My day job is working as a tutor. While I work in several subjects, my focus is helping students with their writing, especially essays. As you might imagine, I’ve been following with some interest the breathless debate about ChatGPT, artificial intelligence, and their impact on education.
If you aren’t familiar yet, ChatGPT is an online writing tool powered by an artificial intelligence “chatbot” that was launched by a nonprofit called OpenAI in November 2022. Once you’ve signed up to use it online, you can type in an order like, “write an academic paper on the Prohibition Era in U.S. history,” or “how Pop Tarts are made” — or pretty much any topic — and it will produce a narrative for you in seconds. It will rewrite others’ work for you as well, in seconds.
Will ChatGPT have a negative impact on our ability to educate young people? To be honest, I’m not that concerned about it, and I think it may even prove to be a very good thing in the long run.
First, to explain why ChatGPT is not an existential threat to education, let’s start with what I think writing is (and isn’t). Writing is a way to communicate ideas in a more permanent form than oral communication. That’s it. Writing can be informational, artistic, personal, even beautiful — but its primary goal is to communicate. ChatGPT facilitates writing as communication, even if it’s a bit stilted. So when Daniel Herman wrote for The Atlantic that ChatGPT “may signal the end of writing assignments altogether — and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill,” I see that as an unqualified good. All of the other values loaded onto writing don’t belong there.
Writing should not be characterized as a metric for intelligence. Writing is a skill, and all that’s required to make improvement with any skill is practice. I’m a good writer because I was praised for my writing as a student, so that made me want to do it more. It’s not because I’m more intelligent than a person who shudders at the thought of writing an essay.
I’ve worked in education for almost 20 years and the one thing all “bad” writers have in common is that they think they’re bad. Even students who produce good work consistently will often describe their own efforts as poor. These students are not unintelligent; they simply haven’t had the confidence-building experiences that I had as a student.
For that reason, writing absolutely must not be used as a gatekeeping tool either. It makes no sense that schools would use a student’s ability to write as a determining factor to decide whether they will admit them — to then (presumably) teach them how to write. Additionally, students are gatekept in a format — the essay — that is obtuse and totally divorced from how they use writing to communicate, and how they’ll use it in their professional careers. I say this as someone who genuinely likes essays, but the fact is that even as a writer, I rarely write essays professionally.
As for writing as a teachable skill, that will never change. I know that beneath the claims about academic integrity are legitimate concerns about job security. There will always be people who enjoy writing as a hobby or a potential career, and those people will need to be taught. Everyone else can automate their essays. Admittedly, this could result in far fewer people who choose to seek out instruction in writing instead of those forced to due to academic necessity. But that’s just the reality of technological progress. The bell was rung as soon as Microsoft added spell check to Word.
Once we remove all of the elitist reasons that people are concerned about ChatGPT’s impact, then we’re left with a simple question: does it really matter if a student writes their own work? I can imagine that the same questions were asked when calculators became ubiquitous regarding students showing their work or just jotting down what the machine told them the answer was. The solution in that case was to accommodate the technology, but with limits — yes you can use a calculator, but you still have to show your work.
So why not take a similar hybrid approach with writing? Students can “show their work” with an outline or proposal for the essay they want to write. It can even be hand-written or done in class to verify that it’s the student’s original work. After that, the student can use ChatGPT to write their essays the same way math students use calculators to find answers. For many students who spend hours obsessing over assignments, this could be a huge timesaver and stress reliever.
I compare it to a calculator because in my experience, students don’t come to tutoring because they lack ideas. They come in for help in organizing their paper, or setting up their page in MLA format, or checking for comma splices and run-ons. All those “bad” writers are quite capable of thinking critically about the subject matter. They are hampered by the nuts and bolts of writing. Well now there’s a computer that can handle that for them. Why should we deny them that tool?