Opinion editor's note: This article, part of our New Voices collection, was written by a first-time contributor to Star Tribune Opinion. For more information about our efforts to continually expand the range of views we publish, see startribune.com/opinion/newvoices.
I have been curious about ChatGPT because it's being talked about in the media a lot. ChatGPT is an A.I. tool created by OpenAI to answer questions in a chatbot-like way. It can write a poem, story or code based on a simple prompt. One of the main problems being discussed is that it can write essays with a single prompt, bringing up the question: What does this mean for English language education?
So, I also played with ChatGPT with many questions and prompts. I must admit that it is hard not to be surprised by ChatGPT's well-articulated and humanlike responses. So the question we have is: The next time an English teacher asks a student to write a 1,000-word book report on "Macbeth," why would she spend any more time on it than just a simple copy and paste?
Teaching English has traditionally emphasized writing as a unique and valuable skill, but with machines now capable of writing, the role of humans in this area is in question. For students too, it raises the question about what kind of jobs they will be able to get if they can't beat the machines.
The introduction of calculators in classrooms was met with similar concern that children would rely solely on machines, but they have not replaced the need for math classes in high school and beyond. Calculators are not provided in elementary school in order to prevent students from relying on technology instead of grasping basic math concepts. Similarly, advanced calculators were once thought to make many math classes unnecessary, but that hasn't proven to be the case. High school math now covers topics beyond calculators' capabilities and focuses on critical thinking skills to understand and frame word problems into equations. Comparably, high school English requirements may need to be elevated to surpass basic writing skills now that technology can perform simple writing tasks.
Currently, chatbots cannot meet the expectations of a high school English class, which values depth, meaning, and a sense of understanding of the world and human values. Even one of the fathers of modern artificial intelligence, chief A.I. scientist at Meta, Yann LeCun, says that "LLMs [Large Language Models like ChatGPT] have a very superficial understanding of the physical world." It implies that assigning mundane assignments may lead to students using ChatGPT — resulting in a lack of insightful content and untraceable plagiarism. Teachers must give more complex assignments and grade those based on compelling writing rather than simply correcting grammar.
One can say that ChatGPT today is at the writing level of a fifth- or sixth-grader. It responds to our prompts superficially and mechanically based on the text it has read on the internet. That means it often loses depth and nuance and gives a lot more weight to popular and recent text content at the cost of historical context without any sense of morality or fairness. To check this theory, I asked ChatGPT to write a compelling story about a girl who went to a segregated school during the 1950s. Then I gave it another prompt to write a story about a girl who overcomes racial barriers in the workplace. Both the stories ended with the same basic concept that they "persevered through" and "followed their dreams and didn't hold back," while ignoring the critical context of the history of racial tensions and the continued prevalence of racial barriers.
Teachers can focus on integrating ChatGPT in the way they teach. It can help them create many examples instead of the one or two they can provide right now. ChatGPT can help improve writing by making it easier to develop outlines, simplify writing, summarize or proofread for grammatical errors, etc. Also, teachers should focus on the aspects that require critical thinking.
For example, discuss the essay topics in the class and then refer to the discussions in the assignment: "Write from the two perspectives we discussed in the class." Discuss and use references that are not likely to be on the internet and include video and audio references too. ChatGPT often makes up references, so verifying references will make it easy to check for its use by students. Or make children write key points in the class, and then the homework is to expand on those points. Even how someone writes a prompt is expected to become a valuable skill called "prompt engineering," and teachers could give assignments to write various kinds of prompts and compare results.
It will take time to implement all these things and adapt to the fast-changing world of A.I. Right now, keeping ChatGPT away from elementary school seems like a good option. Schools and teachers won't be able to enforce bans against its use among high school students because students will manage to find workarounds. Therefore, it is best for teachers to focus on adaptive responses like doing in-class essay-writing exercises to ensure students are not using ChatGPT to submit their assignments.
ChatGPT, with its handy functionalities and easy-to-use interface, has the potential to disrupt the field of education. It will force educators to change the way they test students' knowledge. Right now, it's not advanced enough to meet the high school writing standards that reflect deeper thinking and analytical skills, but A.I. will keep advancing, and soon that will not be true. That is why the challenge for teachers and students is to figure out how to adapt to such new technologies and work with them, which is what education today should be about anyway.
Muskan Singh is an eighth-grader at Blake School in Hopkins.