Teaching in a ChatGPT World

Last week, I posted some responses that ChatGPT had provided about effective teaching. Before discussing the responses, it’s worthwhile to discuss how ChatGPT works. In last week’s post, I explained that ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence-based chat bot, but I didn’t get into how it actually works. So, I asked ChatGPT to explain itself. Here’s what they said:

ChatGPT is a variant of the GPT (Generative Pre-training Transformer) language model developed by OpenAI. It is designed to generate human-like text in real-time in a conversational context, by predicting the next word or phrase based on the input provided. The GPT model is trained on a large dataset of text and uses a transformer architecture to generate text. The transformer architecture is a type of neural network that is particularly well-suited to processing sequential data, such as natural language text. It uses self-attention mechanisms to allow the model to consider the context of the entire input sequence when generating output.

In the case of ChatGPT, the model is specifically trained to generate text in a conversational context, by predicting responses to input prompts. It uses the input prompts to generate context and generate appropriate responses. The model can generate responses in a variety of styles, depending on the training data it was provided and the specific configuration of the model.

To me, the important part is that ChatGPT draws on its existing database and uses predictive analytics to generate the next word or phrase to a response. Looking at the responses in my post last week, it is clear that the database from which ChatGPT draws its responses saw effective teaching as more closely connected “commitment to student success and learning” and “passion for teaching” than content knowledge. That’s probably not that surprising to a lot of people. But I want to draw on that commitment and passion to outline some ways that we as teachers can better navigate this ChatGPT world. Here are some of my initial thoughts:

1. Don’t ban or block ChatGPT. I know that some folks’ natural reactions to innovations like ChatGPT is to try to make it go away. Schools technically have the ability to block the site and could develop policy to ban students from using it. If we look at the history of technological innovations in schools (calculators, spelling and grammar checkers, smartphones, etc.), we’ll see shortsighted solutions that were shown to be unrealistic in the long term. I see ChatGPT in the same way. Sure, it’s been a pretty eventful few weeks (ChatGPT was released in late November!) but schools will figure out better ways to use ChatGPT than banning or blocking it.

2. We can teach with ChatGPT. To better prepare students in this ChatGPT world, we need to teach them (and teachers) to critically examine the responses it gives. Over the last few weeks, we’ve learned that ChatGPT will provide wrong answers, calculate problems incorrectly, make wrong connections, and offer ethically challenging advice. Now, the responses may get better with time (after all, it is learning) but ChatGPT’s responses offer opportunities that we should embrace rather than avoid. We need to bring the tool and its responses into our classrooms and discuss and analyze them.

3. We need to revise our plagiarism policies. Schools are already dealing with a number of student submissions of ChatGPT created assignments. I urge institutions to revisit their policies and revise them to reflect ChatGPT generated work. For example, my institution’s plagiarism policy states:

“Plagiarism is presenting as one’s own work:
A paper or work wholly or partially done by someone else;
A passage copied from another source without giving credit to the author;
A creative idea copied without giving credit to the creator.”

Is ChatGPT a “someone”? Can artificial intelligence technically be considered “an author”? Smarter legal minds will have to weigh in on this, but we will probably need to clarify some of our policy language. Quickly. (A quick side note, I ran a ChatGPT generated through a Plagiarism checker, and it found no issues. But don’t worry. There is a ChatGPT checker available at: https://huggingface.co/openai-detector/ and it flagged all five of the responses I included in last week’s email with a 95% or greater probability as being fake.)

4. We can use ChatGPT to plan. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard from colleagues who have used ChatGPT to field test their essay questions to see how ChatGPT would craft responses. Another colleague used ChatGPT to create a lesson plan for an upcoming class. In preparation for my spring classes, I asked ChatGPT to offer some recent peer-reviewed publications that I could include in my syllabus to update some of the readings. It offered a bunch.

5. We may have to assess differently. Many teachers use papers as the main form of assessment in their classes. ChatGPT may cause some folks to reconsider those practices. Some of my colleagues are considering in-class writing assignments instead of papers submitted out of class. Others have discussed bringing back oral exams. In the short term, it’s clear that ChatGPT will have us rethinking all forms of student-created products from discussion forum posts to essays to literature reviews.

While we’re navigating the challenges that ChatGPT poses for our roles as teachers, it’s important that we also consider the opportunities the tool can offer. Sure, it will change some of how we how we do things, but as Seth Godin wrote in a recent blog post about ChatGPT, “Technology begins by making old work easier, but then it requires that new work be better.” In the wake of the introduction of ChatGPT, I trust that the educational community will find ways to make our teaching and student learning better.


Being an Effective Teacher by ChatGPT

After reading a few New York Times articles on ChatGPT and seeing a friend post about the tool on Facebook, I decided to check it out. If you’re not familiar with it, ChatGPT allows a person to have a conversation in real-time with an AI chat bot. I was skeptical at first, but after giving it several prompts and reading ChatGPT’s responses, I was pretty surprised by how comprehensive and natural the writing was. I’m planning a few blog posts about the educational implications of the tool over the next few weeks, but I decided to start someplace different. After playing around with ChatGPT for a few hours (or more..), I wanted to show all of you the capabilities of the site by handing off this week’s blog post to the tool. My initial prompt was “What is the most important aspect of being an effective teacher?” I had ChatGPT respond several times and I’m offering each in the order they were provided, without any editing or commentary. I’ll dig into some of the analysis in next week’s post. As you read ChatGPT’s responses, remember each was written using artificial intelligence.

ChatGPT response #1:

The most important aspect of being an effective teacher is a deep commitment to student success. This means being dedicated to helping your students learn and grow, and providing the support and resources they need to succeed. This can include setting clear and achievable goals for student learning, providing regular feedback and support, and creating a positive and inclusive learning environment. By prioritizing student success, you can be an effective and inspiring teacher who helps your students achieve their full potential.

ChatGPT response #2:

The most important aspect of being an effective teacher is a commitment to student learning and success. This involves creating a positive and supportive learning environment, setting clear and achievable goals for student learning, providing support and resources for struggling students, and regularly assessing and providing feedback on student progress. By prioritizing student learning and success, teachers can help to foster a love of learning and prepare students for future success in their education and careers.

ChatGPT response #3:

The most important aspect of being an effective teacher is having a passion for teaching and a commitment to student success. When a teacher is enthusiastic and dedicated to helping their students learn and grow, it is contagious and can inspire and motivate students to be engaged and interested in the subject. A teacher who is passionate about teaching and committed to student success is able to create a positive and supportive learning environment that promotes growth and achievement for all students.

ChatGPT response #4:

The most important aspect of being an effective teacher is having a deep understanding and knowledge of the subject matter. This allows you to provide accurate and comprehensive information to your students, and to answer their questions and concerns with authority. In addition, a deep knowledge of the subject matter also allows you to develop engaging and effective lesson plans and activities that help your students learn and retain the material. Without a strong knowledge base, it can be difficult to be an effective teacher.

ChatGPT response #5:

The most important aspect of being an effective teacher is having a deep knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. This allows you to provide accurate and comprehensive information to your students, and to answer their questions and concerns with authority. Additionally, having a passion for teaching and a commitment to student success is also essential for being an effective teacher. This includes providing support and resources for struggling students, setting clear and achievable goals for student learning, and providing regular feedback to help students track their progress and identify areas for improvement. Overall, the combination of subject matter expertise, passion for teaching, and a commitment to student success is crucial for being an effective teacher.

Working in Concert

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how I had dusted off my trumpet after 35 years and joined a community band. We had our holiday concert last week and I’m still jazzed about it. We had over a hundred people come out in the cold and wind to hear our little band play some holiday classics and some sing-a-longs. The concert was held outside and with temperatures hovering near freezing, it was exciting to see so many families come out for the show.

I have to admit that I was a little nervous about the show. While our band had been practicing for six weeks to prepare for the concert, it would be the first time we had the entire band playing together as one. Most of the members of the band are working adults. They have responsibilities and jobs and family commitments. Although we meet most Wednesday nights to practice for a few hours, we rarely get the whole band together at once. It’s pretty common that we’ll be practicing a song and we’ll reach several measures of silence. Our band director will say something like “This is where the saxophones and clarinets will play” and then he’ll sing out their part. So, while we’ve been practicing songs like “Sleigh Ride” for over a month, we haven’t really heard it in its full complement.

I went into our holiday concert with some hesitation and also some excitement. And while some mistakes were made and I definitely fumbled through a song or two, the concert was magical. The parts that were missing in our previous practices were there. Our conductor didn’t have to sing to account for measures of silence or anything. The whole band had assembled, and we were playing as one. It was definitely a cool experience for me and for my band mates. And hopefully for those in attendance, too.

I’ve been reflecting on that experience for the last few days. I’ve mostly been thinking about how cool it is when individual parts come together to form a new whole. It happened during my holiday concert, but it happens in other parts of our lives, too. Maybe you’re working on a collaborative project with some colleagues and teams are working on different sections. At some point, the pieces fit together to form some unique whole and it can be magical. Whether it’s a musical performance or something work related, I think it’s cool when people and teams work in concert with one another.

I think that’s broadly how schools and universities are supposed to work. Take my classes this semester. While I teach classes individually, most contribute to some larger curriculum that students are navigating. For example, I’m working with a group of teacher candidates this semester in my assessment class. In addition to my course, they’re taking three or four other classes on topics like special education, content-related pedagogy, educational policy, and so on. Ideally, the content across these classes should work in concert with one another to form a new whole for the students. It should be that at least, but I worry that sometimes students are feeling like there are parts missing. It’s like the saxophones and clarinets aren’t able to attend the performance and there isn’t a conductor there to sing out the missing parts. And what should be a cool and magical concert isn’t as cool or as magical as it could be.

The Last Class

It’s been less than an hour since I finished my last face-to-face class with one of the sections of the assessment course I teach. These moments are always the most difficult for me to navigate because of the range of emotions I experience. There’s a sense of completion for another semester in the books, but also a profound sense of loss from the realization that I probably won’t see many of these students again. We’ve spent weeks and weeks together and shared this common experience. And now it is over.

And here I am. In my office. Working through the joys and sorrow on my own.

I struggle with closure, not just with last classes but with endings in general. When I write, I usually get to the end of my thoughts and want to write “The End” instead of challenging myself to write a more effective closure. There’s part of me that wants to end the last class the same way. Midway through the class, I’d plan some small group discussion for my students and then quietly exit the room without them noticing. I didn’t do that today. I stuck around and attempted a more effective closure. Here’s what I did.

After the small group discussion (which I’m proud to say I didn’t surreptitiously exit), I brought the class back together for some final parting words. Most of these students will begin their student teaching experiences next semester before starting their careers as teachers next fall. I’m compelled to thank them for entering this profession. When so many qualified candidates choose other paths, these students are here, signing up for a field in which I’ve spent the last thirty years of my life. I’m grateful that they’re making that choice and I’m inspired by the energy and passion they’re bringing to the profession.

At the point of the final class, I usually start to struggle with my words and thoughts. So, I draw on smarter people’s words to fill the gaps. Lately, I’ve been choosing the words of Stephen Brookfield who wrote The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom (2006). In the book, Brookfield writes:

Teaching is not about charismatically charged individuals using the sheer force of their characters and personalities to wreak lifelong transformations in students’ lives. It’s about finding ways to promote the day-to-day, incremental gains that students make as they try to understand ideas, grasp concepts, assimilate knowledge and develop new skills. All the small things you do to make this happen for student represent the true story of teaching. Helping learning is what makes you truly heroic.” (p. 278)

This morning, I shared that quote with my students and almost read it all the way through without my voice cracking. In the past, I have found the phrases “lifelong transformations in students’ lives” and “truly heroic” as the ones that get stuck in the back of my throat. That happened again today.

After taking a moment to gather my thoughts, I explained the power of small actions. I urged them not to discount the powerful impact that small actions can have on a student’s life. I then talked a little about the physics behind trim tabs, before explaining that trim tabs can be viewed as a larger metaphor for the impact that we as teachers can have on students’ lives. “Be a trim tab!” I explained to them. “Do the small things.”

And this is where I felt the class crash to a halt. My emotions got the better of me and I hastily shared a five-minute writing prompt and the link to a short course evaluation survey. I ducked behind the podium and awkwardly said goodbye to students after they completed their final tasks.

I’m back in my office now, and I’m reading their course evaluation responses. My course evaluation survey questions include three pretty straight forward prompts.

  1. What about the course did you think was effective?
  2. What about the course should be changed? Why? Provide specific ideas for course improvement.
  3. What other information would you like to share about our course?

Buried in the different suggestions for improving the class, one student wrote:

Thank you for everything this semester. You made me feel seen and inspired. I appreciate you!

Reading that post, I’m reminded by the Parker Palmer quote I’ve shared a bunch of times on this blog. And yes, I’m going to share it again today.

“Good teaching,” Palmer writes, “is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.”

There will come a time when I have my final “last class” with a group of students. I hope it is years down the road because I can’t imagine how hard that day will be.

Today wasn’t that day, thankfully. Today was hard enough.

The End.

The Brass Ring

As the Fall semester winds down in United States, I thought this post would be a good reminder for all of us. This post originally appeared on this blog in November 2019. Enjoy!

When I was a child, I remember going to the amusement park with my family. While I was excited to see the roller coasters, the Ferris Wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirl and the other rides, I have to admit that I was too frightened to venture on many of them. Maybe it stems from my fear of heights. Or maybe it comes from a hesitation to do something daring. Regardless of the originating emotions, I avoided riding on many of those amusement park rides as a child.

I say I avoided riding amusement park rides, but that’s not entirely true.  There was actually one ride that I always want to go on: the carousel. I know that’s it’s kind of a tame ride in comparison to rides like the Pirate Ship or the Scrambler, but the carousel was MY ride. I know some readers are probably losing some respect for me as they read about my tame choices for amusement park rides, but the carousel was my absolute favorite. Sure, the ride just goes round and round without changing speed much. And the painted ponies just slowly go up and down. But it’s more than that. My favorite part was the brass ring.

Since a lot of modern carousels don’t have brass rings anymore, let me explain. Older carousels had this mechanical arm that would suspend a brass ring just a little outside of riders’ reach. As riders passed that point, they would try to reach for the brass ring. To grab the ring, riders would have to lean off of the edge of the seat and reach really far to pull the brass ring from the arm. If someone was successful, the mechanical arm would replace it with a new one. During any carousel ride, ambitious riders could grab dozens of brass rings as the mechanical arm kept the brass rings coming.

As I think back to my childhood love of the carousel, I think about how the ride is a really good metaphor for teaching and for motivating learners. We provide learning targets for students (brass rings?) and if we do a good job of gauging students’ ability and interest, those targets can push the students outside of where they’re comfortable. They have to lean and grab and extend to reach the goal. They have to be daring and take chances.

Thinking back to my carousel-riding days, however, I can’t remember ever seeing someone fall off of a horse. While people may have had to anxiously reach beyond what they thought they could, they didn’t really fail. If someone wasn’t able to grab a brass ring on one turn, they could try again on the next turn. The mechanical arm kept offering more and more brass rings until the ride stopped.

And that’s another important lesson here. As teachers, we may want to make our classes more exciting than a carousel, but we have to remember to give our students lots of opportunities to reach our learning targets. We have to motivate them to reach beyond what they think is capable but also not have them reach so far that they fall off the horse. While I’m probably taking this metaphor beyond its utility, the real take-away is carousels are anything but tame.