How teachers can harness ChatGPT for good

If we let fear guide us, we ignore the history of technology and the possibilities offered by AI.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

They say that it will kill the college essay. Some people think it’s a threat to education itself.

I don’t. I’m excited.

This potential school-slayer is ChatGPT, a new Artificial Intelligence interface that displays remarkable prowess. It can write novel poetry, compare literary characters, and evaluate arguments. Google has a similar program, not public yet, that’s apparently even better

AI has arrived, and I’m watching educators wrestle with the ramifications of this revolution.

It has me thinking back to my childhood. Whenever I got fidgety, my mom would give me a calculator to play with. No rules, no directions — just me, a handful of buttons, and the chance to explore. It was heaven.

Ben Talsma (Courtesy photo)

Back then, elementary teachers were in agreement: calculators were cheating. Kids needed to know their math facts, for goodness’ sake, and if they just asked the calculator all the time, they’d never learn.

But I did learn them and learned them well. I looked for patterns, made predictions, and constructed my own understanding. When I learned math in class, I had deep prior knowledge. I was always the best mathematician in my class, won statewide math competitions, and use math voraciously in my work and life today.

It all started with a piece of technology — the same tool that millions of teachers felt was cheating.

That feeling was perfectly normal. Every time a transformative technology comes along, we’re skeptical. Socrates worried that widespread literacy would make our species degenerate and forgetful. Spell check was considered cheating for years because people “ought” to know how to spell without assistance.

It’s human nature: When technology renders previously important skills obsolete, we feel offended. 

ChatGPT inspires a similar fear in many educators, I know. So many students lack foundational writing skills, and teachers spend their time trying to fill those gaps — and to make writing joyful, too. I see how this program could seem to undermine those objectives, offering students a way around assignments meant to help them develop as writers and thinkers. 

And yet. 

I’m convinced that if we let our concerns — however legitimate — overtake our thinking on this topic, we ignore the history of technology and the possibilities offered by AI. Humanity benefits when we allow people to use whatever we can to learn. And students benefit from experimenting with technology in school settings and being able to discuss its use with their teachers. Banning something just increases the likelihood that students will use it in ways that don’t help them learn. 

As a learning specialist, my job involves working with teachers and technology, so I’ve already seen many put ChatGPT to use, from kindergarten through high school. AI can help teachers model the concepts they want students to understand. This works for all sorts of things, from comparing and contrasting different characters to telling the difference between complete and incomplete sentences. Teachers can, in a matter of minutes, create dozens of examples for students to rate, rank, sort, or comment on. 

This is a wonderful, inquiry-oriented way to explore ideas. As humans, we learn so much from observing and interacting with examples, and now teachers have an almost infinite supply of them readily available.

We must also prepare students for the world they’ll inherit. In the next few years, it will become increasingly important for humans to edit AI-generated work. Right now, I’m seeing teachers provide students with samples of AI-generated work, then working with them to improve it. This is an engaging way to open up deep conversations about writing.

ChatGPT often makes factual errors; having students fact-check ChatGPT’s writing is a wonderful way to improve information literacy. A fifth-grade teacher I’m working with recently provided small groups of students with AI-generated content and reported that they loved working to try to prove the articles wrong.

I’ve also seen teachers using ChatGPT to provide a first round of feedback on students’ work. Teachers can simply ask students to input their work into ChatGPT and ask it to provide feedback for improvement — the results are surprisingly good. Don’t believe me? Check out its analysis of this article. When teachers let AI provide preliminary feedback, it takes something off their plates and allows them to engage in higher-level conversations later in the process.

There is still value in having students learn to compose their own five-paragraph essays — just as there is value in teaching students their multiplication facts, even when they will always have access to a calculator.

But AI can allow students to do things that they previously couldn’t. Making use of AI might feel scary or strange; useful innovations always do. By understanding the power and possibility of AI, however, we can help students use their powers for good.

Oh, one last thing: ChatGPT can draft lesson plans. That alone ought to pique your curiosity.

Ben Talsma is a Learning Solution Specialist for Van Andel Institute for Education, a Michigan-based education nonprofit dedicated to creating classrooms where curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking thrive.