You’ve heard about it. You may have read about it. It’s been all over the news. ChatGPT, the text generating Artificial intelligence, is being both lauded and feared as the Next Big Thing. How much of an impact it will have on various jobs, industries and markets is still up for debate, and teaching has not escaped the discussion. Some have said that the AI is capable of replacing teachers, at least eventually. It’s far to early to say (though, personally, I am far from worried). One thing is for certain, though, AIs like ChatGPT open up some interesting possibilities and opportunities, including in the classroom. In fact, ChatGPT can be used as a fascinating teaching tool, particularly with more advanced students.
Now, I’m not going to get into exactly what ChatGPT is or how it works. Far too many people have written about exactly that and so a quick Google search will tell you all you need to know (or, you could even ask ChatGPT itself what it is and how it works). I’m just going to assume you know the basics and dive into how ChatGPT can be used as a teaching tool.
Use ChatGPT to teach Prompt Engineering
So, one thing to remember is that ChatGPT is text-based and works primarily via prompts. These prompts are essentially questions or commands you feed our buddy ChatGPT and it responds with…well, whatever it thinks you want based on your prompt. This alone can be used as a teaching device. Give students a goal and have them craft a prompt for ChatGPT. This will test their grammar, syntax and spelling, but will also require that they write clearly and concisely. There’s also the fact that prompt engineering has already been highlighted as a potential future skill many workers will be required to have.
The goal you give them will depend largely on your students’ abilities, but it can be as simple as getting ChatGPT to produce a note or letter based on a specific situation you have presented (my own students even came up with their own situation: telling their mother that their father had died—kids can be weird and dark). It can also be far more complex, such as having them prompt ChatGPT to produce a short story that includes well-defined elements, such as a specific point of view, tense, setting and characters.
The best way is to give them a few examples of good and bad prompts and the results these generated ahead of time. Have the students read through both the prompts and the generated content then discuss how the lesser prompts were lacking. Once students have produced their own prompts, test them out live.
Note that this would likely be best done as group work, since testing twenty prompts would be entirely impossible while testing four or five would be more manageable. Keep in mind, however, that even four or five may be beyond the site’s current capacities as it tends to routinely get overwhelmed with traffic. Be sure to have a backup activity in case access to ChatGPT is slow or impossible at that moment.
Have students critique ChatGPT’s work
One of my advanced English classes here in Abidjan had been reading To Kill a Mockingbird. As a way to examine voice in literature, I had them write a scene from the book from the perspective of Boo Radley (this was a scene taking place within the first eight chapters, and so before we get a true sense of Boo’s character or voice). Before having them present some of their work, I showed these eighth-graders two examples of the exercise without telling them anything about the authors. One I had written myself, heavy on personality through diction and even a few well-placed grammatical errors, while the other had been generated by ChatGPT.
Here they are, with mine first:
Yesterday I seen ‘em kids again. The two boys and the gal who looks like a boy but she’s a gal. I seen ‘em at my tree. They look inside the tree, inside the hole in the tree where I put ‘em gifts. I wanted to see ‘em find ‘em gifts. I wanted to see how they like ‘em. They looked real happy. I was happy too. I gave ‘em many of ‘em gifts. Little treasures. My treasures. But ‘em kids’ treasures now.
Yesterday I left ‘em kids my time piece treasure. I liked the ticking sound my time piece treasure did. It help me sleep in the nighttime. I don’t like the nighttime. Nothing to see and watch in nighttime. Only myself in nighttime. But my time piece treasure it help. Now it’s gone. Now it’s ‘em kids’ time piece treasure. That’s okay. It makes me a bit sad at nighttime. But that’s okay. ‘Em kids will be happy. ‘Em kids will sleep well now. They have my time piece treasure. They have each of ‘emselves. And I have ‘em. My friends.
I, Boo Radley, watched from my hiding place as Scout, Jem, and Dill approached the old oak tree. I have grown used to their daily adventures, always playing detective and solving mysteries. This day was no different, as they were on the hunt for a pocket watch that Dill claimed was hidden in the knothole of the tree.
I was fascinated by their excitement and enthusiasm as they worked together to find the watch. They took turns peering into the knothole, their faces lighting up with hope each time they spotted something shiny. Finally, Jem reached in and pulled out a rusty old pocket watch, dangling it triumphantly in the air. The three of them cheered and hugged, their joy spreading to me where I stood.
For a moment, I felt a pang of sadness. I wished I could join in their play, to experience the happiness they so freely shared. But I knew better, I was too much of an outcast to be welcomed into their world. So, I continued to watch from the shadows, content to simply observe their adventures and soak in the joy they brought to Maycomb.
I asked the students to read both and compare them, telling me which one was more effective and why. Generally, they found that the second example—written by our friendly neighbourhood robot—was too formal and lacked much personality (a common critique of ChatGPT’s writing style), but they did like that both examples contained pathos. They also noted a few general inconsistencies in the second text, such as how did Boo know that Dill, specifically, claimed the pocket watch was in the tree.
It tested their critical and analytical thinking and, with a few follow up questions, I got them to explain exactly why they liked one example more than another, how the authors demonstrated the character’s voice, how they could have improved. Afterwards, the students wanted to return to their own texts, to tweak them and improve upon them.
But this also led to a broader discussion about AI, which brings me to my last suggestion:
Use ChatGPT to discuss various topics concerning AI
Honestly, I was rather surprised at how few of my students had even heard of ChatGPT. These are advanced, tech savvy kids from wealthy families but I’d say only two or three had heard of it and only one seemed to be well informed on exactly what it was and what it could do. That said, these are exactly the kids who should know about it. If ChatGPT and the like do have a lasting impact on education and the workforce, these students, on the cusp of beginning high school, are likely to feel that impact harder than any of us. And so they should already be thinking about how their life might change due to AI.
I started by asking them a few pointed questions, such as “What is AI?” and “How will AI affect education (or work or specific industries)?” and, after getting a few answers and responding with a few follow up or clarifying questions, I presented them with pre-prepared answers on the board, answers I’d gotten from ChatGPT. Without telling them where I’d gotten these answers I had them discuss them. I then had them come up with ways in which AI would improve life in general (or, again, specific jobs, industries or aspects of life) and how it might make life worse. I then, again, compared their answers with the ones ChatGPT had given me—once again, all without telling them where the answers had come from. Finally, I asked them to come up with a list of new jobs and skills that may be needed to deal with AI, along with a list of jobs and skills that might become obsolete. For a third time, I compared some of their answers with ChatGPT’s. I then asked if they trusted the opinion of the mystery author whose answers they’d been analyzing all class, and why and why not.
Then, of course, I revealed that the answers had been generated by an AI called ChatGPT and we then re-examined our thinking and analysis, seeing if this changed opinions or hardened them.
This teaches students not only to examine and discuss fairly complex issues—all while using the conditional, as well as the future and past tenses—it also has them rethink and reformulate their ideas and conclusions based on new information. Most importantly, in my opinion, it allows them to think about how their own future education and careers might be impacted by ChatGPT and AI in general, both for the potential better and possible worse.
Obviously, the examples I give are most suitable to advanced students. It is possible, however, to scale certain aspects of these activities, using simpler goals for the prompts and having them craft simpler stories or texts, with ChatGPT providing its own version. I’d say a good litmus test is to ask yourself if you would be able to explain the concept of Artificial Intelligence to your class. If their current level of vocabulary won’t allow it, then maybe save it for other students. For any of tthese activities to be truly effective, the students will need to understand what an AI is and that it is responsible for the examples you’re presenting.
If you’re a teacher do you have plans to use ChatGPT as a teaching tool? Have you already done so? Let me know your thoughts.