Since the release of Chat GPT last year, the professional classes have suffered an existential dilemma. The artificial intelligence-powered chatbot can generate paragraphs of fluent, eerily human-like writing so quickly that journalists, engineers, and advertisers started to worry that they might soon be replaced. (ChatGPT also writes a pretty good poem, as if the job market for poets wasn’t bad enough.)
It was only a matter of time before teachers were added to the list of endangered professionals. This demise appeals to Luis von Ahn—creator of the popular language app Duolingo—who aired his grievances against human teachers in a recent New Yorker profile: “We’ve all gone to school… Some teachers are good, but the vast majority are not all that great,” von Ahn lamented. Humans “are just hard to deal with. You need a lot of human tutors, and they’re kind of hard to use, and we can’t get them for free.”
Von Ahn sees artificial intelligence programs as ideal replacements for flesh-and-blood teachers. The profile notes that, “When von Ahn saw what [GPT-4] was capable of, he scrapped…two programs involving human teachers.” The decision took him “approximately one minute.” He organized a Duolingo team to work on AI-powered educational programs that same day.
Having been a teacher, I admit that von Ahn has some points. The quality of human educators varies widely. It’s difficult to scale up the impact of the highly effective ones. And they certainly don’t work for free. (They may not be paid enough, but they’re paid more than most people assume.)
But von Ahn’s goal of replacing teachers with AI will almost certainly fail—at least for the foreseeable future. One reason is obvious: It’s impossible to run a school without living, breathing adults in the classrooms. Another reason is historical: Children have been attending schools since ancient Egypt, and no technological advance has ever replaced teachers. Instead, teachers have adopted and adapted those technological advances into their practice, making themselves more effective in the process.
Recent history is instructive. I attended elementary school in the age of bulky, loud, heat-emitting overhead projectors. When I became a teacher, my classroom was equipped with a SmartBoard. At the time, it seemed like something out of science fiction: Not only could I project visuals for my class, the content could be controlled by touch. I could write in digital ink and create interactive lessons for my students. Like a chalkboard, it was erasable, but I could save the work for the next day, or even the next school year.
But the SmartBoard didn’t replace me. It made my teaching more engaging. (Ralph W. Tyler noted a similar process with overhead projector adoption in a 1980 study.) So we should stop fretting—or in the case of von Ahn, fantasizing—about the latest bit of tech replacing teachers. Instead, we should be thinking of ways AI could make teachers more effective.
Done right, teaching can be a grueling job. Delivering quality instruction to students in math, reading, social studies, and science is a full-time position in itself, but we ask so much more of educators. In addition to teaching lessons, many teachers are tasked with creating those lessons in addition to countless other tasks. Robert Pondiscio and Jessica Shurz recently noted that, “One concrete improvement to teacher effectiveness would be to reduce the burden placed on them by lesson planning, which tends to be incoherent, below standards, and incredibly time consuming, taking time away from potentially higher-yielding uses of their time and energy.”
Pondiscio and Shurz would probably agree that schools should adopt high-quality, standards-aligned curricula so that teachers don’t need to create their own lessons. While that should be the goal, there needs to be a stop-gap measure in place until it becomes a reality.
AI could help. ChatGPT writes surprisingly good lesson plans, more complete and detailed than many teachers would create on their own. Enter the prompt “write me a lesson plan for a third grade math class” and the result is something that would not be out of place in the teacher’s edition of a textbook. The lesson plan I generated was organized into sections like “materials” and “objectives.” The plan even had sections for “direct instruction,” “guided practice,” and “independent practice,” also known as the “I do, we do, you do” model of gradual release. This process is tricky to master, especially for new teachers, but it took ChatGPT five seconds.
While the lesson plan contained no worksheet, I was able to create that by entering the prompt “write a worksheet for the concept of multiplication and its relationship to repeated addition.” The worksheet wasn’t extraordinary, but it addressed the objective. A teacher would need to tweak, edit, and add to the lesson plan and worksheet, but that would take a fraction of the time as writing them from scratch. Early in my teaching career, I would spend almost a whole day writing lessons for the coming week. With ChatGPT, it would take me an hour, maybe two.
There are other responsibilities that AI could streamline. Grading student work is a big time commitment, especially when class rosters swell above thirty students—and already, there are guides on how to use ChatGPT to lighten this load. Keeping families informed through regular communication is essential to building relationships between home and school; ChatGPT can generate newsletters in over fifty languages, which is helpful when students speak a language other than English at home. ChatGPT can even help with field trips. Enter “field trip to Gettysburg,” and the bot will plan the entire outing short of reserving buses. The plan I generated contained a section on what history to cover before the trip, specific places to visit, and even an assessment to test how much students learned on the trip.
In each example I’ve cited, the AI-generated content doesn’t eliminate the need for human teachers, but it saves them time and expands their reach, much like a dishwasher handling the dirty work but still requiring a person to load and unload it. It’s true that, in each case, a teacher would need to tailor the content for their particular students, but the time saved could be rededicated to face-to-face instruction. Armed with AI, highly effective teachers could even increase their class sizes without sacrificing the quality of that instruction. And if it’s true that many states are facing teacher shortages, districts will soon be asking more of a shrinking workforce. Instead of dreading a future in which AI replaces teachers, we should be considering the ways in which AI could make the teachers we do have become more effective.