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What can English teachers do about ChatGPT?
Author: EnglishTeacher    2023-03-07


Ok, English teachers. If you haven’t heard already, there’s a new tool out there that students can use to plagiarize – and it seems like a real game changer. It’s all the talk in staff rooms and on social media posts, and teachers are worried. The hard reality is that as technology improves, the ways our students can avoid doing their own work does too. So, what can English teachers do about ChatGPT, the new and formidable obstacle in our way?

Well, first of all, banning ChatGPT is NOT the answer (I tell you why below). Instead, you need to build your students’ confidence in their abilities by:

·Creating assignments that foster personal engagement

·Using classroom activities that build critical thinking skills

·Avoiding too many formulaic assignments

·Focusing on (and requiring) the writing process

·Providing more formative assessment


What is ChatGPT and why should English teachers care?

First of all, in case you’ve been blissfully unaware – just worrying about Sparksnotes and Shmoop – ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chatbot that can do a lot of things, including write an essay. Picture asking Alexa to write one on the symbolism in Lord of the Flies or that analyzes the character or theme of…whoever or whatever they want. And the response, from all reports, can be quite good (or at least passable).

Apparently, like Alexa and her counterpart, Google Home, ChatGPT can respond that it doesn’t have enough information, so if you assign a fresh new topic on a just published text, your plagiarizing students may be out of luck. And, according to Lucas Ropek who has reviewed the tool, ChatGPT,  “will cover its gaps in knowledge by making things up, sometimes with considerable embellishment. In other words, it has an eerily human capacity for bullshitting its way around gaps in its data base.”

In other words, it’s like many people we know. But still, it has English teachers wringing their hands with frustration.

So we can block it, we can rail about it, we can throw up our hands and not assign writing anymore. Or we can look for real solutions to a problem that is only evolving, not going away.


Blocking ChatGPT is a bandaid only

Many of the responses I’m seeing include blocking student access to ChatGPT. But I don’t think that’s the answer. Like most attempts to block and ban, trying to prevent and punish students is never a good long term solution. For example, how are those cell phone bans working for you?

I don’t ask that to be facetious or condescending. I know that cell phones are a real problem for teachers. However, I believe that we need to teach students to use them responsibly because banning only makes them resentful.

Can you use AI-generated essays responsibly? Yes, you could have students evaluate and analyze them, sure. But I want my students generating their own ideas and doing their own research). What I am suggesting is that we deal with the issues that push students to look for those essays.

Deal with the underlying problem; don’t put a bandaid on it and hope the bleeding stops.


Give assignments that entice personal engagement

One of the underlying problems is the way students (and even some teachers) view the essay: a couple of pages (actual or digital) that need to get passed in for a grade. It’s something to stress over, and just get done and submitted.

There is little personal engagement for many students. And because they feel no ownership, they look elsewhere for ideas – even the words themselves – just to get the grade.

Instead, an essay should be a chance for students to dig deeply into a topic, to flesh out an idea, and to present it in a clear, organized fashion that makes the reader think too. It’s a conversation between writer and reader, not a means of torture for students.


Moving beyond formulaic assignments

If English teachers want to deal with the issue of ChatGPT, we can’t just give formulaic assignments that are easy to copy.

Don’t get me wrong. I supply lots of guidance and supports and rubrics. Students do need these. But they need variety and a chance to experiment too. So I start with lots of support early in the semester, and then take the training wheels off. And it works for most students.

For example, there are many ways for students to hone the skills they need to write persuasively beyond the traditional essay, ones that are much more interesting to them.  They wrote reviews about their favorite things, and they were SO fun to read because they were engaged. And, the products were focused, organized, full of transitions, and beautiful language, all the things we want to see in our student writing. 

Other favorite assignments in my class were rants and rhetorical speeches, where students had to persuade the class about a change they want to see in the world. Every year I left the room smiling and proud – and so did most of my students. 

Did some students plagiarize these assignments? Yes. But the majority didn’t because we focused more on engagement and process.


Build critical thinking skills

When critical thinking and active learning are the norm in your classroom, students will be less apt to look to ChatGPT and other tools to do the thinking and writing for them.

Let me give you a concrete example. Imagine that you are invited to someone’s home and told that you need to bring a baked dessert, one made from scratch, and you will be judged on how good it is. You don’t like to bake and have very little experience in that area. But your brother is an amazing cook and baked goods are his specialty. Might you ask him to help you out? I would.

Hopefully, you get my analogy. Your students will be more likely to do work that requires critical thinking and creativity when they have the skills they need to do so. So, one thing English teachers can do to deal with ChatGPT is to provide lots of opportunities for students to actively use their brains in class, rather than just passively learning.

Focus on the process and build confidence

Another way English teachers can deal with ChatGPT is to put more focus on the process of reading and writing. And that includes building in time for students to do so in class.

There are two reasons to do this: first, you can see that they did in each step. But, even more importantly, you provide students with the opportunity to see how good writing happens.

The content of a good essay doesn’t fall from the sky to the head of a gifted writer. It comes after time spent thinking, focusing, organizing, and fleshing out ideas. It comes after time spent fine tuning language.

Sometimes – dare I say “often”? – students turn to the internet for help with writing because they don’t feel confident in their abilities. They think those who get high grades just know how to do it; they don’t see the work that goes on behind the scenes.

When you open the curtain and require all that “backstage” work in class, you will get better results and less cheating. I know because that is my experience. I know because I have students do self-evaluations after we do a two week intensive on persuasive writing,  and many have stated that it was the first time someone really showed them how to write an essay and now they feel like they can.

It’s quite satisfying to hear that as a teacher, and even more so to see students produce good, quality work on their own. Yes, I know that some still plagiarized, but I made it much harder for them to do so – and more importantly, easier to learn.


Should teachers use ChatGPT as a teaching tool?

Sure. There are certainly critical thinking activities that can go along with this, especially if you pair it with the idea that you can’t take everything you read at face value.

But here’s my burning question on that idea: our time is limited. Why spend time on using AI-generated essays when we could put more time and energy into building more student engagement with thinking about their own ideas?

Instead, acknowledge and accept that technology is changing our world – and it will continue to do so. Rant and rage to your teaching buddies (I’m really good at that), then turn your attention to getting your students engaged in learning.


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