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ChatGPT can write English essays … quite well. How are teachers going to deal?
Dec 20, 2022

ChatGPT can write English essays … quite well. How are teachers going to deal?

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A high school teacher in Berkeley, California, fed the artificial intelligence program writing prompts from his class, and the outcome was “on target.”

Teachers are a creative bunch. They have to be to come up with lesson plans and exams that help students grow their minds and prevent those same students from relying too much on technology to enhance their work or to cheat.

Which is why the rollout of OpenAI’s ChatGPT has many teachers worried. The chatbot can answer almost any type of question, even if the answers aren’t always accurate.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Daniel Herman, an English teacher at Maybeck High School in Berkeley, California. He posed some of the essay prompts from his class to the chatbot and wrote about it for The Atlantic magazine. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Daniel Herman (Courtesy Ada Herman)

Daniel Herman: So every year, I teach two sections of junior English. And I gave [ChatGPT] the first essay prompt that I usually give [students] in September. And immediately this text, as I think we’ve all become quite familiar with this text, started just being written on the screen in front of me, and my heart just started pounding in my chest. And from there I thought of finding an essay question from last year’s {Advanced Placement] literature exam and it went from there. And time after time, the responses that it gave were pretty impressive.

Kimberly Adams: How different is this technology from just another tool in the toolkit to kind of do some of these tasks that we use to train ourselves to write, even something like penmanship?

Herman: So what I very often ask my students to do is we do lots of writing in class. And then there’s a moment where I ask students to take the writing that they’ve done in class and turn it into a more polished piece of writing. And that, for many students, is where they really struggle. And I’m really interested in exploring creative ways that ChatGPT, and whatever comes after it, can be a dialogic conversation between students, who maybe is going to find certain things in the process easy and other things really struggle with. And are ways that this technology can facilitate their learning, rather than just undermine or replace it.

Adams: When it comes down to it, what does this technology just being out there mean for students, good and bad?

Herman: Yeah, so this is where, where my head really started to spin when I was first playing with it. And I’ll be completely honest about this. I work at a small, independent school in the Bay Area. My class sizes are between 12 and 15 students. We write in spiral notebooks, we read our writing aloud together. But my experience in the classroom is, to say the very least, not the experience you have of your average high school teacher. And having met many of those people over the years in conferences and workshops and things, if I imagine the average high school teacher who has five classes a day, 40 students in each class, and they’re running up against all of these standards and systems, they’re teaching to the test, the Common Core, they have three other teachers, three other colleagues or they have to be in lockstep to make sure that standards are consistent. There’s very little that they have time for, aside from preparing students in the ways that they know that these students need to be prepared.

I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen. And I don’t know how fast this is going to go. But it seems to me, and just to pick, AP exams are really a particularly easy one. It doesn’t seem to me that AP exams are immediately rendered irrelevant. That sort of ability to memorize information, and then present it in this way, has been a really valued skill. And I don’t know whether there’s a reason to continue valuing it in the same way that a college admissions essay is valuing some sort of narrative writing. And this is what I mean when I say, “I don’t know what we’re specifically talking about when we say, ‘Writing is essential.'” I don’t think we mean writing poetry. I don’t think we mean writing, writing fiction. There’s some sort of communication that everybody is assuming cannot be dispensed with. But I’m wondering if that’s whether we’re blinded by the world that we’ve created, which is so based upon writing as this form of technology.

Adams: Do you think, to deal with sort of the academic dishonesty slice of this, will teachers have to return to sort of having students with notebooks in the class writing their essays freehand?

Herman: I have to assume that that’s where a lot of people are going to go. And it makes me think about the invention of the calculator. And I have to assume that when the calculator was invented, many, many, many teachers just said, “Oh, well, now we’ll have to just watch them all the time to make sure that they are not using calculators.” I think everybody would agree that’s just silly. It’s not valuable to multiply 987 times 987 in your head. And the next question I have to ask is, what exactly are we trying to measure? If it’s a student’s ability to think, OK, well, there are other ways to do that. We would never say that writing is the only way to have good ideas. One can have good ideas by taking a walk in the forest or doodling, but that’s not something that we value in a classroom. And maybe we should ask why not.

Adams: Have you heard from any of your students yet, or heard about any of your students yet, trying to use this technology in assignments?

Herman: Yes. Yes, they’re very curious what this is going to mean for them. And immediately my wheels have just been spinning nonstop about what this means for the spring semester. And depending on the class, it’s going to mean very, very different things. The centerpiece of the spring semester in this junior English class is this long research paper where every student chooses two books of their own, choose two great works of literature, and they put those two books in conversation with each other. And so again, I wrote in the ChatGPT, I just started throwing pairs of books together, and it gave them a little nudge. So now, my students are wondering. They have their two books chosen, and they’re wondering what’s allowed. And I’m not exactly sure what to tell them yet.

At the same time, I’m really excited to start thinking about what versions of this paper might be that are No. 1, way weirder. And No. 2, way more personal. Because there’s always been this dissonance in my mind between the kind of writing that I feel is most beneficial. And there’s so much research that shows people who do expressive, metacognitive writing about themselves. For example, if I asked a student to write about your habits, and habits that you think are beneficial, habits that you’d like to get rid of, and then if I ask them to write what’s your ideal version of yourself, or who is the ideal student that you could be? There’s study after study that shows that is really beneficial to helping that student become the ideal version of who they want to be. And then there’s this other kind of writing that I’ve always said they “have to be able to do” with topic, sentence, evidence, [Modern Language Association] citation. I mean, so many students get so fixated on MLA citations because it’s one place in an English class that there’s a right way to do it. And same thing with, as you’re saying, grammar and spelling, all these things that have just been something that you need to know how to do. And spelling is a good example.

You know, spelling wasn’t standardized until somebody invented the dictionary. And if there’s a way to just take your piece of text, put it into the ChatGPT and it’ll just clean up all those mistakes that it was going to take you a long time to laboriously go through step by step. If we can get rid of all that part and keep the forms of writing that help students enjoy their lives more and become better human beings, that seems to me an unqualified positive.

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