John Dewey On Artificial Intelligence in Education
When does artificial intelligence support--or interfere with--human learning?
John Dewey on Artificial Intelligence in Education
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This month’s essay concludes with a question, one answer to which you will find in the first comment, in which I summarize the helpful response of an early reader. To folks coming to this essay from an outside link, subscribe below to receive a free monthly newsletter in which I pair an important work from a humanities discipline with a current challenge in higher education.
In December of 2021, during a twelve-hour surgery to give me a new heart, I suffered a stroke that rendered me temporarily unable to speak or write. I was in the hospital for two weeks recovering from the heart transplant, and I spent much of that time trying to recover my speech. My nurses would show me images of objects in my room, and I would have to name them. I struggled mightily with this at first, but gradually it became easier. Each time I pronounced a “new” word aloud, it got easier for me to remember and use it in the future.
After I came home from the hospital, my wife and I continued this work with flashcards, until the transplant doctors sent a speech therapist to my home and she began guiding my recovery with new kinds of activities. I was assured by the first neurologist who assessed me in the hospital that I would probably experience a complete recovery, which has largely been true. I took his words to mean that I would work hard on my recovery for a few weeks or months, and then become myself again.
Fifteen months after my stroke, at a time when I felt myself largely control of language again, I turned in the manuscript for my next book, which focuses on how academic writers can expand their audiences. The book included a section on the importance of varying your verb choices. When my editor reviewed my first draft, she noted this section of the book and gently pointed out that I probably needed to heed my own advice. I began re-reading the manuscript and noticed to my dismay that I had largely relied upon a small number of abstract verbs to carry most of the weight of my sentences.
My stroke recovery, it seemed, was far from complete.
At that time, ChatGPT had been in existence for six months, and it gave me a choice as I contemplated my potential revision process.
· Option One: Run all of my chapters through ChatGPT and ask it to improve my verb choices with lively and varied alternatives.
· Option Two: Work slowly back through my book manuscript and force myself to find alternatives to the basic staples that were flattening my prose.
On the advice of John Dewey, an American philosopher whose ideas have been deeply engrained in our modern educational systems, I chose Option Two. The reasons for that choice, I hope, might resonate with all of us in education trying to determine how artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT can support or interfere with human learning.
A Classic Text
Experience and Education was one of the last books of John Dewey’s career, and it comes in a very small and readable package. Dewey summarized many of his core convictions on education into a series of talks delivered as a part of the Kappa Delta Pi Lecture Series. My edition clocks in below a hundred pages, and its origin as lectures means that the ideas are clear and the prose accessible. Dewey’s arguments in the book address debates between the advocates of traditional education and the practitioners of the progressive teaching methods he pioneered.
Dewey summarizes the difference between these educators in two short passages. In traditional education, he writes, “The subject matter of education consists of bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past; therefore, the chief business of school is to transmit them to the new generation.” Dewey then lists several ways in which progressive education departs form this traditionalist philosophy, the first three of which are: “To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed to free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience.”
I italicized that last phrase because it would have caught the ear of any listeners at his lectures. Dewey’s educational philosophy famously centers individual experiences in the learning process. We learn both from our experiences and from reflections upon those experiences. But while we learn from our experiences outside of school, teachers can improve the efficiency of the learning process by shaping experiences in schools and prompting reflection on them.
If I get stung by a bee as a child, for example, I might learn to be wary of bees in the future. That’s a good lesson. But a teacher could expand my knowledge of bees by inviting me to reflect upon what I learned from that sting—be careful around bees!—and then help me learn more: where I am likely to encounter bees in my world, what might be prompting them to sting me, and even what role bees play in the ecosystem. Outside of school, my curiosity might drive me to those places eventually—but a good teacher will make that process more efficient.
But in Experience and Education¸ Dewey reminds educators that not all experiences create meaningful learning. He invites them to consider a lens through which we could make judgements about the learning potential of the experiences: growth. When we grow in subject matter, we are expanding ourselves. Our skills set is enlarged. New layers are added to our knowledge structures. We feel more competent to undertake new challenges. Good learning activities support growth. But Dewey adds a twist: A successful learning experience not only inspires growth in the present moment, but also creates opportunities for future growth. Some experiences we have, both in the classroom and in life, might help us grow in the moment but ultimately shut off pathways to future growth. Others seed the ground for further experiences that will enable us to grow in positive directions.
“Every experience lives on in further experience,” Dewey argues. Educators should attend to the impact that their learning activities will have on the next experience. “For some experiences,” he writes, “are mis-educative. Any experience is mid-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.” Every experience we have has the possibility of opening up or shutting down growth. A good teacher designs learning activities that create further growth: as a student, a professional, a citizen, or a human.
With Dewey’s arguments in mind, we now—finally—turn to the use of artificial intelligence in education. As programs like ChatGPT become more and more sophisticated, they will be capable of mimicking intellectual tasks that used to be important for students to master. For example, one of the first tasks that I noticed some education folks were intrigued by was ChatGPT’s ability to create an outline in response to a prompt that asked it for an argument or overview of a topic. As a test case, let’s view the idea of having ChatGPT organize an essay through the lens of growth.
Most of us who write will have the experience of having a mess of thoughts on a topic swirling around in our brains before we sit down to organize them on paper. An outline might come into view as we write, but perhaps not according to a pre-existing plan. We see new possibilities as we write. We play with structure, see gaps and accretions, fill and excise. As we do this, we might be moving beyond traditional representations of knowledge in our fields and discovering new territories. I put ideas onto a white board, erase and move and add items, playing with potential structures and seeing what emerges. I believe that my best essays and books have emerged precisely from this playful process.
Offloading my essay or book organizing to ChatGPT would be a mis-educative experience that would shut off new growth for me. But the opposite would be true for G. Alex Ambrose, one of my colleagues at the University of Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence. Alex has ADHD, and writing has always been a struggle for him. Working with ChatGPT, his writing productivity has been increased tenfold. He described for me one way that this process can unfold: He speaks his ideas into a speech-to-text application, puts the transcript into ChatGPT, and then fills out and edits what it produces: Alex’s ideas and words, gestated in his brain and birthed by artificial intelligence. From this experience, he grows not only as a writer, but also a creative thinker discovering new ways to help other people like him contribute to society
The task that now looms over the heads of every educator today is to evaluate the specific intellectual skills that will promote further growth for students in our disciplines, determine whether artificial intelligence will promote or stifle grown in their further education, and make distinctions in the classroom activities and assessments we create for students.
We are likely to discover that some skills that were required to complete our assessments are actually not essential either to creating present or future growth. In my early years as a teacher, I required students to wrangle their Works Cited into perfect form, with penalties for mistakes. That seems silly to me now. To be sure, I want their essays to acknowledge their sources in a standard form so an interested reader can track them down. But they don’t need practice in that work. AI can form them according to the standards of the discipline, and that seems fine to me.
The work that stands before us will not lend itself to easy solutions. Our judgments about artificial intelligence’s place in our assessments will vary from discipline to discipline, course to course, and even student to student. Alex benefits from ChatGPT’s ability to organize his thoughts as a prelude to writing; Jim grows when he undertakes that work on his own. Perhaps a first-year student in philosophy must draft her arguments without the help of artificial intelligence in preparation for four years of making arguments; a senior marketing major should be encouraged to engineer ChatGPT prompts and edit the output.
Teasing out these distinctions will be a long-term project for teachers, one that should be undertaken in community with ourselves and our students: in workshops, conferences, panels, office hours and hallway conversations. It will be difficult to abandon some parts of our assessments and introduce ones. Techno-progressive educators might have to re-embrace some traditional assessments, and AI-phobes will have to familiarize themselves with skills like prompt crafting. But let’s embrace what we learn from these conversations, and allow them to lead us toward our own growth as educators.
I return our attention to the story I told in my introduction, which you might have lost sight of during the course of this long disquisition. I didn’t want ChatGPT to fix my verbs because varying them was a skill I wanted to re-master and continue to grow as a writer. Every time I review a sentence now, I examine that verb and see whether I have made the right choice. Having to re-learn this skill has helped me become a better reviser of my prose. I work more slowly, ponder my choices, and improve them when I can.
I chose Option Two, in the scenario I described above, because the barrier to my growth was a temporary one. As my brain rewires itself, I continue to recover vocabulary. But some cases of aphasia are permanent, depending upon the originating cause. Choosing Option Two for someone with that fixed barrier would be a dead end. Growth would grind to a halt.
We finish a question, then, which returns us to our test case scenario on the role that ChatGPT could play in helping students organize their thoughts in preparation for a writing assignment. You have Alex and me in your course, and you have assigned an essay that requires students to present their ideas in an organized argument.
How would you support the growth of both of us?
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