I’ve been a high school English teacher for the past 25 years and I’ve been assigning essays to my students for just as long. I’m of an age where, as a student, I used to have to drag an encyclopedia out to dutifully research and write up a report about the life cycle of a butterfly. Today’s students are light years away from those old research methods.
Artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionize the way students write essays, and the recent release of the ChatGPT natural-language processing program brings us closer to that future. With the ability to analyze and understand language, this AI tool can help students generate ideas, organize their thoughts, and even write entire essays.
As an English teacher, I can see the potential for misuse by students. Just this week, New York City schools banned the tool on school devices and internet networks, citing concerns over this misuse. However, shutting ourselves off from this technology is not the answer. Teachers will have to embrace AI technology as another tool students have access to. Just like we once taught students how to do a proper Google search, teachers should design clear lessons around how the ChatGPT bot can assist with essay writing. Acknowledging AI’s existence and helping students work with it could revolutionize how we teach.
Rather than be wary of ChatGPT, we should embrace how this program can help struggling students learn how to organize their thoughts on paper. By using natural-language processing techniques, this AI tool can “understand” and analyze written or spoken language to generate responses or suggestions. I have used the program to create outlines, templates, and instructions. My experiments have shown me that ChatGPT has the potential to offer students a skeleton with which to begin any number of writing projects.
Wanting to test the bot’s capacity to write creatively, I asked the program to produce a villanelle—a poem with a very specific rhyme structure—about the death of a family pet. Though the AI produced a quaint poem on the subject, it did not invoke any profound insight. The bot dutifully reproduced the poem’s complex structure—which can be a daunting task for many high schoolers—but it lacked specifics or personal depth.
The bot provided the structure and form which, in theory, could allow students to spend more time reworking the poem to include more complex thoughts and feelings. I can envision all kinds of activities challenging students to use their own voice by replacing nondescript language, creating masterful imagery, and inserting figurative language.
So many students get caught up in the idea that they have nothing to write about, that they don’t even know where to start. If teachers can use ChatGPT to show students how to generate prompts to stimulate their writing, the experience could provide a leg up for students who struggle with idea generation.
AI can also help students with the actual writing process by providing templates or outlines for essays. For example, AI could analyze a topic and provide a structure for an essay, including an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Once students have made use of these prompts or outline to write something themselves, AI algorithms can also analyze a student’s writing style and provide feedback on grammar, spelling, and structure. One feature of this program can help students revise their writing using better word choice and advanced vocabulary.
I tested this by asking ChatGPT to rewrite a sample essay in the style of a 7th grader, a 10th grader, and a college student. The degree of syntactical differences between each level of the same essay astounded me.
Teachers can design assessments that use this AI-generated feedback to show students how to improve their writing. After reading the suggested improvements, students might handwrite another essay, with no computer assistance, and implement some of the language and sentence structure learned from the bot. Because the bot writes and rewrites so quickly, students can see a number of different ways their writing can improve. It’s up to teachers to take away the computer assistance at the right moment during this process and allow students the time needed to put pen to paper to apply what they’ve learned.
It’s important to note that AI is not a replacement for human creativity and critical thinking. While the implications for cheating and inappropriate uses have already sparked concern in my own department, I hope I won’t see English teachers devoting hours of professional-development time addressing how to prevent misuse. We already have tools that can help us check whether writing was generated using AI technology.
Rather than blocking and banning this new technology, teachers should work with its astonishing ability to improve student writing. AI has the potential to greatly assist students in the essay-writing process. It can help generate ideas, provide feedback on writing style, and even provide templates or outlines. However, it is important to remember that while AI can certainly aid in the writing process, it is ultimately up to the student to come up with their own ideas and arguments for critical thinking—and it’s up to teachers to teach them how. AI can help with the mechanics of writing, but it cannot replace the unique perspective and insights that a human can bring to their work.