January 16, 2023
At my last dentist appointment, the hygienist did a couple of novel things: she cleaned my teeth differently—with air and water—and she also checked my blood pressure. I was in awe. I share this anecdote because, over the years, I have experienced how dentistry has changed as the science of healthy teeth and overall health have dictated. And I wondered why, in education, we can’t change as the science of learning and advances in technology demand.
I am curious about the differences between these two industries: dentistry and education. What makes dentistry, or at least individual dental practices, nimble enough to incorporate new information while across public and private schools, we still largely educate our children in a late 19th-century model, even though we know it doesn’t work for how young humans learn? Why can’t we make systemic changes, like returning play to learning for students of all ages, incorporating movement into the learning day, empowering students to harness the power of technology, and using the science of learning to design effective classroom practices? Why? Why not?
I ask these questions as the newest big change that education, particularly those of us in writing-intensive disciplines are encountering: ChatGPT: AI that can write essays and produce other creative work. Much has been written about it already: here and here, for instance. I am positive there will be independent schools, school districts, and universities that will ban access to Open AI on their campus, and on school devices, and include the use of it under the academic integrity section of their student handbook. NYC’s department of education has already banned it. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Markham Heid writes that teachers should return to handwritten essays because neuroscience research shows that handwriting requires precise motor skills that stimulate greater activity across the brain, and ultimately result in improvements to learning and memory. Essentially, this article uses advances in how we understand learning (the benefits of handwriting) to argue for rejecting advances in technology that impacts learning. Oh, how irony abounds!
However, I don’t think, as an English teacher and department chair, that we should return to handwritten essays or ban ChatGPT; instead, we should try to understand it and other AI models to determine how and when they can be incorporated into formal learning environments. In most industries, when innovation comes along, we’ve accepted and even embraced it: for instance, people no longer use candles to light their homes, and Math departments learned to embrace the calculator (admittedly, after some consternation). What we should do is use the opportunity that ChatGPT has created to ask ourselves whether the current structure of writing in many English departments meets the 21st-century learning needs of our students and society as a whole. We should not be afraid if the answer is no. Those, like Seth Godin, who are celebrating the end of the high school essay, point to significant shortcomings in the execution of English essay writing: the regurgitation of content, ineffective feedback, and unclear purpose. If ChatGPT is the end of high school English and the college essay, then maybe the latter two need to be destroyed because they are such brittle relics anyway. And I write this not just as an English teacher, but also someone who earned a Ph.D. in English literature.
But, the truly sad open secret is that the unnecessary angst (or celebration) over ChatGPT’s potential destruction of high school English and the college essay could only be possible because of weaknesses inherent in how we teach writing in formal academic settings, which essentially is Godin’s point. Nevertheless, I don’t think ChatGPT will destroy English departments, at least at the high school level, if only because education systems seem to be resilient in spite of their inconsistencies, inefficiencies, and failures.
Instead, I hope that ChatGPT can pivot English departments to consider if we’ve gotten stuck in asking students to reproduce forms of writing that students don’t recognize as immediately responding to the human experience in the 21st century, so it doesn’t meaningfully engage them. Or at the very least, the framing and expectations of formal academic writing are so alienating for students that they don’t lean into their learning zone to think deeply, demonstrate originality, achieve skill in the compelling and intentional use of language, and discover their personal voice in writing. Essentially, the writing assignments are not perceived as inviting an authentic response but instead a regurgitation of what the teacher said, which is essentially what ChatGPT does, according to Gary Marcus. It synthesizes what already exists because it doesn’t understand the connections between bits of text and what the text means. It just auto-completes our sentences because it’s been trained on information at scale. As a result, it can’t be consistently reliable and truthful, which is why it makes mistakes. However, Marcus explains, our brains are more sophisticated neural networks of 150 brain areas carefully structured together. The question for Marcus is: Are we designing writing assignments that are asking students to do more with their brains than a version of AI that can’t understand, be reliable, or be truthful?
While there is a place in English departments for the traditional English essay on literary fiction, we need to ensure there is space for literary encounters, a setting for students to have authentic reading experiences and engage in student-driven discussions that deepen their understanding of the text and one another, as well as make the connections to the larger real-world concerns explored in the texts. Literature, like all art, examines the complexities, contradictions, disappointments, joys, and triumphs of the human experience. Studying literature and the humanities can teach us all something about what it means to be human, even more so now as we navigate an increasingly complicated interconnected offline and digital world that raises old and new ethical and existential questions, like how we—teachers, students, and parents in partnership with one another—should engage with ChatGPT in learning environments. We need to practice deep reading and reflecting upon our experiences as we chart a way into a digital future we don’t fully know the contours of, but is swiftly erasing the distance between writing and learning in the humanities and technology.
The vast majority of our students will not major in English in college, even fewer will earn a MA in English and English-adjacent fields, and even fewer will achieve a Ph.D. in English and English-adjacent fields. However, all of our students can benefit from contemplating the big universal themes and meaningful questions explored in literature. All of our students need to learn how to communicate their ideas clearly, with originality and skillful use of language, as well as in their own voice. The English essay doesn’t have a hold on this alone. But it is an excellent medium for sustained analysis of the thinking and experiences of others, particularly those different from ourselves, thereby discovering and expanding what we think since writing is thinking and allows us to communicate our ideas to an audience. And since writing is thinking, this is a moment for English departments to deliberately restructure writing with the explicit learning objective of enabling students to articulate original ideas or at least express ideas in an original way, develop purposeful and effective use of language, and an intentional personal voice. The point and structure of our assignments need to be meaningful to students. It is in this meaning-making that the assignments, the process, and the products also become meaningful not only to the teacher but also to the community of learners. Teachers, as I have written previously for this publication, are an artificial audience for student writers—their peers are the real audience and need to be part of each other’s learning since learning is also social. This is what the English essay, writing about literature, can offer us if done effectively.
In my department, we teach students the literary analytical essay, the persuasive essay (research essay), the literary critical essay (research essay), the personal essay, the character profile, and investigative journalism (research essay) in required classes. These are all different essay forms. Students can also learn how to write poetry, short stories, and plays. I am sure some version of this is standard in most independent school English departments. However, we use an in-class reflective writing process model, so we support students as they discover, navigate, and develop their ideas on a device. We don’t leave students to go home and figure it out alone on their laptops. ChatGPT is particularly threatening for English departments in which assigned essays are exclusively written at home and submitted on a due date; a product-oriented and one-and-done approach. They are less so for process-oriented departments, like mine, where students craft and revise their writing in class with the teacher and peer support as part of a writing community, and only the grade for the final draft counts. It doesn’t mean that some students won’t try to secretly use ChatGPT. But banning ChatGPT will be as effective as banning Sparknotes, Book Rags, Shmoop, and all the other summary websites, which have only multiplied over the years and grown exponentially in their offerings. We shouldn’t repeat this mistake since the stakes only continue to get higher with technology as it advances.
For good measure, my department has started experimenting with ChatGPT. One colleague asked this AI to write our tenth-grade essay on The Great Gatsby. We think the essay is mediocre: C to B- range because it was general and misquoted the characters, essentially not reliable and truthful. However, what is so wrong if a student who struggles to articulate themselves in writing, gets stuck staring at a blank screen, and/or has trouble letting go of what isn’t working, uses ChatGPT to conquer that block? The student can feed some ideas, get some writing back, and work with the result to complete and polish the essay in class. The student can specify the general and fix the mischaracterization. The ChatGPT version(s) could be incorporated into the writing process. Including ChatGPT might return some of the original momentary energy into the essay form, which originally meant attempts by Montaigue (who first came up with the concept). Wouldn’t this novel support enable some students to develop a different, less fraught, more flexible relationship with their own writing? And as part of their reflection, they contemplate whether and how it helped them achieve their goals (student-driven) and the goals (learning objectives) of the writing assignment. By the time most students enter high school, they have very rigid conceptions of their relationships with math and writing. The vast majority of students don’t consider themselves masterful or even proficient writers and most English teachers would agree with their assessment. What ChatGPT offers is an opportunity for a student who struggles with writing to finally work towards originality, skillful use of language, and voice—a place many students don’t arrive at—instead of remaining in the purgatory of basic idea articulation, when high school English departments bring the writing process into the synchronous learning space. And note, in this use of ChatGPT, it is openly harnessed as part of the student’s writing process—it doesn’t replace the student’s writing and thinking.
Instead of working to maintain a system that doesn’t meet the needs of all students, how about if we seize this moment to innovate in writing-intensive disciplines to create a more personalized, relevant, participatory, ethical, and empowered learning environment. Wouldn’t it be great if all students, not just those who self-identify as readers and writers, get to experience awe because of their writing—that sense of wonder at their own written accomplishment—even if it was aided by AI technology?
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Jeannette Lee Parikh, Ph.D. for Intrepid Ed News.