The Advantages of AI in Education: A Teacher's Perspective
THE TALK IN AUSTIN
This year, I was lucky enough to attend SXSWedu for the first time. The conference features hundreds of sessions, meetups, and performances by and for educators and education supporters. There were thousands and thousands of attendees, and by the end of the week, it felt like I had talked to nearly every one of them at least twice. My very tiny extrovert energy tank had run dry by breakfast on the first day, but the people and the conversations were simply too dynamic to avoid.
One topic dominated nearly every conversation lasting longer than five minutes, and nearly every panel or presentation was vaguely related. Everyone seemed to be some combination of worried, excited, inspired, and confused about what artificial intelligence (AI) would do to every facet of education.
On my second night in Austin, I was lucky enough to corner Donnie Piercey for a long talk about what we know about AI now (some), what we can guess about its future (very little), and why there's so much that he's excited about.
He should know. Donnie teaches 5th grade in Lexington, Kentucky, where he focuses on using technology to promote inquiry and deepen learning, engagement, and joy in his classroom. His work with AI has recently been featured on Good Morning America and PBS Newshour. We've been texting back and forth for a couple months while he's been working on writing a book, 50 Strategies for Integrating AI Into the Classroom, for Shell Education. If the few hundred messages he's sent me of new ideas, features, and hilariously failed experiments are any indication, Donnie is a teacher we need to be listening to if we're going to learn this new tool.
TEACHING IS CHANGING. AGAIN.
There have always been teachers like Donnie who run like a toddler downhill with windmilling arms towards whatever newest thing, and there have always been teachers who stray towards the more traditional.
The difference isn't about being good or bad teachers by any means. There are brilliant teachers who do either approach, who do a bit of both. There are so many different ways to teach well.
But every so often, something comes along that changes teaching for everyone, no matter how willing. At the tail-end of my own school years, it was the spread of the internet. While teaching middle school, it was the Black Lives Matter movement. At this very moment, and it looks very likely to be true for years ahead, it is the role of artificial intelligence in our classrooms.
In my conversations and the posts I've read, we are not yet overly excited about adding a chair in our classrooms for a robot brain. Of course we aren't. A big change is often a scary thing.
In my first few teaching years, I read Romeo and Juliet with my 8th graders. At the end of the unit, I assigned an argument essay about who was responsible for the deaths of the young (and disastrously counseled) lovers. It was a common essay prompt for a commonly read play. I'm almost certain I wrote an essay when I was an 8th grader about pretty much the same thing.
In my third year teaching the play, a student turned in an essay that was both wonderful and very obviously not theirs. If you googled "Romeo and Juliet essays" now, just as if you asked Jeeves then, it's not hard to imagine that this wasn't the first essay I'd read that was copied and pasted from the hundreds of examples available, just the first one that I caught. It was the last year I assigned that essay.
I faced the same dilemma then that teachers face every time big changes happen. I had to figure out how to move forward in the right direction since standing still was no longer an option.
GOOGLE CAN'T DO THAT
Over the next few years, I designed a curriculum intended to be 'Google Proof' by focusing my lessons on all the things google couldn't do (there's even a TEDx talk by a guy with more hair and less humility than me about this very thing).
My favorite "Google Proof" essay was one I called "Revolutionary Lit," in which students found two or three political, art, or technological movements they found interesting, identified an important primary source from each, and wrote an essay comparing themes from each. One particularly memorable essay compared a Maya Angelou poem to Beyoncé's "Runs the World (girls)." I tried googling it, and the best I got was a perfume Beyonce made called 'Rise.'
Google can't do this:
Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" and Beyoncé's song "Run the World" are both about women being strong and fighting for what they deserve. In "Still I Rise," Angelou says, "I rise / Up from a past that's rooted in pain / I rise," which means she's not letting her difficult past stop her from succeeding. Beyoncé's song has the line "Who run the world? Girls!" which means women are the ones in charge. Angelou's language is more formal, like when she says, "You may shoot me with your words, / You may cut me with your eyes," to show how powerful women can be. Beyoncé uses more casual language, like when she says "My persuasion can build a nation," to show that being strong doesn't have to be serious all the time. Angelou wrote her poem when Black women were fighting for their rights, and Beyoncé's song is about how women still have to fight for respect today. Both pieces are trying to inspire women to be confident and not let anyone bring them down.
But then, neither did a student. A little tweaking with how I asked the question, and ChatGPT kicked out this response that would have made my little teacher's heart grow three sizes (until I figured out it was faked).
The google-proof essay is a relic of the past.
CHATTING WITH DONNIE PIERCEY ABOUT GPT
Texting is great for sharing links and screengrabs, quick-hit ideas and theories, but I'd been saving up my big questions for Donnie until we got to sit real-face to real-face to talk about how we use artificial intelligence to unlock human intelligence and how the power of the things in our screens won't erase our need to communicate and learn without them.
We got the chance at an evening reception in Austin while at SXSWedu to talk about the near future.
When I asked him what he was most hopeful about when he imagined where schools would be in the next two or ten years or whatever as AI evolves, he barely had to think about it.
"The AI lessons have a lot of cool possibilities," he said, "but it's what they'll give us time for the rest of the day, the time we have free to say, 'Alright kids, we're all finished with our writing for today, let's grab our notebooks and head on over to our school garden. Make sure to be on the lookout for any new birds we see today. Keep your Chromebooks and phones in the classroom, please.' What if it helps us live in the moment with our students more?"
I admitted to Donnie that my first instinct when I saw an AI chatbot at work was to just start smashing computers with a bat. As someone who had worked with it far more than me, I was curious what he thought of violent destruction as practical pedagogy. Would it be better if schools became a tech-free zone, and maybe if we smashed all the future robot overlords before they get too strong?
"Look, I can't say I'm sure that AI won't take over the world and use us as pets," he said, not exactly reassuringly, "but I really believe the rise of the machines is going to put the spotlight on genuine creativity."
"As classrooms become less device reliant and more focused on student creativity and engagement, AI is going to break down barriers for students and provide them with the tools they need to quickly bring their projects and ideas to life, which is why we need to figure out how to best use these tools sooner rather than later, and while there's definitely important conversations to be had with students about academic integrity, I don't believe that a child's first instinct is to cheat, and I see enough of their writing in-class that I'd be able to tell if a student was using AI. So, I'm a lot less worried than I am excited."
At the conference this year, if people weren't talking about AI, they were very likely to be talking about teacher burnout. I asked Donnie if there weren't some places where these conversations overlapped. A teacher advocate at heart, Donnie lit up as we talked about the ways that AI could help teachers,
"I don't think people understand the amount of time AI is going to free up. Collecting, accessing, and analyzing data, feedback, and communication, all these tedious tasks that take up so much space in our day are going to disappear."
Then he dropped maybe the best thing I'd ever heard, "it only needs a few key pieces of information to write out a sub plan for a sick teacher."
Welcome, robot overlords; please let our teachers take a break when they're sick.
To end our chat, Donnie wrapped things up neatly and in a way that reaffirmed yet again that he's the perfect teacher to write this book, the right voice for this moment:
"Look, we're teachers. We figured out youtube and interactive boards and google docs. The tools to help us spot AI writing or work are on the way, and we'll figure out how to make it work for our students. We'll adapt, we always do."
Want to learn what AI is, how it can help save teachers valuable time, and strategies to implement in every classroom?
Coming this summer, 50 Strategies for Integrating AI into the Classroom is a professional resource written by educational expert Donnie Piercey, a fifth-grade teacher specializing in using technology to promote student inquiry, learning, and engagement in his classroom.
This must-have resource book will provide K–12 classroom teachers with an effective tool for learning about AI, the benefits of using it in the classroom, and the implementation of creative strategies. The book includes 50 effective, easy-to-use strategies differentiated by grade band, including building literacy skills and engaging students.
To be notified of the book's release, click here.
Tom Rademacher is the acquisitions editor for professional learning for Teacher Created Materials' imprints Free Spirit Publishing and Shell Education. He's on the lookout for new voices, fresh perspectives, and all the books he wished he had while he was teaching. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Donnie Piercey is the author of 50 Strategies for Integrating AI into the Classroom from Shell Education (Summer 2023). He is the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and teaches fifth grade in Lexington, Kentucky. He was the recipient of a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship to Antarctica, and he also represents Kentucky on the inaugural National Geographic Teacher Advisory Council. He is the North American lead for the Google Earth Education Experts Network, and he was the first teacher in Kentucky to become both a Google Certified Innovator and a Google Certified Trainer.