For teachers, revolution promised by ChatGPT isn’t new


Last month, Ezra Klein wrote that ChatGPT changes everything. Judging by the frequent outcries in education circles, that certainly seems the fear. As professors of education in Silicon Valley, we have found ourselves immersed within these conversations – and the attendant anxieties.

But the educational revolution that ChatGPT promises, or threatens, is nothing new. AI is only the latest technology rolled out in service to a perennial effort in education: the continuous push to de-skill teaching and deprofessionalize teachers.

And it’s working.

Shannon Ahern, a high school math and science teacher, recently made the case that educators should embrace ChatGPT because its automating functions make the job easier. Using the chatbot to develop lesson plans, create worksheets and devise quiz questions saves tons of time and energy, Ahern writes.

She is not alone. Across social media platforms, teachers have shared their excitement at AI’s potential to transform their work. The promise of time-saved is at the heart of this excitement. In influencer-style clips shared on Twitter and TikTok, for example, Arkansas educator Tyler Tarver explains how teachers can write a year’s worth of plans in half an hour using the technology.

To be sure, much of what ChatGPT offers may be groundbreaking (what teacher wouldn’t welcome a reprieve from the off-hours work of planning?), but the idea that the work of teaching can be reduced to something much simpler, something a machine – even an unprecedentedly talented one – could do…that idea is not novel at all.

In 1983, the Reagan administration’s “A Nation at Risk” report characterized American public schools as failing. (A finding much disputed by researchers). Subsequent responses, from the standardization and accountability movements to today’s “charter and choice” policies, are part of a long tradition of anti-intellectual reforms that simplify the work of pedagogy and de-skill teachers.

Through this lens, teachers are either incompetents who compromise the rigor of American education (see Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn’s comment that teachers come from “the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges”), greedy public-sector employees whose unions enable their laziness, or simple technicians whose job is to merely “stand and deliver.” Let’s not forget that it is precisely this trend that has ushered in the dismal rise of scripted curricula, with teachers reading entirely from pre-written scripts.

ChatGPTeaching is only the latest blip in this anti-intellectual trend.

Teaching – good teaching – however, is complex work, sitting at the crucible of identity, history and the social and cultural forces which shape schools and their communities. To ably navigate these contexts, we need teachers who skillfully integrate understandings of complicated phenomena and who reflect on their professional practice to continuously adapt to new events as they arise.

In other words, we need teachers who are intellectuals.

The timing could not be more urgent. House Bill 999 awaits a vote in the Florida state legislature. Championed by current governor and U.S. presidential-hopeful Ron DeSantis, the proposed bill calls for the elimination of a wide swath of programs connected to diversity, equity and inclusion, including those related to women’s history, gender studies, intersectionality, and critical race theory. It is perhaps the most chilling piece of anti-intellectual legislation since the McCarthy era.

Faced with that grim prospect, we need teachers who contribute critically and thoughtfully to make decisions in the best interests of their students and communities.

ChatGPT may be useful, but it should never replace the important intellectual work teachers ought to be doing. To suggest otherwise is an abandonment of the work of teaching, and yet another move toward the degradation of the teacher.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Scott Jarvie is an assistant professor of English Education at San Jose State University. He is a former high school teacher. Erica Eva Colmenares is an assistant professor of humanities at San Jose State University and a former elementary school teacher.

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