January 25, 2023
ChatGPT calls on Humanities teachers to dig even deeper into what is already our core purpose—celebrating humanity … even in a tech-centric world. ChatGPT challenges us to get more intentional about why and how our classrooms teach and celebrate the skills humans have that ChatGPT lacks.
Put more succinctly, ChatGPT is smart but not sentient—let our classrooms be the places where students learn the difference.
How? Through live, in-person conversation.
Today’s discussion dilemma
How do tools like ChatGPT impact class discussion?
Tools like ChatGPT make in-class learning—like class discussion—more important than ever because it’s an opportunity for teachers to witness and assess students’ communication—including analytical and relational—skills. In many ways, ChatGPT is simply forcing a new emphasis on that which is a uniquely human skill: the ability to use conversation to explore ideas and build relationships.
The challenge? The increasing pressure on the class discussion as a key assessment opportunity calls for a far more systematic approach to teaching, practicing, and assessing in-person communication skills than currently exists in most schools.
The knee-jerk response
But discussion is more art than science! In my classroom, discussion is about relationship building—and I don’t want to pollute that with assessment. Students take intellectual risks because they know it is safe, and they dig deeper into their ideas in writing, which I grade meticulously.
In a ChatGPT world, we have to think differently. You can’t rely on a paper as the sole evidence that a student can generate, articulate, support, and revise an original idea about a text. And, to do so isn’t just inviting cheating—it’s shortchanging your students’ development of the communication skills they need to thrive as humans in a tech-centric world. Students today need feedback about the process, not the product—and fundamentally, discussion is a key part of the process by which students arrive at their product (often: a five-paragraph-double-spaced-one-inch-margin-MLA-headed response paper).
How to do it
- Reframe this as an opportunity to improve at teaching and celebrating a fundamental human capacity—the art and science of live, sentient conversation—not as a war on robots or the degradation of writing. By getting more systematic about how you approach class discussion as a skill-building exercise, you are actually empowering students to develop their most deeply human skills. This is not a flight from something, this is an opportunity to run towards what matters most—and meet the complex needs of today’s kids as learners and humans.
- Define what you are looking for; if possible, do so across classrooms or even school-wide. Today’s students need schools to define what it takes to have a great, live discussion. They just don’t know how—and what they are learning at home and witnessing on the air, in public, and on (social) media is inconsistent at best. Their in-person awkwardness is just a natural developmental opportunity cost of time spent on screen. Too often, we complain or mock their lack of knowledge of conversational conventions—how crazy is it that eye contact is not a thing anymore?!—without actually clarifying it (in our classroom, we show respect to someone who is speaking by looking at the speaker. Depending on your own cultural background, you might make eye contact or not, but you should turn your body towards the speaker to indicate your attention). Remember Brene Brown’s adage: CLEAR IS KIND? Never more true than in a class discussion. When schools don’t define and prescribe—or, as Joe Feldman would say, “demystify”—these expectations, you set some students up to thrive (the debaters, the extroverts, the kids who sit down at your Harkness table like it’s their family dinner table) and others to struggle (the kids who have not had access to conversations like this, introverts, cultural differences).
Note: I would advocate that this is a departmental or even school-wide conversation:
Teaching live communication skills in a tech-centric world is some of the most mission-aligned work your school will do; if the language is not (mostly) consistent across classrooms, you are not structuring faculty for success or optimizing student learning—and cannot expect to create a rigorous or equitable experience for all students.
- Design—and democratize—systems for collecting evidence of each skill and each step of the discussion process. For many teachers, one of the biggest barriers to specific assessment of discussion skills is that they are the ones responsible for tracking—and then assessing—everything. It is ephemeral—and, the more engaging it is, the harder it is to track and not join the conversation! Who hasn’t found themselves trying to reconstruct what a kid said or wondering whether you missed a question-mark notation on your Harkness web? Or fish-bowling and then getting frustrated as the conversation becomes performative, not authentic, and kids “grade” their friends highly? The key to conquering this is to create systems that require students to document each step of the discussion process—while also participating in it! At R.E.A.L.® Discussion, we love a “portfolio-based” approach to discussion, asking students to perform specific, Project-Zero-style, thinking routines before, during, and after each discussion—some of which touch on skills (e.g. setting a personal goal, note-taking in a way that shows active listening) and others, on content (e.g. methods for preparation, mid-discussion topical synthesis, etc.). This makes what is often invisible or a “one-off” visible and predictable; in so doing, it gives teachers concrete evidence to assess, and its consistency increases equity (cc: Zaretta Hammond).
- Differentiate between assessment and feedback—and do plenty of both. Make it clear how all of this evidence adds up for students—not just in terms of learning to communicate live, but the value of heading off to write with a thesis that is already at the “fifty-yard-line.” As teachers, this evidence empowers you to assign weight to the process—all of the thinking ahead for the discussion, the engagement during discussion, and the reflection after the discussion—much more heavily than we usually do relative to the product (the paper). With ChatGPT—and goodness knows, in tomorrow’s world!—the live relational, analytical, and communication skills are at least as valuable as the writing skills. As one Department Chair I spoke with recently noted: kids cheat when they don’t know what to say. Using discussion to build their confidence in their own voice and to literally create kernels of ideas ripe for further exploration is a key strategy in decreasing what I’ve heard many teachers call the “anxiety of the blank page or blinking cursor.”
- This might sound obvious but build in reflection—at every single point. Robots are really bad at reflecting. Humans are really great at it. Help students take joy in the process and their personal growth—ChatGPT can’t ever replace that.
Designing a more intentional approach to scaffolding, teaching, and assessing in-classroom learning in a ChatGPT world may feel intimidating—but it’s an opportunity to dive into the timeless values of any humanities classroom. It is counter-intuitive that systematizing what is often the most abstract part of teaching practice will actually make it even more human, inclusive, and rigorous—but that’s worth overriding. In a ChatGPT world, here’s to getting serious and systematic about teaching, practicing, tracking, and assessing our most deeply human skills!
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Liza Garonzik for Intrepid Ed News.