The use of generative artificial intelligence is spreading faster in K-12 education than many educators expected. That is why an increasing number of educators and AI experts say that schools need to figure out how to leverage AI tools for the benefit of students and teachers, while being aware of their downsides.
Glenn Kleiman, a senior adviser at the Stanford Graduate School of Education whose research focuses on the potential of AI to enhance teaching and learning, is one of those experts who argues that schools need to “accept that these changes are big, real, and aren’t going away.”
In a Zoom interview with Education Week, Kleiman discussed his views on AI’s role in K-12 education, how schools can appropriately incorporate AI, and what students need to know about the technology.
The conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
How do you see generative AI changing teaching and learning?
We’re in a period of learning exploration—lots of people trying out different things, lots of people debating things, so there are no simple answers. But very broadly, we can characterize three perspectives on it.
One perspective is, ‘Oh, my God, this is a horrible thing. It can write essays for students. It will present misinformation. We should just not use it. Let’s resist it.’ I think that’s a hopeless approach.
A second approach is: ‘Yeah, everybody’s in an uproar about it. It’s new, it’s impressive, but we went through this even back to early computers, or calculators, or web search or Wikipedia—[we thought] that they were going to change everything and eventually figured out they’re just tools. We’ll find good ways of using them, develop appropriate use policies, and it’ll fit into the instructions we have.
The third position is, ‘Oh, my God, this changes the nature of work and the nature of life. It’s going to create enormous joblessness. We need to prepare our students for a very different world. We don’t really understand that world, but we really need to rethink fundamentally the nature of education, what students learn, how they learn, what are the roles of teachers and students when you also have AI assistants [for both teachers and students] in the classroom.’
I’m between the second and third.
What can we learn from how schools adapted to calculators or the internet or Wikipedia that can be put into practice with AI?
Educators need to work together, and this is at all levels: principals and superintendents, even education policymakers, as well as teachers. There are a lot of teachers who do interesting, creative things, but we need to have more systemic views of how these [AI tools] are used with our students. We need to have policies within the schools that are consistent across classrooms. Schools need to develop guidelines of what students can and cannot do with these tools.
They need to take seriously that teachers need time to explore these tools themselves, to learn what they can do and not do, to learn their risks. Very often when there are changes in education, we neglect that it’s a really big change for the professional workforce of educators. They need to be supported in learning themselves, and they need to be supported in trying new things.
We also need to be careful—now people are talking about AI literacy. There was computer literacy, there was computational literacy—all of which are important, but we have a tendency to just add more things into the school day and never take anything away. Can AI be used in ways that support current objectives? Can it be integrated into teaching and learning? Can it be used in ways that save teachers time so they can do more of what only teachers can do? [There need to be] adjustments in the curriculum, in the technologies available in the teacher training, and in the assessments.
There’s just so many stakeholders in education, also. If you make changes, the parents need to understand the changes, the state policymakers, the curriculum development, the assessment developers. The universities have a role because they will decide what courses are acceptable and not acceptable, and what will count as an AP course. And so there’s a lot of stakeholders and a lot of components.
How can schools prepare students for this new world?
The basic skills remain always critical. Students need to know how to read well, they need to know basic mathematics concepts, they need to have an understanding of history and science and public policy. They need to be able to produce good arguments and solve mathematical problems and think scientifically or historically, but they now have different tools for doing that.
These tools aren’t going away. Students are going to be using and already are using them outside the classroom. We have to figure out how to help them use these tools most effectively and use the tools to expand their capabilities.
Are there specific skills students need to focus on?
We talk about the four Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Those remain fundamental, and I think always will remain fundamental. Those need emphasis.
We’ve certainly seen more attention to social emotional learning. We know we’re in a crisis state with student depression, so healthy behaviors, healthy ways of interacting, having discussions across differences, being able to work with others who have different views and different opinions and different cultures, all those things remain important—if anything they are growing in importance.