogames, TV, student-created video, movies, computers, PowerPoints, calculators, typewriters, pencils, writing….
Yes, writing. Plato wrote about how wrong it was in the Phaedra: They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.
So we all take for granted whatever technologies existed when we were growing up as normal and the natural order of things. But anything “new”… look out! I’m not saying that we should uncritically accept the use of everything that is new. I am saying that it is our responsibility as educators to know what is happening in the world and to prepare our students for success in the world they will inhabit. You know, that thing that all schools say is their mission — preparing students for tomorrow? If we fail in this, we’re actually preparing our students for success in the past. Let’s not.
What does that require of us as educators? We have to know what’s happening outside the walls of our classrooms. And in this case, that means we have to experiment with ChatGPT. Get an account. Try it out. Ask it to do some of our current assignments. If it can spit out “the answers” in a few seconds, now comes the tricky part.
We have to take a hard look at how we’re teaching.
And realize that school is generally a gigantic system which we have trained students to game. Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s about telling students that the important thing is not what they have learned, but the points they are able to accumulate within the system. You don’t think so? Try this on the next assignment — go gradeless. You’ll probably get 2 responses. The ones who are good at gaming the system will be confused and maybe even demotivated, since that’s what they work for. The ones who aren’t good at gaming the system will have a “woohoo” moment — they finally won’t feel compelled to put out effort on the assignment.
In both cases, it’s about the points. Not about learning. Sure, learning can happen along the way, and the best teachers and schools work very hard to maximize learning within the system. But ask any student what it’s all about. They’ll tell you. They understand how the game is played.
The truth is that most schools are not places where learning is at the center. I taught in independent, college-prep schools most of my career. And “creating lifelong learners” was enshrined in every mission statement. But the kids know that the driving force is points — scored in a variety of ways: grades (of course), AP classes, service hours, the always popular “college essay”…
ChatGPT is just a small and introductory disruption of this educational system. If you think this is big, wait till the technology matures in the next decade or so. Consider this a small shot across the bow, if you feel that it’s an attack!
Or we could take this as an opportunity to rethink education and put learning at the center. This will require enormous effort on our part, and a willingness to learn and relearn as we consider what education should be for a future that is going to be very different. If you find that effort too much, remember that this is what teachers expect their students to do every day when they come into their classes! Learn and relearn. This is our chance to model that for them, so they can see what learning looks like. Let’s go!