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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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How About We Put Learning at the Center?

The ongoing freak-out about ChatGPT sent me back to considering the fundamentals.

January 4, 2023

As I wrote previously at my Substack newsletter, regarding the widespread awareness of the ChatGPT large language model (LLM) algorithm, it’s been a somewhat exciting time for me as an issue that I happen to know something about becomes so prominent in a broader national conversation.

When you’re a writer who makes his living offering his ideas to the world (as I do) and your sphere is usually pretty niche (as it is), it feels imperative to take grab some share of the attention when the opportunity arrives.

Initially, then, I was a little sad then that the Inside Higher Ed holiday break coincided with the rising interest in my area of expertise, but in the end, it’s been a blessing in disguise, as it allowed me some time to reconsider and reflect on the broader implications of a world in which this technology exists.

Some of the rhetoric is starting to remind me a bit of the MOOC discourse circa 2012, when we were treated to breathless predictions of massive disruption, including Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun declaring that “In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education, and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

Like MOOCs, some folks seem to believe the technology possesses some power beyond what we allow it to have. ChatGPT for sure sheds some light on what we’ve been up to, school- and teaching-wise, but the AI isn’t in control—we are. If ChatGPT is the end of high school English as we know it, well … that course in that form didn’t deserve to live anyway.

What we do with the things we can control matters, which is why I’d like to make a series of assertions that may seem obvious, but which also seem to be getting lost as the larger conversation ping-pongs from topic to topic.

Here’s assertion No. 1: the fundamental purpose of an education is to learn stuff, but our system of education doesn’t necessarily support that goal.

While much of the discussion of ChatGPT is about how disruptive it seems to be, my view is that it merely reveals what was already present, rather than fundamentally changing the picture.

For example, students taking a shortcut to a grade in order to avoid the longer journey through learning is not a new phenomenon. In my first semester of college in the fall of 1988, once I learned that the entirety of the semester’s overhead slide notes to be presented by my Econ 101 professor could be purchased in the campus copy shop, I did not attend a single class period ever again.

Why would I attend an 8:00 a.m. lecture to listen to a professor recite what was on a slide I could look at in my own time, that time primarily being the night before an exam, when I would cram the information into my brain just long enough to regurgitate it onto the Scantron?

Perhaps my failure to engage with that course and others like it—large lecture, multiple-choice exams—is reflective of a personal character flaw, but if so, it is one that’s widely shared across multiple generations.

So, when people express concern that students will use ChatGPT to complete their assignments, I understand the concern, but what I don’t understand is why this concern is so often channeled into discussions about how to police student behavior, rather than using this as an opportunity to exam the kind of work we actually ask students (and faculty) to do around learning.

If ChatGPT can do the things we ask students to do in order to demonstrate learning, it seems possible to me that those things should’ve been questioned a long time ago. It’s why I continue to believe this technology is an opportunity for reinvention, precisely because it is a threat to the status quo.

Which leads me to assertion No. 2: learning stuff is accomplished through doing stuff. Learning is rooted in experiences.

I feel the need to assert this because so much of the commentary around ChatGPT seems to be about the labor that the algorithm can do in the place of the person. For instructors, it can make lesson plans or reading lists or even provide feedback on student work.

For students, it can produce the work that’s to be assessed. The possible reductio ad absurdum of ChatGPT both writing and grading essays while students and instructors use all that time saved for other things has been noted by many.

That learning is accomplished through doing is true for every subject, but it’s particularly true in learning to write. As I say ad nauseam, here, there and everywhere, writing is thinking, which means the act and experience of writing is both the expression and the exploration of an idea (or ideas). It is that exploration part where the learning happens.

Sometimes, the artifact the student produces that reflects a genuine learning moment is judged poorly according to the criteria valued in academic spaces, because learning is messy. Because of this, it is safer for students to write in ways that express the already known, to produce what I call writing-related simulations.

Enter ChatGPT, an algorithm that cannot think but is great at producing simulations of thinking.

While these simulations do not reflect learning, they are often rewarded in school contexts. Students grok this very early in their lives and behave accordingly. Because of this, learning becomes devalued.

Assertion No. 3: most students want to learn, but school is not necessarily a place where learning is important.

Writing recently at The New York Times, Jonathan Malesic explores “the key to success in college … so simple, it’s almost never mentioned.”

That key, according to Malesic is, “A simple willingness to learn.” While I agree with the general sentiment of Malesic’s point, there is an implication that students, perhaps in general, are not willing to learn, and I don’t believe this to be true. Students, in my experience, very much want to learn, but the structure of schooling is often aligned against learning.

It’s not so much that students resist learning, but that learning is not the goal of school.

In his piece, Malesic identified “knowingness,” defined as “the willingness to present yourself as always already informed” as an obstacle to learning. If you think you already know something, or think you don’t need to know something, why would you bother to learn?

Malesic interprets students in his theology class telling him on the first day that “they knew they would get an A because they already had 12 years of Catholic school” as an example of knowingness that blocks learning.

Another example Malesic cites is an overheard lament from a student exclaiming, “I can’t take a Russian history class; I don’t know any Russian history!”

I have to say, I would not necessarily attribute either of these responses to “knowingness.” To me, it sounds more like a fear of potentially substandard performance, grade-wise. The first comment about 12 years of Catholic school is self-talk, an attempt at bolstering self-confidence. The second one is a fear of underperformance against the metric that most matters inside the system, grades and GPA.

If we want students to embrace the pleasure of diving into unfamiliar waters, we cannot punish them for making those choices, as often happens in the current system, another phenomenon that is not exactly new but has perhaps grown more acute over time.

Assertion No. 4: we must deal with the system as it is experienced by students today, not as we imagine it to be or as it may seemed in the past.

Where I agree with Malesic is that our current system and structure of higher education is far too focused on the ends (jobs, improved economic potential) and not enough on the means, the experiences that shape the person you will continue to become. As Malesic observes, “the means are everything: the books, teachers and fellow students who will change your life.”

Indeed. I remember almost nothing about the content of my studies in college, but I can cite numerous experiences that helped shape me as the person I am today. Where I think I may differ is how much control students have when it comes to resisting this system in order to focus on their learning.

We have lots of research showing that the experiences—deep learning, connecting with a mentor, collaborating with peers—are much more correlated with positive future outcomes than grades or major.

A 2014 Gallup-Purdue study found that “life in college matters for life after college.”

“Life” means experiences like having a mentor, tackling a long project, collaborating with your peers and other things that are not often measured by institutions and therefore are not valued inside the system.

If we’re worried about students turning to ChatGPT, why not consider ways to deliver the experiences they both want and benefit from, the experiences that help them learn?

To my eye, too much of the ChatGPT discourse is about how to corral and control this technology so we can keep students doing the same stuff they’ve been doing. This presumes that the status quo is working in terms of student learning, but who seriously believes that?

My first instinct about ChatGPT was that it is an opportunity to examine the values we bring to the work we ask students to do. I still believe that, but I am starting to wonder if student learning is something institutions genuinely value.

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