AI in Schools – Surviving or Thriving?

Martin Hall

Tech columnist Kevin Roose, writing for the New York Times at the beginning of the new school year, advised teachers to look beyond the negatives of AI: “survive and thrive”.   First, assume that all the students in your class are using ChatGPT.  Second, forget about banning the use of AI – you cannot win.  Third: “teachers should focus less on warning students about the shortcomings of generative A.I. than on figuring out what the technology does well.”

After ChatGPT took the world by storm at the end of last year the use of generative AI applications was banned in New York’s schools.  But in May this year the head of the city’s public school system reversed this decision. On 18 May, Chancellor David C Banks wrote:

New York City Public Schools will encourage and support our educators and students as they learn about and explore this game-changing technology while also creating a repository and community to share their findings across our schools. Furthermore, we are providing educators with resources and real-life examples of successful AI implementation in schools to improve administrative tasks, communication, and teaching. We will also offer a toolkit of resources for educators to use as they initiate discussions and lessons about AI in their classrooms. We’ll continue to gather information from experts in our schools and the field of AI to further assist all our schools in using AI tools effectively.

Newark’s public schools are taking the same direction, and  have announced a partnership with Khan Academy, using Khanmigo as an AI tutor. Khanmigo is an AI-powered chatbot that mimics a writing coach by giving prompts and suggestions to move students forward as they write, debate, and collaborate.

A subsequent New York Times profile of this initiative has caused some scepticism, with one commentator describing the use of Khanmigo as “something like using a pneumatic jackhammer to fill a cavity”.  

In the New York Times profile, a teacher in the third grade class in Newark’s First Avenue Elementary School had her students ask Khanmigo two simple, unstructured questions: ““What are consonants?”, and “What fraction of the letters in the word MATHEMATICIAN are consonants?”.  This kind of use has prompted teachers’ concerns:

“That’s our biggest concern, that too much of the thinking work is going through Khanmigo,” said Alan Usherenko, the district’s special assistant for schools, including First Avenue, in Newark’s North Ward. The district did not want the bot to lead students through a problem step by step, he said, adding, “We want them to know how to tackle the problem themselves, to use their critical thinking skills.”

Training AI to work further up the hierarchy of learning gain is a challenge for the new discipline of prompt engineering and, already, the gains are impressive.  The potential of AI tutoring to assist students to solve problems themselves is evident in a second Khan Academy partnership, this time with the College Board, which is responsible for the SAT assessments written by High School students in the US and widely used for College admissions. In helping students to prepare for writing the SATs, the College Board issues a set of test papers each year, and the aim of the partnership is to use AI tutoring to help students learn from these test papers.

The Khan Academy resources build on the College Board’s practice tests by taking a learner through a series of authentic mock questions, augmented with a set of hints for each question, which explain the underlying conceptual logic of the question. As the learner works through the unit, they take a series of quizzes  – SAT-style questions but without the options of hints, for which they accumulate Mastery Points. The accumulation of Mastery Points matches the College Board’s official scoring system.

This application’s design has  been based on the principles of scaffolding and on neurological principles for improving  learners’ comprehension and  powers of recall. Rather than being given the correct answer to the question, students are nudged towards coming up with the right answer for themselves.

Going back to the Newark’s First Avenue Elementary School, and following the example of the prompt engineering used for the Khan Academy’s generative AI tutor for SAT practice tests, Khanamigo could have been prompt engineered to respond the question “What are consonants?”, by responding “what do you think consonants are?”, followed by constructive observations on the quality of the learner’s answer.  There are already many examples of generative AI applications working to this, and higher, levels of sophistication.

Jovan Kurbalija, Executive Director of DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform, puts it like this:

The parallels between the Socratic method and AI prompting remind us of the timeless value of critical thinking, dialogue, and self-discovery. By infusing our AI interactions with the essence of Socratic questioning, we can encourage a deeper understanding of ourselves and society, fostering insightful discussions and more effective use of AI platforms.

Banks, D. C. (2023). Chalkbeat. New York.

Klein, A. (2023). New York City Does About-Face on ChatGPT in Schools. Education Week.

Kurbalija, J. (2023). “What can Socrates teach us about AI and prompting? The art of asking questions in the AI era.”

Meyer, D. (2023). “It’s Pretty Clear That These Math Students Aren’t Interested in Learning From an AI Chatbot Tutor.” Mathworlds

Roose, K. (2023). How Schools Can Survive (and Maybe Even Thrive) With A.I. This Fall. New York Times.

Singer, N. (2023). In Classrooms, Teachers Put A.I. Tutoring Bots to the Test. New York Times.

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