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Nine Questions for English Teachers in a World with AI

The death of high school English was declared by The Atlantic last week. Cause of death: Open AI’s new ChatGPT. Enter any prompt from “Compare the themes of The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman” to “Make a 10-item to-do list for a supervillain” to “Write a mission statement for a Christian school.” In seconds (or less) an answer is composed—currently for free.

A frenzy of discussion erupted across online English teacher land, ranging from panic (How do we prevent cheating NOW?) to new motivation to highlight process, creativity, and project-based learning. It’s a fascinating discussion to follow (including one that incorporates AI’s answer to how English teachers should respond to AI!). Here’s some of it:

One thing that is clear to me: we need to respond somehow. If not proactively now, then it will be reactively later. And it’s not the English class apocalypse: math and foreign language classes have continued even with the advent of the calculator and translation software. A place to start is with questions. Here are some questions that I'm considering:

  1. What is English class for?

  2. What kind of a world is AI creating?

  3. How can we prepare students to flourish in that world?

  4. What can people do that AI can’t do?

  5. What must people be able to do even IF AI can do it?

  6. What brings people joy to do even IF AI can do it?

  7. How do we help students value and master those skills (see #4-#6)?

  8. How can AI be a tool to help people do more of what they can do (#4), should do (#5), and love to do (#6)?

  9. How might AI hinder human flourishing? How can we be aware of and guard against that?

As I begin to ruminate on these questions, I start by reaffirming what English class is for. It's not for producing novel summaries and essays (something AI can do), but for nurturing thinking that is curious, clear, nuanced, compassionate, creative, just, humble, and well-supported, and for effectively communicating that thinking to audiences in ways that build shalom, reimagining God's intention for creation. I will remind my students of this: The goal of this class is not your essay; it is your growth as a thinker and communicator. (For more background, see my blog post Naming the “Arts” in “English Language Arts”). Such thinkers will be needed more than ever. I’m intrigued by the ways AI can be a tool. For example, models are important for writing. I can get a model essay from ChatGPT in seconds rather than kicking myself for not remembering to keep past samples and then laboring over creating one myself. I can tell the kids what I did, what the AI provided, and together we can explore where it is weak. I can use it for revising exercises. (I loved John Spencer’s idea of taking the AI-generated 10-item to-do list for a supervillain and revising with voice, specificity, and humor.) An ESL teacher I follow on Twitter used ChatGPT to generate conversations (specifying topic, English level, and line length). My husband muses about how small international Christian schools could generate initial policy drafts. I’ll continue to teach reading strategies, discussion skills, and writing process. I’ll continue to use creative thinking tools, like reading journals, hexagonal thinking activities, and one-pagers. And I’ll continue to pay attention to the discussion of thoughtful, creative English teachers and how they are helping their students flourish in a world with AI. How about you? What have you heard about ChatGPT? What questions interest or concern you? How will you respond?

Originally posted on "Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn" on December 16, 2022. Photo by Alex Knight.

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