AI Can Save Education From Itself

This article appeared in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal on 1/23/2023.


ChatGPT, the new artificial-intelligence technology created by Open AI, has many worrying about the future of education. The two largest public school districts, New York and Los Angeles, have banned the chatbot from their devices and networks, concerned that students may use it to cheat on assignments. Though ChatGPT’s capabilities are limited, it will likely continue to disrupt education as the technology advances.

But educators needn’t fear this change. Such technologies are transformative, but they threaten only the information-centric type of education that is failing to help students succeed. What young people need today is educational models that help them take ownership of their studies. They need instruction that equips them with real-life skills and prepares them for an economy in which rote, mechanical tasks will be increasingly performed by machines. AI may be a useful invention that hastens much-needed educational reform.

In 2005, one of us (Mr. Ricketts) created Opportunity Education, a nonprofit that not only advocates this approach to education but also develops working models and tools to facilitate its implementation. Nearly 20 years later—and with more than a million students across more than 1,000 schools in the developing world—Opportunity Education has a great line of sight into what a skills-first approach means for young learners. As our economy continues to be driven by information, ensuring that our students possess relevant skills to succeed is more pressing than ever.

Practicing skills to enhance one’s facility with reasoning, analysis and argumentation—rather than memorizing basic information—should be central to learning. When an athlete trains by lifting weights or using a treadmill it typically isn’t to become the best at those specific activities, it’s because such exercises develop the strength and stamina necessary for a specific sport. Likewise, the work students complete in school isn’t principally about the exercises themselves but about developing essential skills such as identifying context, analyzing arguments, staking positions, drawing conclusions and stating them persuasively.

These are skills young people will need in future careers and, most important, that AI can’t replicate. Our experience with AI is perhaps best understood when compared with previous disruptions in education. When printed books, for example, began to emerge in the mid-1400s with the advent of the movable type, one can imagine university professors were filled with panic. Up until that point, lectures depended on a specific and exclusive model: Professors read from their manuscripts, while students hurriedly copied whatever they heard. If students could simply buy the book, teachers likely reckoned, they wouldn’t need to come to class.

Yet in practice, printing had the opposite effect: The number of universities exploded along with the total number of books. The new technology disrupted the mechanical aspect of education, but in doing so it allowed educators to refocus on higher-level skills—the strategic elements rather than the tactical. The same followed the introduction of calculators and spreadsheets, which freed up time that would have been spent memorizing rote algorithms for mathematical problems.

This change didn’t make the underlying skills unnecessary; it merely transformed what could be done with them. The effect of such technology as ChatGPT will likely be similar, with the mechanical production of text being displaced by higher-order thinking about how to best use those words. As the production of coherent prose becomes a simple task for a machine, possessing the skill to ask the right questions or stake out the right positions will become key. The AI will serve as an information-gathering and mechanical-organizing tool, but it won’t eliminate the fundamental need for critical thinking. These skills will persist and only increase in value.

Unless schools can address the strategic reasons for learning and provide an education that trains students in how to use the tools of information, they will inevitably be left behind by rapid innovation and change. They must remember that the value created by education isn’t a head full of facts. It’s a person with the skill to use these facts with the tools available to magnify his effect in the world. AI is best seen as another of these tools, which, when used strategically, can unleash student learning and performance in ways not yet seen.

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