“Great Opportunity” or “Dangerous Idea”? Teachers Weigh ChatGPT’s Implications
ChatGPT warns against “academic dishonesty” / Credits: Sara Weinrod
ChatGPT, OpenAI’s artificial intelligence chatbot released to the public in November 2022, has caught the attention of educators for its potential to impact classrooms across the country. Given any prompt, the bot can generate writing with the competence of a human in various styles. It can write essays and complete homework assignments for students in mere seconds, leading some educators to be concerned that they will no longer be able to teach and evaluate writing properly. Articles in the Atlantic declared the “end of high-school English” and the death of the college essay.
But not all teachers think that ChatGPT is cause for panic. “I think that teachers who havebeen thinking about teaching and writing for a long time have realized that students have been cheating for a long time, and so the more they have students do work outside of class, the less they know how much the student has done,” said Jan McGlennon, who teaches AP English Language and Composition at Walls. “So I’m not really worried about it. She doesn’t see ChatGPT as a new threat, but rather as the amplification of a chronic issue that has been around for ages.
Humanities II teacher Ginea Briggs said there was “justification for concern,” but agreed that “the idea that high school English will end” was overblown and “fear-mongering.”
Neither Ms. McGlennon, Ms. Briggs, nor Humanities I and IV teacher Mr. Jordan have noticed ChatGPT use among students at Walls, but none were sure they would be able to identify an essay generated by the bot.
Regardless, students at Walls may not even be interested in using ChatGPT for their assignments. Ms. Briggs recalled a Humanities II class discussion she observed in which “overwhelmingly the students were like, I don’t want to use that, I want to write my own thoughts and ideas.” Still, some students admitted to The Rookery that they had used ChatGPT for minor assignments, but were unwilling to comment on the record for fear of disciplinary action.
Many public school systems, including in nearby Montgomery County, have blocked ChatGPT on school computers. DCPS WiFi, however, still allows students to access ChatGPT, and has yet to announce a formal
policy about it. Regardless of whether DCPS blocks it going forward, students can still use their personal devices or use hotspots to access the bot.
Ms. Briggs thought it better to “point [students] away from using [ChatGPT] in a manner that might be plagiarism” than to ban the program outright. Ms. McGlennon said a ban would be unfair, as “the kids who have their own data will be able to use it, and the kids who aren’t that privileged won’t.”
Teachers at Walls have a few options at their disposal to rein in AI-assisted plagiarism. Even if ChatGPT-generated writing is not immediately obvious, Mr. Jordan suggested that a teacher could know if a student’s work is their own by interviewing the student about the assignment. He would question the student, and
ask them about “what they wrote, and how they wrote it” since he believes that “there’s a difference in giving some knowledge and internalizing something that you yourself wrote.”
Additionally, software companies have scrambled to put together apps that can identify ChatGPT-generated writing, which are in various stages of development. Turnitin.com, a plagiarism checker many Walls teachers use, is developing its own detection capabilities. “Learning how to write is really supposed to teach students how to think.”
Another potential strategy is to change some aspects of teaching. Ms. McGlennon said she plans to assign “less work outside of class” and would like to “teach students how to use [ChatGPT] effectively.”
“I think perhaps before we start a discussion about preventing students from using it, I think the school should probably have discussions about the use of it and our philosophies around it first and communicating that to students,” Ms. Briggs said, saying it was important to be “on the same page as a department, as a school.” The School Without Walls administration has yet to instruct teachers about how to handle ChatGPT, and Principal Sylvia Isaac declined to comment.
ChatGPT could help English classes as well as hurt them. Ms. McGlennon said students could use it for research, like “synthesizing a Google search,” and Mr. Jordan said it could be used to get an overview of various perspectives on an issue.
Ms. McGlennon thought ChatGPT could be used to help students outline papers, “especially since we don’t teach students how to do outlines anymore. When I was a kid, that was something everybody learned starting in fifth grade, but most kids don’t know how to do that right now.” She said it could be used as a tool to help students organize their ideas more efficiently.
Ms. Briggs added that “there are a variety of ways that teachers are currently using it to help organize papers, to have sample writing so that kids can practice editing and revising, to show examples.” Students could also ask for feedback on their own work, she said. Ms. McGlennon described some more possible uses, including making teachers’ lives a lot easier by generating permission slips, creating rubrics, and writing emails.
What’s more, ChatGPT could make teachers reconsider what their goals are and how to improve student learning. Ms. McGlennon, for one, thinks “it’s a great opportunity to focus more on critical thinking.” Mr. Jordan said it makes him want to “put more emphasis” on writing, because “you need that whole process of what it takes to learn words and how to use them.”
At the heart of the conflict between ChatGPT and education is a looming uncertainty about the value of learning how to write. If ChatGPT-like AI is only going to get better and better, some may question whether writing
should remain a central part of education. But teachers at Walls maintain that writing classes are crucial.
“Words are important — everything that we do consists of words,” Mr. Jordan said. Letting technology write for us, he argued, means that “we’re becoming a dumb society.”
Ms. Briggs agreed, adding that “the idea of ChatGPT being a solution to people who don’t want to write is faulty and dangerous.”
Fundamentally, Ms. McGlennon said, learning how to write is not about learning where to place commas and semicolons. “What learning how to write is really supposed to do is teach students how to think,” she said, “and if you can’t think it, you can’t write it.”