AI Will Revolutionize Education for the Better … Mostly

The new and emerging versions of AI will transform every aspect of education: as a powerful tool for teachers’ planning and pedagogy, providing students with individualized tutors in the classroom and shifting what we expect students to learn. There is no question that generative AI that employs large language models will be radically disruptive to learning and teaching. Yet we must face the reality that these disruptions are coming. It is up to us to make this transition one that advances the learning of our students as much as possible. 

The fundamental questions that every educator must face are these:

  • What tasks and skills should we no longer ask students to master? 
  • What new, deeper tasks and skills should they learn instead?
  • How can AI improve student learning right now in my class or school?

While I think the first two questions are the most important, I believe that no one will be able to answer them well without first answering the third question. In other words, we all need to start experimenting right now with using AI in our schools. Learning how AI works and seeing what it does for student learning is the way we will figure out how to answer the first two, deeper questions.

So let me describe how I have been experimenting with GPT4 at Maimonides School, in my work with teachers, the way I plan courses and lessons, and in classroom instruction. Because Maimonides has students from 15 months to twelfth grade, I have demonstrated for teachers with students of every age how it can help improve learning. 


AI for Prepping Classes

As a tool for helping to prep classes, AI is already unmatched. Take an example I modeled for high school teachers. I wrote the following prompt: 

Design a lesson for a high school US history class that compares reaction to the Battle of Gettysburg in the North and the South using three to four primary sources, one of which is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. You choose the other two or three primary texts, none of which should be more than 1,000 words. The learning goal for the class is to have students, based on their own reading and interpretations of the primary texts, to compare and contrast how the two sides viewed the war in mid- to late 1863. The lesson plan should include an opening activator to get students thinking about the battle; describe each activity the students will do in the class, including what kind of pairings you recommend. Specify a few good check-in modalities to make sure students make good progress during the 60-minute class. Be sure also to include a simple but revealing formative assessment to end the class so I can easily evaluate how well they achieved the learning goal. Write the lesson plan in standard UbD format...Please identify all the sources and provide URLs where the sources might be found. Also, write out specific instructions I should use with students for each part of the lesson.

In seconds, GPT-4 returned a lesson plan that did exactly what I asked. It provided, in Understanding by Design (UbD) format, a lesson plan that included a short opening video that students would write reflections on, then a jigsaw activity with small groups of students working on different primary sources and recombining to share what they learned. It suggested what I should look for in each part of the activity that would get at progress toward learning objectives. It provided the locations on the web where I could find the sources, which included an editorial from the Richmond Daily Dispatch from July 1863 and a letter home from a Confederate soldier after the battle. The lesson was a solid, student-centered lesson. It required editing, refining and checking sources to make sure it would really work, to be sure, but all of that would be far less effort than starting from scratch with researching sources. 

I had GPT-4 produce similar planning work in English and math classes, and for middle, elementary and early childhood. Maimonides’ Early Childhood Center is a Reggio-Emilia inspired preschool. One of the more difficult tasks is for teachers to continually produce “provocations” for the children, the combination of environment, materials and prompts that produce conditions for creative learning and play. It took four attempts at a prompt that would get GPT-4 to produce this kind of “provocation,” but then it churned out lovely examples appropriate for four-year-olds on the topic of fasteners, including links about where to purchase the materials. Many of our early childhood teachers who saw this wanted more AI-generated “provocations” immediately.

When it comes to prepping classes, AI isn’t just a time-saver. It can help improve teaching in so many ways:

  • It can make sure teachers actually produce high-quality lesson plans and detailed records of what was taught. The lack of these is a frequent problem in Jewish day schools. Written lessons help students with a variety of learning needs. They help with onboarding new teachers, since there is a detailed curriculum to pass on.
  • Asking AI to produce lesson plans that follow a standard format that maps onto best practices can raise the overall quality of learning by improving alignment of pedagogy across all teachers. What if your teachers didn’t have to be an expert in Understanding by Design to produce and teach excellent UbD lessons? AI can accelerate teacher development and consistency.
  • Tweaking the prompts, asking for more responses or rerunning the same prompts can provide us all with more choices about how to teach a class than we are ever likely to generate on our own. We are, in essence, tapping into the collective wisdom of thousands of other teachers without having to slog through thousands of posts or blogs. In the Gettysburg example, I asked for two or three additional primary documents, but I could have asked for 10 or 20 and then chosen the absolute best among them. We have all had access to databases of materials that we largely ignore because of the difficulty of finding what we need. Now we can watch what we need generated in seconds.




AI in the Classroom

In my classes, the presumption is that it is always okay for students to use AI unless I specify that they can’t use it on a particular task. I do ask that they always provide their questions that prompted the AI response so that I can see what they actually understand. They know that I may ask them to do a follow-up if they used AI. I need to be sure of the skills and content knowledge they have or have not mastered.

My high school classes in philosophy or Constitutional law have very difficult material, and we use GPT-4 in a number of ways. It is a standard resource among others in the class.

It is in many ways a far superior research tool than traditional search engines. If your question is very specific, is about an unusual set of circumstances, or concerns a specific passage in a classic text of legal opinion, it can often be an exercise in frustration to try to find a quick answer with a search engine. But GPT-4 will often go straight to the heart of the matter and provide the sources one needs to double-check its accuracy. What does a passage from Kant mean? Who wins a point when a tennis ball spins back over the net after bouncing? These are easy for AI, not so much for search engines.

Get unstuck! Often students find themselves unable to move forward because there is something they don’t understand. AI can provide quick, clear explanations in age-appropriate language. It can even provide suggestions for becoming unstuck. And for students who struggle with starting to write, AI can provide the initial kick forward.

Reviewing work. If a student wants to check their work on specific criteria, AI can do this in seconds, explain what it sees as the problems and suggest ways forward. The ability to have that review done in real time gets at the heart of great learning. The cycle of product, feedback and iteration can happen without delay, in class.

What I have found so far is that AI is useful for keeping students working on higher-order thinking rather than getting bogged down in lower-order problems. When you want students to get more quickly to bigger and deeper issues, a quick dip into AI to get a basic understanding can be quite useful.


AI For Feedback

Here’s an elementary school example. Uploading an actual sample of fifth grade writing (not included here), I asked GPT-4 the following:

Analyze the literacy skills of this fifth grader. Place the student’s writing development into descriptive, action or reactive sequence stages. Cite specific examples in the piece as evidence for the development stage you claim she is in.

I then uploaded the sample, and here’s how GPT-4 responded:

Based on the provided narrative writing sample, it appears that the fifth grader is at the descriptive sequence stage of writing development. Here’s an analysis of the piece and specific examples to support this claim: 

Descriptive Sequence Stage: In this stage, the student focuses on describing events or actions without much development of plot or character. The writing tends to be a simple sequence of events with minimal elaboration.

It then provided three details from the writing to support the analysis of the writing. The analysis seemed accurate and clear.

I asked it to provide feedback to the writer appropriate for the age of the writer and to include something positive before focusing on one or two key areas for improvement. Here’s what it offered:

Dear [name of child],

Great job on your narrative, "Too Many Tamales"! I really enjoyed reading about Marya and her adventure. You did a wonderful job describing the events and keeping the story moving forward. Well done!

Here are a couple of suggestions to help you extend your narrative and further develop your writing skills:

  1. Add more details: Try describing the characters’ feelings and thoughts when they realize the ring is missing. This will make your story more engaging and help the readers connect with the characters.
  2. Create a resolution: Think about how Marya and her cousins can solve the problem of the missing ring. Maybe they could come up with a plan or find clues that lead them to it. Adding a resolution will give your story a satisfying ending.

Keep up the excellent work! I can’t wait to read more of your stories.

Warmest wishes, [Your Name]

This isn’t brilliant, but it is serviceable. Imagine a student getting this kind of response when you aren’t able to provide feedback. It will do. And as the prompts get better, the feedback gets better.

In my classes, I am trying to use AI to provide students with a means to get real-time feedback on their ideas and writing when I am occupied with other students. If I am clear with them about what skill we are working on, and we write that into the prompt for AI, they can get pretty good feedback and make changes before I ever intervene. It can push the learning forward deeper and faster than I ever could without this resource. This is essentially the dream and promise of Khan Academy’s Khanmigo–to provide every student with an individualized tutor available in class at all times. Yet even without that, AI already provides an incredibly powerful assistant in the classroom.


Things to Know

I want to note three complications to all this.

  • The potential for abuse is there. The worry that AI will be used to do things that students need to do themselves because those things build critical skills is a real one. So everything we do has to be used carefully, with an eye toward potential unproductive use.
  • There is a steep learning curve for teachers and students to learn how to get the right kind of help and at the right depth and quality. I learned how to ask better questions by asking poor questions that got thoroughly mediocre responses. The main thing I learned: Specifying what you are looking for clearly and in detail is the key. You need to give way more detail than you would give to a person. 
  • Apps are quickly making the interface for teachers and students much easier to use, and they allow access to the latest versions of the AI, with all the latest tools (such as the ability to upload and analyze images, graphs, etc.).

For all the problems, complications and disruptions, AI is here and must be at the forefront of educators’ growth right now. The good news is that it will be enormously beneficial to learning in ways we are just beginning to explore. If we take those steps, we will soon be thinking about changing what students learn and why. That deep, reflective process will ultimately ground learning in the decades ahead.

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AI and Tech
Fall 2023
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