The phrase “the three Rs: reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic,” according to Wikipedia, “appears to have been coined at the beginning of the 19th century,” but the concept was alluded to as far back as back as 397 AD in the Latin writings of St. Augustine. While we wouldn’t argue that these core skills are obsolete, our current educational model—created in the industrial age—wasn’t designed to support the speed-of-light technological innovation we see today.
Remain Relevant in the Face of Tech
What do we measure in an essay comparing two literary works? What do we hope students take away from algebra? When we teach students the basics of grammar and sentence structure, what do we really want them to learn? If we’re looking to build and assess students’ literary understanding, critical thinking, language internalization, and usage, how well are our industrial age tools working? If kids are tech savvy enough, they’ll realize that they aren’t.
With apps like ChatGPT and Photomath, our measures of literary understanding or even writing and mathematical ability no longer mean what they once did. Photomath and counterparts like Cymath, and even Google Homework Helper (found by pushing the Google search bar camera button on any Android phone with the Google Lens function), can render the need for understanding advanced math fairly unnecessary when it comes to completing assignments. Of course, students still need the skills learned for diverse career paths, but for those just trying to get through K–12 math, it’s unlikely that they’ll see a reason not to use these work-arounds.
This may lead you to think that this is the time to put stricter bans on phones in the classroom or having IT block the sites altogether, as was done recently in New York. However, that’s akin to shutting down cars or planes in the early 1900s. As a matter of fact, the December 1909 issue of The Engineering Magazine read, “The leap by which popular imagination flies to the interpretation that this performance establishes commercial supremacy of the aeroplane is purely fantastic. Emotion has run away with reason.”
Substitute, “AI,” “computer,” “app,” “edtech,” etc., for “aeroplane,” and you have the thoughts of many on technology in the classroom today.
Use Tech to Reconsider How We Assess Student Understanding
How can we embrace technological innovation and use these tools to amplify student voice and enhance learning? The first thing we need to do is realize that quantifying academic understanding is not the same as measuring an inch or a centimeter. Standards of measurement are human-made and based on the kinds of skills that we, as a society, value. Good writing has traditionally been used as a tool to measure academic acumen, college readiness, and employability.
This new wave of tech tools gives us an immense opportunity to rethink what talents and skills we value in students and which ones we overlook.
For example, according to historical evidence, Harriet Tubman was nonliterate; however, she was obviously highly intelligent and successful. Likewise, your struggling reader or writer may be able to exquisitely express concepts verbally but not on paper, just as an engineering student may understand physics but struggle to write about it academically.
In short, there’s a difference between knowledge and mastery of the tools used to show knowledge. In that difference lies the great classroom potential of tools like ChatGPT and others.
Prepare Students Beyond Pen and Paper
Often, the reaction in K–12 is to keep students from their phones, lock down browsers, and use computer access in a privilege-punitive loop. If you’re so inclined, Princeton senior Edward Tian has designed an app to detect AI writing “assistance.” But the reality is that pen-and-paper assignments aren’t preparing students for the world we live in. When was the last time you used paper and pen for anything important?
Computers, phones, and apps are here to stay, so have honest conversations with students about time management, focus, and integrity. Teach students how to use their phones and computers to connect with the plethora of learning resources available online. Having an encyclopedia in your hand is a beautiful thing!
Teach media literacy and how to vet sources. Then allow students to learn the self-management necessary to navigate our digitally centered world. Finally, teach the value of honesty and integrity by rewarding progress, hard work, and innovation as much as you reward the work of academically gifted students with As.
Find Creative Ways to Use Tech
Your students will find ways to use all the tools out there, and some will succeed in cheating the system. Those few won’t be moved by speeches on integrity, no matter how good yours is. However, for most students, finding creative, honest ways to help them use technology will get you cool points:
- Use ChatGPT like Google.
- Have students put their essays in ChatGPT and ask it for a rewrite; then have them explain why the changes are better.
- Have ChatGPT summarize a text that students are reading, and allow them to discuss and debate the validity of the given answer, supported by evidence from the text.
- Use WolframAlpha like an encyclopedia.
- Allow two students to use a math app to solve two problems, but have them each write down only half of the work and then switch papers. Each student finishes their partner’s problem before discussing the solutions and processes together.
Asking students how these tools can augment the learning experience is another effective way to use any new tool. Allow exploration, but as with Google, an app answers all kinds of questions, and you can guess what your students will ask it. Take necessary precautions, and know that with or without these tools, students have access to unlimited information, so having a conversation that lets students know that it’s OK not to go down every rabbit hole is also a great way to teach kids digital responsibility and integrity.
Thirty years ago, we couldn’t yet imagine how much information would be at every student’s fingertips. Our phone bans, our whitelists, and even our book bans can no longer prevent our young people from exploring the world in their own time, whether we’re ready for it or not. This can be a bit scary, but it’s also exciting.
Get to know the tools that are out there so that you can use them to become a better practitioner. If we lean in, our classrooms will be the places that influence learning in digital spaces so that our students will be better prepared for an increasingly digital world.