As a geography teacher, I recently embarked on an experiment with my Year 8 class, an experiment that was met with equal parts laughter, curiosity and apprehension. The tool at the center of this experiment was not a globe, a map or an atlas, but ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence language model developed by OpenAI.
My assignment for the class was simple: Use ChatGPT to explain the predicted effects of climate change. The initial reactions were both amusing and telling for how they perceived the use of AI in their own education. A chorus of “That’s cheating!” and “We aren’t allowed to do that!” echoed in the classroom. The fear of the unknown, the entrenched belief that AI tools like ChatGPT are off-limits or illicit, was palpable.
'Cheating' with conditions
However, I reassured them that for this homework, they were free to "cheat" to their hearts’ content. The only condition was that underneath their copy and pasted answers, they also needed to copy and paste the instructions or prompts that they had typed into ChatGPT. They had one week.
The results were enlightening. Students broadly fell into three categories.
This group included those wary of the technology or ardent supporters of the minimalistic homework club, who treated ChatGPT like a search engine. They plugged in the question, “What are the predicted effects of climate change?” and out came long, complex responses that they neither read nor understood.
This group interestingly included most of the class’s most studious and high achievers. They were a little more daring and refined their queries for comprehension. They prompted, “Answer as if you were a Year 8 student in less than 100 words.” These students received clear, understandable responses that they could at least skim and comprehend.
These were the rogue learners, the questioners, the bickerers, the challengers, the intelligent, hard-working minimalists. These students, however, that had the most engaging results. They “chatted” with the AI, questioned it and they argued with it. They fine-tuned their prompts and engaged in a back-and-forth with the AI, resulting in two pages of engaging “chatting,” accompanied by succinct, digestible information.
Proof that AI can provoke thought
Feeling a little devious, I decided to spring an impromptu (and unrecorded) test on my students when they turned in their homework. The challenge: Explain the predicted effects of global warming without notes or collaboration. The results were as predictable as the complaints that echoed around the classroom telling me that I couldn’t set tests without warning them.
The students who had merely used ChatGPT as a search engine struggled to answer anything at all, while those who had refined their queries could give basic responses. However, the students who had engaged in detailed exchanges with the AI had absorbed the knowledge so well that they complained about the lack of time to put down all they knew!
From this experiment, I came to a clearer understanding of the potential of AI in education. Tools like ChatGPT prompt critical thinking, understanding and engagement in students, moving away from the rote memorization and copying methods of yesteryears.
Yes, AI tools can be used to copy. But just as a pen can be used to write poetry, create art or solve equations, AI can be used to provoke thought, enhance understanding and encourage learning.
The challenge lies in how we, as educators, guide our students in harnessing the potential of AI tools like ChatGPT. We must teach them to use these tools responsibly, to understand their workings, to question their outputs and to critically engage with them.
To this end, I created a ChatGPT Learning Code that I’ve plastered around my classroom walls and expect all of my students to follow. Using the acrostic CHATGPT, it goes like this:
Engage with ChatGPT in a dialogue. Chat! Remember, it's not a simple search engine.
Predict possible responses to your questions. This will help you identify errors.
If the first response isn't what you need, reframe your question or dive deeper into the topic.
Reflect on the responses. Do they make sense? Are they accurate? Are they potentially biases?
Use ChatGPT as a tool to gather information, but cross-verify with other sources.
Ask follow-up questions. Seek depth in understanding. Don't settle for the first answer.
Continually refine your interaction with ChatGPT. Learning to use it effectively is an ongoing process.
It’s time to embrace the learning revolution brought by artificial intelligence. The future of education is here, and if used correctly, AI has infinite potential to improve human intelligence.
Jack Dougall is a secondary school humanities and business teacher at Canterbury School in Gran Canaria, Spain. Born and raised in the UK, he earned his PGCE at Exeter University and spent five years teaching at a UK school. Drawn by the appeal of a sunnier climate, he relocated to Gran Canaria, where he has been living and teaching for the past 10 years. In addition to teaching, he is also the founder and CEO of a start-up social enterprise, Ecmtutors, which is managed and run by teachers, pupils and ex-pupils from international schools. Ecmtutors' mission is to bridge the gap between international schools and provide free online 1-1 peer-to-peer tutoring, among other things.