About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: ChatGPT and the public schools

About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: ChatGPT and the public schools
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

Alexandria City Public Schools, unlike the public school districts in New York City and Los Angeles, has yet to ban student access to ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence tool that generates essays, solves equations and completes coding assignments. For those who are not familiar with it, ChatGPT generates near instantaneous well-written responses to complex questions.

There are warnings about AI facilitating pervasive plagiarism or eliminating the need for teachers altogether. Fortunately, Alexandria City High School’s most accomplished writing teachers suggest that an AI-driven education apocalypse may not be imminent or, at least not in high school English classes.

One ACHS teacher has talked with teachers in other communities and said, “…teachers weren’t particularly worried. The Advanced Placement curriculum does so much with on-demand writing but also revision and metacognition, writing about writing, that using AI – however effective it might be – doesn’t give a significant advantage.”

Another experienced teacher observed that technologies were being developed to detect AI’s use and said:

“My plan is to have more required steps than I already have. This way I can see the development of the idea. Google docs is great for seeing how often students edit a document – there’s a feature called trackback – so if it’s just a copyand-paste job, I’m usually pretty suspect already. I try to make sure that my students use the same document from brainstorming to final draft and share it with me from the beginning.”

These teachers see writing instruction as a process of progressive steps which nearly guarantees that AI will not substitute for student work. This approach is far more effective than the “Go-write-anessay-and-I’ll-tell-you-what’s-wrong-with-it” model my teachers used.

In short, the less thoughtful an assignment is, the greater the probability is of AI-related plagiarism. The inverse relationship between assignment quality and the probability of plagiarism has been present for as long as students have had internet access.

Teachers who know their students and how they write and talk often have an internal signal that triggers when they see a student’s writing that is inconsistent with their experience and intuitive sense of how the student expresses themself.

AI is a good source about AI’s uses. ChatGPT’s response to the question, “Will ChatGPT make the teaching of writing unnecessary?” is facile and shows a deferential tone. It also contains, in the final paragraph, a pitch for teachers to use ChatGPT as an instructional aid:

“ChatGPT is a powerful language generation model, but it is not a replacement for teachers in the classroom. While it can be used to generate text, it is not able to understand the context or purpose of the writing, nor can it provide the feedback and guidance that a teacher can give. …

“In summary, ChatGPT is a powerful tool that can be used to generate text, but it is not a replacement for the guidance and feedback that a teacher can provide in the classroom. It can be used as an aid to enhance the learning experience for students, but the human touch of a teacher is still very much important to guide students on the correct path.”

For all of ChatGPT’s fluent expression, the most important words in its response are probably “context” and “purpose.” ChatGPT may generate impressive text, but if it does not effectively address context and purpose, it is of limited utility. The best writing teachers at ACHS have already figured this out.

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@ gmail.com and free subscriptions to his newsletter are available at https:// aboutalexandria.substack.com/.