The release of ChatGPT two weeks ago, OpenAI’s latest and most advanced AI assistant, was a wake-up call for much of the world about the genuinely transformative potential of AI.
Although many industries will be forced to grapple with this innovation, education is particularly ripe for disruption. Overnight, every student in the country has a tool that can effortlessly complete their homework–even the most arduous book reports or calculus assignments–at an A level, and the teacher will likely never know. Although OpenAI is investigating the feasibility of an AI plagiarism detector, many experts are skeptical. So, for now, and perhaps for always, there will be no way to catch this AI.
So, where do we go from here?
We need to think about this innovation like the next generation of graphing calculators. As calculators progressed in their capabilities, many old-guard math teachers banned the technology. They preached the importance of practicing things like long division, drawing graphs, and calculating correlations; they claimed students only develop an intuition for numbers by frequently engaging with the most basic concepts. They are absolutely correct. To achieve higher levels of understanding and competency, one must fully grasp the foundational concepts. Humans can only simultaneously hold 5-9 “chunks” in our working memory; thus, higher-order thinking is only possible when discrete principles form one coherent, usable whole. Chess and Tai Chi Champion Joshua Waitzkin calls this act “making smaller circles,” where the learner masters the smallest aspects of a new technique and slowly layers complexity until an entire movement feels like second nature.
In Tai Chi, a martial art similar to wrestling, this may begin as drilling the first step of a take-down, then integrating a wrist movement, then engaging the core, and on and on until the entire technique feels natural and effortless. As a result, instead of cramming one’s working memory with the responsibilities of every body part, the whole movement exists as a single chunk. This allows the other slots of working memory to focus on things like the movement of the opponent’s legs, the tension in their face, or the fight strategy.
“Making smaller circles” & mastery-based education
“Making smaller circles” may be a bulletproof formula for mastery, but it is not a practical foundation for 21st-century education.
Instead, educators must act a little more like salespeople and first convince students why this subject is worth their time and interest. We can no longer threaten students with a bad grade; if they’re simply responding to a threat, they’ll find a way around the punishment by cheating. Like any good salesperson, we must start by clearly demonstrating the usefulness and relevance of a concept.
Let’s say you’re going door to door selling a vacuum cleaner. One should first show prospective customers how it will improve their lives by cleaning their floors more quickly and effectively. You’d have far less success if you began by discussing the principles of air pressure and flow or launched a lengthy diatribe on the ethics of vacuum technology and the politics of recycled plastics. You start in the middle of that conceptual spectrum with a sales hook grounded in usefulness, then go down into the foundational concepts and up into the higher-order use cases as interest emerges. But only once you’ve hooked them. ChatGPT and other AI inventions are a quantum leap in what students can accomplish toward the upper bound of that spectrum. Educators should give students challenging, relevant projects to conquer, where these tools empower their knowledge work, just like how employees worldwide are using it to increase their creative power.
Unfortunately, I fear most schools will lash out again the machines, leaning even harder into proctored exams and essays. This will make traditional schools feel even less relevant to learners and, therefore, require an even bigger stick to motivate their behavior. In schools with all-time high anxiety and depression, this approach will only worsen the ongoing disaster.
Cultivating a love of learning in students
Instead, schools and educators must focus on cultivating a love for learning. They need to create students who want to engage with the lessons authentically because they see the inherent value. Luckily, these AI inventions also greatly help educators by providing an infinite supply of TAs. It can offload the tasks like formative feedback, lesson planning, responding to questions, emailing parents, and so much more, so teachers can focus on being human. But, if schools continue to treat education like a game–hoops laid out by adults who supposedly know what’s best for kids–students will also treat it like a game and look for shortcuts. Instead of fighting with the machines, let’s finally rethink education for the 21st century.
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