Updated: Feb 6
ChatGPT, a chatbot developed by OpenAI that is capable of writing essays, solving science and math problems and producing working computer code, was released in November 2022. It immediately generated speculation about a new era of rampant cheating and even the death of student generated essays, or education itself. A few school districts banned it altogether from their networks, citing concerns about negative impacts on student learning, and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content. Others are saying that if used in the right way, ChatGPT can be a friend to the classroom and an amazing tool for students, not something to be feared.
As I was reading about these pro and con arguments, it brought up a similar scenario from my time as a computer teacher. When I started teaching, programming a turtle using Logo programming was all the rage in schools and many teachers wanted to be part of this effort to develop students’ thinking skills. To program the turtle, students had to learn Logo commands and delve deep into advanced programming as turtle activities became more complex. Teachers and students who mastered Logo programming well became Logo stars. But then, a few applications surfaced, such as MicroWorlds, Hypercard and others, that were using Logo programming to provide students with advanced functionalities capable of generating animations and interactive multimedia, leaving those Logo stars completely frustrated that their programming skills were not necessary anymore.
Instead of appreciating the added power that these new programs with their advanced programming capabilities provided to all students, including those who lacked programming expertise, many claimed that the new programs will eliminate the need for students to think. As usage of these programs became more widespread, it became clear that these advanced functionalities enabled students to elevate their education to an advanced level that would have not been possible before.
What can we do with ChatGPT?
What can we do with ChatGPT? ChatGPT is a conversational bot that responds to users’ questions in ways that allows it to search large databases and create well-formed essays, legal briefs, poetry, and computer code, to name a few. However, it is not flawless. It is trained to generate words based on a given input. It does not have the ability to truly comprehend the meaning behind those words. This means that its responses are likely to be shallow and lacking in depth and insight.
ChatGPT emerged at a time when many teachers are experiencing burnout from teaching remotely during the pandemic and now this new technological phenomenon threatens to upend their entire approach to teaching, creating more work. It is not surprising that the first reaction of several districts was to ban it altogether. However, the chance that students will not use it is slim to nonexistent because most students either have computers or mobile phones they can use. But, even if it were technically possible to block ChatGPT, do teachers want to waste time on keeping up with the latest A.I. detection software? The general consensus among teachers is that while they found the idea of ChatGPT-assisted cheating annoying, policing it sounded even worse.
Why the Negative Reaction
The negative reaction towards ChatGPT stems from the fact that many education systems still value learning the facts more than being able to acquire problem solving skills, to generalize the learning to new situations and to creatively develop a new way of thinking about an issue. In a world in which information proliferates exponentially and students can search this growing body of knowledge and get immediate results, memorization of facts quickly loses its value.
When student learning is built around satisfying information gained by answering questions and writing essays, ChatGPT is clearly a big threat. However, if a chatbot can answer these questions and write these essays, is this a worthwhile measure of learning or the kind of learning that would make students better thinkers? Therefore, any attempt to ban ChatGPT from schools is not the right answer. Not only because it is not technically possible to block ChatGPT, but also because the learning value of content that ChatGPT can provide will not improve student learning.
What we can learn from all this is that ChatGPT is here to stay and can’t be avoided, no matter how many school districts will ban it. In the same way that calculators became an important tool for students in math classes or MicroWorlds and Hypercard became an important tool for creating interactive multimedia, ChatGPT has potential to become an important tool for writers who want to hone their critical thinking skills along with their communication skills.
ChatGPT As a Valuable Resource
How can ChatGPT be a valuable resource, just like the calculator, the computer and other resources that helped transform education. Teachers who have tried ChatGPT already admit that they have to start measuring the effectiveness of their assignments, especially the traditional class essay and substantially adjust elements of how they teach. The question they are pondering with is how to use ChatGPT productively to help their students become knowledge transformers.
A good analogy to the dilemma that teachers are faced with is how schools approach math education. The chasm between school math--focused on preparing students to master calculation for the state exam and everyday math--focused on problem solving for personal and professional life, was discussed in depth by Conrad Wolfram in a 2010 TED speech titled: “Teaching kids real math with computers.” He says that math is practiced differently in daily life and in school. In daily life math is not done for its own sake, but rather serves as the means to solve problems. The process starts by posing the right question, turning a real world situation into a formula, using calculations to get results, and turning the formula back into real life, while verifying the results. Schools, on the other hand, focus 80% of their attention on one part of this entire process--the calculation, instead of focusing on steps 1, 2 and 4, which can help students develop a more practical and conceptual understanding of math. Before the advent of computers, the focus on calculation was justified because people had no other choice. But in the computer era, teaching calculation makes no sense because computers are doing it more effectively. Also, in the real world math is not necessarily done by mathematicians. It is done across disciplines to solve problems for everyday living. To this day, many schools are still focused on teaching students calculation rather than on a conceptual understanding of math.
How to Use ChatGPT Productively
The same logic can be applied to ChatGPT. Instead of training students to memorize information and then reproduce it in the form of essays or answers to questions, teachers need to train students to think critically, analyze the information that ChatGPT produces for accuracy, style and other variables. Andreas Schleicher, the division head and coordinator of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), was able to brilliantly articulate the skills that students need to possess when searching for information in the 21st century, as follows: ““In the past ... if you did not know the answer to a question you looked it up in the encyclopedia and could trust the answer to be true. Today when you look up your question in Google you may get 20,000 answers to your question and nobody tells you what is right or what is wrong, so you actually need the capacity to navigate ambiguity, triangulate knowledge, question the established wisdom of our time, not just reproduce it.” In this case he is talking about Google Search, but getting information from ChatGPT, that relies on the same database of resources on the internet, is even worse than getting it from the encyclopedia, because the information was not verified to be true or reliable.
There are many ways that teachers can use ChatGPT to develop those critical thinking skills in students. One method is to have students validate the accuracy of ChatGPT’s response to a topic they are investigating. Another method is to have students use ChatGPT to produce an outline of a topic they are investigating and then use the outline to write an essay about that topic. A teacher using ChatGPT asked her students to write an original thesis statement in class about the text they're reading. Then, the class was supposed to use ChatGPT to generate essays based on that thesis statement and take apart and improve upon the ChatGPT-generated essay—an exercise designed to teach critical analysis, the craft of precise thesis statements, and a feel for what “good writing” looks like.
ChatGPT may be the driving force that will transform education towards a more project-based, student centered environment where students can practice those 21st century skills. As this new reality takes hold, teachers start to realize that sticking to the old education model in which teachers deliver information to later be repeated by students, will not prepare students for success in the classroom—or the jobs of tomorrow.