Don’t Criticize What You Can’t Understand

When I was in school, we weren’t allowed to use calculators. We did our calculations by hand. That included long division, and deriving square roots, and looking up logarithms and trig functions in computation tables. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that my physics teacher said, “you know, you could just use a calculator and save yourself a lot of time.” By that point, it wasn’t about learning the computational skills. It was about applying those skills to learn physics. I haven’t derived a square root by hand since then. I also haven’t looked up trig functions or interpolated computational values. I can still do long division, but I rarely bother if it’s too complicated to do in my head.

As a graduate student, my professors were wary of word processors. If a beautifully laser-printed essay was handed in, how could they know if I had actually written it myself? For anything that actually counted for a grade, we had to use the dreaded blue books. That was bad for me. My handwriting borders on illegible, and I can write much faster at the keyboard. So the work of physically drawing the words in the book make it harder for me to write. But I managed to adapt. And I still keep a paper notebook, though no one can decipher it but me.

As a young teacher, word processors brought another kind of evil in the form of spelling and grammar checks. Middle school teachers were very concerned that our students wouldn’t learn to articulate within the tradition of English grammar if the machine was always fixing their mistakes for them. And while mixing up “their/there/they’re” is analogous to fingernails on an English teacher’s chalkboard, it didn’t take me long to realize that the students actually DID know the difference. They just didn’t think the distinction was worth worrying about. They also liked to mess with their teachers, which is par for the course in middle school.

We had a small crisis when free, web-based email arrived on the scene. The schools quickly blocked access to web-based email. Schools can’t control the content of email messages, and students could use email to access inappropriate content at school. It would be another ten years before we actually created email addresses to students and encouraged them to use them.

When Wikipedia launched in the early 2000s, most schools blocked access to it. The idea of having an information resource — an online encyclopedia — that anyone can edit is crazy. How can this “resource” have any credibility at all? I can click the “edit” button and change anything I want. The criticisms started to die down after the 2005 study that found Wikipedia to be about as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Today, there are more than 6 million articles in English alone, and it’s consistently one of the top 10 most visited sites on the web. The occasional vandalism gets cleaned up almost immediately.

When Youtube launched in 2005, my school blocked access to it. The likelihood that our students would use it to access material that was inappropriate (or even just non-academic) was much higher than the instructional value of the amateur videos posted there. We debated this at admin meetings for years before finally deciding to allow our schools to use it. And there’s still lots of inappropriate (and distracting) content there. But there’s quite a bit of useful stuff, too. Today, I can’t imagine us not letting students and teachers use it.

And, really, that’s the story with social media in general. We blocked MySpace and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. Eventually, social media became its own filtering category, and we blocked the whole thing. This had more to do with protecting students from dangerous strangers and trying to keep a lid on the online bullying that inevitably comes from students moving to semi-anonymous online spaces. And, really, many of those tools are still blocked at school, though it’s trivial for students to just use their phones to get around those restrictions. It took a long time for schools to start leveraging those tools to connect with families and the community, but now engaging with district stakeholders through social media is a common practice for most schools.

For my whole career, schools’ reactions to new technology has been to block it. Every time something comes along that changes the way we interact, communicate, and access information, schools react by trying to shut it down. I’m reminded of a friend who used to work in the insurance industry. In that field, the mantra is “if you don’t understand it, exclude it.” When writing insurance policies, you need to understand the risks you’re undertaking. But schools do the same thing. If we don’t understand it, we ban it.

So that brings us to Chat GPT. Let’s let it explain what it is:

ChatGPT is a computer program that can understand and respond to people’s questions or statements. It uses a lot of information from the internet to help it understand what people are saying. It’s like having a really smart robot that can talk to you. It can help you find information, answer questions, or even have a conversation with you. It’s not a real person, but it can seem like one when you talk to it.

ChatGPT response to “can you explain what ChatGPT is in 100 words at a 5th grade level?”

It’s artificial intelligence that passes the Turing Test. It can do your homework. It can write your essays and do your research projects. It can create lesson plans and write IEP goals. It can write poetry and help you make decisions and analyze data. Right now, it’s free. And experimental. And not 100% reliable. But it’s learning. And improving.

We have no idea what to do about this. Lots of schools, predictably, have blocked it. This includes LA Unified, New York City Public Schools, Fairfax County Virginia, and Seattle Public Schools, as well as many smaller schools throughout the country. Online, there’s also a whole lot of people saying that we should embrace it and let it help us find / filter / summarize / analyze the overwhelming volume of information available to us now. There are advocates who are calling for using it to help us work smarter. Others are concerned about the inherent bias that’s built into every AI system, since its models are built upon a very flawed past human history.

Smart people — people I’ve respected for years — are debating this in all kinds of online discussions and forums now. I don’t think they’re going to come to consensus anytime soon. We don’t know. I don’t know. But based on past experience, maybe the best first step is to not block it. Let’s sit tight and see where this goes.