When AI tools like ChatGPT can write, how should we teach writing?

Image from the AI tool DreamStudio

ChatGPT undermines the traditional way we teach writing in high school or college. We can try (and fail) to preserve the old ways of teaching. Or we can develop new ways that assume future writers will have access to AI tools and help them to use those tools.

Current ways we teach writing already stink — and AI tools will reveal that

Here’s a typical writing assignment: Write a five-paragraph theme about how communities should fund public schools.

The advantages of such assignments are as follows:

  • They allow teachers to create and teach “the five-paragraph theme” so everyone has the same set of instructions.
  • They allow students to follow those instructions and all generate the same sorts of results.
  • Most importantly, they create a bunch of output that looks the same so that the teacher can grade them easily in bulk.

Notice the use of the word “same” in all three bullets. That’s the root of the issue here. It forces every learner into the same box doing the same work to get the same result.

That is arguably the right way to teach arithmetic: if all the students use the same steps to add 154 and 316, they will all get the same result if they do it properly. That’s good, because there is only one right answer to that problem.

But there are an infinite number of potential answers to any writing problem, and that is the point.

Machines are better at adding numbers than people are. And now, machines like ChatGPT are (or at least, soon will be) better at following rote writing prompts to generate rote writing answers.

Yes, that will undermine the way we teach writing. Good riddance. Because what we were teaching wasn’t writing, it was production-line word and sentence assembly. It was boring for students and boring for teachers. It was tedious, taught students that writing was based on following a formula, and penalized creative thinkers. AI should put the last nail in its coffin.

In case you are wondering, here’s a five-paragraph theme on the topic of community funding of public schools. It’s logical, well-structured, and utterly without charm. And it matches the assignment perfectly. If a student turned this in, they’d probably get an A-minus, which says more about grading essays than it does about AI.

Funding for public schools is an important issue in many communities. There are several different ways that communities can fund their public schools, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

One way that communities can fund their public schools is through property taxes. Property taxes are levied on the value of land and buildings within the community. This can be a reliable source of funding for public schools, as it is based on the wealth of the community. However, it can also be unfair, as it places a heavier burden on those who own more valuable property.

Another way to fund public schools is through state and federal funding. This can provide a more stable and consistent source of funding for schools. It can also help to equalize funding across different communities, ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality education. However, state and federal funding can be unpredictable and subject to political changes.

A third option is for communities to fund their schools through a combination of property taxes and state and federal funding. This can provide a balanced approach that takes into account the wealth of the community as well as the need for consistent, stable funding. It can also allow for flexibility and the ability to adjust funding levels as needed.

Overall, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for funding public schools. Communities must carefully consider their own needs and circumstances when deciding how to fund their schools. It is important to find a balance between providing the necessary resources for high-quality education while also being fair and sustainable.

When it comes to writing, what should we really be teaching?

To be clear, I still think we should teach writing. Everyone needs to learn to write to solve problems, whether that writing is an email to get your money back for a defective product, a letter to your government representative, or a research report for your employer. If you can’t write, you’re at a disadvantage in the world.

So what are we actually teaching? Let’s look at the desired result: a human who can use words to get things done. So:

The goal of teaching writing is to build students’ skill in using all available tools to create writing that effectively accomplishes a goal.

Let’s take a closer look at “all available tools.” Maybe you think that’s wrong — should students really be able to use all available tools, or should we try to stop them from use AI writing tools?

Should we make students write paragraphs longhand? Of course not. Word processors allow them to write faster and better, and more accurately match their future real-world conditions.

Should we make students do research in the library or should we let them use web search? Web search is faster, better, and more accurately matches their future real-world conditions.

Should we disable copy and paste functions to prevent plagiarism? Absurd. Real-world conditions include tools with copy and paste functions. We need to teach how to use sources appropriately and give credit, not prevent copying and pasting.

Students will have access to AI tools for writing. So why should we stop them from using such AI tools now?

Better assignments

Having recast the goal of teaching, we need new assignments for students. What would those assignments look like?

Here are some examples:

  • Start a blog. Write a paragraph every day for a week about your experiences, how they felt, or what you learned.
  • We’re going to write about public school funding. Ask ChatGPT to write a five-paragraph theme on the topic. Now edit it to make it better. Share both versions and tell me what makes yours an improvement.
  • Read chapter two of the assigned book. Now write what you think about it. You can write an essay, a poem, a set of hip-hop lyrics, a set of Google slides, or anything else you want. Now share what you wrote with a partner. What did you like about what they wrote? Would it change what you write next?
  • Write three different prompts for a writing assignment. Use two different AI writing tools with the prompts. What changes in the output? Which prompt gives better results? Why do think that is?
  • Write a page on the assigned topic. (Don’t use an AI tool, please.) I, your teacher, will pour all the assignments you create into an AI tool I have, along with AI-generated answers to the assignment. I’ll then show you what some of the common themes were, and what creative solutions other people came up with. What can we learn from the way humans solve writing problems compared to the way computers take on the same task?

AI can help teachers, too

When I reviewed John Warner’s brilliant book on teaching writing, Why They Can’t Write, I cited his prescription for a better way to teach writing:

  • Limit the number of students per teacher, and pay the teachers a living wage.
  • Assign real-world writing assignments (like a review, or a persuasive argument) and give the students the tools to analyze good examples of people who do those well. They should work inside an actual rhetorical situation with an actual intended audience.
  • Focus on writing practice and rewriting based on comments from the teacher. (This means that the teacher has to have the time to generate thoughtful comments.)
  • Grade based on quantity of thoughtful writing created, rather than on achieving or approaching perfection. As it turns out (at least in Warner’s classes), the more work the students put in, the more improvement they achieve, and that is worth rewarding.

I still think those suggestions are on-target, but I acknowledge that writing workloads are hard to reduce. So arm the teachers with AI tools. Use AI to correct grammar. Use AI to find flaws in arguments. Use AI to highlight boringly similar sentences and structures. Use AI to identify unique qualities in responses to assignments — AI may not be able to come up with new ideas, but it can easily review content and identify what stands out as different.

We need to teach people to write because it teaches people to think. Nonfiction writing is the expression of logic. It’s problem-solving. Taught effectively, it’s even enjoyable, since it allows each individual to express what is unique about them.

AI tools don’t get in the way of any of that. They can actually help. That is, provided we leave the old, rote, machine-like ways of teaching behind, because in a world that has ChatGPT in it, those ways of teaching are obsolete.

3 responses to “When AI tools like ChatGPT can write, how should we teach writing?

  1. Your thoughts about ChatGPT have been the most interesting, coherent, and well-developed that I’ve seen anywhere. And that includes The Atlantic and The New Yorker. So thank you for all that. I will direct my subscribers to your site to enjoy this series, plus the many other interesting posts you’ve done about the whole realm of non-fiction writing.

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