Can ChatGPT end The Achievement Plateau?
Powerful AI will find its way into classrooms.
In November of 2022, OpenAI launched an updated version of its artificial intelligence (AI)-driven chatbot, ChatGPT.
If you missed this bit of news, ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is basically a bot that a person can ask a question or give a command to and it will use its massive database to provide a (often startlingly accurate) response. It has been asked to write poetry, obituaries, college essays, and provide relationship advice, and its work is often indistinguishable from the average human.
Most importantly, ChatGPT has generated plenty of hilarious memes, and that got me wondering: what are its implications for public education?
In the immediate future, teachers can incorporate its power into their lessons. It might be used to promote a class discussion or generate ideas for an essay. Writing teachers might use it to provide a model essay that could be revised by students. Social studies teachers might provide students prompts for it, and then have them factcheck the bot’s answers. Teachers of English-learners might use it to have students test their English out by chatting with it.
Overworked teachers might even consider using it to write their lesson plans, and central offices could use AI chatbots to more quickly respond to parent concerns.
All these raise an even more ominous question: if artificial intelligence bots can write basic lesson plans and help students practice skills, at what point could AI replace teachers altogether? ChatGPT reportedly passed medical licensing exams, so passing the PRAXIS shouldn’t be too challenging. And it’s not hard to imagine a class on Zoom or in the Metaverse being taught by a quasi-sentient AI-based “teacher.”
And if it can pass tests and potentially take over entire professions, that begs an even more fundamental question: what the hell are we even doing in public schools?
There’s a famous essay by David Labaree, now an education professor at Stanford, in which he examines the three purposes of public education in the US: preparing citizens, preparing workers, and promoting social mobility. It’s a long read, and well worth your time.
We often hear about education as attempting to prepare students for 21st century jobs — the “preparing workers” goal of education — and I think it’s time we stop pretending that we know what “jobs” will look like even 10 years from now. Technology often advances exponentially (thanks, Moore’s Law), and given the current capabilities of ChatGPT, it’s reasonable to think that in 10 years artificial intelligence will be doing much more than entertaining us with quirky rap songs in the style of Eminem.
I think education serves a more basic purpose, more aligned with the “preparing citizens” goal: it builds community. I am increasingly concerned at our society’s ability to promote isolationism: more of us work from home, order groceries and clothes to be delivered to our homes, which in turn serve as fitness clubs and movie theaters. The reasons to leave our homes and join in community are becoming fewer.
But nearly everyone still goes to school. Perhaps that’s our one opportunity to teach students how to build relationships, support one another, find beauty in the world, and purpose for themselves that includes more than just getting a job.
Creating this system would require a wholesale change in our approach. The quality of our public education system is most often judged by students’ performance on standardized tests in math and reading, which have helped narrow the function of schools to test-prep factories while stressing the system at every level.
Still, it can be done. I traveled to Iceland recently to visit schools and saw it happening there. Translating it to the US would “require the attention of policy makers, educators, and other experts in the field, not a language model.” Even ChatGPT gets it.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.