May 2, 2023
What does it mean for humans to write?
Let’s start with this assumption: At the very least, if ChatGPT can write essays, then we probably shouldn’t be assigning them and furthermore assessing them in a formal learning environment.
Since the release of ChatGPT 3.5, there have been rumblings about moving on from essay writing in schools. Just to be clear, abandoning essay writing in the age of AI isn’t the future of learning. That’s future learning designed by fear of technology. What is the positive future of learning that embraces our digital world and AI’s role in this technological landscape? What is the generative future of learning that includes students learning how to communicate their ideas through writing? Teaching students how to slow down, pay attention, and make connections in a thoughtful writing process is a way to empower them. Essay writing, if structured well, can achieve what we humans invented literature to do.
According to Angus Fletcher in Wonderworks: Literary Invention and the Science of Stories, humans invented literature to tell stories, stir emotions (love, wonder, faith), and solve the problem of being human. For Fletcher, literature is a big tent that includes all stories, so he begins in 2300 BCE in Mesopotamia with the first known ‘author’ since her name is stamped onto clay tablets, but he also quickly expands to the preceding generations of oral literature. Fletcher explains that literature is “a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and the pain of just being us” (9). This invention allowed the inventor to assert authorship, that is the power to create.
To abandon essays reveals how little we know of this greater history of literature. It also makes apparent how little we remember about the essay form in particular. For Montaigne in the 16th century, the essay was a process of trying on ideas as a means for self-discovery. As a result, it was less formal, shorter, limited in subject, and from a personal point of view. These features are probably why this form has been co-opted for assessments.
This use of the essay form also has been possible because writing, according to Judy Willis, a neurologist and classroom teacher, is an opportunity for students to express creativity and personal voice. Willis explains that writing
“supports the development of higher-process thinking: conceptual thinking; transfer of knowledge; judgment; critical analysis; induction; deduction; prior-knowledge evaluation (not just activation) for prediction; delay of immediate gratification for long-term goals; recognition of relationships for symbolic conceptualization; evaluation of emotions, including recognizing and analyzing response choices; and the ability to recognize and activate information stored in memory circuits throughout the brain’s cerebral cortex that are relevant to evaluating and responding to new information or for producing new creative insights—whether academic, artistic, physical, emotional, or social.”
Given all these benefits of writing and the brevity of the essay form, I understand why it is viewed as an efficient tool by which to sort a wide range of students in the industrial model of education. However, in re-creating essays to be executed in a timed high-pressure environment, we’ve emptied the form of its original intent: It is no longer a process to figure out how to express oneself and what one thinks—it now focuses on the reproduction of content. Essays under exam conditions also deny why humans invented literature and authorship: to tell stories, stir emotions, solve the problem of being human, and harness the power of creation. Furthermore, essay writing as high-stakes testing is formulaic writing. It runs counter to writing as active learning where students practice creative problem-solving. And this content-focused formulaic writing can be reproduced faster (and better than the average student—scores in the 90th percentile on the bar exam and 88th percentile on the LSAT by the likes of ChatGPT and Bard. It is why Matt Glanville, IB’s head of assessment principles and practice, says that essay writing is being challenged by the rise of AI technology like ChatGPT, and as a result, essay writing will not be as prominent in the future because LLMs can produce an essay much faster than a human.
But essay writing doesn’t have to be so narrow and limiting. Glanville continues that our students need to master different skills because of the capabilities of AI like ChatGPT. While I agree with him that our students need to master different skills, it isn’t because LLMs (Large Language Models) can produce an essay faster than a human. LLMs can process vast amounts of data, recognize patterns, and predict the most likely outcomes from these patterns. There is a role for pattern recognition and reliable prediction in cancer screening, predicting extreme climate events, and choosing the optimal route to avoid road closure and traffic congestion. However, prediction based on pattern recognition has no place in student essay writing. We shouldn’t be designing assessments where our students lose to technology that can neither be truthful nor reliable and has already reached its peak because more data won’t get us to AGI (Wired, Nautilus). Instead, we should focus on fostering the very human skills such as creative thinking, imagination, curiosity, collaboration, and problem-solving, which essay writing can develop.
Essays can cultivate all of these skills. This past academic year, I was a reviewer for the NCTE’s Achievement Awards in Writing and the writing half of the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. In both their rubrics, there is an emphasis on an authentic voice, purposefulness in language and idea development, originality in thinking and expression, and creativity. Both these rubrics return us to why humans tell stories: to stir emotions, help us navigate our humanity, and access the power of creation. When we teach students to write essays, that short-form storytelling, we are essentially asking them to participate in a very human experience that predates modern technology but is still so much a part of our humanity: our desire to create (authorship) and tell stirring stories. Essays are essentially a small enough scale for students to practice this very human act.
When we design essay assignments, we should create the structures that allow students to access and participate in this tradition that Fletcher speculates even predates our species and stretches back to the Homo erectus hunter-gatherers of the Afro-Asian Stone Ages. As teachers, we design the scaffolding for a particular assignment but leave the content open enough to students so they can use the assigned form to tell their stories, practice authorship, express creativity, and play with what emotions they want to convey and engage. This openness can be true across genres: Whether it is the typical English essay on a work of literature, a personal essay, a research essay, or a persuasive essay, let students have an authentic experience by choosing what is the specific focus of their essay. And writing, even though commonly understood as individual work, can be collaborative. Students can work together on teams of different sizes in a peer-workshop process where they learn from each other’s strengths and help solve each other’s challenges. This is why process writing is the best way to teach students to write. Process writing is slow writing. It slows down students so they can pause to reclaim their thinking and become curious about themselves. It creates the time for them to surprise themselves and their readers with their insight and revelations, wrestle with failure and disappointment, commit to resilience, and experience the full complexity of joy for achievement and/or completion. Treating writing as a process allows students to craft their essays over days or weeks in class and at home. But the process doesn’t mean that the product doesn’t matter. Rather, the product is more meaningful because it is meaningful to the student. Neither product nor process eclipse each other but they both play a part in getting students to understand themselves as authors who are telling stories that can stir emotions.
If we take seriously the higher-process thinking that writing activates as well as remember the original intent for essays and why we invented literature, we, those of us who work in schools, will recognize why essays should no longer be co-opted for these very narrow assessments. If we want our students to experience the true challenges and joys of writing, then we should use the principles of backward design to achieve our learning goals. And in so doing, this will help us, teachers and students, better use technological tools appropriately like AI. ChatGPT has made it more than clear that we have been misusing the essay form in particular and writing in general. Let’s do this no longer, and abandon essays for assessments for the right reasons as we co-design with our students a positive technology-informed future of learning.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Jeannette Lee Parikh, Ph.D., for Intrepid Ed News.
One thought on “Writing in the Age of AI | Jeannette Lee Parikh | 7 Min Read”
What a beautiful, thoughtful piece of writing on the essence of writing…you’ve made visible what I have sensed when reading about AI’s impact on essay writing. The focus so often is on the essay as product (AI makes it instant!) yet your piece reminds us that it’s about process not product. To slow down, to synthesize, to reflect and (I love this phrase you use) authorship are the skills that are really being reinforced when writing essays. Why cram it under time pressure? Why the focus on time…period? Thank you for not only addressing this distinction but also for offering up myriad examples of how writing can return human-ness to the classroom of the future.