How can we learn to write in a ChatGPT world?


Reactions to OpenAI’s latest iteration of a language-stringing algorithm have been many and varied. It’s the end of high school English. No, that’s not it. Let’s ban it in schools. Let’s let teachers use it. OK, maybe not. No, it’s like using a calculator. Maybe we should take it to court, because the whole thing is based on massive plagiarism and unauthorized use of the creator’s work. It might be good to get a job, but not to get a date. And we can expect a whole new set of reactions when OpenAI inevitably rolls out a paid version of ChatGPT.

There’s even a technological counterattack as companies roll out technology designed to detect software-composite writing.

But the bottom line is that ChatGPT and other similar composition algorithms aren’t going away. It’s not the apocalypse, but it’s not a layman either. Above all, it is an opportunity for teachers who use writing in the classroom to think carefully and thoughtfully.

Learning to write has too often involved teaching students to follow an algorithm. Your essay has five paragraphs; start the first one with a sentence about your main idea, then fill out three paragraphs with supporting ideas and wrap it up with a conclusion. Fill in each paragraph with three to five sentences that state your idea and then provide supporting details. Or answer the essay prompt on the test by rewriting the prompt as an opening statement.

Call it a format or a template or an algorithm. Schools have taught students to build structures, to put sentences in order, to treat writing as a dance of performative hoop jumping. Schools have taught students to compose essays to conform to algorithms for assessing their writing — algorithms that can be used by humans or software, with little real difference.

Now we can clearly see that this kind of writing can be accomplished, not brilliantly, but quite well, by a piece of software that literally has no idea what it’s writing. If this kind of writing can be done by a machine that doesn’t have a single thought in its head, what does that tell us about what we’ve been asking students to do.

Some teachers have told students that the basic building block of an essay is a sentence. But software can make a sentence, pretty much on demand. I have argued throughout my career that the basic building block of an essay is not a sentence, but an idea.

Teaching with composition algorithms is reassuring for both students and teachers. Students like to know exactly what hoops they have to jump through to get that grade, and teachers who are less confident in teaching fuzzy art and writing skills will find algorithmic writing instructions a set of concrete, easily measurable factors to use for assessment. But the unfortunate side effect is that teachers end up judging students not on the quality of their final product, but on how well they followed the algorithm required by the teacher.

Compositional algorithms, sentence mechanics and grammar all have their place. They are the tools of the writer’s job, and just as a builder needs to know the difference between a hammer and a nail gun and a screwdriver and a tape measure, young writers benefit from knowing their tools. However, we judge builders by the quality of their work, not how well they hold a hammer.

ChatGPT does not terminate a write statement that should not have been terminated. Writing for real, not performance, is personal and comes from the writer’s thoughts and ideas, which is what writing instruction should focus on. Grow assignments organically from class discussions and interest. Judge essays by how well the student communicated an idea, not how well they filled out the five-paragraph template.

ChatGPT and other language software can help. They can be used to test the quality of a prompt; if the software can make a reasonable essay, why ask students to do it?

And ironically, as more and more people play around with ChatGPT, it’s becoming clear that to get a better result from the program, the user needs to put the kind of detail and attention into their instructions that should be used to write the essay itself. to write. ChatGPT is a dynamic demonstration that if you approach an essay thinking “I’ll write something about Huckelberry Finn for a second,” you’ll end up with mediocre crap. Thinking more carefully about what you want the essay to be about, what you want it to say and how you want to say it will give you a better result, even if you let an app do the grunt work of stringing words together .

Most writing problems are actually thinking problems, and thinking problems are the ones that software can’t solve at all.

If a teacher is concerned that students will ‘cheat’ with ChatGPT, the answer is to give assignments that are personal and thought-oriented. We no longer need to teach students to follow a writing algorithm; there’s an app for that.



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