If you’re not familiar with ChatGPT, it is an Artificial Intelligence chat bot that answers questions. If you’re thinking it’s like Siri or Alexa or even Clippy (let’s be real, Clippy was the coolest of all the digital assistants), it’s so much more than that. ChatGPT can answer questions but also write entire essays, generate lists of sources, write song lyrics, create stories, and write lines of code. I used the AI to translate a text from Shakespeare into Portuguese and then turned that into a limerick because . . . why not?
In other words, it is powerful. The AI Revolution is already here. In my last article, I wrote about two traps we can avoid as we think about AI in education.
One of the most common responses is to ask, “What will AI replace?” or even “What will we lose with AI?” Commentators have already claimed that AI will be the death of the high school English class. I read the piece about how it will “kill the college essay.” Often, this comes with a sense of hand-writing and lamenting. There’s a touch of the Terminator fear of SkyNet and the Blade Runner dystopian vibe to it. There’s goes our humanity. Welp.
I’ve seen the power of AI in shaping an essay. The other day, I asked Chat GPT to write an essay response to a high-interest writing prompt of “Will we ever have flying cars in the future?”
I then modified it to be the style of a middle schooler. Here was the result:
Decent but it still needs to have facts and claims. So, how about a version with facts and claims?
This is just the beginning. The AI will continue to improve. So, it makes to look at this and say, “Well, maybe we don’t need to teach students how to write.” Or perhaps we might say, “This is the end of English Language Arts or even the end of writing in school.”
Similarly, in the STEM / STEAM world, I’ve already seen folks say that we no longer need to teach programming if AI can do a better job than our students. I’ll give a silly example below.
To sum it up, why bother with writing or coding if the robots can do it faster and better? This is the idea that we should ask, “What can AI replace?” and scrap those things. But I disagree with this take. Here are three reasons why.
1. Almost Any Task Can Be Automated But What’s the Joy in That?
First, I think it misses the fact that some tasks are simply fun to do, whether they can be mechanized or not. You can buy a blanket at Wal-Mart. It’s fast and cheap. Or you can crochet it and spend more time and money along the way.
You can buy a pitching machine and never play catch with your kid but you’ll be missing out on one of the best parts of parenthood. You can use navigation to get around a city but you can also put your phone away and discover a new city by chasing your curiosity on foot. Sure, Google Maps can do a better job getting you there efficiently but is efficiency always the bottom line?
We know that AI can beat the best chess masters in the world. And yet, how many high schoolers fell in love with the game of chess two years ago when they watched The Queen’s Gambit? Chess is worth pursuing because it’s fun to do.
Or consider this. My son Micah is really into art and digital art in particular. He can hop onto an AI digital art generator and get a finished work in a matter of seconds. But guess what? He still loves making art from scratch. Similarly, a student can easily 3D print an object after using a digital modeling program but that same student might just come alive when given a block clay and the challenge of forming something entirely based on their own two hands.
I love to write. It’s fun. Even if the AI does a better and faster job than me, I’m a writer. If I go too many days in a row without writing, I feel lost. There’s something about writing that feeds my soul.
When the pandemic hit, I asked my students to do a show and tell activity.
One by one, they held their items up to the camera and described their healthy coping mechanism. They talked of gardening, baking cookies, painting pictures, journaling, writing songs, computer coding, and doing word puzzles. Nearly everything they chose was something an AI bot could already do and the few things that AI can’t do were things our world has already made instant for us (gardening and baking).
These tasks that could so easily have been outsourced were a lifeline when students faced social isolation. About a decade ago, Dean Shareski argued that joy is not merely a means to learning. Joy is actually an end in itself. We need more joy in schools. It’s still one of my all-time favorite TED Talks.
Okay but what about the educational value of these tasks?
2. If We Outsource Every Task, We Might Short-Circuit the Learning
Often, the very task that can be outsourced to a AI is a strategy we still need use to make sense out of what we’re learning.
For a few years now, Photo Math has been able to solve complex algorithms. But the act of looking at a problem, formulating the equation, and working through it is a critical part of mathematical thinking. If we never work through the algorithm, we fail to develop some of the systemic thinking and number sense we need as mathematical thinkers.
It’s true that AI can already replace the high school English essay. But the goal of an essay isn’t merely to write a great essay. It’s the fact that the act of writing is a critical part of how we make meaning. We learn through writing.
An AI can take a complex informational text and distill it down to a series of notes in history class. But a hand drawn sketch note helps create the synaptic connections needed to move the information from short term to long term memory. You become a better conceptual thinker when you don’t use AI for note-taking. If we look at this diagram of information processing, we need students to get information into their long-term memory:
Research has demonstrated that students retain more information when they take notes by hand rather than typing them. Similarly, students become better observers in science when they sketch out what they see. This seems odd at first. Is a photo more efficient? Absolutely. Is a photo more accurate? Most definitely. Do scientists use photographs out in the field? You bet. Then why bother sketching? The act of drawing teaches students how to observe.
3. AI Can’t Replace Your Voice
When I was in middle school, I did a National History Day Project. While I loved the experience, I hit several moments when I wanted to give up. The most nerve-wracking moment occurred when I sat in a radio studio recording my script. I would play the giant magnetic tape back and use a razor to cut it and Scotch tape to splice it together. I listened to my voice and hated it.
At one point, I threw my hands up in the air. “I’m not doing this,” I said.
But Mrs. Smoot looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m not going to let you get away with that. Your voice is good. What you say matters. And when you hide your voice, you rob the world of your creativity.”
When we hide our voice, we rob the world of our creativity and we miss out on the deeply human need to be known. Artificial Intelligence can do a lot of things well but it can’t capture your unique voice. Think of it this way. A drum machine is great but the slight imperfections and quirky idiosyncrasies are why I love listening to Keith Moon riff on old records from The Who.
When we write, our humor and humanity, in all its imperfections, make it worth sharing. I can take some of Grammarly’s AI-generated suggestions to clean up my writing but that’s not me. I’m messy. I’m a tad bit loquacious. I’m overly conversational. But that’s me.
AI can make great digital art but it can’t make your art. I love to draw. Artificial Intelligence can create far better drawings than what I share. But when you watch my sketch videos or see a slide on a keynote I deliver or look at an image on Instagram, you see me.
While we culturally tend to think of math as being cold and calculated, talk to a mathematician and they’ll tell you there is something beautiful and even poetic about the way some people solve problems.
So, where does that leave us?
Use A.I. Wisely
The best creators are going to know how to use AI in a way that still allows them to keep their humanity. I realize that this is easier said than done but I think it’s the best option.
I mentioned chess before. There’s a fascinating phenomenon in chess. AI will nearly always beat a human. But when you do chess via teams, the fully automated AI teams rarely win. Neither do the all-human teams. The winning teams are the combination of AI and human.
So, if a student is learning to code, that might seem obsolete. Why have a programming class if we won’t even have traditional coders in the future? But the process of coding will help her learn how the programming language works. Over time, she’ll learn how to outsource the coding to the AI. She might double-check her work with AI. She might ask the AI for help with certain questions or ideas. She might even start with the AI code and then edit it to make it her own.
A digital artist might ask the AI to do five different pictures and then he uses that as an inspiration for his own work. He might take two different sample images and mash them up in a sort of collage art. He might turn the AI off completely and work on something from scratch and then later try digital modeling just to see the difference between the two approaches.
In math, a student might attempt a problem and then use Photo Math to doublecheck their work. They might take handwritten notes and ask questions aloud as the teacher models how to find the p-value. But later, that same student might use the ChatGPT to ask a series of questions like, “What is the p-value mean?” Or even “explain p-value to a 15-year-old.” Or maybe a clarifying question like, “Can a p-value be used in a correlational study?” or even “How do I find the p-value using a spreadsheet?” Here’s an example of what this looks like:
If we think about a design thinking project, consider the areas where students might use AI:
As they shift from Asking Tons of Questions to Understand the Process or Problem, they might go to the ChatGPT as an initial exploration. It would be a more conversational form of research. Later, they would go more in-depth using online research. As they ideate, they would likely avoid AI but they might ask, “What would it mean to combine ______ and _______?” and use an AI visual modeling program to give them an image of what they’re imagining. They might use AI for feedback during Highlight and Fix. But again, students would have a sense of agency over when and how they use the AI within their projects.
Sounds scary? Exciting? Chances are you’re feeling both. I am, too. Like many people, I’ve been surprised by how powerful this tool can be. Which is why, in the end, the question, “Will AI replace this learning task?” might actually be the wrong question. A better question might be, “How will AI change this learning task?”
And the short answer is, “We’re all still figuring this out.”
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John, you’re absolutely right that there is value in doing the exercise. As a parent, sometimes I don’t do things for my children that would make their school project “better”. Why? Because they need to learn to do it themselves. So, as an educator, the biggest question in my mind is, how do we ensure that students are using these tools in ways that don’t circumvent the exercise process (aka cheating)? Currently I only see 2 options: 1) Monitoring students the entire time they are doing any exercises or 2) convincing each student so thoroughly that the exercise is worth it that they don’t want to circumvent the exercise. While I certainly prefer #2 over #1, the cynical part of me thinks that most people are happier taking the shortcut.
So maybe part of the answer is that we spend more time and energy as teachers talking up the value of the exercise (and, of course, ensuring that the exercise IS actually valuable).
You grew up in a generation where you DID do things do you now see the value of both. I’m worried about the generations who grow up now who don’t even cultivate the learning/experience. They do not learn cursive, how to quickly use the alphabet to alphabetize, and writing has become a “class effort” and copying exercise. The “danger” is with the elementary grades if the chrome books and programs are used too much.