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.