Now Is the Time: Using AI to Catalyze Radical Change

In 2013, I sat in a room of Jewish day school leaders, listening to Tony Wagner talk about the state of education. He spoke about what our kids needed to be learning in school in order to be successful, and how it was our opportunity and responsibility to provide that for them. Wagner’s books (Most Likely to Succeed, Creating Innovators, and the Global Achievement Gap, to name a few) focus on the skills needed for today’s world, such as critical thinking, agility and curiosity (which he calls the “Seven Survival Skills for the 21st Century”) and how play, passion and purpose can optimize learning. When I first stumbled upon Wagner’s writings and heard him speak, I was immediately drawn in with a sense of urgency, thinking, “We need to do something now, before our kids get any further behind!”

In 2019, I sat in a room of Jewish day school leaders, listening to George Couros talk about the state of education. He spoke about what our kids needed to be learning in school in order to be successful, and how it was our opportunity and responsibility to provide that for them. Couros’s message was very similar to Wagner’s (with a little more humor and a little less Harvard). His writings (such as his book Innovator’s Mindset) focus on the power of cultivating curiosity and creativity, and embracing new ways of doing things. I sat in the room and looked around at the 1,000+ leaders in attendance (many of whom were in the room with me in 2013) and wondered if maybe now was when we’d do something, before our kids got any further behind.

In 2023, I sat in a room of Jewish day school leaders, listening to three presenters from Stanford’s K-12 Lab talk about the state of education. They spoke about what our kids needed to be learning in school in order to be successful, and how it was our opportunity and responsibility to provide that for them. They talked about how the world was changing, and how education just wasn’t keeping up. Over the course of their presentation, they emphasized the need for developing mindsets in our youth and fostering dispositions like curiosity and flexibility. They shared that the future needs us to be shapers and stewards of data, technologies, products, experiences, systems and implications, and it’s our role to ensure our students can do that. Again, I looked around the room at the thoughtful and passionate leaders, and sent out a silent scream: “Please! Can now be the time? Our students are depending on us!”

Enter ChatGPT.

The fact is that our education system is fundamentally broken, and AI is the catalyst we desperately need to allow us to rethink and reimagine what education is and can be.

While I was inspired by Wagner and Couros and the, I am not sure that any of them (or all of them) have the power to catalyze radical change in education in the way that AI can because AI, especially the forms of generative AI we’ve seen emerge of late, has the very real potential to make everything we’re teaching and how we’re doing it obsolete. Or more obsolete than it already is, seeing as how our current education system is nearly 200 years old and was based on the factory school model in Prussia in the 19th century. The goal of this system was to respond to the needs of the time during the industrial revolution. 

But that’s not where we are now and not where we have been for quite some time, and that’s certainly not what we need for our students. Yes, Jewish day schools are more recent in their creation, but they are still, largely, based off of this archaic model.

We’ve been doing our very best to optimize an outdated system—a school system that was developed for an entirely different purpose, preparing entirely different students for an entirely different world. We’ve adjusted to the changing landscape by adding makerspaces to our building, creating robotics electives and adding a week of intensive project-based learning here and there. We’ve spent the first quarter of the century trying to better understand “21st century skills” and how to teach them, as if they are items on a checklist. And now we’re behind because mindsets are even more important, and we still haven’t figured out how to teach curiosity and creativity when we’re still so allegiant to teaching the curriculum. We are so committed to the way things have been that we are scared to ask, “What might be?”

The time has come for us to rethink everything.

According to a study done by the Swiss banking giant UBS, ChatGPT set records for the fastest-growing consumer application in history. Bill Gates has gone on record as saying the technology can “change the world.” Sundar Pichai, of Alphabet/Google, has called AI “the most profound technology.” And Elon Musk has shared that AI is “one of the biggest risks to the future of civilization.”

ChatGPT (and AI in general) is here to stay. It will change the world. It will make an impact. It puts at risk everything we know. And it’s up to us to decide how we handle it and where we take control. 

As educational leaders, we have amazing opportunity and responsibility here, but only if we accept it and face our future directly. So, what if we all took a huge step back and truly considered what is best for our students? Instead of thinking about what has been, what if we consider what might be? What if we used the rise of AI and the transformational impact it is having on our world to also transform education?

What if we approached the whole thing, not from the constraints of what we’ve built and established over the last 200 years, but from a lens of where we could go over the next 200 years? 

What if we got back to those human instincts of curiosity and adaptability and inquisitiveness, both in terms of how we approach education and also what we celebrate and foster in our students?

What if we scrapped the whole system and built something new, guided purely by what is best for our students now and in the future? 

AI is turning out to be a great answerer of questions, but we need to be the ones to ask the questions. And they need to be the right questions. 

We shouldn’t be teaching five-paragraph essays. We should be teaching effective prompt creation.

We shouldn’t be guiding students to take notes from a textbook. We should be guiding students to thoroughly and effectively vet sources for credibility and bias.

We shouldn’t be confined to a traditional schedule with separate subjects in classrooms. We should be utilizing authentic learning and assessment, with the world as the classroom.

We shouldn’t be focusing on content. We should be focusing on skills and mindsets and emphasizing (even more) emotional intelligence.

We shouldn’t be scouring the internet for the latest AI-checker. We should be creating assignments and lessons that go beyond the capabilities of AI and speak to what only humans can do.  

We shouldn’t be fighting the rise of AI. We should be harnessing it to the benefit of our students’ future.

This is not a time for us to simply be encouraging teachers to use AI in one lesson each term or to mention the word “creativity” on a rubric in passing. This is a time to be asking real questions and making real change. This is a time for embracing radical creativity, rethinking suppositions and stepping into the pivotal role Jewish day schools can have in truly preparing our students. 

  • What is the point of education?
  • What do our students need to be successful 20 years from now (not 200 years ago), and how do we get them there?
  • How can we foster and maximize humanity and human intelligence in our students in a time when “artificial” intelligence is on the rise?

While much of this can feel abstract and overwhelming, what matters is that we get started…somewhere. Here are some ideas.

Rethink assessment. Rather than concern ourselves with what is “cheating” or “plagiarism” in the age of AI, really think about what skills and knowledge we are assessing and what is the most effective way to do that. An essay, for example, is a vehicle for students to articulate an idea, research and provide evidence, and communicate their thoughts in an organized fashion. If ChatGPT can also write an essay, is there another was to assess these skills?

Emphasize the “human.” Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, talks about using AI to enhance HI (human intelligence). What makes us and our students uniquely human, and how can we maximize dispositions like empathy, grit and creativity to differentiate ourselves from AI? How can we lean into these “human” characteristics while taking advantage of what AI has to offer to be more effective? Now is a great time to be leaning into emotional intelligence in our schools.

Reconsider literacy. Beyond traditional skills like reading and writing, we are seeing an increasing need for students to be AI-literate, and it is our responsibility to make sure they have those skills. Crafting effective prompts for ChatGPT is just as important now as effective search prompts for a web browser was 10 years ago. Also, while bias and misinformation existed before generative AI, it’s imperative that we are training our students to check all sources for reliability and accuracy, as the proliferation of AI can provide added challenges to finding trustworthy sources. 

Whether considering a total curricular overhaul or starting with one class and continuing from there, we need to be thinking in terms of a systematic shift.

Our students are counting on us. Now is the time.

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AI and Tech
Fall 2023
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