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ChatGPT is not your enemy: Teaching in a world of AI

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

By now I think most educators have been introduced to the conversational artificial intelligence platform known as ChatGPT, which stands for Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer. While some have embraced the technology for what it can do, a significant number of educators are starting to panic due to the very real possibility that students will exploit the model to complete their assignments for them. In this post, I argue that the controversy surrounding ChatGPT is simply a symptom of a misaligned education system rather than an issue with the technology itself, or worse, some inherent deficit within your students.

AI generated image of a conversation with ChatGPT
Source - Midjourney

Introduction


For those who aren't already familiar with it, ChatGPT is essentially an intelligent chatbot, developed by American AI research organization OpenAI and made available to the public in late November 2022. You've probably interacted with a similar but much more rudimentary version of this technology when attempting to contact various online retailers with questions or customer service issues. In such cases, you typically receive semi-automated responses from an internal chat program instead of from a human employee. The difference with ChatGPT is that it has been trained over several years by reading ludicrous amounts of online text to the point where it can respond with impressive accuracy to nearly any prompt. Imagine Siri or Alexa but far more competent. Currently, ChatGPT is free and takes less than a minute to set up through your browser of choice.


So what's the problem?


As a student, you can see how such a system might entice you to cheat. Got a book report or essay coming up? Ask the chatbot to do it for you. Below are a few examples I tried myself to show you what it can do.


Me: Write a book summary for George Orwell's Animal Farm.


ChatGPT: Animals on Manor Farm are mistreated and neglected by their human owner, Mr. Jones. The pigs, who are the smartest animals on the farm, decide to take action and lead a rebellion to overthrow the humans and run the farm themselves. The animals create a new society, with the pigs as the leaders, and they work together to make the farm a success. However, the pigs soon become corrupt and begin to act like the humans they overthrew, oppressing and manipulating the other animals for their own gain. Eventually, the other animals realize that they are no better off under the pigs' rule than they were under the humans, and they stage another rebellion to reclaim the farm. The novel is an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin's dictatorship.


Me: Write a paragraph on the parallels between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the North Korean Missile Crisis.


ChatGPT: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the North Korean Missile Crisis have several parallels. Both crises involved the deployment of nuclear missiles by foreign powers in close proximity to the United States. In both cases, the US government perceived the deployment as a direct threat to national security and responded with a combination of diplomatic pressure and military build-up. Additionally, both crises were resolved through diplomatic negotiations, though the outcome and terms of the resolution were different. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for the US agreeing not to invade Cuba and agreeing to remove US missiles from Turkey. The North Korean Missile Crisis, on the other hand, has not yet been resolved and the US and North Korea have yet to reach an agreement on denuclearization.


Obviously, the above examples are fairly simplistic, with information that could easily be obtained from a blog or informative website such as Wikipedia. The difference is that these are not copy-and-paste responses lifted from some other website. Instead, they are unique paragraphs generated by ChatGPT as a direct result of the specific prompts given. This means that they can't easily be detected by plagiarism software like Turnitin. It's not even clear if this is plagiarism at all, although it certainly seems disingenuous to claim this writing as your own work. Not a star student? No problem! Ask ChatGPT is give you a response at your level.


Me: Write a paragraph on the parallels between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the North Korean Missile Crisis for a C student.


ChatGPT: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the North Korean Missile Crisis are similar in a few ways. Both of them had to do with other countries putting missiles close to the US. The US government thought this was a big threat and did something about it. They did stuff like talking to the other country and also getting ready for war. Both of the situations ended up being solved through talking, but the end results were different. Like in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the other country took away their missiles and the US promised not to invade and also took away some of their own missiles. But in the North Korean Missile Crisis, they haven't come to a solution yet.


If you think this is the only thing that ChatGPT is capable of, think again. You can feed data into the model and get it to calculate all sorts of things, including advice on how to graph and analyze the data.


Me: Create a graph based on the following data. Time: 2h, 4h, 6h, 8h Humidity: 42%, 51%, 66%, 89%.


ChatGPT: I am a text-based AI and I do not have the capability to create graphs. Based on the data you provided, you can create a line graph to show the relationship between time and humidity. The x-axis would represent time (in hours) and the y-axis would represent humidity (in percentages). The data points would be: (2h, 42%), (4h, 51%), (6h, 66%), and (8h, 89%). The line graph would show an increasing trend of humidity over time.


As you can see, even though there are limitations to what the program is capable of, it will always attempt to solve the problem for you. As such it has the potential to take away pretty much all thinking and problem solving that might be required of your students.


I could go on and on about all the things ChatGPT can potentially be used for. It can even handle creative explorations. Here is one for IB music.


Me: Give me a suggestion for how I can write a creative composition for IB music class. ChatGPT: One suggestion for writing a creative composition for your IB music class would be to focus on a specific theme or concept that you are passionate about. Think about something that you care deeply about and use that as the inspiration for your composition. For example, you could write a piece inspired by the natural beauty of a specific location, such as a forest or a beach. Or you could write a piece inspired by a particular historical event, such as the civil rights movement.


Another suggestion could be to incorporate different elements of world music in your composition. You could draw inspiration from various genres and cultures and blend them together to create something unique. This would help you to create a more diverse and creative composition.


You could also try to experiment with different compositional techniques like using unconventional chord progressions, dissonant harmonies or dissonant melodies, polyrhythms, or using electronic music techniques like using samples, synthesis or using live looping.


Ultimately, the key to a creative composition is to let your imagination and emotions guide you as you write. Remember to have fun, be open-minded, and don't be afraid to take risks and try new things.


The above suggestion is quite vague, but ChatGPT keeps track of your conversation and will modify future responses based on what you've asked it already. Keep asking more specific questions and it will direct you to very specific answers.


Me: Give me an example of an unusual chord progression I could use in my composition.


ChatGPT: One example of an unusual chord progression you could use in your composition is the "Phrygian Dominant" progression.


It is a variant of the traditional Phrygian mode, which is the third mode of the major scale and features a flattened second and seventh scale degrees. The Phrygian Dominant progression is built from the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale and features a raised seventh scale degree. This creates a dissonant and exotic sound that can add a unique and interesting twist to your composition.


The chord progression is typically represented as: -Im7 -bII7 -bIII7 -IV7 -V7.


For example, in the key of C major, the Phrygian Dominant progression would be: -Cm7 -Db7 -Eb7 -F7 -G7


You could use this progression as the basis for your composition and build your melody and harmonies around it. Keep in mind that this progression is quite dissonant, so use it in a subtle manner to give your composition a unique flavor without overwhelming the listener.


I could keep going and probably get the program to essentially write an entire piece of text-based music for me. Then all I would have to do is transcribe it into some music composition software and my assignment would be done. I've seen teachers suggesting that we can avoid the exploitation of AI software by requiring students to complete more non-written work, such as posters or videos, but eventually, those too will be customizable with a few simple prompts, and in some cases, they already are. Consider the myriad options for AI image generation software currently in use, including Midjourney which I use to create the images for this site. Are we really looking to start some kind of arms race against AI where teachers have to constantly come up with new assessments that only humans can complete? If so, I've got bad news for you - we're going to lose.


Should we all freak out now?


So far I'm painting a fairly bleak picture for educators who give assignments like the ones above and trust that their students will complete them without unfair assistance. If you value such assessments then perhaps this really is the educational apocalypse some are making it out to be. I have another suggestion, though, which is that the assignments we have been giving are all wrong.


Focus on skills, not content


Most of what students are assessed on is content-based. Memorizing facts and definitions is the classic example, and one most modern teachers are proud to say they've put behind them, but are more complicated questions really all that different? Consider the following:

  • Describe the light dependent and independent reactions in photosynthesis.

  • Outline the events that led to the First World War.

The above tasks are both content-heavy prompts that require you to memorize facts, dates, and terminology. Sure, you have to be able to connect independent ideas and use appropriate vocabulary accurately, but does this actually require a depth of understanding? More importantly, is this really the kind of knowledge your students will need in the future?


Except for very basic knowledge - mostly acquired in early elementary school - there is only one thing schools can teach students which will be directly transferable to their varied and unpredictable future careers, and it's skills. Having the ability to research, work collaboratively, manage your time, organize your thoughts, speak effectively, and so on are valuable no matter what you plan to do. For this reason, I am a strong supporter and practitioner of project-based learning.


In terms of raw information, there's simply too much out there for you to have any hope of reaching even an introductory level of competence in all areas, something schools have tried and failed to cultivate for decades. Moreover, we're generating information at an accelerating rate, and it's unlikely to stop anytime soon. Think of AI as a colossal reference manual then, available to help you find the answers you need at a moment's notice. We still need the skills to know what to do with this information, of course, but as long as we have access to it, do we really need to retain it in our very limited and highly fallible memories? Humans are inherently curious, and if we want to know and understand something in more detail, we will find out. Just don't expect everyone to know or care about the same things, and then make them feel terrible about themselves when they can't or don't want to. I'm looking at you, standardized testing!


Teachers (and perhaps administrators even more so) tend to shy away from skills-based learning at higher grade levels because it is much harder to assess and doesn't translate to a straightforward college admissions process. That leads to my second argument:


Focus on learning, not grades and assessments


Is the use of AI programs to help us complete our work cheating then? If the goal of an assignment is to use our internal knowledge and understanding to create a product or arrive at an answer, then yes, it probably is. I don't condone cheating, of course, but consider why students cheat in the first place. Neil deGrasse Tyson hit the nail on the head with the following quote: "When students cheat on exams it's because our school system values grades more than students value learning." He's absolutely right. Students will use programs like ChatGPT because they don't care about the assignments they've been given and just want to get them done. Most schools value results, not the process of learning or the personal progress students make. Students internalize this early on, and once they do, it can be nearly impossible to change their minds. We can try to convince them of an assessment's value until we're blue in the face, but wouldn't it be better if learning were the focus of our assessments, rather than the end product? Better yet, wouldn't it be great if students had some control over what they learn and could focus primarily on their own interests? Such a system would require us to invert the relative value of formative versus summative assessments, with the former becoming much more important while the latter would become mostly irrelevant. It may even require us to scrap formalized assessments entirely.


A final word on the use of technology


Before I sign off on this topic, consider another invention that was surely met with harsh criticism from math purists (and perhaps still is) - the calculator. What used to take several minutes and many lines of scribbled numbers could be accomplished instantly with the push of a few buttons. All of a sudden, you didn't really need to understand how the math worked, as long as you knew which buttons to press. For most of us, that's good enough (sorry math teachers...). I drive a car almost every day and couldn't tell you how most of it works, and chances are you are reading this on a device that you wouldn't know how to build, either. That doesn't mean there is no value in understanding how those things function. There certainly is, but only to those of us who care or need to know. Technology develops to help us to do what we want to do more efficiently, and if AI can accomplish that, I'm all for it.


Oh, and if you think only students are using ChatGPT in schools, I'm fairly certain you'd be wrong on that front as well. Teachers are already recognizing how easy it is to create lesson plans and administrative documents on the platform. Evidently, it's not just student work that needs to be reevaluated if we care about the value of teaching and learning. I'll leave you with a final example prompt and response, which took me longer to cut and paste than it did to generate it.


Me: Create a NGSS syllabus for grade 8 science full of education jargon.


ChatGPT: Course Title: 8th Grade Science: Investigating the Natural World


Course Description: This course is designed to provide students with a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the natural world using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as a framework. Students will engage in hands-on investigations, inquiry-based learning, and critical thinking to develop their understanding of the natural world. The course will focus on the following three dimensions of the NGSS: Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas.


Course Outcomes:

  • Students will be able to use scientific practices to design and conduct investigations, gather data, and analyze and interpret results.

  • Students will be able to apply crosscutting concepts, such as patterns, cause and effect, and systems and systems models to explain natural phenomena.

  • Students will be able to demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the disciplinary core ideas in life science, physical science, and earth and space science.

Units of Study:

  1. Matter and Energy: Students will explore the properties of matter and energy and how they interact in various systems.

  2. Motion and Stability: Students will investigate the concepts of motion and forces, and how they affect stability and balance in natural systems.

  3. Earth Systems and Resources: Students will study the Earth's systems, including geology, meteorology, and oceanography, and how they interact to sustain life on Earth.

  4. Interdependence of Life: Students will explore the diversity of life on Earth and the ways in which living organisms interact and depend on one another and the environment.

  5. Human Impact on Earth Systems: Students will analyze the ways in which human activities impact Earth's systems and resources and evaluate potential solutions to mitigate these impacts.

Assessment:

  • Formative assessments, such as quizzes, lab reports, and group presentations, will be used to monitor student progress and inform instruction.

  • Summative assessments, such as unit tests and final projects, will be used to evaluate students' understanding of the course content and their ability to apply it in real-world contexts.

  • Performance tasks, such as scientific investigations and engineering design challenges, will be used to assess students' ability to use scientific practices and apply crosscutting concepts.

Materials:

  • Textbook: "Investigating the Natural World: An Introduction to the Next Generation Science Standards"

  • Lab equipment, such as microscopes, balance, and thermometers

  • Access to online resources, such as simulations and interactive activities

  • Scientific calculator

Expectations:

  • Attendance and participation in class discussions and hands-on activities is essential to success in this course.

  • Students are expected to complete assigned readings and homework in a timely manner.

  • Students are expected to use appropriate laboratory safety procedures at all times.

  • Late work will not be accepted, except in extenuating circumstances with prior arrangement with the teacher.

Grading Policy:

  • Classwork and homework: 25%

  • Labs and investigations: 25%

  • Quizzes and tests: 35%

  • Final project: 15%

The course will be evaluated regularly and will be adjusted to meet the needs of the students.


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