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The End of High-School English

I believe my most essential tasks, as a teacher, are helping my students think critically, disagree respectfully, argue carefully and flexibly, and understand their mind and the world around them. Unconventional, improvisatory, expressive, meta-cognitive writing can be an extraordinary vehicle for those things. But if most contemporary writing pedagogy is necessarily focused on helping students master the basics, what happens when a computer can do it for us? Is this moment more like the invention of the calculator, saving me from the tedium of long division, or more like the invention of the player piano, robbing us of what can be communicated only through human emotion?

OpenAI’s new program, ChatGPT, is causing ripples in the teaching industry, as it is challenging the traditional notion of writing and writing skills as a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill, and a gatekeeper. ChatGPT is a program that generates sophisticated text in response to any prompt given to it, making the process of writing assignments unnecessary. While some teachers feel threatened by the program’s ability, others see it as an opportunity to improve the educational system’s efficiency. Daniel Herman, a literature and philosophy teacher at a small independent high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, shares his thoughts on the matter in The Atlantic.

Teenagers have always found ways around doing the hard work of actual learning. CliffsNotes dates back to the 1950s, “No Fear Shakespeare” puts the playwright into modern English, YouTube offers literary analysis and historical explication from numerous amateurs and professionals, and so on. For as long as those shortcuts have existed, however, one big part of education has remained inescapable: writing. Barring outright plagiarism, students have always arrived at that moment when they’re on their own with a blank page, staring down a blinking cursor, the essay waiting to be written.

Herman has been teaching for 12 years and admits that what ChatGPT can produce is better than the large majority of writing seen by your average teacher or professor.

Herman notes that while teenagers have always found ways around doing the hard work of actual learning, writing has remained inescapable. However, with ChatGPT, Herman is not sure that teenagers will need to develop this essential skill anymore or if the fundamentals are necessary for experimentation.

Herman explains that he has always held the belief that those interested in writing, need to learn the basic rules of good writing before they can start breaking them. However, it is no longer evident to him that this is true anymore. Although the program doesn’t successfully integrate quotations from the original texts and only goes as far as the surface, the ideas presented were on-target—more than enough to get any student rolling without much legwork.

I teach a variety of humanities classes (literature, philosophy, religion, history) at a small independent high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. My classes tend to have about 15 students, their ages ranging from 16 to 18. This semester I am lucky enough to be teaching writers like James Baldwin, Gloria Anzaldúa, Herman Melville, Mohsin Hamid, Virginia Held. I recognize that it’s a privilege to have relatively small classes that can explore material like this at all. But at the end of the day, kids are always kids. I’m sure you will be absolutely shocked to hear that not all teenagers are, in fact, so interested in having their mind lit on fire by Anzaldúa’s radical ideas about transcending binaries, or Ishmael’s metaphysics in Moby-Dick.

To those students, I have always said: You may not be interested in poetry or civics, but no matter what you end up doing with your life, a basic competence in writing is an absolutely essential skill—whether it’s for college admissions, writing a cover letter when applying for a job, or just writing an email to your boss.

I’ve also long held, for those who are interested in writing, that you need to learn the basic rules of good writing before you can start breaking them—that, like Picasso, you have to learn how to reliably fulfill an audience’s expectations before you get to start putting eyeballs in people’s ears and things.

I don’t know if either of those things is true anymore. It’s no longer obvious to me that my teenagers actually will need to develop this basic skill, or if the logic still holds that the fundamentals are necessary for experimentation.

Whether someone is writing a five-paragraph essay or a 500-page book, these are the building blocks not only of good writing but of writing as a tool, as a means of efficiently and effectively communicating information. And because learning writing is an iterative process, students spend countless hours developing the skill in elementary school, middle school, high school, and then finally  college.

But again, the majority of students do not see writing as a worthwhile skill to cultivate—just like I, sitting with my coffee and book, rereading Moby-Dick, do not consider it worthwhile to learn, say, video editing. They have no interest in exploring nuance in tone and rhythm; they will forever roll their eyes at me when I try to communicate the subtle difference, when writing an appositive phrase, between using commas, parentheses, or (the connoisseur’s choice) the em dash.

Which is why I wonder if this may be the end of using writing as a benchmark for aptitude and intelligence. After all, what is a cover letter? Its primary purpose isn’t to communicate “I already know how to do this job” (because of course I don’t) but rather “I am competent and trustworthy and can clearly express to you why I would be a good candidate for this job.” What is a written exam? Its primary signal isn’t “I memorized a bunch of information” but rather “I can express that information clearly in writing.” Many teachers have reacted to ChatGPT by imagining how to give writing assignments now—maybe they should be written out by hand, or given only in class—but that seems to me shortsighted. The question isn’t “How will we get around this?” but rather “Is this still worth doing?”

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